Leeds nostalgia: Infamous trophy of ‘burglar league’

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When the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a tiny article on a prominent Leeds sporting cup on April 28, the response was tremendous.

A number of people wrote and emailed to tell us about the Raftery Cup - owing to a mistake which originated from a mis-spelled archive picture caption - the previous article had it down as ‘Rafferty’ and many of you were quick off the blocks to tell us it was Raftery.

One of the first and most vocal was Joe Cooney, 79, a former market porter and bus driver who has lived in Leeds all his life and used to play in the old Sunday football league to which the infamous trophy belonged.

The father-of-two, who also has two grandchildren, recalled: “The cup was bought by the Sunday League for not very much but it ended up being worth about £28,000 and the pubs which won it had to get insurance out and in the end it just became too expensive to keep and that was the reason it was given to the city and placed for all to see in the Civic Hall, in honour of the man who created the league.”

That man was John Raftery, a man who laid the foundations for non-league football in the city and in doing so gave it a massive boost in terms of its national profile.

Mr Raftery died in a car crash in 1964 aged just 42. The trophy was bought the same year for £110 and his name was attached to it in his honour. For more than three decades it was the trophy every amateur team’s captain wanted to get his hands on.

When the 2ft 9in-high silver cup reached a value of over £20,000, it could no longer be insured to be displayed in pubs and clubs by the winning teams.

Instead, the Leeds Sunday Football League (LSFL) decided to preserve the piece of local football heritage and handed the trophy into the care of the city council.

Coun Peter Harrand arranged for the cup to be displayed in Leeds Civic Hall, so the public could share in its great history and back in 2004, representatives of the league handed the trophy to the Lady Mayoress of Leeds, Coun Margaret Townsley.

Coun Townsley said at the handover: “I am delighted to be accepting this wonderful trophy on behalf of the city. Displaying the trophy in Civic Hall allows the public to see a part of the rich heritage of the city’s amateur football and to highlight what an important role John Raftery played in the game.”

Mike Pawson, a life member of the Sunday League, commented: “We are honoured that this trophy is going to be held along with the city’s other treasures.

“It is a fitting memorial to John Raftery that the people of Leeds can share in the great history of this trophy.”

When he helped organise the Sunday league in 1958 it was comprised of just eight teams but at its peak it had over 200.

A fellow founder member, 78-year-old Harry Pinkney, of Meanwood, said at the time: “In my opinion, John Raftery was responsible for the greatest change in our local football scene since the institution of the game.

“To lead the Leeds Sunday League to full recognition by the Football Association and flood the playing fields with young men wanting to play their ‘football on the day of their choice and at the time of their choice’ was a remarkable achievement.”

Mr Cooney was a friend of the family and went to Corpus Christie School with Mr Raftery’s brother Michael, who now lives in Australia. He said: “They wanted to give it pride of place in the Civic Hall in memory of the man who founded the Sunday league.

“The league is still going, although I think it’s smaller than it was. I used to play football a lot and I knew the Raftery family, in went to school with John’s brother Michael and I also knew his sister Betty Burke.

“Back when I used to work as a porter at Leeds City Market and I was ran the Wednesday Half Day League, the organisers used to issue warnings saying that if any of us were caught playing in the ‘burglar league’ - that’s what they called it because it wasn’t affiliated, then we would be suspended.

“When it became affiliated, it went on to become one of the largest leagues in the entire country. It even outdid Leeds Red Triangle League, which was massive in the 1950s and 1960s.”

He added: “The trophy was handed to the city by the late Peter Thwaites, a well-known player in the Leeds Sunday League.”

Reader Margaret Leary said her father, Harry Pinkney, 88, was the last surviving founder member of the Sunday Football League.

She said: “John Raftery was a hard working asphalter from east Leeds and was indeed the driving force behind the formation of this league.

“After John’s untimely death following a car accident, it was decided that purchasing a soccer trophy would be a fitting tribute and thus the memorial cup was purchased from Owen & Robinsons.

“It was 110oz of solid silver at a cost of 110 gns, which was a considerable sum back in the day.

“The last valuation some years ago was in excess of £30,000.”

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