RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 11 – ALAN GRICE (PT 3)

Part 3 –HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES AND COACHES

Of all the star players within the Salford side throughout the seventies, the first player Alan picks out, to pay tribute to, was another prop forward he played alongside in his early days, Terry Ogden.

“Terry had been a regular in the first team, and had propped, along with Charlie Bott, at Wembley, but he had started to play in the reserves by the time I arrived.  He had always been a very clever ball handler, and had lost none of this skill, even then.  He was an extremely likeable and amiable guy, and helped me a lot with various aspects of playing in the loose.

“He showed me how much easier it was if you ran at the outside individual, in a group of three or four players, because you could rotate and spin round in the tackle to get the ball out to someone coming up on the outside.  I’d always run at the middle one, before he drew this to my notice.”

Fullback, Paul Charlton (RLQSG#8), impressed Alan not only with high level of skill and talent, but also with his incredible fitness level.

“On one occasion, he arrived having run all the way there to then take part in the session.  He would have run home, too, but he had taken a bit of a knock in the match before, so I ended up having to drive him home.”

Paul was a joiner by trade, and his fitness level, showed itself to Alan, even through that.

“He used to get me work on occasions, but when he did I always ended up having to explain to the bosses that there was no way I could work at the rate that Paul could produce things, because that was all down to his incredible fitness.  I think he could have stayed at Salford a bit longer than he did, and he would have continued to contribute so much to the team, had he done so.”

Both Paul, and prop Graham McKay, were Cumbrians by birth, but both apparently had different attitudes to their native county.

“Paul absolutely loved Cumbria, and to a certain extent pined to be back there, whereas Graham really had no fondness for it at all.   It was the lure of his home county that was the catalyst in Paul’s returning back there, so soon.”

There was no doubt in his mind just where the absolute strength within the team lay.

“Colin Dixon was incredible.  He could side-step off either foot, had great pace, and considerable strength – everything you would want in a rugby player.  He and Mike Coulman (RLQSG#1) were a tremendous pairing in the second row.  Mike, for his size, was incredibly fast and his size and speed together made him almost unstoppable at times.

“We were also fortunate to have two really good half-backs in Peter Banner (RLQSG#4) and Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), and then later, Gill partnering with Stevie Nash, though that did not work quite as well as had been expected.  Steve was more like an extra forward, whereas Banner had been a better passer of the ball, and as one of the players who was used as first receiver, I knew first hand just how good he was.”

The one problem area throughout the period was that of hooker, and there was a succession of players brought in, in the hope of solving the problem.  Probably the most successful of these was Peter Walker, but even his tenure was brought to a premature conclusion by injury.

“The most important part of a hooker’s role was getting the ball from the scrum, and Peter was first rate at this, with a strike rate of well over fifty percent.  Then out of the blue we lost him after he had a very bad leg break, caused by somebody stamping on it, as he put it across a scrum, whilst trying to rake the ball.  It was damaged so badly that it finished his career.

“Ellis Devlin was a great player, particularly in the loose.  He was a quick passer and fast runner, and now that raking the ball is no longer the vital part of the hooking role that it was back then, Ellis would have been absolutely outstanding in this day and age; the modern game would have really suited him.

”From that point on, there was a succession of players brought in but they seldom lasted more than a couple of seasons, and at one point even I was put there to fill the gap, which I was happy to do, and did quite well in winning possession for us in my first match.”

It was not only the quality of the players which was so instrumental in the success of the team, but also the quality of the coaches, and Alan was fortunate enough to have played under a number of them, including some former teammates, including Chris Hesketh and Colin Dixon.  From all of these, however, it was Cliff Evans, whom he picks out as being the real standout leader among them all.

“Cliff was a marvellous coach who understood rugby inside out.  He always instilled into the players the importance of supporting the player on the break.  He always expected it of both wingers in particular to be up with everyone of these.

“He would draw up the outline plan of a scripted move but would then leave it up to the players to take it on from there.  Kenny Gill would always add his ideas into it and would also come up with a few of his own because he was really good at spotting weaknesses in the opposition’s line, such as a defender limping back to get into position.

“Cliff was particularly good at accepting information from other people around him and that was crucial in his getting the team to gel well together.  On my promotion to the first team, he arranged for Charlie Bott to sit with me on the bench, in order for me to gain his insight and greater experience for my role in the team.

“Charlie had been an international with Great Britain and was a mine of information as he had been packing down all his life.  I found everything he said extremely helpful, and it was like having my own mentor alongside me.

“As a consequence of that, he took me under his wing and tried to look after me.  He even tried to get the pair of us the additional bonuses which all the contracted players used to get, though without much success on that particular occasion.

“He emigrated to Australia in 1971, but in the six months prior to his going, he left his profession of metallurgist, and worked on the building of the brand new, North Stand.  Then in his final Salford game, against Halifax, in the last match of the 1970-71 season, he took the final conversion of the afternoon from in front of the posts, to score the only goal of his career, by kicking it over bar into the stand he had just spent six months working on.”

One player whom it could be easy to overlook is still remembered fondly by Alan.

“Tony Colloby had made his name in the mid-sixties, as a centre, with first Whitehaven and then Workington before moving to Blackpool.  When, our right winger, Bill Burgess, was side-lined with a shoulder injury Tony was drafted in to take over from him, which he did for a couple of seasons until Keith Fielding was signed.  Tony was a really talented player, who showed he could adapt to virtually any position in the backs, and he stayed with us for a further couple of seasons before going to Barrow.

“He was part of a backline that would more than match any other, either then or since.  Maurice Richards was such a talented winger and rugby player, who could make a try out of very little, while Keith Fielding (RLQSG#6) was the fastest in the game.

“On one occasion, I was questioned by an uncle of mine as to why I had passed up a try scoring opportunity by giving the ball to Keith to score.  He very quickly understood my reasoning when I pointed out to him that Keith had grounded the ball under the posts, whereas I would have had to struggle to have got over in the corner.

“Centres, Chris Hesketh and David Watkins both had spells as our captain, with Chris going on to become captain of the international side.  As a centre, he was quite unconventional and consequently really difficult to defend against, while David was just a star, wherever he played though centre was possibly his best position also.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 11 – ALAN GRICE (PT 2)

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

As with all up and coming players, there were a number of hurdles which Alan Grice had to overcome, in his endeavours to become a professional player, before a contract of any kind was forthcoming.  These included playing a set number of trial games, and, in the run up to that, undertaking a series of training sessions, in preparation.   Alan’s induction into the team at his first training session involved a meeting with the renowned former Wigan, Widnes, and Great Britain prop, Frank Collier.

“He was a massive fellow, and he had an equally big reputation.  We were all sent off to start with a couple of laps round the pitch, but as we were about to start, he came up to me to inform me that it would be in my best interest to finish after he had done, as he didn’t want to be last.  Comparing the difference in our sizes, I was only too happy to oblige, and so contentedly jogged round behind him.

“He was a formidable player and had brought to the Salford team a presence on the field which ensured respect from every opponent, at that time.”

Alan’s last trial game was in the Final of the Lancashire Shield, against Swinton, at Swinton, which Salford unfortunately lost.

“Swinton were a good side in those days, but so too were Salford, which made it a really closely fought game.  Neutral venues were not used for ‘A’ team finals and so the home advantage Swinton had, helped them to their win.”

Playing in the Salford ‘A’ team in the late sixties and early seventies brought with it a status quite of its own, with Friday evening crowds often in excess of a thousand, because word soon got round that the rugby this side played was also of an extraordinarily high quality.  Indeed, the players were well incentivised to do so with a number of bonuses on offer, as encouragement.

Promotion to the first team came in his winning debut against Featherstone Rovers, at The Willows, in October 1970.

“It came earlier than I expected, but the  coach, Cliff Evans, spent a lot of time coaching individuals, and I had benefitted from that.  When we played our pre-season friendly, he had included a number of the newcomers, including me, in the squad.  He clearly had everything under control in everything he did.

“He was the thinking man’s coach because he knew exactly what he wanted.  He was a schoolteacher, by profession, and this showed through in the way he spoke to, and handled, his players.  He had been at Swinton, before coming to Salford, so he already had a good deal of coaching experience behind him, and that helped too.

“All the moves he taught us were ones he had worked at Swinton, but as other teams came to recognise them, they started to produce these themselves, only with different names by which to identify them.”

It was Cliff, in fact, who recognised Alan’s potential as a front rower.

“He was a little unsure, at the outset, as to which position best suited me, but after a short while decided that I would make a prop, and he selected me on the bench a few times, to gain experience, alongside Charlie Bott and, occasionally, Colin Dixon.

“Scrummaging was a great factor in the game, because back then scrums were keenly contested, and getting possession for you team at each one was absolutely vital.  Just how you stand and how you distribute your weight when packing could help your hooker get an earlier strike at the ball.  Similarly, the angle at which you packed down by turning slightly was another way of gaining him an advantage.”

“The really special thing about the Salford club was the friendliness of the whole place, and the good spirit among all the players, which always helped us in our games, and which also contributed to the longevity of our careers, either here, at Salford, or elsewhere.”

The role Alan undertook within the team was to be that of first receiver from dummy-half, at each play-the-ball.

“They had me as the link between the two half-backs.  Peter Banner (Rugby League’s Quality Street Gang #4) had an exceptionally long and accurate pass, and I then had the role of sending the ball on to Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), which gave him a bit of extra space he found of benefit in organising an attack.  David Watkins and Chris Hesketh, outside him, then, had even more space in which to operate, so that our backline became absolutely phenomenal.

”They had one particular move, known as ‘Torquay’, from which they scored every time.  It involved Charlton coming on a dummy run with the ball actually going out to either Watkins or Hesketh, via Gill, and ending up with the centre concerned going in, under the posts.”

Not that the forwards were totally excluded from the attacking moves, and Alan, himself, was involved in some of these.

“One was based on the back row pair of Mike Coulman (RLQSG#1) and Colin Dixon, who were used as foils in order to prise an opening for one of us props to go through.  Although everyone would have the right to call a move, it was always Gill who would have the final say in this.

It was however the bonhomie within the side which Alan feels was the most significant factor which cemented them together, as a group.

“We all did quite a lot of socialising together and enjoyed one another’s company, which was so beneficial to our success as a team.  Much of that was down to our Chairman, Brian Snape.  He was such a decent person, and whenever it turned out that we didn’t have a game, we would have a weekend’s training away at an hotel in Cheshire, Mottram Hall, which he owned.  I would room up with Mike Coulman, who worked for the Chairman.”

During his total of ten years at the club, Alan was involved in many of the successes of that period, not least winning of the Lancashire Cup, in 1972, the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in ’73, and the First Division Championship in both 1973/4 and ‘75/6.

“I still have all the medals from those occasions.  We were unlucky not to have won more, because we played in four Lancashire Cup Finals, but won only the one.  We were really close in all the others, with us ending up only a couple of points behind the opposition.

“One of them was against Widnes which they won 6-4, at Wigan, and even though they beat us, we played really well that day.  Some days you just don’t get the luck you need to win through.

“The games which stood out most to me were the two Floodlit Cup Finals, with a replay away at Warrington on an absolutely dreadful night, after we had fought out a nil-nil draw at The Willows the week before.   Even though no-one scored in that first match, it was a great game, with the tackling of both teams being extremely high in calibre.

“Warrington were certainly favourites for the replay, because they had a really good pack with the likes of Kevin Ashcroft hooking for them, which was always going to ensure them a good supply of possession.

“I remember standing outside the ground with the water level rising and rising, quite convinced it would be called off, but then Eddie Waring walked in and told us we needed to get changed because the game was going to be on.  It was only played because it was on TV.

“It was alright for the first half hour, but after that it was just a quagmire.  It was very much a forwards game in those conditions and the forwards tackled every bit as well as they had done the week before.  We were fortunate that we scored fairly early in the game, after Watkins had made a good break, because after that you just couldn’t run on it.”

As something of a break from normal league and cup fixtures the Reds were often chosen to play warm up games against touring sides.

“I really enjoyed playing against the tourists, and we had some really good matches against them.  In one of them New Zealand were ahead 28-0 at half time but we ended up winning 30-28.   Then on another occasion, we played against the Ausie touring team, and they won it with a try in the last couple of minutes.

“Those games were at a different level from the norm, being so much faster and much more intense, not to mention our coming up against the strength of the individuals involved.

“For the whole of the time I was at the club I thoroughly enjoyed playing for Salford.  It was such a nice environment with really great guys who were fabulous players, and because of that we were able to win so many matches.  We would no sooner come to an end of one winning run having unexpectedly lost to somebody, than we would start yet another possibly even longer run still.”

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