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 11 – ALAN GRICE (PT 2)

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

As with all up and coming players, there were a number of hurdles which Alan Grice had to overcome, in his endeavours to become a professional player, before a contract of any kind was forthcoming.  These included playing a set number of trial games, and, in the run up to that, undertaking a series of training sessions, in preparation.   Alan’s induction into the team at his first training session involved a meeting with the renowned former Wigan, Widnes, and Great Britain prop, Frank Collier.

“He was a massive fellow, and he had an equally big reputation.  We were all sent off to start with a couple of laps round the pitch, but as we were about to start, he came up to me to inform me that it would be in my best interest to finish after he had done, as he didn’t want to be last.  Comparing the difference in our sizes, I was only too happy to oblige, and so contentedly jogged round behind him.

“He was a formidable player and had brought to the Salford team a presence on the field which ensured respect from every opponent, at that time.”

Alan’s last trial game was in the Final of the Lancashire Shield, against Swinton, at Swinton, which Salford unfortunately lost.

“Swinton were a good side in those days, but so too were Salford, which made it a really closely fought game.  Neutral venues were not used for ‘A’ team finals and so the home advantage Swinton had, helped them to their win.”

Playing in the Salford ‘A’ team in the late sixties and early seventies brought with it a status quite of its own, with Friday evening crowds often in excess of a thousand, because word soon got round that the rugby this side played was also of an extraordinarily high quality.  Indeed, the players were well incentivised to do so with a number of bonuses on offer, as encouragement.

Promotion to the first team came in his winning debut against Featherstone Rovers, at The Willows, in October 1970.

“It came earlier than I expected, but the  coach, Cliff Evans, spent a lot of time coaching individuals, and I had benefitted from that.  When we played our pre-season friendly, he had included a number of the newcomers, including me, in the squad.  He clearly had everything under control in everything he did.

“He was the thinking man’s coach because he knew exactly what he wanted.  He was a schoolteacher, by profession, and this showed through in the way he spoke to, and handled, his players.  He had been at Swinton, before coming to Salford, so he already had a good deal of coaching experience behind him, and that helped too.

“All the moves he taught us were ones he had worked at Swinton, but as other teams came to recognise them, they started to produce these themselves, only with different names by which to identify them.”

It was Cliff, in fact, who recognised Alan’s potential as a front rower.

“He was a little unsure, at the outset, as to which position best suited me, but after a short while decided that I would make a prop, and he selected me on the bench a few times, to gain experience, alongside Charlie Bott and, occasionally, Colin Dixon.

“Scrummaging was a great factor in the game, because back then scrums were keenly contested, and getting possession for you team at each one was absolutely vital.  Just how you stand and how you distribute your weight when packing could help your hooker get an earlier strike at the ball.  Similarly, the angle at which you packed down by turning slightly was another way of gaining him an advantage.”

“The really special thing about the Salford club was the friendliness of the whole place, and the good spirit among all the players, which always helped us in our games, and which also contributed to the longevity of our careers, either here, at Salford, or elsewhere.”

The role Alan undertook within the team was to be that of first receiver from dummy-half, at each play-the-ball.

“They had me as the link between the two half-backs.  Peter Banner (Rugby League’s Quality Street Gang #4) had an exceptionally long and accurate pass, and I then had the role of sending the ball on to Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), which gave him a bit of extra space he found of benefit in organising an attack.  David Watkins and Chris Hesketh, outside him, then, had even more space in which to operate, so that our backline became absolutely phenomenal.

”They had one particular move, known as ‘Torquay’, from which they scored every time.  It involved Charlton coming on a dummy run with the ball actually going out to either Watkins or Hesketh, via Gill, and ending up with the centre concerned going in, under the posts.”

Not that the forwards were totally excluded from the attacking moves, and Alan, himself, was involved in some of these.

“One was based on the back row pair of Mike Coulman (RLQSG#1) and Colin Dixon, who were used as foils in order to prise an opening for one of us props to go through.  Although everyone would have the right to call a move, it was always Gill who would have the final say in this.

It was however the bonhomie within the side which Alan feels was the most significant factor which cemented them together, as a group.

“We all did quite a lot of socialising together and enjoyed one another’s company, which was so beneficial to our success as a team.  Much of that was down to our Chairman, Brian Snape.  He was such a decent person, and whenever it turned out that we didn’t have a game, we would have a weekend’s training away at an hotel in Cheshire, Mottram Hall, which he owned.  I would room up with Mike Coulman, who worked for the Chairman.”

During his total of ten years at the club, Alan was involved in many of the successes of that period, not least winning of the Lancashire Cup, in 1972, the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in ’73, and the First Division Championship in both 1973/4 and ‘75/6.

“I still have all the medals from those occasions.  We were unlucky not to have won more, because we played in four Lancashire Cup Finals, but won only the one.  We were really close in all the others, with us ending up only a couple of points behind the opposition.

“One of them was against Widnes which they won 6-4, at Wigan, and even though they beat us, we played really well that day.  Some days you just don’t get the luck you need to win through.

“The games which stood out most to me were the two Floodlit Cup Finals, with a replay away at Warrington on an absolutely dreadful night, after we had fought out a nil-nil draw at The Willows the week before.   Even though no-one scored in that first match, it was a great game, with the tackling of both teams being extremely high in calibre.

“Warrington were certainly favourites for the replay, because they had a really good pack with the likes of Kevin Ashcroft hooking for them, which was always going to ensure them a good supply of possession.

“I remember standing outside the ground with the water level rising and rising, quite convinced it would be called off, but then Eddie Waring walked in and told us we needed to get changed because the game was going to be on.  It was only played because it was on TV.

“It was alright for the first half hour, but after that it was just a quagmire.  It was very much a forwards game in those conditions and the forwards tackled every bit as well as they had done the week before.  We were fortunate that we scored fairly early in the game, after Watkins had made a good break, because after that you just couldn’t run on it.”

As something of a break from normal league and cup fixtures the Reds were often chosen to play warm up games against touring sides.

“I really enjoyed playing against the tourists, and we had some really good matches against them.  In one of them New Zealand were ahead 28-0 at half time but we ended up winning 30-28.   Then on another occasion, we played against the Ausie touring team, and they won it with a try in the last couple of minutes.

“Those games were at a different level from the norm, being so much faster and much more intense, not to mention our coming up against the strength of the individuals involved.

“For the whole of the time I was at the club I thoroughly enjoyed playing for Salford.  It was such a nice environment with really great guys who were fabulous players, and because of that we were able to win so many matches.  We would no sooner come to an end of one winning run having unexpectedly lost to somebody, than we would start yet another possibly even longer run still.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG – KEN GILL (PT3)

Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS SOME OF HIS FORMER SALFORD TEAMMATES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 – HIS MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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