RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 14 – JOHN TAYLOR (PT3)

Part 3  He Remembers His Former Salford Teammates From Those Days

Limited as his opportunities in the first team might have been, John still had sufficiently frequent involvement with the players to get to know them all really well, and the very first name to his lips was that of the player who has so frequently been regarded as rugby league’s best ever fullback, Paul Charlton (RLQSG#9).

“Paul would come to training and without speaking to anyone would just start running, and it was only when we got to the moves we happened to be working on that session, that he would actually join in with what everyone else was doing.  Because of that though he became so fit that he must have been the fittest player in the team, by far.  He would try anything, fitness-wise, to get the best out of himself.

“On the field he was phenomenal.  He always had the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, and he always seemed to be in control of everything, no matter what happened.  He never panicked at all.  His change of pace was exceptional and players who thought they were going to tackle him were just left totally in his wake.  I can’t, in the foreseeable future, see any player matching him in what he was able to do.

“I used to do quite a lot of training with Colin Dixon.  He was such a really nice person who never even thought about how good he was.  He just used to think of helping other players along, especially the younger ones.  No-one ever had a bad word to say about him.”

The two players, who, between them were responsible for John’s constant struggle to get that extended run in the first team were the two incumbent half backs, Peter Banner (RLQSG#4)and Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10).

“Peter was the quiet man of the team but on the field he was incredibly good.  His service from the scrum with his wide passing was a considerable asset to the team because it gave them extra time and space in which to work.  He was also a clever, tricky runner with a good turn of acceleration and pace to get him through the gaps.

“Kenny was an incredible passer of the ball, who was able to put players through gaps that no-one else even realised existed.  I had the pleasure of playing scrum half to him, on one occasion, and I remember him saying to me before the game to just get on with what we had to do, and not worry about anything else.  I found that most reassuring, just as we were leaving the dressing room.”

Another of the team’s stars also features very highly in John’s memory.

“Keith Fielding (RLQSG#6) was a fantastic person to know.  He and I used to train together, which he always took really seriously and worked himself extremely hard because he always wanted to be the fastest on the field.  I used to try to keep up with him and even overtake him.  The best I managed was finishing within a yard of him over the hundred metres.   I shall never forget him and, in fact, a few years ago, he invited me down to visit him at his home in Cornwall.”

When not commanding a place in the first team, John was still happy to be playing at ‘A’ team level, because the Salford ‘A’ team was as good as any first team, and, in their own way, equally as entertaining to watch as their senior counterparts.

“We had a lot of really good players in that team, and we really were something extra special at the time.  Jimmy Hardacre is the first of those who come to mind; he was an absolutely cracking bloke.  I remember him giving me a lift to an evening away match in Cumbria, and I’ve never been so frightened in all my life.  We flew there, despite the fact that the only stretch of motorway was around Preston.

“In fact, we were pulled up by the police, who, once they realised the reason behind our haste ended up giving us an escort to ensure that we got there in time.”

“Iain MacCorquodale was another player similar to myself in that he was often drafted into the first team, when required, usually on the wing.  His great asset was his goalkicking, which he showed to the full when he moved on to play for Workington.

“Sammy Turnbull started off in the ‘A’ team before cementing a place in the first team, at centre, later on, and he wasn’t the only one.  Alan Grice (RLQSG#11) started off there as did John Knighton, who had to use his time there to adapt from union to playing league, but then became a first choice second rower. 

“Ellis Devlin (RLQSG#12) was possibly the most under-rated player in the club, because he never got a really extended run in the first team, despite the number of other hookers who came and went during his time.  For some reason, the club never fully gained the benefit from having such really talented players in reserve, ready to step into the void, at virtually no cost, when first team players moved on or had lengthy injuries.  They always seemed to splash out a lot of money on star names, not all of whom fitted in that well.

“Like Alan Grice, Peter Frodsham was a prop forward who also had a spell in the first team, whilst fullback, Frank Stead, would have benefitted any first team, as previously had Kenny Gwilliam, who was our fullback in the Wembley Cup Final before transferring to St Helens.

“Paul Jackson had been our left winger at Wembley but had lost his place to Maurice Richards, when he came, but continued in the ‘A’ team for a while.

“With first David Watkins and Jack Brennan, and then Kenny Gill and Peter Banner, holding the half back slot, there was seldom the opportunity for David’s former rugby union stand-off half, Bob Prosser, and he, too, made most of his appearances in the ‘A’ team, in his later years with us.”

With such talented players on which to draw, it is therefore little wonder that Salford swept all before them, at ‘A’ team level, nor also that the entertainment value of that side was a widely recognised attraction to fans to come and watch them. 

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.”

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