RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 2

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 2

by | Mar 5, 2021

                     Part 2 –HIS MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Games against lower league clubs often used to cause the high-flying Reds rather more trouble than they had anticipated, because, for the opposition this was their golden opportunity to make a name for themselves, by overturning the star-studded Salford outfit.  In addition, for some individuals, there was also the added incentive that they might be lured to the Willows with some considerably more lucrative deal than they had hitherto been enjoying.

Thus, it was, that another game in 1974, against the Hornets, this time at their then home of The Athletic Ground, yet again, saw the local side triumph with not one, but two, Rochdale players, Bill and stand off John Butler, (Quality Street Gang No 2) playing their way into the Red Devils’ sights.

“We were both called up to the Directors’ Box straight after the match, and asked to make the move to join Salford, which we were both more than happy to do, because Salford were one of the top clubs at that time.”

The time span over which Bill was with Salford somewhat exaggerated the number of seasons in which he was available as a player, because, owing to work commitments following a significant promotion, he was forced to take a break from the game after three seasons.  This, however, did not prevent his return three seasons later, when pressures at work had eased sufficiently for him to play for a further two seasons.

“I was still working in ‘Parts’, but had risen to the top by getting the job as manager, and all that went with that, so work had to come first for a few years.  I then suddenly got a phone call from Salford asking me to go back there again, which by then I was able to do.”

Back in 1974, Salford had been keen to get both players – Bill to enhance their pack, and John to allow centre David Watkins to move to fullback, upon the imminent return to Cumbria of international, Paul Charlton – while, for their part, Rochdale were in need of the money they received in exchange for the pair.

For Bill and John, with both of them being from St Helens, it was of benefit to each to have the other as company, and they travelled together to their first training session.

“I remember walking into the dressing room for my first training session and wondering to myself what on earth I was doing there, full, as it was, of internationals such as Maurice Richards, Keith Fielding, Chris Hesketh and Colin Dixon. I felt completely overawed by the whole group.

“Fortunately, Eric Prescott, was also there, and that gave it all a sense of reality.  Cliff Evans was the coach, and he was an absolute gentleman, as also were his assistants, Les Bettinson and Alan McInnes, and they were all extremely good to me, which helped me settle in almost straight away.”

Bill certainly did not have long to wait for his first game, which came at the end of that Easter Weekend, on Easter Monday, when he made a winning start to his Salford career over Leigh.

“We certainly were a team to be reckoned with, and we always made good progress and were in contention for a lot of the trophies in all competitions, but the one that everyone really wanted was the First Division Championship, which we won twice, in 1974 and 1976.

“I was in the side that was successful in 1976, and in order to win it, we had to go to Keighley in the last match of the season and beat them, because were we to have lost, and Wigan had won away at Featherstone, the title would have been Wigan’s.  Keighley, for their part, needed to win to retain their first division status, so there was a lot riding on the result for both sides.

“As it turned out, despite the confines and idiosyncrasies of the pitch at Lawkholme Lane, we won comfortably, whilst Wigan failed to overturn Featherstone, so we were crowned Champions.”

Matches against St Helens were still always the occasions which Bill particularly enjoyed and there were two which stood out above the rest.  A year after losing to them in the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy Final, with Rochdale, he travelled to Knowsley Rd, with Salford, to face them in the semi-final of the same competition to extract his revenge.

“I got the same reception from the crowd I had previously received with Rochdale, and again it really fired me up.  I made a break and fed the ball to Chris Hesketh to score and we won.  Unfortunately, I had broken two bones in my foot, which then prevented me from playing in the final, but nevertheless, I had still had the satisfaction of having beaten Saints, at Saints.

“Then, in 1976, after winning the Championship for the second time, we won through to the Pemiership FInal, at the magnificent stadium of Station Road, Swinton, where we once again took on the Saints again.  I always remember that Colin wasn’t in too good a condition, and I was given the task of running up and down the touchline with him, prior to the match, to see whether he could take part, which he did, though not with his normal impact.

“At half time the score was 2-0 to the Saints, and we were well in contention, but in the second half they punished a couple of our mistakes in the last quarter to extend that for a 13-2 victory.  Nice as it would have been to have won, we were nevertheless still the Champions for that season, and had done extremely well, on the back of that, to have won through to the Final.  It just didn’t go our way on the day.

“Another game I remember was an away fixture at Widnes, because, before the game, Les Bettinson took me aside and told me that, although I was playing reasonably well, he hadn’t yet seen the best from me, and this gave me such a ‘gee up’ that I went out determined to show just what I could do, and followed it through with one of my best performances.  After the game, Les came back to me and said that that was just what he had been waiting for.”

As players matured, and perhaps lost some of their initial pace, they would gravitate towards the middle of the field, so for Bill, and his co-second rower, Mike Coulman (Quality St Gang No 1), a move up front to prop, was the logical progression, which both of them did at roughly the same time.  Bill’s move left room for the newly acquired Oldham and international second rower, Bob Irving, to take up the berth Bill had vacated.

Although the number of trophies the team succeeded in lifting was somewhat below the aspirations of the club itself, the quality of rugby, and the entertainment value that the players provided more than made up for that, and surpassed anything on offer from the majority of clubs.

Gaining promotion at work, at the end of three seasons, proved to be a double-edged sword, for Bill, who was in no doubt where his priorities lay, but that did not mean it was an easy move for him to turn his back, temporarily, on rugby league.

“Work had to come first but it was very difficult leaving the game behind, and during those intervening years I really did miss it, but I ensured I kept myself fit, and I did still look on myself as a Salford player, which I was because they had retained my registration.

“In fact, when circumstances allowed, I did go to the ground a few times to watch matches, especially when St Helens were playing there.  To be honest, I always felt that I would, one day, return to the club to pick up my playing career once more”.

During the time he was away there were several changes of coach, which was quite remarkable because over the whole of the previous decade there had been only three: Griff Jenkins, Cliff Evans, and Les Bettinson.

“Les’s time as coach came to an end shortly after I had put my career on hold, he was replaced by Stan McCormack, who had been a highly successful coach of St Helens over several seasons.  The appointment, however, did not work out at all, and he was replaced after only two months.

“Alex Murphy, it was, who had then taken over the reins.  Alex had been the best rugby league scrum half in the world, but things did not go as well as they had at his previous clubs Leigh and Warrington, and it all began to unravel to a degree.  Kenny Gill had already left to join Widnes followed there shortly afterwards by Eric Prescott.   Alan Grice and David Watkins had both gone to Swinton, while Colin Dixon and Chris Hesketh had both briefly had a try at coaching, but then retired from the game.

“By the time I returned, Kevin Ashcroft, was in the hot seat, but his assistant, Alan McInnes, another former Salford player, took a lot of the coaching sessions, and he was very methodical in the way he carried it out.

“All our training sessions were held at our training ground in Urmston.  Having our own training ground was quite a good thing because you were away from The Willows and the club itself, and were free to just partake in a more relaxed environment.”

As for the players who remained in the side, there were still a few, and they continued to endeavour to provide the quality of attacking rugby with which the club had been associated but it was sadly rather less effective than it had been, in terms of winning matches.

“Mike Coulman was still there, along with Steve Nash and Keith Fielding.  A recent addition to the pack had been John Mantle to the second row, but the team I returned to bore little in resemblance to the team I had left.”

There were, of course, a number of new players who had come into the side to replace those who had moved on.  Among them were people such as centres Sammy Turnbull, David Stephenson and Stewart Williams, and second rower David Major, son of former Warrington international, Harry Major.

Things very much took a turn for the worse around the Christmas period of 1983.

“It was in the week leading up to the New Year; I had a phone call informing me that there was an ‘A’ team game at Warrington, and asking whether i would I fill in to help out.  When I arrived, I walked into the dressing room and totally failed to recognise a single player, so much so that I thought I had gone into the wrong room.

“It turned out that they were all amateur players who had been drafted in.  We went out and did our best but unsurprisingly we got absolutely murdered.  Losing pay for the ‘A’ team was quite low, and this was accentuated when I went out and found I had been given a parking ticket, which more or less took care of it all.

“That proved to be my last professional game of my career, but nothing could ever, in any way tarnish the marvellous times I had throughout it, especially being a part of that wonderful team of the mid-seventies, which did so much to enhance the image of rugby league throughout the country.”

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