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 (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.

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