TRIBUTE TO MIKE COULMAN

Everyone at Salford Red Devils is most deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our magnificent, former second row forward, and British Lions Rugby Union forward, Mike Coulman. Back in September 2018, Mike became the first of thus far eleven players of the flamboyant late sixties late seventies Salford team to share their memories of playing for the club, at that time, In tribute to his outstanding contribution to Salford, in a number of capacities, we reproduce here an extract from the finished article, first published 28th October 2018.

Mike takes up the story a few months after his return from a highly successful international rugby union tour of South Africa, with the British Lions:

“I was at home, washing my car on a lovely sunny day, when a Jenson Interceptor Coupe, containing a person who turned out to be the Salford Chairman, drew up at my home,” he relates.   “He didn’t immediately mention signing for Salford, but instead invited me down to watch a couple of games.”

So, a few days later, Mike could have been found at The Willows, gaining his first experience of a rugby league match.  One extremely important catalyst in his willingness to agree to doing so, and then consequently proceeding to sign for the Red Devils, was that he knew that the club’s captain was none other than Welsh Rugby Union International half back, David Watkins, who, it turns out, had been instrumental in shaping Brian Snape’s initial overture.

On his very first visit, Mike found that, not only was the game quite different from union, but so, too, was the whole environment in which he found himself.

“Stafford is a very rural area,” he points out, “and the club ground consists of a couple of acres of land which had been donated to the club, but it had little in the way of facilities, other than a small clubhouse and bar.  In contrast, The Willows was in a residential, urban area, with The Willows Variety Centre at the hub of everything that was happening.  It was all highly professional and impressive, and I quickly became keen to become a part of it.”

The only drawback was that, as a policeman, he was not able to have another job alongside that, so, having made his decision to make the move, it was also going to involve not only the end to his rugby union career, but also a complete change of lifestyle involving a move up north to live in Marple, and taking up a new career working in The Variety Centre.

His first match came immediately after making the change of code, away at the old Athletic Stadium, former home of Rochdale Hornets, in a Division 1 league fixture.

“Nowadays, you would have been required to have put in at least a week’s worth of training,” he considers, “but for me, back then, I was put straight into the team.   Although we were professional to a degree, we were not as professional as things are now.”

It was in this game that he donned, for the first time, the number eleven jersey which was to become his own, until making the move up front to open-side prop, in the mid-seventies.

“I was always number eleven, because that was the second-row position on the blindside of the scrum,” he explains.  “Obviously, it was a very steep learning curve for me.  I just went through the game being told to stand here, and then there, and when the ball did eventually come to me, I just had to go forward and make as much progress as a I possibly could.

“It took around a quarter of the season for me to begin to feel settled into the game and begin holding my own in the team.”

His arrival at the club coincided with that of a player, who, not only was to become a very close personal friend, but who also, as his fellow second rower in those early days, was to become Mike’s mentor and guiding light, died-in-the-wool rugby league international, Colin Dixon.

“He was my best pal throughout my whole time with Salford,” Mike confides, and, pointing to a small tree in the middle of his lawn, continues, “I planted that in memory of him.  That is his.”

So close did the two become that Mike attributes much of his later success directly to Colin.

“He was such a great help, not so much for anything he said, but in his actions.  I always kept my eye on him and noted the things he did, and then tried them out myself.  I just owe so much to him.”

Part of the arrangements under which Mike came to Salford was that during the week he would work for Chairman, Brian Snape, in his Stanneylands restaurant in Manchester city centre, where he started to learn, in considerable detail, everything connected with the catering industry.  This was to stand him in good stead ahead of a flourishing career throughout his life, in this area.

“I went on to work for Whitbreads, for whom I managed twenty sites, some with hotels.  That carried great responsibility as there was well over a million pounds tied up in them all.  The move from union to league totally transformed my life.”

Not only that, he also found that once he had settled into the game, there were aspects of it which he much preferred to rugby union, particularly the high level of professionalism throughout the sport.

“I found rugby union far more sociable, but lacking professionalism in terms of the game, and, as a player, you want to be able to progress and develop to the best you can be.  I certainly have no regrets whatsoever about having made the move, although the three months British Lions Rugby Union tour still remains my lifetime’s highlight.”

Nevertheless, there were highlights still to be gained in his newly found affection for rugby league, starting in 1969 with what was destined to be Salford’s first post-war visit to Wembley, which remarkably he can remember in detail.

“The game went by in a flash but I didn’t play well at all.  Certainly not as well as I think I should have done.  I didn’t do enough tackling, probably because the big strength of my game was my physical prowess in carrying the ball, but even in this I felt I lacked aggression, on the day,” he ruefully reflects.  “I just would have liked to have played better than I did.”

Wembley is a hard place to go to and then to come away with nothing, as it is always going to be for fifty percent of the protagonists.

“I never liked losing any match, but you just have to be resilient, put it all in the past, and then turn your attention to the next season, which thankfully is what all the lads did,” he comments.

And indeed, with two First Division Championship successes in 1973/4 and again in 1975/6, to come, there were still successes, aplenty, awaiting him.

“The longevity of that Championship Trophy, coupled with the style with which we won it, on those two occasions, made it very special to us all.  To win it twice, and so close in time, was absolutely marvellous,” is his wholly justifiable assessment.

“We played with a great deal of skill and considerable guile in that period.  I scored a hundred and forty tries in my time with Salford, most of which came during that particular period of the early to mid-seventies, and which I consider was the peak of our time together as a team.”

In sharp contrast, he readily acknowledges that they failed to do themselves justice in the one-off rugby which is the Challenge Cup.  Every year, the atmosphere around The Willows was electric with the anticipation that, that year, they would be getting to Wembley, which was not only every player’s dream, but also every fan’s – only for these hopes to be dashed by ball number twenty-three, without any variation  from season to season, being drawn out for a second or third round journey to West Yorkshire, to face might of Leeds, at Headingly, or Castleford, at Wheldon Rd.

This, however, was the only blip in what was an exceptional period of the club’s history.  And so it should have been with the star studded side which they were able to raise, week in and week out, for, as so often happens with a team brimming with talent, injuries were few and far between.

Indeed, pace was the ingredient throughout the whole team, with Mike himself and Colin Dixon, in the second row possessing the pace of any back to score long distance tries during which they would draw further and further away from their chasing opponents before invariably grounding under the posts.

As the season’s passed, and the years started to catch up on them all, changes within the squad and around team selection understandably, took place.  For Mike, this led to a change of position, with his making the move up front to prop. In 1977.

“Throughout my rugby union career, I had always played at prop, and during my time in the second row, it had always been in the back of mind that I would one day return there, which I did for my final three seasons.”

Obviously, as certain players reached retirement age, and others moved on to join other clubs, a gradual dip in performance and results started to become apparent.  For Mike though, there were other problems with which to contend.

“It was about that time I started to develop injury problems with my knees.  I started to miss more and more games, and eventually had to undergo surgery.”

Nevertheless, what he achieved as a player was absolutely outstanding, with, most remarkably, his attaining an international cap, at every level from schoolboy, right through to full international level, in both codes.

He even attained a most unusual international experience, alongside the rest of the squad, playing in a friendly against the French, in a Salford jersey, down in the south of France.

“We travelled down by private jet, and the whole trip down there was a most enjoyable experience, even though we were on the receiving end of a hefty defeat.”

His proudest claim to fame of all, however, came in what was the third and deciding test match against the Australians, in The Sydney Cricket Ground, when he got the better with a perhaps questionable tackle on one of the opposing Australian forwards (thought to be the formidable Artie Beetson), who was left lying prostrate on the ground, for a number of minutes.

“The referee warned me that if he didn’t get up, I would be walking up the tunnel.”

Fortunately for Mike, the Australian medical staff were up to the challenge, and Mike duly remained on field to contribute further to the remainder of the game. IIt was, nevertheless, most out of character for the usually calm and compliant Coulman, who in this day and age, would have suffered a spell in the sinbin, at least, had things not been so different then.

“I was geed up purely by his stature.  Also, the fact that we were playing on an Australian cricket ground, which was rock hard, because unlike Headingley, where they are two separate pitches, this was all on the same area, and I was determined to make an impression.”

With so many of his Salford teammates in the Great Britain side – indeed the Red Devils commanded almost the whole of the backline, with Mike and Colin Dixon pairing up in the back row – playing for his country seemed little different than any away game for Salford, particularly when they found themselves staying in the same hotels used by the Red Devils.

After having played under various coaches, 1982 saw Mike, by then in his fourteenth year, appointed to the position of player-coach, before eventually hanging up his boots to concentrate on coaching. Not that he looks back on his coaching career with any great satisfaction, as he did not really find himself best cut out for the position.

“I simply am not an aggressive person, and I do feel that that was the problem throughout my whole rugby career. I always felt that it was best just to play each other without ever having the desire to inflict physical harm on anyone. Consequently, in the role of coaching, that required degree os aggression was lacking.

The playing career of a professional sportsman is exceptionally short, with most rugby league players managing a maximum of ten years at the top, but Mike found that the reputation and aura he had built up in the local area, during his days in the red, number eleven, jersey have followed and stayed with him throughout his life, and, that he then has had more time to return to  the club for occasional games, where he has been overwhelmed by the respect and bonhomie he has received.

“The number of people who come up to me wanting to speak and shake hands is unbelievable, and it makes me feel so proud that I could almost cry.”

Those of us who know him, or have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing him play for the team, would undoubtedly respond by saying that this is merely fitting respect for a truly great man who throughout his playing days, and beyond, has been an absolute credit to rugby league, rugby union, Salford, and himself.

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 – KEN GILL (PT3)

Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS SOME OF HIS FORMER SALFORD TEAMMATES

Within that team full of stars there were a number for whom Ken had special regard for their exceptional talent and how also that affected his own levels of performance.  The first of these was his fellow half-back partner from his time in the ‘A’ team, Peter Banner (Rugby League Quality Street Gang #4)

“I was very fortunate to have Peter Banner as my scrum half.  We had developed a really good understanding of each other in the ‘A’ team, and we took that directly into the first team.  The service he gave me from the base of the scrum, or from dummy half, was outstanding and that gave me so many opportunities to set up attacks.

“Stevie Nash, when he came, was much more of an individualist, almost like an additional forward, and I missed the on-field relationship I had always had with Peter.  Peter wasn’t without pace himself, either; he used to follow me around and I’d drop the ball off to him and he would shoot off.

“I was really disappointed, when he was transferred to Featherstone; all the more so, when I was moved to scrum-half for a few matches, with Chris Hesketh taking over at stand-off.  It was the only time in the whole of my career that I played scrum-half and I really did not enjoy it.

“The backs were the real strength of the team, mainly, but not entirely, due to their speed.  The likes of Keith Fielding (RLQSG #6) and Maurice Richards ensured that whenever they were put through the line, they would score.  With Keith it was just sheer out and out pace, but Maurice had other additional facets to his game.

“I often used Keith’s pace, off the ball, to put him over for tries by means of short, angled, grubber kicks behind the opposition, into his corner.  Nowadays, the short kicking game is quite prolific, but back then it was much more unusual.  I had developed mine from quite a young age, from having watched older players and the tricks they used to do

“Chris Hesketh in the centre was an incredible player.  Rather like me, his will to win was most intense, so he and I, after training, would go to the Greyhound for a drink and then we would sit down and plan how we were going to beat the following week’s opposition.  We would work out which moves would be most likely to be effective against them.

“He was no orthodox centre, which made him all the more difficult to defend against, and he was unbelievably strong, owing to the amount of time he spent on the weights.  He did more than anybody else, including the forwards whose job it was to provide this.

“As captain, not only of Salford but also the international side, his personality was ideal, because he was so likeable and also extremely articulate.”

“Paul Charlton (RLQSG #9) at the back, was tremendous.  His acceleration was incredible, and he could keep that pace up for the length of the field.   He was a really great player, and an equally great fellow to have around the club.  The only drawback to him was being able to understand him, because his Cumbrian accent was difficult to follow.”

Paul’s return to Cumbria saw the signing of another international half back, John Butler (RLQSG #2), who took over, not at stand-off but in the centre, which then allowed David Watkins to move to fullback, to replace Charlton.

“John was built like a second rower, but played most of his rugby for us, as centre.  Despite his size, he was still most speedy, and that was beneficial to Keith Fielding on the wing.  The three of us gelled very well together, on that right flank.  I instilled into them both, to watch what I was doing, because that was their clue as to what they needed to do themselves.

“There was many a time that the opposition would be drawn into tackling me, only to find that I had put first John into the clear, and that he had then passed on to Keith to romp in under the sticks.”

Besides boasting a back line of internationals, there was also some considerable talent within the pack, not least in the back three, where Ken singles out Colin Dixon as someone who was most special to the team and the club.

“It wasn’t just what he did on the field, it was also his contribution to the ethos of the team within the club.  He was really articulate, and always had a well thought out view, to put forward.  Everyone listened when he spoke; he was always good company and interesting, and we all had some great times with him.

“On the field he was incredible.  His speed for someone of his size was exceptional, and once he was in the clear there were very few who were able to catch him.   He also ran with power, and, although he was not as big as Mike Coulman (RLQSG #1), he was every bit as strong.  He was absolute class, because he too had the vision as to the best plays to use at various times.”

Prop forward, John Ward, had played most of his career for Castleford, including against Salford in the Wembley Challenge Cup Final, before moving to Salford, two years later.

“I didn’t play many games alongside John, but I was really taken with his slight-of-hands skill.  He would almost stroll up with the ball, before sending out a slick pass that opened up a gap for the recipient to coast through.  He was such a talented player, in this respect.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG – KEN GILL (PT2)

Part 2 – HIS MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Joining such a star-studded side as Salford, in the wake of signings such as David Watkins, Mike Coulman {Rugby League Quality Street Gang #1), Colin Dixon and Maurice Richards, would most certainly have been a significant challenge to any young, unknown player, but the young Ken Gill was helped through that initial settling in by one of the other, more experienced, of the squad.

“Tony Colloby was a Cumbrian, who played in the three-quarters, and was one of the best centres I ever played alongside.  He was my type of player, which made it easy for me to continue to play my own game alongside him.  He also gave me lots of good advice which helped me along.

“I spent my first season playing in the ‘A’ team, with the likes of Jim Hardacre and Micky Hennigan.  Jackie Brennan was at the back end of his career by this time, so he was also in the team.  He was a really good scrum half who had so much experience to contribute, and that helped me progress to becoming a first team player.”

Brennan, having been Salford’s scrum half at Wembley, had been replaced in the first team by a young Peter Banner (RL Quality St Gang #4), and it was not long before he, Banner, was joined by his fellow half back from the ‘A’ team.  The only problem was that the stand-off berth at the time was occupied by the mercurial David Watkins, in whom the club had invested a most considerable amount of money in obtaining his signature.

“It was always going to be a case of finding David another role in the team, and that turned out to be in the centre, which I think suited him, better than stand-off half had done, because he had more space there.”

Replacing such a highly regarded player would have overly daunted the majority of youngsters, but Ken had sufficient self-confidence to be able to take this in his stride, though the assertive, highly vocal organisational skills, which he brought to his role, possibly took a number of the team by surprise.

“They probably had something of a shock with this newcomer coming in and taking over.  I used to tell them to do things which they really could not believe, such as running at an opposition player rather than at the gap, because you can then deploy your running and rugby skills to get around him, but he has to stand still, almost rooted to the spot, because you are coming straight at him.

“Players just could not get used to this and they kept trying to go between opponents, particularly when things were not going as easily as they usually did.

“I looked on myself as being like the conductor of an orchestra,  as I was able to determine which player was most likely to be able to make the break, and, by the timing of my pass to him, draw his opposite number away from him.

“It wasn’t something you could practise in training because every situation in a game is different, and you just have to react to what presents itself in front of you, at the time.”

Little wonder then, that when Salford were in possession, the ball always found its way into his hands, and most fortuitous for him was that, in Cliff Evans, he had a coach who fully appreciated his many skills, and, in particular, his vision.

“Cliff was absolutely great for me and he helped me settle into the first team so easily.  Because he showed that he had faith in what I was bringing to the team it made everyone attentive to my on-field instructions, both at training and in the games.

“He was extremely encouraging in the way he dealt with all the players.  It was always a case of an arm around the shoulder and a few quiet words of advice.  He was certainly very good to me.

“There were people, even odd ones in the team but mainly amongst opponents, who did not like the way I played, simply because they couldn’t do likewise, but Cliff always gave me his support, far more so than other, later coaches did.”

Not that things always went completely to plan, and, on the occasions when it all went awry, there were always people on the side-lines ready to criticise.  Such individuals were very much in the minority, for the greater number, by far, accepted that such errors are inevitably part of that style of play.  Certainly, the other players were of this opinion.

Friday nights at The Willows for those home games were really special occasions for everyone who attended, but for the players the experience was all the more so.

“The whole place was absolutely buzzing and you always felt on edge beforehand.  I was always full of confidence, though, no matter who we were playing against, and this seemed to rub off on everyone else, which was a great boost to us as a team, so much so that I used to be given the opportunity of contributing to the pre-match address.

“This, in turn, led to my being given the captaincy on a few occasions, and I was given the chance of being made club captain, but I turned it down, as I also did later on with an offer to be captain of Great Britain.

“At the time I wanted to be free to of the responsibility it brings, in order to be able to concentrate on my game, but now I wish I had taken those opportunities, especially the one to be captain of Gt Britain.”

What he produced on the field was, however, far in advance of what other players, at any other club, could envisage, and consequently the rest of the team held him in great respect.

“Mike Coulman was one of the first in the side to cotton on to me.  He quickly found that if he followed me around and followed my directions it would make his role both easier and more fruitful.  He had both the strength and pace to be able to make it pay.

“Once we got out onto the field, we would get the most marvellous uplift from the crowd, which had packed in, in their droves.  Friday nights at Salford were tremendous, and we used to live from one Friday to the next, because the next match couldn’t come round fast enough.

“Playing under the floodlights also added considerably to the atmosphere around the ground and gave a sense of occasion which we found quite motivating, almost as much as the fans were.  Once the game got underway, though, I would forget all about everything else, because I was just so focused on the game.

“I can remember that after one of my earlier games, I had gone into the club for a drink and was absolutely astounded at the way the fans immediately swarmed all over me.  I had really never expected, nor experienced, anything like that before.”

This was most understandable, though, because rugby supporters know their game extremely well and the Salford fans back then were not slow to recognise an exceptional talent when they saw one.

Half backs, as a breed, are required to be extremely vocal throughout the game, as part of their organisational skills, and Ken freely admits to being the person in the side who took it upon himself to challenge his teammates to higher levels of performance, or extra effort, whichever he felt necessary at the time.

“The dressing room at half time was where it all happened, especially if we were losing.  I certainly let people know if they were falling behind in their endeavours, especially the forwards, because, without them laying a platform, we backs had a much lesser chance of success in our role.  Those were the games when the fans would see a second half rally that racked up thirty points, or so, for us to win.”

All of which was sadly missing in one game, when he had to withdraw very suddenly on the day of the match, owing to a most serious accident, at work.

“I have no idea how I come to still be here, because I was an electrician by trade, at that time, and someone, whom I was working alongside cut through a live wire, and I was thrown back off the ladders, onto some benches below.  The next thing I knew was waking up in hospital, because the charge had been shorted to earth through me and the ladders I was on, though the lad who cut the wire survived, unscathed.”

The many highlights of his lengthy career with Salford started with their winning their first post war trophy.

“One of the first trophies we won was the Lancashire Cup in 1972, at Warrington, where we played Swinton in the final.  They gave us a really tough challenge, especially at the start of the second half, but we stuck to our task, and ended up winning with some comfort.”

That was followed up, eighteen months later with, of all things, their winning the First Division Championship, at the end of the 1973/4 season.

“That was absolutely magnificent, especially in winning all those games throughout the season.  I started thinking above myself from that, and getting ambitions, which I had never even dreamt of before.

“When we won it again, two years later, it was equally enjoyable, but this time it was more a case of having done what we had expected of ourselves.  The nerves had gone by this time, and we had matured as a team, so we were able to take every game in our stride.”

They certainly needed that for the season’s final fixture at Keighley, which they had to win to lift the trophy, whilst their opponents had to win in order to avoid relegation.  The nervousness among the fans, and even people within the club was intense, especially with their needing to make a trip into Yorkshire, which so often had heralded the dashing of everyone’s dreams and aspirations.

“As far as we were concerned, I always used to say that if nerves got the better of you, you shouldn’t be playing.  Players go out to do a job and they should be so focused on that that nerves shouldn’t even come into it.  With that mindset, then, we did win, and we did lift the trophy for a second time in two years.”

By this time, though, other clubs had become fully aware of the incredible impact that Kenny had brought to Salford, and his skills and vision became much sought after.

“I was for ever getting people coming up to me asking me to go down to first one club, then another.  Wigan even tried twice to get me to sign, and I even turned Saints, my home team, down, because I liked it so much at Salford.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (9) – ERIC PRESCOTT PT 3

Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS SOME OF HIS FORMER SALFORD TEAMMATES

The strong camaraderie, which existed throughout his time at the Willows, manifested itself in many ways over the seasons.

“John Butler (RL Quality St Gang #2), Bill Sheffield (RL QSG #7) and I, all lived in St Helens, and we had all played for Saints before ending up at Salford, so we did all our travelling together, both to training and matches.  We all got on really well together, and the friendships which developed between us have continued ever since.

“We would get to The Willows, on a Friday evening at around quarter to seven, in readiness for the seven-thirty kick off.  With only around half an hour in which to get ready, you were out on the field before you had had time to think about what was happening.

“After the game you’d go back into the club and meet spectators who would come up to you for a chat.  It was like a family, all with the same motive. All the players used to enjoy this, and they would all talk to people at some length, because the fans were always so complimentary.”

Unbelievably, despite all of this attention that they all received, Eric insists that none of them ever felt in any way like the stars, which was how all of the supporters truly regarded them.

“To us, it was just a case of each one had had a job to do, and we had just got it right.  We didn’t claim to have anything more than that.  The most crucial thing to us was that this was a team game, and everybody just got on well together.  The involvement of the spectators, after the game, was just an extension of this.  We even got requests to go along to amateur clubs or youth teams to present awards to their players, which was also really enjoyable.”

In common with many of his colleagues, Eric subscribes to the view that the redoubtable Colin Dixon was one of the mainstays of the team, at that time.

“Although he was without doubt a gentleman, he was an extremely good player.  Whenever you looked at a newspaper report of any of our matches, Colin was always mentioned; that was how good he was.

“He was also good at explaining himself well.  I was a bit more reticent in speaking up, but Colin had such an assuredness that he was always willing to put his suggestions forward for people to consider.”

Alongside Colin in the pack was his second-row partner, Mike Coulman (RLQSG #1), who was to move up to prop, shortly after Eric’s arrival on the Salford scene.

“Mike was a mountain of a player, and he was so powerful; his legs were immense.  Opponents were totally in awe of him.”

Although fullback, Paul Charlton (RLQSG #8), returned to his native Cumbria a couple of seasons after Eric joined the club, they played together long enough for Eric to enjoy the opportunity of having such a skilful player in the side.

“His speed and his fitness were exceptional, and he could accelerate so quickly from an almost standing start.  He was also really tough, as are many people from that part of the country.  Tony Gourley, who played in the second row for us, was equally so.

“As a loose forward I would have to do a lot of covering across the field when we were defending, and so that provided me with many occasions on which I could do nothing but marvel at the way that Paul would seem to come from nowhere to effect last-ditch, try-saving tackles on wingers who were convinced that they were on their way to a score.  He just had that off to a tee.”

Another remarkably tough individual was the centre who went on to captain not only the Salford side, but also Great Britain, Chris Hesketh,

“Chris’s defence was uncompromising.  When he tackled a player, they knew about it, and he became a very good captain for us.  He not only would talk to people to reassure them, ahead of the game, he would do what he could to help you out, and then give you encouragement during it.  He certainly helped a lot of young players who came into the side. I would say he was the best captain I ever played under.

“His running style, with an incredible sense of balance, was such that it really confused opponents, and his hand-off was so powerful and effective that, all-in-all, it made him so difficult to tackle.  He just seemed to have everything you could possibly want in a player.”

Alongside Chris in the three-quarter line were some of the fastest players in the game, including David Watkins, who had been club captain, immediately prior to Chris.

“David was of a very similar style, as captain, and really eloquent in the way he put his points across. Keith Fielding (RLQSG #6), on the wing, just had out and out speed, and he used to put himself in a position to get on the end of a break from the likes of John Butler, or myself, to score try after try.

“Maurice Richards, on the other wing, was a quite different style of player.  He would just run at people and then, at the last minute, deploy his remarkable footwork to wrong-foot them and sweep past them.

“Everything on attack, though, used to come from Kenny Gill, at halfback.  We were well off for stand-offs, because John Butler was an international stand-off, but he played at centre for us, which was really good because he could read a game extremely well.  With so many former rugby union players in the side, he gave the team the stability that it needed at times of pressure, because, like Kenny, he had played league all his life.”

Another quite long-serving of the many second-row forwards of that period to play for Salford was John Knighton, who had come from rugby union into the ‘A’ team, and subsequently the first team, where he became a regular in the starting line-up.

“He was a really good player, was John, and, once he had secured an opportunity to play in the first team, he kept his place.  He did a considerable amount of tackling and grafting, which often does not get recognised on the terraces as much as wingers racing through to score tries.  As players, we just turn up to play in the way we are told, and then at the end of the week that is what we get paid for.  So, we forwards had to make the chances to get the ball out to the backs for them to score tries.

“Out of the whole time I was there, the player with whom I was most friendly, was centre, Frank Wilson.  We had known each other whilst we were at St Helens, and then rekindled our friendship, when Frank came to Salford in 1979.  We played in the Centenary game together, against Widnes.”

Over his first period with the club, Eric played, in the main, under the direction of two coaches, Cliff Evans and then Les Bettinson.

“They were both extremely good coaches, and in much the same style as each other.  Everything was kept interesting for us because they varied things so much.  In addition, they were both extremely approachable and had a good relationship with the players.  If something was going wrong, we would talk it out calmly and sensibly, there was none of the bawling and storming that used to go on with coaches at other clubs.

“When Les eventually decided to finish, Alex Murphy was one of a number of coaches who came in to try their hand with us.  I was absolutely made up for the club that we had been able to get someone of his rugby league stature, and he had done so well with both Leigh and Warrington.”

Over the years he was in the game, Eric won a total of six medals, whilst with Salford, but the one he really wanted, which was, of course, the Challenge Cup winner’s medal, eluded him, until eventually he went to Wembley as a Widnes player and helped them to lift the cup, to get even that one.

The success of the team, throughout the seventies, in his view, was thanks, in part, to the great team spirit that existed throughout the whole squad.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (9) – ERIC PRESCOTT PT 2

Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

The abundance of talent within the St Helens team, during the first couple of years of the 1970s had reached levels that were almost an embarrassment with highly ambitious players vying with one another for places within the team, the back couple of rows in the scrum being of particular concern, as Eric discovered.

“We had players like Eric Chisnall, John Mantle, and Kel Coslett, all of whom would have commanded places within any team, so I was finding myself confined to the bench, where a position in those days would not necessarily mean you would get a game.

“Substitutes back then were there solely to cover for injuries, and if no-one actually got injured, the two bench players might go for weeks without getting onto the field.  I began to become frustrated at not getting much game time, so went to the St Helens Chairman to request a transfer.

“He didn’t want me to leave at all, and to this end he put me on the list but at the price of £15,000.  That didn’t deter Salford, though, and chief scout, Albert White, came and asked whether I would join Salford to which I readily agreed knowing the quality that was present in the rest of the team.  The whole backline, from one to seven, were internationals, and with the likes of Mike Coulman and Colin Dixon in the forwards I knew I was joining a great team.

“I already knew one or two of the players, but turning up for my first training session, I was made really welcome.  The whole group of players was more like a family than a sports team.

“I already knew coach, Cliff Evans, from his days at St Helens, and I knew the way he wanted his teams to play, which was particularly helpful, because there was certainly a similarity in what he was advocating at Salford.”

Salford had brought Eric to the club with the firm intention of playing him at loose forward.  There was, however, already a regular incumbent of that position.

“Colin Dixon had been playing there for quite a while, and I really felt sorry at moving him from his position, but he was a real gentleman – you couldn’t wish to meet anyone better – and he just accepted the situation with the utmost grace.  For me, having players like him alongside me was just absolutely marvellous.

“My first game with them all was against Rochdale, which we won, 46-18, at The Willows, all within the same week as my signing for them.  When you sign for a new team, there is always a settling-in period as you get to know everything, and there is no way that you can possibly acquire all that in only two training sessions.

“Salford had a lot of moves which they would deploy at various times in the game, which made for a really good setup.  They would call these moves out and everyone really needed to know their part in them.

“Defending teams, at that time, were kept only three yards back, which meant that they were able to get up onto the attacking team very quickly, and so having their practised moves enabled them to fox the defence in some way.  Nowadays, being up to ten metres apart moves are rather less effective as there is so much time for defences to read what is happening.

“Salford played really good football and the ball always went through a lot of hands in every match.  We were always at our most dangerous in our own half of the field because when the other team were lying up on us, Kenny Gill or John Butler would put a kick through for Keith Fielding, and there was no-one going to catch him.

“Everyone had their own job within the team.  I liked tackling.  I liked the physicality involved, and also in aiming to get my technique just right on each occasion.  There was also the benefit of limiting the effectiveness of the opposition’s attack.

“Tackling round the legs was probably the best way of tackling in those days, because you can’t go without your legs.  Nowadays, it is regarded as more important to stop an offload, so tackling has drifted to the upper body.  Elbows, back then, were far too discouraging to make that type of tackle worthwhile.

“I got my nose broken in my early days, in a match against Warrington.  I was just getting up from a tackle to play the ball, when someone came in and smashed me across the face breaking my nose.  You have to learn from those incidents.”

As with many of his teammates, Eric still regrets the fact that the team never managed to fulfil its promise of winning trophies, and having come from a club like St Helens, this sat a little more uneasily on his shoulders.

“We should have won a whole lot more than we did, considering the talent that we had in the team, and having left St Helens to come to Salford, I had to sit and watch their success from afar.  They went to Wembley in 1976, and against all the odds won the Challenge Cup, and I remember thinking to myself that I’d missed out on that one.

“One of the reasons for my coming here was that, with the team packed with all those internationals, I was expecting much the same from us, but we just couldn’t get through those early rounds of the Challenge Cup to get to the final.  One season we were knocked out by St Helens themselves in what was, for us, a home match.  That really hurt.”

Invariably, though, it was a trip into Yorkshire, to face Leeds or Castleford, around Rounds two or three, which put Salford out of the competition.

“Another problem was that, then, virtually all the teams were of a similar playing standard, so whilst we were one of the top sides, and, on our day, probably the most entertaining of them all, the remaining fifteen teams in the first division were not far behind.  If we had an ‘off’ day, any one of them could have won.  I remember Rochdale coming to the Willows and beating us, on one occasion.  That sort of thing hardly ever happens nowadays.

Wembley may have had a hoodoo cast over it as far as the Salford team was concerned, but the calibre of the side was twice reflected in their winning the First Division Championship, in 1973/4 and 1975/6.

“That was certainly handsome compensation and probably worthy of greater notoriety than it received at the time because the equality in standards throughout the league made it all the more challenging and difficult to achieve.  Doing it twice, and so quickly after each other was a tremendous achievement.

“The first time was at the expense of St Helens, for once.  It was a late Easter Weekend at the end of the season, and we needed to win at Wigan, on the Easter Monday, and then for Widnes to beat St Helens, later that evening, in order for us to lift the Trophy.  We did all we could for ourselves in defeating Wigan, and then we all went over to Naughton Park, Widnes, which was so packed that we had to stand behind the posts to watch.

“It was quite absorbing because the game was so tight, with Saints in front at half time, but Widnes, with nothing but pride to play for, came back in the second half to win.  Saints were such a good team at that time we couldn’t really have expected anything other than for them to win, but they came unstuck and we became Champions.

“We also won other trophies.  We lifted the BBC2 Floodlit Cup, in 1972, with a win over Warrington, at Wilderspool, after drawing with them the week earlier at the Willows.  That came very shortly after I had moved to Salford and was a real reward for my having done so.

“The Lancashire Cup and the John Player Trophy were other competitions in which we also had successes, at least in reaching the final and semi-final.  I think it is a loss to the game that these competitions have gone by the board, because they brought a bit of variety to the season, whilst as a player you always wanted to win something, and there was something there to be won.

“The Lancashire Cup win was one of my best memories.  I had been injured just before, and came back to play in the final, against Swinton, at Warrington.  We controlled the game well, and apart from the first twenty minutes of the second half, when they really came at us, we were on top throughout, and fully deserved the win.”

By the later years of the seventies, there was a fairly noticeable deterioration in the team, as players got older, some retired, and others moved elsewhere.

“The mid-seventies were extremely good, but standards did start to decline over the coming seasons.  I still had the hankering to play at Wembley and still felt we had a good team then, but we just couldn’t get past those three or four clubs which had always been our downfall.  As time moved on, I began to realise this was not going to happen at Salford, so I started to look round for another club.

“Working, as I did, for Widnes Council, I sounded out the possibility of my moving there, because it was a club which was making significant progress, by then.  The response from them was that they were quite willing to take me on board, if I were willing to play in the second row, which I was, and so I made the move to join them.”

Nothing is for ever, though, and a couple of seasons later he returned for one more spell, with prop, John Wood, transferring over to Widnes, in exchange.

“Salford approached me with a view to returning, and because I had been so very happy there, for so long, I agreed.  Coming back again rekindled the memories of all those good times, and even though it was different this time around, I had absolutely no regrets in having done so.

“I liked the type of rugby Salford have always played, and alongside that, the people who were there were all so very friendly and approachable.  I also still believed that we could have made up for the lack of trophies previously, by winning something this time around, but sadly this was not to be.”

SALFORD RED DEVILS 34-10 HALIFAX PANTHERS | FRIDAY 21ST JANUARY 2022

Salford Red Devils retained the Colin Dixon Memorial Trophy this evening with a 34-10 victory over Betfred Championship side Halifax Panthers.

Paul Rowley’s men opened the scoring after six minutes with an impressive bit of link-up play between Ryan Brierley and Ken Sio. Salford worked the ball right with Brierley finding Sio on the wing, who then returned the ball with a neat grubber kick into the in-goal area that Brierley was first to dive on.

Brierley doubled his try tally for the evening just four minutes later after Brodie Croft broke down the middle, weaving through a handful of Halifax players in the process, before kicking the ball towards the right wing for our number 1 to scoop up and stroll over with.

The visitors pulled one back in the 23rd minute through Joe Keyes, who spotted a gap and darted over to the left of the sticks.

Five minutes later, King Vuniyayawa powered through three Halifax players to crash over under the sticks just minutes after coming on.

Half-time: Salford Red Devils 16-4 Halifax Panthers

Halifax started the second forty on the front foot and were boosted when Joe Burgess saw yellow in the 49th minute for a professional foul.

Salford responded well though with another try just two minutes later. Amir Bourouh, who spent a loan spell at Halifax in 2021 during his time at Wigan Warriors, bundled over in the right corner to put Salford back in control of the arm wrestle.

Welsh international Rhys Williams got himself on the scoresheet for Salford 10 minutes later, after some fast hands down the right from his teammates gave him an almost clear route to the try-line.

The last Salford try of the night came courtesy of Matt Costello, who was gifted the ball from Halifax just metres out from their try-line.

The visitors responded just before the hooter with a try in the right corner, scored by James Saltonstall, but it was merely a consolation.

Full-time: Salford Red Devils 32-10 Halifax Panthers

Salford Red Devils: Brierley, Sio, Cross, Costello, Burgess, Croft, Sneyd, Gerrard, Ackers, Lannon, Wright, Taylor, Johnson, Akauola, Burke, Addy, Vuniyayawa, Atkin, Ormondroyd, Wells, Williams, Escare, Luckley, Bourouh, Stevens.

Halifax Panthers: Martin, Walmsley, Worthington, Arundel, McComb, Jouffret, Keyes, Murray, Wood, Tangata, Kavanagh, Barber, Knowles, Morris, Gwaze, Calcott, Fairbank, Larroyer, Oakley, Garside, Tibbs, Whitton, Saltonstall.

Image credit: Steve McCormick

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 3

                       Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES

Despite his two periods with Salford covering almost a decade, it is perhaps unsurprising that the players who most readily come to Bill’s mind are those who played alongside him during his first spell at the club.

“I can honestly say that that Salford side was the fastest team I have ever played in.  It is claimed to be a much faster game today than it was back then, but, believe me, that team would probably beat the majority of the present day sides.  They were just so fast, not just of foot but of thought too.

“Kenny Gill certainly wasn’t the most fleet of foot, but he was by far the quickest thinker.  He was doing things long before anyone else realised what was afoot.  He certainly had a great rugby brain on him.

“Chris Hesketh was lightning quick, and had a side-step to go with it.  He was also strong, and, off the field, was the most comical of people.”

A variety of hookers turned out for the Reds over a short period of only a few seasons, before moving on or finishing their career.  One such was Peter Walker.

“Peter was an extremely good hooker, who, in the days of contested scrums could rake the ball with consistency.  I knew his brother Malcolm Walker, who played for St Helens, from my time there, very well.  Sadly, Peter’s career was brought prematurely to an end when he broke his leg.

“By contrast, his understudy in the ‘A’ team was another St Helens lad, Ellis Devlin, who was equally good in the loose, and in today’s game would have revelled in the role.  Unfortunately, the necessity to ensure a steady supply of the ball took precedence over that, and so Ellis was restricted to occasional call ups to the first team.

“Dickie Evans, my former work colleague, was another player to secure the hooking role for a couple of seasons, and it was great to link up with him again after all the years.”

Undoubtedly, of all the players in the team over that era, the absolute stalwart among them, from his teammates’ perception, appears to have been Welsh international forward, Colin Dixon, and Bill, too, has very fond memories of him.

“Colin was always someone who would talk to you.  It would be frowned upon in this present day, but back then, after training a group of us would all go for a drink and a chat together.  Colin was one of us, and it was in that environment I began to notice his dry sense of humour which was really quite funny.

“He had a pub in Halifax, and whenever we played over there we would call in, on our way back, and then Colin would take on the role of host and look after everybody.

“He actually became coach, towards the end of his career, for a brief spell, during which we played an away match, at Warrington.  For some reason, we all seemed quite lethargic during the first half, and when we got into the dressing-room he shut the door and delivered a few home truths, followed by the challenge to do something about it, which we did by turning the game around and winning.

“It was the way he had addressed the players, though, in such an adult fashion, which invoked the desire and determination within each of us, for make no mistake about it, Warrington were a really good side at that time, and to go there and win was a real achievement.”

Right winger, Keith Fielding (Quality St Gang No 6), was another person who earned Bill’s respect both on, and off, the field.

“As far as speed was concerned, though, they didn’t come any faster than Keith and once he was in the clear, there was no-one going to stop him.

“Off the field, he too was a friendly chatty bloke, who always had time for you, and he certainly knew how to tell a story.  On one occasion, while travelling to an away match, he had Eric [Prescott] and me completely bewildered by a card trick, which seemed impossible, until we found out that he was getting signals from behind us, from Dickie Evans.”

With both of them hailing from, and living in, St Helens, and also having played together at Rochdale, before signing together on the same day for Salford, it would be most surprising if John Butler had not been one of the players of whom Bill has long and numerous memories.

“When he moved from Keighley to join Rochdale, we were all quite surprised, because we already had a couple of good halfbacks, but he slotted in really well, and within six months of joining, he was selected to play for Great Britain, and went on tour with them.

“He had a really nice sidestep and was very quick over thirty or forty yards, both of which made him ideal as a centre because of course, as a stand-off – and an international one at that – his handling skills were excellent.”

Bill also recalls a couple of other three-quarters, who, in any other side would have had far more first team opportunities than they ever had alongside the star-studded Salford pack line.  Gordon Graham was a rugby union convert who was brought to the club by his former schoolteacher, who, by then, had taken over the reins as Salford coach, Les Bettinson.

Gordon, who had been signed as a centre, played on the wing just as much as he did there, but more often than not had to be content with a place on the bench, which in those days often meant that he remained there for the whole game, as was the case with fellow three-quarter, Tony Redfern, whose signature was so sought after by the whole of the league that Salford had to sign him on his sixteenth birthday.

With David Watkins successfully making the transition to fullback, ‘A’ team fullback Frank Stead, a native of Widnes, whom Bill readily brings to mind, was another player who also had to be satisfied with only occasional outings in the number one jersey.

Willows Wall | Colin Dixon is the latest name on the wall

Salford legend Colin Dixon is the next name to be listed in the ‘Willows Wall’ Heritage Team after winning the voting for the second back-row position in convincing fashion.
Dixon racked up 418 appearances for the Red Devils scoring 91 tries and kicking one goal totalling 275 points. The second-rower helped Salford win Championship titles in 1973-74 and 1975-76 as well as a 1972 Lancashire Cup triumph. Dixon also featured in a Players No. 6, Floodlit Trophy, Championship and a Challenge Cup final for the Club.
The Welshman joined Salford in December 1968 for £15,000 which also included the transfer of winger Mike Kelly to Halifax. Just a few months later he would be a part of the side who lost to Castleford at Wembley in the Club’s last Challenge Cup final appearance.
Dixon represented Great Britain on 14 occasions including as part of the 1972 World Cup winning team. He also featured for Wales 13 times.
The next vote for the loose forward position will be on the Club website and social media channels later today.
The full voting was as follows:
Colin Dixon – 67.15%
Ian Blease – 11.19%
John Cartwright – 9.75%
Mick Worrall – 5.78%
Geoff Selby – 3.97%
Chris McGreal – 1.08%
John Nicol – 0.36%
Harold Thomas – 0.36%
David Gower – 0.36%
Ron Smith – 0.00%
If you’d like to get your names alongside a host of Salford Red Devils legends contact John.Blackburn@Salfordreddevils.net and get your name on the ‘Willows Wall’ for £25.

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