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 – 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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