Part 1 – HIS EARLY RUGBY LEAGUE CAREER
It was at what was, arguably, the peak of the Salford team of the sixties and seventies that John Butler who had already gained international honours whilst with Rochdale Hornets, was approached and readily agreed to a move to join the high flying Reds, not as a stand off which was where he had predominantly played and gained his representative honours, but as a centre to the try-scoring machine which was his winger-to-be, Keith Fielding.
The return, in 1974, of fullback, Paul Charlton, to his native Cumbria, had led to incumbent centre, David Watkins, taking Charlton’s place at the back, and John, who, most timely, had had an outstanding game for the resurgent Hornets, in a closely fought league game at The Willows, was brought in to join the three-quarter line.
Born in the hotbed of rugby league, the Thatto Heath area of St Helens, to former, thirties, St Helens second rower of the same name, John Jnr, from his earliest memories, was absolutely in love with the game, and grew up playing for St Austin’s Primary School, and also the St Helens Town Team, before moving on to join Saints’ C, and then B, teams.
“When I was fifteen, the school team I played in won the Lancashire Cup, and that attracted the interest of Saints who I joined. We trained on a Wednesday and played each Saturday,” he recalls. “During that time, I actually had a spell playing in the forwards, either in the second row or at loose forward. I wasn’t a particularly big lad, but I remained in those positions right up to the age of nineteen.”
By the time he was seventeen he had been selected at loose forward, for Lancashire County, and continued to play for them, in that same position, even after he had been recast as a stand off by his club side.
“Because of that I had started to think of myself as a loose forward and believed that that was where my future lay, so that when I turned professional with Keighley, it was as a loose forward.”
He had been playing in the St Helens ‘A’ team for a couple of seasons, having been led to believe he would be signed up by the Saints, but such is the unpredictability of professional sport that in the end this singularly failed to materialise.
“I was actually in the Board Room, with my father, ready to sign, and the whole thing fell through there and then. I was completely gutted,” he reflects.
“I suppose a certain amount of good luck came from it, though, because back in 1969 they had so many great players already there, and in addition they could sign brilliant Welshmen, which they seemed to have the happy knack of being able to do.”
Many a lesser person would have thrown in the towel after an incident like that, but John is of sterner stuff, and in his case, it just spurred him on to achieve his ambition by means of a different route.
“I just took the first offer that came along, which happened to be from Keighley. It was not the most convenient of arrangements with living almost two hours journey away, which I had to do for both playing and training arrangements. It just wore me down in the end.”
Second division Keighley was undoubtedly a different club environment from St Helens, but he really liked it there. Just being out in the country was something of an attraction in itself, and there was a uniqueness about the pitch.
“When you were playing down the slope you knew you could put your boot to the ball and it would find touch, no problem. They were also very serious about the game, and enthusiastic – not just the supporters, but the club itself. While the players obviously weren’t as talented as those at St Helens, they really did have a keenness about them for the game, which was great.”
When he arrived he found the stand off half position was already filled by player coach, Alan Kellett, but team selection lay in the hands of the directors, and they had no compunction in replacing the incumbent with John. Having taken a little time to settle in, during which he had operated at loose forward, he was given the number six jersey, which saw him strike up an extremely good relationship with his scrum half, Colin Evans.
By 1973, after four years with the club, he realised that he couldn’t continue with the amount of travelling involved, and he began to look round for another club. His eventual move to Rochdale very nearly did not happen, when, on a scouting mission, the club’s directors were singularly unimpressed with the performance of the Keighley loose forward whom they assumed to be John. In fact, he had had to pull out of the game and the Hornets contingent had spent their time running the rule over someone else.
It was only as a result of his approaching coach, Frank Myler, on the insistence of John senior, that he was given the opportunity of playing trials there, but, on Myler’s insistence, as a stand-off. When those trials ultimately led to his joining the Hornets, who still resided in those days at the old Athletic Ground, John felt that he was making a significant step forward in his playing career, so well were they doing at that time.
“We had some really good players, including former Great Britain captain Bill Holiday, Terry Fogerty and future Salford-to-be signings Billy Sheffield and Stewart Williams. We even beat Salford a couple of times, one of them being in a Premiership game.”
He remembers this last game particularly because for some reason he had no boots to wear and ended up playing in a pair belonging to second row forward Alan Hodgkinson, which were two sizes too large for him.
On top of that he was up against the renowned Kenny Gill, but despite all this adversity, they came away with the win, which led to John, together with second row teammate, Billy Sheffield, being offered the opportunity of joining the elite ranks of Salford.
Next Time John Recalls His Playing Days At Salford