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

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 11 – ALAN GRICE (PT 3)

Part 3 –HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES AND COACHES

Of all the star players within the Salford side throughout the seventies, the first player Alan picks out, to pay tribute to, was another prop forward he played alongside in his early days, Terry Ogden.

“Terry had been a regular in the first team, and had propped, along with Charlie Bott, at Wembley, but he had started to play in the reserves by the time I arrived.  He had always been a very clever ball handler, and had lost none of this skill, even then.  He was an extremely likeable and amiable guy, and helped me a lot with various aspects of playing in the loose.

“He showed me how much easier it was if you ran at the outside individual, in a group of three or four players, because you could rotate and spin round in the tackle to get the ball out to someone coming up on the outside.  I’d always run at the middle one, before he drew this to my notice.”

Fullback, Paul Charlton (RLQSG#8), impressed Alan not only with high level of skill and talent, but also with his incredible fitness level.

“On one occasion, he arrived having run all the way there to then take part in the session.  He would have run home, too, but he had taken a bit of a knock in the match before, so I ended up having to drive him home.”

Paul was a joiner by trade, and his fitness level, showed itself to Alan, even through that.

“He used to get me work on occasions, but when he did I always ended up having to explain to the bosses that there was no way I could work at the rate that Paul could produce things, because that was all down to his incredible fitness.  I think he could have stayed at Salford a bit longer than he did, and he would have continued to contribute so much to the team, had he done so.”

Both Paul, and prop Graham McKay, were Cumbrians by birth, but both apparently had different attitudes to their native county.

“Paul absolutely loved Cumbria, and to a certain extent pined to be back there, whereas Graham really had no fondness for it at all.   It was the lure of his home county that was the catalyst in Paul’s returning back there, so soon.”

There was no doubt in his mind just where the absolute strength within the team lay.

“Colin Dixon was incredible.  He could side-step off either foot, had great pace, and considerable strength – everything you would want in a rugby player.  He and Mike Coulman (RLQSG#1) were a tremendous pairing in the second row.  Mike, for his size, was incredibly fast and his size and speed together made him almost unstoppable at times.

“We were also fortunate to have two really good half-backs in Peter Banner (RLQSG#4) and Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), and then later, Gill partnering with Stevie Nash, though that did not work quite as well as had been expected.  Steve was more like an extra forward, whereas Banner had been a better passer of the ball, and as one of the players who was used as first receiver, I knew first hand just how good he was.”

The one problem area throughout the period was that of hooker, and there was a succession of players brought in, in the hope of solving the problem.  Probably the most successful of these was Peter Walker, but even his tenure was brought to a premature conclusion by injury.

“The most important part of a hooker’s role was getting the ball from the scrum, and Peter was first rate at this, with a strike rate of well over fifty percent.  Then out of the blue we lost him after he had a very bad leg break, caused by somebody stamping on it, as he put it across a scrum, whilst trying to rake the ball.  It was damaged so badly that it finished his career.

“Ellis Devlin was a great player, particularly in the loose.  He was a quick passer and fast runner, and now that raking the ball is no longer the vital part of the hooking role that it was back then, Ellis would have been absolutely outstanding in this day and age; the modern game would have really suited him.

”From that point on, there was a succession of players brought in but they seldom lasted more than a couple of seasons, and at one point even I was put there to fill the gap, which I was happy to do, and did quite well in winning possession for us in my first match.”

It was not only the quality of the players which was so instrumental in the success of the team, but also the quality of the coaches, and Alan was fortunate enough to have played under a number of them, including some former teammates, including Chris Hesketh and Colin Dixon.  From all of these, however, it was Cliff Evans, whom he picks out as being the real standout leader among them all.

“Cliff was a marvellous coach who understood rugby inside out.  He always instilled into the players the importance of supporting the player on the break.  He always expected it of both wingers in particular to be up with everyone of these.

“He would draw up the outline plan of a scripted move but would then leave it up to the players to take it on from there.  Kenny Gill would always add his ideas into it and would also come up with a few of his own because he was really good at spotting weaknesses in the opposition’s line, such as a defender limping back to get into position.

“Cliff was particularly good at accepting information from other people around him and that was crucial in his getting the team to gel well together.  On my promotion to the first team, he arranged for Charlie Bott to sit with me on the bench, in order for me to gain his insight and greater experience for my role in the team.

“Charlie had been an international with Great Britain and was a mine of information as he had been packing down all his life.  I found everything he said extremely helpful, and it was like having my own mentor alongside me.

“As a consequence of that, he took me under his wing and tried to look after me.  He even tried to get the pair of us the additional bonuses which all the contracted players used to get, though without much success on that particular occasion.

“He emigrated to Australia in 1971, but in the six months prior to his going, he left his profession of metallurgist, and worked on the building of the brand new, North Stand.  Then in his final Salford game, against Halifax, in the last match of the 1970-71 season, he took the final conversion of the afternoon from in front of the posts, to score the only goal of his career, by kicking it over bar into the stand he had just spent six months working on.”

One player whom it could be easy to overlook is still remembered fondly by Alan.

“Tony Colloby had made his name in the mid-sixties, as a centre, with first Whitehaven and then Workington before moving to Blackpool.  When, our right winger, Bill Burgess, was side-lined with a shoulder injury Tony was drafted in to take over from him, which he did for a couple of seasons until Keith Fielding was signed.  Tony was a really talented player, who showed he could adapt to virtually any position in the backs, and he stayed with us for a further couple of seasons before going to Barrow.

“He was part of a backline that would more than match any other, either then or since.  Maurice Richards was such a talented winger and rugby player, who could make a try out of very little, while Keith Fielding (RLQSG#6) was the fastest in the game.

“On one occasion, I was questioned by an uncle of mine as to why I had passed up a try scoring opportunity by giving the ball to Keith to score.  He very quickly understood my reasoning when I pointed out to him that Keith had grounded the ball under the posts, whereas I would have had to struggle to have got over in the corner.

“Centres, Chris Hesketh and David Watkins both had spells as our captain, with Chris going on to become captain of the international side.  As a centre, he was quite unconventional and consequently really difficult to defend against, while David was just a star, wherever he played though centre was possibly his best position also.”

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