RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG 14 – JOHN TAYLOR PT 4

Part 4  His Later Rugby Career And Subsequent Return To Salford

Hastily arranged as John’s move to Leigh had been, when he got there, he found he settled in really quickly, and he is seen below holding the pre-season friendly, charily trophy contested annually in those days between Widnes and Leigh, similar to Salford’s Red Rose Cup annual friendly with Swinton.

John Taylor holidng a trophy

“I absolutely loved it there.  Kevin Ashcroft was the coach, and we had a really good team.”

Over the whole of his five years with them, the game he most enjoyed was turning out for the first time against Salford, who had Kenny Gill and Stevie Nash in the half backs, in a home league game at Hilton Park.

“Cliff Sayer was my scrum half partner, and we really gelled extremely well that afternoon.  I was absolutely up for the game, as I felt that it was my one chance to show just what I could do and what Salford had missed out on.  Together, Cliff and I got completely on top, early on, and maintained it right through the game, so the Salford back line never really got going, and in the end we won quite comfortably.  My first thought after the game was that if we could play like that I should have stayed and earned my place at Salford.

“The worst thing that happened, though, was, in a game against Warrington, having my cheek bone broken, which also resulted in a concussion.  My immediate reaction was to pick myself up, run after the player concerned and hit him on the back of the head.  I always could lose my temper very easily, and this time it ended up with me being locked in the changing room, having got myself into such a blaze.

“I found out afterwards that I had been sent off whilst I was in there.”

All good things eventually come to an end, and for John, his time at Leigh came to a sudden abrupt end, with a change of coach.

“Kevin Ashcroft moved on and was replace by John Mantle.  Things did not work out so well, so I decided to move on, also.”

The club which came in for him was Widnes, which had been an up-and-coming team from the mid-seventies onward before starting to accrue silverware towards the end of the decade.

“Dougie Laughton was their coach, who came to my house and told me he wanted to sign me.  I was a bit reluctant, at the time, because I knew they had Andy Gregory in their ‘A’ team, scoring three tries a week.  When I queried this with Doug, I was told that Andy wasn’t yet ready for first team rugby.

“That was all I needed to know, and I accepted the offer, because it was still a really good team.

“It didn’t turn out to be the best move I could have made, however, because, having achieved so much, the team was starting to break up, and the inception of the new Fulham Rugby League Club, became quite an attraction to many of their talented players, such as Reggie Bowden, Roy Lester, and Keith Elwell among others, who made the move south.

“Despite this they were in no hurry to promote players from the reserves, when they still had players like Mick Adams, who was a tremendous player and Eric Prescott, who had moved there from Salford, and then, in addition, a young John Myler coming through.  Even Andy Gregory was still left playing week in week out in the ‘A’ team, and there still seemed no sign of him being moved up, so there didn’t really seem to be a place at all for me.”

So, enter Salford who seemed to have had a penchant for re-signing former players, and in 1983, John became another of these, when he returned to play for a further couple of seasons.

“It was a different Salford club, though, when I came back.  Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the two seasons I had, because Kevin Ashcroft was now the coach, with whom I had built up such a good working relationship, at Leigh, so the fact that he was now in charge at The Willows was the determining factor in my returning.

“An equally important factor was that I still wanted to prove myself, and I really believe that this time I did.  I was now thirty-two, but I still had enough left in me to acquit myself well and do the job at hand to my satisfaction. 

“I continued playing right through to the 1985/6 season, when my career was eventually brought to an end, after I cracked a bone in my neck and that finished it all for me.  I don’t remember how it happened, but I just remember being flat on my back on the field, thinking I had broken my back, whilst the medical staff even thought I had broken my neck.  The game was held up for around half an hour, and, to this day, I still have to take painkillers as a consequence.”

Damaging as the injury was, it did not herald the total end of John’s career in rugby league, merely a change of direction and emphasis.

“I had already started coaching one of the young sides at Rose Bridge amateurs, and, a couple of years after finishing playing, I returned to Salford as part of the scouting team, alongside John Blackburn and David Clegg, under the direction of head scout, Albert White. 

“We each had our own areas, and I had the Wigan area, where I had been successful in picking up quite a few talented youngsters for Rose Bridge, including fullback, David Halstead, who eventually went on to Warrington, and also former SKY Sports pundit, Phil Clarke.

“Phil was only small when he was a young lad, but his talent was more than evident.  His father, Colin, was a cracking bloke and had been a hooker at Salford in the late seventies.  Sometimes though, you find that the small guys turn out to be the best because they have to develop their rugby skills to a much greater extent to be able to cope against the big blokes.  Phil later benefited from this in his professional career, by which time he had also developed physically.”

His one coaching role with a professional club was in 1992, when he was selected to take the reins at Chorley Borough.

“The current speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, was their Chairman, and he was a very good Chairman, too. If I wanted to buy a player, he would always be prepared to pay half of the fee, on the condition the other Directors would provide the other half.  They were not always as willing as he was, though.”

Settled as he was to become there, events can develop in ways you never expect, and the first of these for John, came at the end of his second season, with the chance of a better job at Leigh, where he had always been remembered with great fondness and respect.

“I had an interview with Leigh, and it really looked as if I had got the job, but then within a few days, I suffered a brain haemorrhage and was rushed to hospital.   From that point onwards rugby became a much lower priority to me, as all I wanted to get myself back to full health.”

This, thankfully, turned out to be the case, and he was able to celebrate by returning to coaching, a few years later, with Wigan St Patrick’s second team, until yet another unexpected event brought another turn for the worse.

“Believe it or not I most foolishly tried to make an on-field come-back, until part way into the game I found myself coming round in the changing room, wishing I had never bothered.  That brought everything to its conclusion, and since then I just have contented myself watching games.  I do still have an interest in the young lads coming through and enjoy watching their progress onward and upward.”

Looking back on what has been a lengthy career covering three decades, and which surely must have been one of the most wide-ranging, covering as it did, not only a fine playing career at three top clubs, but also a considerable number of off-field roles of those which were operational at that time, it is still nevertheless his spells at Salford, which stand out in his memory.

“Salford was undoubtedly the reason I grew to love rugby league and will always be extremely special to me.  They were the best team by far at the time of my first spell there, and it was a such a pleasure and brought me so much pride to have played in it among all those great players who donned the Reds’ jersey back in those days.”

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 14 – JOHN TAYLOR (PT2)

Part 2  His Memories Of His First Time At Salford

John’s arrival at Salford coincided not only with his brother, Mark’s, coaching appointment to the ‘A’ team, but also coincided with the appointment of Cliff Evans as coach to the first team, whilst Les Bettinson was brought in as his assistant.

“The Salford team I had joined was absolutely fantastic, and I knew from the very outset that I had got a really big job on even to get into the first team.  I knew that I had to work with both the players and the coaches even to put myself in the position, ever, to play for them.

“As a half back, ahead of me, and in possession of the two first team half back positions, were Peter Banner (RLQSG#4) and Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), which was the most incredible challenge for both Dave Harris, who was my half back partner, and I to have to face. 

“In the early days of my time there I was being selected at fullback, centre, and even loose forward on one occasion, in order to see where I settled in best.  I think that that is a good thing to do anyway, because it gives you an insight as to the demands of each position.  If you are a winger, for example, you want that ball, but you want it at the right moment, and in the right conditions where you can make something of the chance.”

Despite, however, the seemingly almost impossible task of unseating the pair of future internationals, currently occupying the half back roles, John did make it into the ranks of the first team on many occasions, but one, in particular, he recalls with great pride.

“Owing to an injury to Kenny Gill, I played at stand-off in the Lancashire Cup Final, at Central Park, Wigan, when we lost 6-2 against Widnes.  It was a cracking game, despite the fact that there was only one try scored, which proved to be decisive in the result.

“After the game Kenny came up to me and congratulated me on my performance, which he claimed would keep me in the side for the following week.  I knew that I had played well but it was also pleasing to have had it acknowledged by him, so, right through the next weeks’ training sessions, I was hopeful of being called up to join the first team, but it never happened.

“That was really quite deflating because it had been such a great occasion the week before.  I had especially enjoyed being greeted by all the supporters when I arrived at the ground, asking whether I was playing, and being able to say that I was and then receiving their best wishes for it, all of which sets you up to give of your best.  It was, in fact, the pinnacle of my career at Salford, and I believe it should have got me an extended run in the team.”

There are many who might have been so discouraged at this turn of events that they might have done something they later regretted, such as demanding a transfer elsewhere.  John, however, is made of sterner stuff than that, and also with a love for the club, so he just continued to work hard at his own game, being rewarded with a number of other occasional call-ups.

“Just walking out onto that field with over ten thousand fans generating so much noise in such a relatively small space, gave you the greatest high you could imagine.  The greater the noise the more you wanted to do your best for them all, and that feeling would spread right through the team.  The greatest aim was always to entertain – even possibly above winning – because it was the entertainment value that people especially wanted.  Even on the occasions we ended up losing, we always felt that we could walk off with our heads held high.

“Going into the Social Club after the game, though, was for me rather overpowering and I can’t say I really enjoyed it probably because I find being the centre of attention difficult to handle.  We had a truly magnificent team, and to be part of that squad was the main thing of all for me, and I did eventually force my way into the game day squad on a regular basis, usually as substitute.

“I really felt an actual part of the team one night after training, when Chris Hesketh invited me to join them in their regular visit to a pub in Boothstown, which I quickly accepted.  When we arrived, I was absolutely astounded to find none other than George Best sitting there; I nearly passed out.  Not only that, but alongside him were Peter Reid and Mike Summerbee.  I just felt as though Chris had taken us to the stars.

“That was around the time we won the First Division Championship for the first time, in 1972/3, and I was involved in quite a few of the games throughout that season, even if it were only a case of being on the bench.

“Every time I got an opportunity to step up to first team level, I told myself that this time I was going to nail it and secure a regular place in the side, but it just didn’t happen.  Then, much to my dismay, in 1975, they signed another player, whom I thought an average union player.  Had he been anything more than that, it would not have upset me so much when he was promptly put into the first team.

“Consequently, I handed in a transfer request, and, within two weeks, Leigh had come in with an offer.  I signed for them and went there, after having been at The Willows for a period of five years.”

Catch up on previous parts.

Part 1  His Early Rugby Career

Part 2  His Memories Of His Time With With The Team Of Stars

Part 3  He Remembers His Former Salford Teammates

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

Part 1  His Early Rugby Career

Part 2  His Memories Of Playing At Salford

Part 3  He Remembers Some Of His Former Teammates

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

Part 2 – His Memories Of Playing At Salford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recency of interview, with oldest being given priority

Playing position

Playing span within twelve-year period 1968 – 1980

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

Pt 1 – Early Playing Career

Pt 2 – Memories of Playing For Salford

Pt 3 – Individual Teammates Especially Remembered

Pt 4 – Post Salford Rugby Career

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

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

1 Mike Coulman   

2 John Butler

3 Doug Davies

4 Peter Banner

PART 3

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

5 Ron Hill

6 Keith fielding

7 Bill Sheffield

8 Paul Charlton

9 Eric Prescott

10 Ken Gill

11 Alan Grice

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

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.”

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 | Kenny Gill joins the Heritage Team

Salford Red Devils’ former stand-off Kenny Gill is the sixth name in the ‘Willows Wall’ as part of Capricorn Security and Salford Red Devils Foundation’s Heritage Team initiative.
Gill was a part of the memorable 1970’s side – of whom make up the complete Heritage Team thus far – that won two Championship titles with the Red Devils. Overall, Gill appeared 275 times for the Red Devils, scoring 62 tries, kicking nine goals and one drop-goal tallying up to an impressive 205 points. He also played in three Lancashire Cup finals, a John Player final and a Floodlit Trophy final.
During his time with Salford, Gill would represent Great Britain on seven occasions and was involved in the 1974 Down Under and was selected in the 1975 and 1977 World Cups, scoring a try in the 1977 Rugby League World Cup final. Gill also played for Lancashire on seven occasions.
Gill would move to Widnes in February 1978 earning another Championship medal before then moving onto Barrow. However, the stand-off would finish his career with Salford after re-joining for £12,000. He would make his final appearance against Leeds at The Willows on April 27th, 1980.
Voting for scrum half will go live later today.
The full results are as follows:

  • Kenny Gill – 32.79%
  • Steve Blakeley – 23.28%
  • Gus Risman – 18.69%
  • Andrew Dunneman – 7.87%
  • Paul Shaw – 6.89%
  • Neil Baker – 4.59%
  • Daniel Holdsworth – 2.95%
  • Ken Richards – 1.64%
  • Cliff Beverley – 1.31%
  • John Butler – 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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