FORMER Oldham RL player and coach Eric Fitzsimons has died aged 69 after a long battle with dementia.
His funeral takes place at St Patrick’s RC Church, Oldham on Tuesday, June 26 at 10.15am.
Former teacher Eric, an all-round sportsman who also played football and basketball, passed away earlier this month at Springfield Park Nursing Home, Rochdale.
Rev Tony Ford, Oldham RLFC chaplain, said: “Lots of local people, particularly those who were involved in sport when they were young, owe a great deal to Eric for the help he gave them as mentor and teacher. I know. I was one of them.
“He was more like a mate than a teacher. He was a top sportsman, a top teacher and a friend to scores of young people.
“He would help anybody – a true gentleman, too.”
In 1986, Eric and two other local teachers, Iain MacCorquodale and the late Fred Laughton, took a party of Oldham schoolboys to the other side of the world on an ambitious rugby league tour of New South Wales and Queensland.
As a promising young soccer player he was courted by Everton. His Goodison Park dream never materialised, but he went on to play for Oldham Athletic, Bury, Hyde United and Bradford Park Avenue, who were then still in the Football League.
When he retired from soccer he was at a sporting crossroads and two other local schoolteachers who were Oldham RLFC players at Watersheddings – Phil Larder and Dave Fricker – suggested he should test himself at rugby league.
Said Rev Tony: “It suited Eric because rugby league in Oldham schools was big in those days and he felt a knowledge of the game would be hugely beneficial to him as a local PE teacher.”
Eric took his boots to Watersheddings, learned how to kick an oval ball as opposed to a round ball and the rest, as they say, is history.
He became an established rugby league winger and goalkicker, landing 127 goals and scoring 11 tries for Oldham in his 46 senior games between 1979 and 1981.
He later played at Hunslet, but it was when he returned to his home-town club as coach a few years later that he really made his name in rugby league.