RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 12 – ELLIS DEVLIN PT 2

Part 2 – His Memories Of Playing At Salford

Although his starting opportunities were far more limited than he would have liked, Ellis Devlin’s mere presence in the club had a somewhat sobering effect on some of the players selected to the number nine role, ahead of him.  Some of them saw him as a genuine threat to their own selection from week to week, particularly when Ellis was included in the squad.

“There was one of the hookers, who was really anxious that I was being selected on the bench so regularly, and he ended up making a complaint to the coach about this.  He said that he felt that he only had to make one mistake and I would be replacing him.”

The role of hooker, at that time, was primarily to rake the ball from the, then, contested scrums, in order to give his team a supply of possession throughout the game.  Anything over and above that from them was regarded as a bonus, and of secondary importance.

The player who was in possession for the longest period was Peter Walker, whose strike rate in the scrums was usually well above fifty percent.  Sadly, his playing career was brought to a premature end by a serious leg break, but although Ellis was immediately drafted in as his replacement, the line up of hookers from other clubs never seemed to show signs of coming to an end, causing some degree of surprise to the coaches.

“Les Bettinson once came to me and said how sorry he was that he couldn’t select me but he was in the position that, because the club kept bringing in these other players, he was under pressure to play them.”

There were nevertheless a number of quite significant matches for which Ellis was selected.  He particularly remembers one foray abroad.

“I played in a friendly game against France, for Salford, at the instigation of the French.  They had recognised that the Salford back line was also the Great Britain backline, and so felt that if they could beat Salford, it would be a great morale booster to them, prior to a forthcoming match against GB.

“With an already crowded fixture list we had to fit it in on a Sunday, after a home match against Wigan, on the Friday night.  It was a very tall order to have to travel down to the south of France, to take on an international team French team in Marseilles, two days after a tough league game against Wigan.

“We had to meet at Manchester Airport, where a private plane, owned by one of the directors was waiting to take us to the south of France.  We had quite a bad journey, though with plenty of free beer on supply.  It took us seven hours on a little twenty-seater propellor aircraft with just a curtain between us and the pilot. 

“We got blown about all over the place and were then expected to go out and play. One or two of the players who didn’t like flying went via commercial flights, because they were much bigger planes, which felt much safer to them. Unsurprisingly we were beaten by a convincing score ”

This was eventually to prove later on to be the forerunner of an invitation for Ellis to go and play for Roanne, for a full season.

“I also played for Salford against the New Zealand tourists, which was another of the matches I remember particularly well and feel really proud to have been a part of.  They had come over for a short tour, which, besides the three test matches, included a small number of games against the top English sides, including Salford.

“I do actually have a video of the BBC2 Cup Final, against Warrington, at the Willows, which ended in a 0-0 draw.  Usually, scoreless matches are quite dull but this one was anything but that, with keenly fought, tight defences, and a number of near misses, which kept everyone on their toes.  A copy of this match can now be found on YouTube.”

One of the most disappointing of his outings with the first team was in the 8-7 third round Challenge Cup defeat away at Castleford.  As in many of the seasons in the early to mid-seventies, Salford fans were always highly optimistic of a return to Wembley, following their visit there in 1969, but not only did they miss out in winning there there to Cas on that first occasion, they were thwarted, once again, on this similar occasion, though with a closer scoreline.

Whenever he was not called upon for the first team, Ellis, most loyally and diligently, was always prepared to turn out for the ‘A’ team, and, in fairness, such was the quality of the talent in that group of players, that it was no mean achievement to have been one of their number.  Indeed, the likes of Alan Grice, Peter Banner, and Kenny Gill all had periods within the team, alongside Ellis, on their progression through to the first team.

So good, in fact, was the side that they regularly attracted attendances of around a thousand, on the Friday nights when the first team was playing away, and which consequently encouraged the more enthusiastic and dedicated supporters to make the trek to The Willows, on a weekly, rather than fortnightly, basis.  There were many a club, which at that time were getting first team attendances lower than the Salford ‘A’ team was attracting.

“They were strange times in those days of the early seventies.  The three-day working week was introduced as the result of a miners’ strike, which impacted on the supply of electricity available throughout the country.  For Salford, who played on a Friday night, with a match virtually every week, it meant that they were banned from using their floodlights at the height of it in the winter of 1973, and had to change to playing on Sunday afternoons for the first team, and Saturday afternoons for the ‘A’ team.

“Even our training sessions were affected because we had to move from our Urmston training venue since we couldn’t use their floodlights, and, instead, use the running track in front of the main stand, at The Willows, with the lights in the stand giving us enough visibility to be able to run up and down the track.  We were allowed to use those lights because they used far less power than the floodlights were.

“The two teams used to train separately from each other, but on the same night.  I would normally train with the ‘A’ team, at least to start with, but then if I had, earlier, been given the nod that I would be in the first team, the coach would come over and invite me to join them.  There were occasions, however, when I had been told that I would be called into the first team training group, in readiness for their game at the weekend, but, on the night, that didn’t happen, which was really disappointing.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 12 – ELLIS DEVLIN PT 1

Pt 1  His Early Rugby Career

Part 2  His Memories Of Playing At Salford

Part 3  He Remembers Some Of His Former Teammates

Part 4  His Experiences Of Playing In France & Return To Salford

Part 1 His Early Rugby Career

Wonderful as the team of the 1970s was, with star players and internationals throughout the whole team, the one position which never appeared to get the consistency, so prevalent throughout the rest of the side, was that of hooker.  Over the whole period, following the departure of Martin Dickens, in 1970, the vacancy he left was filled by a number of high-profile replacements, who, for a wide variety of reasons, terminated their period of time here considerably earlier than had been anticipated.

This was somewhat surprising to the many who knew of him, because the club had a readymade hooker already on their books, Ellis Devlin, whose time at The Willows, predominantly in the ‘A’ team, spanned that of a number of people who held the number nine jersey for the first team.

Ellis nevertheless managed to build up a total of eighty-eight first team appearances, ten of which were as substitute, over a seven-season career with the club, and scoring sixteen tries, which was a most notable accomplishment for a hooker in those days.

Brought up in St Helens, Ellis first started playing rugby at St Cuthbert’s School from where he was selected to play for the town team, in the role of hooker.

“I started playing for the school at the age of eleven, and I represented the town up to the age of fifteen.  When I left school at the age of fifteen, one of my teachers took me to West Park Rugby Union Club, where I played in the Colts side.  I started off still playing at hooker, but after a while was moved to wing-forward for a time, before reverting back to hooking.

“During my seven years there, I was invited to play trials for Lancashire at union, and was immediately selected to play in the next game, but on the evening before, I had a phone call telling me that someone else had become available and I was no longer required, which was really upsetting and quite discouraging.

“I was fortunate however, in that Don Gullett, the coach at West Park, was also involved with Widnes RLFC, and he invited me to go there, and, by then, at the age of twenty-two, undertake trials with them.  The first game I played in was against Saford, at The Willows, and immediately after the game I was approached by a Salford scout, Albert White, inviting me to come down to Salford, which I readily accepted.

“You only had to look around at the setup, in general, to know that this was the place to be.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 150TH ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENTARY FEATURE

As part of the club’s 150th Anniversary celebrations, we look back over our series of interviews with players from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, from its inception to the present day, a period which encompasses no less than eleven such features.

The RL Quality Street Gang was born out of comments made by the most recent of our featured players, Alan Grice, at the end of the unveiling of The Willows Memorial Plaque on the site of our former home, back in 2017.  The event was drawing to its conclusion, when Alan, who had been so moved by the memory of his ten years of playing with such a talented group of players that he, unscheduled, moved to the fore, in order to address the assembled group.

His heartfelt words of praise for the team which had so distinguished themselves by the incredibly high quality of rugby they produced, not just week upon week but season after season, and mirrored in the wonderful atmosphere engendered on the terraces at those floodlit, home fixtures, on a Friday night, concluded with his sadness that there was little of substance by which to remember it all.

A decision was made, at that very moment by this writer, to address this fact with almost immediate effect, and the most evident way of doing so was by meeting individually with whichever players could be traced, and recording an interview with each. 

As a direct consequence of this, within six months, RLQSG#1, featuring Mike Coulman, was published on the club website, and others followed at varying intervals, usually at lulls in the season, but especially over the Christmas/New Year fortnights, and a full list of all eleven, complete with links to access them, can be found below.

The overwhelming impression which has come across in every single meeting has been one of complete humility from every player allied to the sheer delight that anyone was still keen to learn about their experiences.  None of them ever seems to have realised, at the time, the respect and esteem in which each of them was being held, nor the fondness with which they are now remembered by fans fortunate enough to have seen them play – feelings which were mutually reflected by the players for their supporters.

By far the majority of interviews were undertaken at each player’s home, and the welcome and hospitality shown to the interviewer was quite overwhelming on many an occasion.  By far the most exotic venue was with former fullback, Paul Charlton, sitting at the side of his pool at his home on the Gold Coast in Australia, when he was also presented with his Salford Heritage Certificate.  Peter Banner, on the other hand, gave his interview, by phone, whilst waiting at Manchester Airport for his return flight back home.

As far as managing to trace so many of them, this proved to be somewhat easier than had at first been envisaged.  Steve Nash’s seventieth birthday celebration here at the Stadium was particularly helpful, as, sadly, were the funerals of former players Chris Hesketh and Les Bettinson.  Most bizarre, however, was the one which, as a result of an overheard conversation about rugby league in general  on New Brighton seafront by a mere passer-by, the ensuing conversation with that person led to contact being made with Doug Davies, who just happened to be one of this person’s neighbours.

The title for the series came from a name bestowed upon the team by, according to Alan Grice, later Salford coach, Alex Murphy, at a time when he was coach of a rival First Division side.  The players promptly embraced this name believing that ‘quality’ was their hallmark as a team, so, on the understanding that if the name were good enough for the players it would be ideal for the series, it was consequently adopted.

Alongside those which have already been published there remain a further seven interviews awaiting their turn, whilst contact with a small number of other players has already been established.  Sadly, there are some players who have passed away, and others who are no longer well enough to undertake the rigours of being interviewed, but despite this, it is hoped that each of them can, in a somewhat diminished format, still be featured.

The selection process for the publication of each has been based on a number of criterion, in an effort to vary the focus from each person to the next.  These include:

Recency of interview, with oldest being given priority

Playing position

Playing span within twelve-year period 1968 – 1980

The common format for each article has been on a minimum of four parts, with extra ones being included around the individual, international experience being the most common of these.  Each part is then published separately in episodic form.  The basic format is:

Pt 1 – Early Playing Career

Pt 2 – Memories of Playing For Salford

Pt 3 – Individual Teammates Especially Remembered

Pt 4 – Post Salford Rugby Career

Although the structure of each article has been the same for each feature and that similar sentiments and memories often come to the fore, there has, nevertheless, always been something unique about each person’s perspective and experiences.  In the case of Keith Fielding, he had been involved in BBC TV’s Superstars programme, and he gave us a great insight into how that all unfolded, whilst Eric Prescott showed significant resolve and tremendous pride in his recount of his son, Steve Prescott’s battle with cancer and the courage Steve had shown in raising support for the fight to overcome the dreadful condition. 

Listed below are the players already featured to date, complete with article number, name and relevant access links:

1 Mike Coulman   

2 John Butler

3 Doug Davies

4 Peter Banner

PART 3

https://salfordreddevils.net/rugby-leagues-quality-street-gang-4-peter-banner-pt-5/

5 Ron Hill

6 Keith fielding

7 Bill Sheffield

8 Paul Charlton

9 Eric Prescott

10 Ken Gill

11 Alan Grice

Next week will see the publication of the twelfth in the series which will feature a player who, from 1970 to 1976, showed the utmost dedication to the Salford cause, with a somewhat lesser reward than many other players have had, hooker Ellis Devlin.

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