Salford’s Former High-Flying Winger & ‘Superstar’, Recalls Memories Of His Time At The Willows
Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD
Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES
Part 4 –HIS INTERNATIONAL CAREER
Part 5 – HIS INVOLVEMENT IN BBC TV’S ‘SUPERSTARS’
Part 6 – HIS POST RUGBY CAREER
Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD
It was the personal involvement of Salford second rower, Mike Coulman, which proved to be the persuasion that Keith needed to follow this former British Lion’s international across from union to league, and to Salford, in particular.
“I came up at the end of the 1973/4 season, met up with Mike, en route, and we travelled on to The Willows to watch an end of season play-off game against Rochdale. I didn’t know it at the time, but lynch-pin in the Hornets’ team that day was my future centre, John Butler (Quality Street Gang No 2), who proceeded to orchestrate Rochdale’s victory, from stand-off half.
“One of the obstacles in the way of my signing was that I needed to secure a teaching job in the area, and fortunately a vacancy became available at Marple Hall, Stockport, where coaches, Alan McInnes and Les Bettinson, were head of PE, and Senior Education Advisor for Stockport, respectively. Fully professional throughout it all, Les and Alan both refused to be involved with the selection process or the selection panel, both of which they would normally have been involved in.
“I applied and was successful, which then opened up the route to my move north to join Salford.”
So, with that final hurdle cleared, Keith became a fully-fledged Salford player, and his first training session with the team lay ahead.
“David Watkins was absolutely marvellous; the way he made me welcome just took the edge off everything. The first time I saw Paul Charlton, he came up to me and told me that although he had heard that I was fast I wouldn’t ever get past him, to which comment I thought it best to acquiesce.
“I just seemed to fit in really well with them all from day one.”
The training sessions all took place at the club’s Urmston training ground, where much of the session was given over to playing touch football.
“It was really useful in helping me learn certain elements of the game, such as where to run and just how and when to hit the line. Unfortunately, at that time I was nowhere up to my full fitness level, which, at my first session brought the comment from John Knighton, ‘You’ll have to be quicker than that’.”
Having signed in the May of 1973, Keith, unlike many other union converts, had a couple of months of close season in which to learn to adjust to the requirements of the rival code, but, eventually, his first match came around, which happened to be in the second of two pre-season charity games, this one being against St Helens.
“I should have played the previous week against Dewsbury at The Willows, but had been given the wrong dates and was away on holiday, which was most unfortunate because they had included my name in the team, along with details about me in the matchday programme.
“It all came right the following week when I marked the occasion by scoring a try. What was new to me though, after playing union, was having to tackle, and, in affecting one during the game, I got a knock on my thigh and had to go off, because it was only a charity match so there was no point in my staying out there. I had shown what I could do in scoring the try so I retired to the dugout.
“It was as I sat there watching the rest of the game it dawned on me how wonderfully fortunate I had been. Whist at Mosely, I had played alongside a team-full of household names and now here at Salford I had the likes of Paul Charlton, David Watkins, Chris Hesketh, Maurice Richards and Kenny Gill, the last of whom I believe to have been the best stand-off ever to have played rugby league.
“Between them they had the ability to create space out of nothing, and we were always more dangerous at a scrum on the twenty-five in our own half, than in any other aspect of the game at any other part of the field.
“We had moves from scrums for wherever they happened to be formed, and, with twelve players out of the way packing down, there was just so much space to be exploited. You would suddenly find Paul Charlton popping up from fullback, to add to the mix. In all my time we played together I was never ever given a poor pass; each and every one I received provided at least some opportunity of a score.”
In addition, Keith, alongside the whole team had reason to be grateful for the excellent coaching and guidance they received from their coaches.
“Cliff Evans and Les Bettinson were an absolutely great coaching pair – most unlike any other rugby league coaches. Both of them were absolute gentlemen, and both of them were teachers, like myself, which in some respects gave us something in common.”
As with all union converts there was a period of settling into the pattern of the game and the different rules to which he had to adapt.
“It was really quite stressful in the early stages because good tactics in union could be quite the reverse in a game of league and trying to remember them all was a challenge. It took me a good three or four matches before I began to feel more comfortable with things.
“Even then though, players like Colin Dixon, Chris Hesketh and my centre, David Watkins, found ways of exploiting my speed to the full, which was evident at the end of that season with my tally of forty-six tries, some of which were for Great Britain, but the vast majority of which were with Salford.”
Those forty-six tries must certainly have gone a considerable way to assisting the team to gain their first major honour, as First Division Champions, since winning the Challenge Cup in 1938, a feat which they were going to repeat two years later, in 1975/6.
“I wasn’t at the club when we beat Swinton to win the Lancashire Cup, in 1972, and I would dearly have loved to have won that cup in my time, but, try as we might, we often managed to get to the Final, but always lost to the likes of St Helens or Wigan. We always managed to entertain, but we never managed to back this up with the appropriate amount of silverware.
“This may have been because we always tried to entertain. I can remember a Challenge Cup tie at Leeds, when Kenny Gill sent out a long pass to me cutting out three players and, had it arrived into my hands, I was unmarked and would have been away. Unfortunately, John Atkinson, my opposite number read the situation extremely well, and intercepted the ball en route.
“Disappointing – yes, but we never let these things cast a shadow over us. Whenever I was on the pitch with the others, it felt like I was part of a family, and The Willows was our home. It was so enjoyable being so close to the crowd, with all the encouragement they supplied us. I had a favourite corner at the north end of the pitch, which, when we were playing towards the Social Club, I always ran back to whenever I had scored.”
Keith’s passion for playing and his enjoyment of it was best summarised by he, himself, on one occasion at a Fans’ Forum, when he said, “I look forward keenly, all week, to every next match,” and he assures me he always did.
“I still would do if I were still able to play. I was very friendly with hooker, Ellis Devlin, who lived close by, and we would travel to the game together, both of us keyed up with excitement and full of nerves. Then we would get to The Willows, get out onto the field and the nerves would disappear as we got into the game.
“But then the part I really enjoyed most of all was to go into the Social Club, meet up with the fans, referee, and players from the opposition, and discuss the game. I found that an extremely relaxing way to round off the whole event.”
Scoring tries was of course Keith’s great forte, and with his pace he complimented so well the talents of the players inside him.
“I was fortunate not just in the players whom I played alongside, but also in the players I was playing against, because many of them had come through their formative years in the game during the period of unlimited possession, and, as a result, there wasn’t a great deal of pace in the game in general, which made mine just that little bit special.”
Not all his tries were scored solely as a result of his out and out pace, however. At a time when handling skills were extremely high there was very little in the way of tactical kicking, but Keith’s scoring potential on the wing was given an additional boost with the exploitation of short kicks, by stand-off Ken Gill or centre John Butler, into the corner, which usually came to rest a couple of yards from try line and touch line.
Keith would anticipate these perfectly and would set off running as boot hit ball, and as he neared the corner would dive for the line, picking up the ball whilst still horizontal, and place it over the line.
One of his tries is still readily available to watch on the DVD featuring a collection of acclaimed Best Tries. This particular one was part of a hat-trick he scored in a match against Wigan, and the sparsity of scores by the renowned Riversiders (now Warriors) in that match, makes that threesome rather special in Keith’s memory.
“It was one of those days when everything I did just seemed to come off, and with everything, too, going right for the team. I also remember the try I scored in the replay of BBC2 Floodlit Cup Final, at Wilderspool. We had played a 0-0 draw at the Willows, a week earlier, which had taken place just two days after the death of my daughter.
“Looking back on it now, I should not have played in that first match but I decided to do so, and John Bevan, whom I was facing, in respect for the circumstances never ran at me once, but it was as bizarre an encounter as the result was.
“The replay took place in the most dreadful conditions with rain having fallen incessantly throughout the day. I remember Warrington fullback, Derek Whitehead, taking a penalty kick at goal, which, in those conditions, he never should have done. David Watkins caught the ball under the posts and passed it to me, and I went ninety yards to score under the posts.
“But then, centre, Derek Noonan, kicked at me in frustration and an additional penalty was awarded in front of the posts, so that try became a seven pointer, and was also adjudged the Try of the Season, and of course we went on to lift one of the few trophies we did manage to win during my time with the club.”
Of course, the pinnacle of the club’s post war existence were those 1973/4 & 1975/6 seasons, when Salford twice won the First Division Championship, but sadly the endeavour, which went into winning all those matches throughout the season, was always eclipsed by the glamour of the Wembley occasion of the Challenge Cup Final.
“It is the same throughout all sport really. What has changed it around in rugby league has been the play offs leading to the Grand Final, at Old Trafford. I do, though, regret not having had the opportunity to play at Wembley. That is the one regret I have about the whole of my time with Salford, but I had come solely for the enjoyment of playing, which had always been my philosophy throughout my career.
“Every time I played at The Willows, I got this lovely warm feeling as I came out for each game. Those Friday nights were something special, and each match was unique in its own way and how it unfolded. It was absolutely brilliant. They were wonderful days, the pinnacle of which was being asked to captain the side in our Centenary Season, and of course I always wanted, and always enjoyed, winning.”
Nothing lasts forever, unfortunately, and the latter part of Keith’s career saw a gradual erosion of the Club’s status, culminating in relegation to the lower division, from whence it took them two seasons to return to the top flight.
“The first season, 1981/2, we lost to Swinton in the last match of the season, so we stayed down. Alan McInnes was our coach at the time, and he had allowed us, on trust, to have the weekend off to go down to the Final at Wembley, but we let him down badly, and he lost his job as coach, as a consequence.
“The problem you face when you are up against teams which are not that good is that you drift away from your normal game, which requires a lot of application, hard work, and concentration. Instead, you get everyone wanting to score tries out of nothing, and you just lose complete track of your game plan.
“The following season, we did adapt better to the challenge and we won all but four of our matches, but by then I was not enjoying the game anywhere near as much as I had been doing and I could see that, even though we would be promoted, we would not be good enough to compete in the higher flight. This, coupled with some rather questionable man-management by the coach at the time, left me totally unsettled, even though I had been promised a testimonial the following season.
“Alongside this, I had gained promotion at work, which was taking up much of my waking moments, and I decided that I didn’t want to continue in the game even though there had been the possibility of my going to St Helens. Sadly, it ended a little bit sour, but there again that often seems to happen in sport as things reach their ultimate conclusion, with my final game being against Bramley.”