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.”