JOHN BUTLER : Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

JOHN BUTLER : Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

by | Dec 24, 2018

John’s arrival at The Willows bore no qualms whatsoever for him because earlier that year he had been on international duty out in a tour down under, where he had become well acquainted with a good percentage of the Salford team, who made up a significant proportion of the England team.
“Virtually the whole of the backline was made up of Salford players, not to mention the likes of Colin Dixon in the second row,” he remembers.  “I walked into the dressing room for the first time and immediately felt at home among all those familiar faces.”
“I signed on Good Friday, 1975, and played my first match in the traditional home Easter Monday fixture, against Wigan.”
It was to be Wigan, however, who took the spoils on the day, but more surprisingly for John, he was selected to play at loose forward, having been told that he had been signed as a centre.
“The club had won the First Division Championship in 1973, so it turned out that I was joining them just around their peak, despite their having a dip in fortunes that season, but we went on to regain the Championship again, the following year.”
Joining such an illustrious group of players also raised, to some extent, the quality of his own game.
“I had developed as a player while with Rochdale, but I became much more sophisticated in my style during my time at Salford, simply because I was playing alongside players who possessed such incredible talent.”
One of the hallmarks of such a highly successful team was the close bond between them all, with everyone getting on so very well together. The pinnacle of his time with the Reds came in the ‘75/6 season, with the winning, for the second time, of the First Division Championship.
“We went nine games unbeaten at the start of the season, which got us off to a flyer, until we lost to Widnes in the Lancashire Cup Final, at Wigan.  It was absolutely freezing, that day.  I had a dreadful cold and the only thing I can remember about the game was feeling sorry for myself.”
Despite this reversal, the season continued to go well for them, with, just before Christmas, their making the semi-final of the John Player Trophy, when, despite having home advantage against Hull, the Airlie Birds upset the form book by booking themselves a place in the Final.
“They came straight down the middle at us, with a blonde-haired lad called Boxall, who bounced our lads out of the way, and totally destroyed us on the day.”
As invariably happened, the Challenge Cup, in the depth of winter, ground to a halt at the second round stage, when Saints, the visitors put paid to any further advance for the Red Devils, for yet another season.
Towards the end of the season, however, things all came right, with Salford going into the last game of the season needing a win against an equally determined Keighley desperately trying to avoid relegation, at Lawkholme Lane, in order to win the First Division Championship.   Their victory, in a keenly fought encounter, enabled them to bring home the Trophy for the second time, following their earlier success in ‘73/74.
For John, having started his professional career there, it was seeing that small ground so fully packed with spectators which really struck him.
“Even stranger than that, the Keighley Supporters Association had me out on the pitch, before the match, presenting trophies to school teams.  It just felt that life had gone a full circle.”
One match which stands out in his memory was the semi-final of the Premiership, against Wakefield.
“We’d played them in the league at the weekend, and then had to play them mid-week.  We won, and I scored two tries, and I can still remember what a wonderful feeling I got at the end of that game.”
The most harrowing event to have occurred during his time with Salford was the absolutely tragic death on the field of Leeds’s half back Chris Sanderson, in 1977, in a league match at The Willows.
“I can remember that incident quite clearly.  Kenny Gill had the ball, and he drew Chris, who turned in.  That put me through the gap, which had been created and I ended up forty yards down the field, on the red shale of the running track in front of the main stand. I got up to see Chris lying prostrate on the ground with everyone round him.
“They carried him off, and we continued with the game for a further ten minutes or so, when Sid Hynes came walking on, with tears in his eyes.  He went straight up to the referee, who brought the game to an immediate halt.
“To this day I don’t know the cause of death though there was speculation that he had swallowed his tongue, but if you look at the league table for that year, Leeds and Salford played one match fewer than everyone else.
“It was the last game of the season and I certainly would not have liked to have played in a rematch, the following week.”
Looking back on his four seasons at the Willows, the thing which he finds most astonishing is how little the side had to show, trophy-wise, for all the talent, flair, flamboyance, and entertainment they provided for the fans.  Unbelievably, they won only one trophy in that time, but he assures me there were other compensations.
“Over the years, I have had access to various rugby league magazines which I always enjoy reading, but it is quite incredible the number of times there are references in them to those wonderful Friday evenings at The Willows.  So, for all the fact that we didn’t win much during that time, it is something I am really proud of.
“It is so rewarding that what we achieved all that time ago is still being talked about, and reading, about it brings it all back to me, so easily.”
Apart from this, however, John has little in the way of memorabilia, other than a couple of photographs and international jerseys which he has hung up on the wall at home.
By 1979, the club had started to deteriorate as key players got older, and their best years were now behind them.  Some of them were looking ahead with a view to getting into coaching, which one or two of them did, for relatively short periods, with the Red Devils.
In Part 3 John Remembers Some Of His Former Salford Teammates

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