Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS SOME OF HIS FORMER SALFORD TEAMMATES
The strong camaraderie, which existed throughout his time at the Willows, manifested itself in many ways over the seasons.
“John Butler (RL Quality St Gang #2), Bill Sheffield (RL QSG #7) and I, all lived in St Helens, and we had all played for Saints before ending up at Salford, so we did all our travelling together, both to training and matches. We all got on really well together, and the friendships which developed between us have continued ever since.
“We would get to The Willows, on a Friday evening at around quarter to seven, in readiness for the seven-thirty kick off. With only around half an hour in which to get ready, you were out on the field before you had had time to think about what was happening.
“After the game you’d go back into the club and meet spectators who would come up to you for a chat. It was like a family, all with the same motive. All the players used to enjoy this, and they would all talk to people at some length, because the fans were always so complimentary.”
Unbelievably, despite all of this attention that they all received, Eric insists that none of them ever felt in any way like the stars, which was how all of the supporters truly regarded them.
“To us, it was just a case of each one had had a job to do, and we had just got it right. We didn’t claim to have anything more than that. The most crucial thing to us was that this was a team game, and everybody just got on well together. The involvement of the spectators, after the game, was just an extension of this. We even got requests to go along to amateur clubs or youth teams to present awards to their players, which was also really enjoyable.”
In common with many of his colleagues, Eric subscribes to the view that the redoubtable Colin Dixon was one of the mainstays of the team, at that time.
“Although he was without doubt a gentleman, he was an extremely good player. Whenever you looked at a newspaper report of any of our matches, Colin was always mentioned; that was how good he was.
“He was also good at explaining himself well. I was a bit more reticent in speaking up, but Colin had such an assuredness that he was always willing to put his suggestions forward for people to consider.”
Alongside Colin in the pack was his second-row partner, Mike Coulman (RLQSG #1), who was to move up to prop, shortly after Eric’s arrival on the Salford scene.
“Mike was a mountain of a player, and he was so powerful; his legs were immense. Opponents were totally in awe of him.”
Although fullback, Paul Charlton (RLQSG #8), returned to his native Cumbria a couple of seasons after Eric joined the club, they played together long enough for Eric to enjoy the opportunity of having such a skilful player in the side.
“His speed and his fitness were exceptional, and he could accelerate so quickly from an almost standing start. He was also really tough, as are many people from that part of the country. Tony Gourley, who played in the second row for us, was equally so.
“As a loose forward I would have to do a lot of covering across the field when we were defending, and so that provided me with many occasions on which I could do nothing but marvel at the way that Paul would seem to come from nowhere to effect last-ditch, try-saving tackles on wingers who were convinced that they were on their way to a score. He just had that off to a tee.”
Another remarkably tough individual was the centre who went on to captain not only the Salford side, but also Great Britain, Chris Hesketh,
“Chris’s defence was uncompromising. When he tackled a player, they knew about it, and he became a very good captain for us. He not only would talk to people to reassure them, ahead of the game, he would do what he could to help you out, and then give you encouragement during it. He certainly helped a lot of young players who came into the side. I would say he was the best captain I ever played under.
“His running style, with an incredible sense of balance, was such that it really confused opponents, and his hand-off was so powerful and effective that, all-in-all, it made him so difficult to tackle. He just seemed to have everything you could possibly want in a player.”
Alongside Chris in the three-quarter line were some of the fastest players in the game, including David Watkins, who had been club captain, immediately prior to Chris.
“David was of a very similar style, as captain, and really eloquent in the way he put his points across. Keith Fielding (RLQSG #6), on the wing, just had out and out speed, and he used to put himself in a position to get on the end of a break from the likes of John Butler, or myself, to score try after try.
“Maurice Richards, on the other wing, was a quite different style of player. He would just run at people and then, at the last minute, deploy his remarkable footwork to wrong-foot them and sweep past them.
“Everything on attack, though, used to come from Kenny Gill, at halfback. We were well off for stand-offs, because John Butler was an international stand-off, but he played at centre for us, which was really good because he could read a game extremely well. With so many former rugby union players in the side, he gave the team the stability that it needed at times of pressure, because, like Kenny, he had played league all his life.”
Another quite long-serving of the many second-row forwards of that period to play for Salford was John Knighton, who had come from rugby union into the ‘A’ team, and subsequently the first team, where he became a regular in the starting line-up.
“He was a really good player, was John, and, once he had secured an opportunity to play in the first team, he kept his place. He did a considerable amount of tackling and grafting, which often does not get recognised on the terraces as much as wingers racing through to score tries. As players, we just turn up to play in the way we are told, and then at the end of the week that is what we get paid for. So, we forwards had to make the chances to get the ball out to the backs for them to score tries.
“Out of the whole time I was there, the player with whom I was most friendly, was centre, Frank Wilson. We had known each other whilst we were at St Helens, and then rekindled our friendship, when Frank came to Salford in 1979. We played in the Centenary game together, against Widnes.”
Over his first period with the club, Eric played, in the main, under the direction of two coaches, Cliff Evans and then Les Bettinson.
“They were both extremely good coaches, and in much the same style as each other. Everything was kept interesting for us because they varied things so much. In addition, they were both extremely approachable and had a good relationship with the players. If something was going wrong, we would talk it out calmly and sensibly, there was none of the bawling and storming that used to go on with coaches at other clubs.
“When Les eventually decided to finish, Alex Murphy was one of a number of coaches who came in to try their hand with us. I was absolutely made up for the club that we had been able to get someone of his rugby league stature, and he had done so well with both Leigh and Warrington.”
Over the years he was in the game, Eric won a total of six medals, whilst with Salford, but the one he really wanted, which was, of course, the Challenge Cup winner’s medal, eluded him, until eventually he went to Wembley as a Widnes player and helped them to lift the cup, to get even that one.
The success of the team, throughout the seventies, in his view, was thanks, in part, to the great team spirit that existed throughout the whole squad.