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Early memories and Johnny Freeman

Johnny Freeman, the Welsh winger who features strongly in Linda Kitson’s early memories of Halifax Rugby League Club, grew up in the famous Tiger Bay area of Cardiff. He began his career playing Rugby Union for South Church Street School alongside his cousin Joe Erskine, who later fought for the British and Empire Heavy-weight boxing title and rugby legend Billy Boston. All three went on to play for the Cardiff International Athletic Club before being called up for National Service in 1952. The careers of Boston and Freeman then followed a remarkably similar path. Both men enjoyed successful spells playing Rugby Union in the forces and were pursued by various Rugby League clubs. Boston, of course, joined Wigan in 1953. But it was Halifax who secured the services of Johnny Freeman when they paid £1,050 for him after one trial match a year later.

Although he was signed as a centre, Johnny subsequently made the left wing position his own. The change in position came after a shoulder injury had brought a premature end to his first season with the club. But, by the end of the following season, Johnny’s pace and elusive running had helped Halifax to appearances in both Challenge cup and Championship finals. He played in both and scored a try at Maine Road, Manchester, as, for the second week running, his side fell just short of securing a major trophy, losing this time to Hull in the last seconds of the Championship decider.

The following season marked the beginning of the end for Halifax’s great side of the 1950s. But even though the formidable forward pack around which its success had been built began to break up, Johnny managed to score a club record 48 tries playing outside centre Geoff Palmer. His tally included a hat trick against his old friend Billy Boston at Central Park, Halifax’s only points in a 25 – 9 defeat. After scoring 38 tries in the first 20 games of the next season he also looked set to take a place alongside Boston on the 1958 Lions tour to Australasia. A knee injury in December put him out of the game for a year, however, and tragically cut short his international ambitions. Nevertheless, Johnny recovered well enough to score 290 tries in his career, another club record and also the most touchdowns by a player not to gain representative honours. He also collected a Championship winner’s medal as Halifax beat St Helens 15 -7 in the 1965 final at Swinton.

A member of the Halifax Hall of Fame, Johnny has retained his ties with the club. Despite returning to live in South Wales, he still attends supporters’ nights and re-unions and has become re-acquainted with Linda Kitson. But memories of Johnny also live on with many other fans of that era and in the book The Glory of their Times, Robert Gate described how, when in his prime,

It appeared that every time Freeman got the ball he scored or at least threatened to score. Certainly the crowds began to expect miracles when he was in possession. Here was a man who could go the length of the field, who could break tackles when apparently held, who could find that extra gear, when already seemingly flat out, who could go past defenders on the inside or the outside, who would be first to any kick forward and who could pluck interception tries out of nothing. He had star quality, good looks and an effortless movement which was captivating.