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.”

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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