TRIBUTE TO MIKE COULMAN

Everyone at Salford Red Devils is most deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our magnificent, former second row forward, and British Lions Rugby Union forward, Mike Coulman. Back in September 2018, Mike became the first of thus far eleven players of the flamboyant late sixties late seventies Salford team to share their memories of playing for the club, at that time, In tribute to his outstanding contribution to Salford, in a number of capacities, we reproduce here an extract from the finished article, first published 28th October 2018.

Mike takes up the story a few months after his return from a highly successful international rugby union tour of South Africa, with the British Lions:

“I was at home, washing my car on a lovely sunny day, when a Jenson Interceptor Coupe, containing a person who turned out to be the Salford Chairman, drew up at my home,” he relates.   “He didn’t immediately mention signing for Salford, but instead invited me down to watch a couple of games.”

So, a few days later, Mike could have been found at The Willows, gaining his first experience of a rugby league match.  One extremely important catalyst in his willingness to agree to doing so, and then consequently proceeding to sign for the Red Devils, was that he knew that the club’s captain was none other than Welsh Rugby Union International half back, David Watkins, who, it turns out, had been instrumental in shaping Brian Snape’s initial overture.

On his very first visit, Mike found that, not only was the game quite different from union, but so, too, was the whole environment in which he found himself.

“Stafford is a very rural area,” he points out, “and the club ground consists of a couple of acres of land which had been donated to the club, but it had little in the way of facilities, other than a small clubhouse and bar.  In contrast, The Willows was in a residential, urban area, with The Willows Variety Centre at the hub of everything that was happening.  It was all highly professional and impressive, and I quickly became keen to become a part of it.”

The only drawback was that, as a policeman, he was not able to have another job alongside that, so, having made his decision to make the move, it was also going to involve not only the end to his rugby union career, but also a complete change of lifestyle involving a move up north to live in Marple, and taking up a new career working in The Variety Centre.

His first match came immediately after making the change of code, away at the old Athletic Stadium, former home of Rochdale Hornets, in a Division 1 league fixture.

“Nowadays, you would have been required to have put in at least a week’s worth of training,” he considers, “but for me, back then, I was put straight into the team.   Although we were professional to a degree, we were not as professional as things are now.”

It was in this game that he donned, for the first time, the number eleven jersey which was to become his own, until making the move up front to open-side prop, in the mid-seventies.

“I was always number eleven, because that was the second-row position on the blindside of the scrum,” he explains.  “Obviously, it was a very steep learning curve for me.  I just went through the game being told to stand here, and then there, and when the ball did eventually come to me, I just had to go forward and make as much progress as a I possibly could.

“It took around a quarter of the season for me to begin to feel settled into the game and begin holding my own in the team.”

His arrival at the club coincided with that of a player, who, not only was to become a very close personal friend, but who also, as his fellow second rower in those early days, was to become Mike’s mentor and guiding light, died-in-the-wool rugby league international, Colin Dixon.

“He was my best pal throughout my whole time with Salford,” Mike confides, and, pointing to a small tree in the middle of his lawn, continues, “I planted that in memory of him.  That is his.”

So close did the two become that Mike attributes much of his later success directly to Colin.

“He was such a great help, not so much for anything he said, but in his actions.  I always kept my eye on him and noted the things he did, and then tried them out myself.  I just owe so much to him.”

Part of the arrangements under which Mike came to Salford was that during the week he would work for Chairman, Brian Snape, in his Stanneylands restaurant in Manchester city centre, where he started to learn, in considerable detail, everything connected with the catering industry.  This was to stand him in good stead ahead of a flourishing career throughout his life, in this area.

“I went on to work for Whitbreads, for whom I managed twenty sites, some with hotels.  That carried great responsibility as there was well over a million pounds tied up in them all.  The move from union to league totally transformed my life.”

Not only that, he also found that once he had settled into the game, there were aspects of it which he much preferred to rugby union, particularly the high level of professionalism throughout the sport.

“I found rugby union far more sociable, but lacking professionalism in terms of the game, and, as a player, you want to be able to progress and develop to the best you can be.  I certainly have no regrets whatsoever about having made the move, although the three months British Lions Rugby Union tour still remains my lifetime’s highlight.”

Nevertheless, there were highlights still to be gained in his newly found affection for rugby league, starting in 1969 with what was destined to be Salford’s first post-war visit to Wembley, which remarkably he can remember in detail.

“The game went by in a flash but I didn’t play well at all.  Certainly not as well as I think I should have done.  I didn’t do enough tackling, probably because the big strength of my game was my physical prowess in carrying the ball, but even in this I felt I lacked aggression, on the day,” he ruefully reflects.  “I just would have liked to have played better than I did.”

Wembley is a hard place to go to and then to come away with nothing, as it is always going to be for fifty percent of the protagonists.

“I never liked losing any match, but you just have to be resilient, put it all in the past, and then turn your attention to the next season, which thankfully is what all the lads did,” he comments.

And indeed, with two First Division Championship successes in 1973/4 and again in 1975/6, to come, there were still successes, aplenty, awaiting him.

“The longevity of that Championship Trophy, coupled with the style with which we won it, on those two occasions, made it very special to us all.  To win it twice, and so close in time, was absolutely marvellous,” is his wholly justifiable assessment.

“We played with a great deal of skill and considerable guile in that period.  I scored a hundred and forty tries in my time with Salford, most of which came during that particular period of the early to mid-seventies, and which I consider was the peak of our time together as a team.”

In sharp contrast, he readily acknowledges that they failed to do themselves justice in the one-off rugby which is the Challenge Cup.  Every year, the atmosphere around The Willows was electric with the anticipation that, that year, they would be getting to Wembley, which was not only every player’s dream, but also every fan’s – only for these hopes to be dashed by ball number twenty-three, without any variation  from season to season, being drawn out for a second or third round journey to West Yorkshire, to face might of Leeds, at Headingly, or Castleford, at Wheldon Rd.

This, however, was the only blip in what was an exceptional period of the club’s history.  And so it should have been with the star studded side which they were able to raise, week in and week out, for, as so often happens with a team brimming with talent, injuries were few and far between.

Indeed, pace was the ingredient throughout the whole team, with Mike himself and Colin Dixon, in the second row possessing the pace of any back to score long distance tries during which they would draw further and further away from their chasing opponents before invariably grounding under the posts.

As the season’s passed, and the years started to catch up on them all, changes within the squad and around team selection understandably, took place.  For Mike, this led to a change of position, with his making the move up front to prop. In 1977.

“Throughout my rugby union career, I had always played at prop, and during my time in the second row, it had always been in the back of mind that I would one day return there, which I did for my final three seasons.”

Obviously, as certain players reached retirement age, and others moved on to join other clubs, a gradual dip in performance and results started to become apparent.  For Mike though, there were other problems with which to contend.

“It was about that time I started to develop injury problems with my knees.  I started to miss more and more games, and eventually had to undergo surgery.”

Nevertheless, what he achieved as a player was absolutely outstanding, with, most remarkably, his attaining an international cap, at every level from schoolboy, right through to full international level, in both codes.

He even attained a most unusual international experience, alongside the rest of the squad, playing in a friendly against the French, in a Salford jersey, down in the south of France.

“We travelled down by private jet, and the whole trip down there was a most enjoyable experience, even though we were on the receiving end of a hefty defeat.”

His proudest claim to fame of all, however, came in what was the third and deciding test match against the Australians, in The Sydney Cricket Ground, when he got the better with a perhaps questionable tackle on one of the opposing Australian forwards (thought to be the formidable Artie Beetson), who was left lying prostrate on the ground, for a number of minutes.

“The referee warned me that if he didn’t get up, I would be walking up the tunnel.”

Fortunately for Mike, the Australian medical staff were up to the challenge, and Mike duly remained on field to contribute further to the remainder of the game. IIt was, nevertheless, most out of character for the usually calm and compliant Coulman, who in this day and age, would have suffered a spell in the sinbin, at least, had things not been so different then.

“I was geed up purely by his stature.  Also, the fact that we were playing on an Australian cricket ground, which was rock hard, because unlike Headingley, where they are two separate pitches, this was all on the same area, and I was determined to make an impression.”

With so many of his Salford teammates in the Great Britain side – indeed the Red Devils commanded almost the whole of the backline, with Mike and Colin Dixon pairing up in the back row – playing for his country seemed little different than any away game for Salford, particularly when they found themselves staying in the same hotels used by the Red Devils.

After having played under various coaches, 1982 saw Mike, by then in his fourteenth year, appointed to the position of player-coach, before eventually hanging up his boots to concentrate on coaching. Not that he looks back on his coaching career with any great satisfaction, as he did not really find himself best cut out for the position.

“I simply am not an aggressive person, and I do feel that that was the problem throughout my whole rugby career. I always felt that it was best just to play each other without ever having the desire to inflict physical harm on anyone. Consequently, in the role of coaching, that required degree os aggression was lacking.

The playing career of a professional sportsman is exceptionally short, with most rugby league players managing a maximum of ten years at the top, but Mike found that the reputation and aura he had built up in the local area, during his days in the red, number eleven, jersey have followed and stayed with him throughout his life, and, that he then has had more time to return to  the club for occasional games, where he has been overwhelmed by the respect and bonhomie he has received.

“The number of people who come up to me wanting to speak and shake hands is unbelievable, and it makes me feel so proud that I could almost cry.”

Those of us who know him, or have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing him play for the team, would undoubtedly respond by saying that this is merely fitting respect for a truly great man who throughout his playing days, and beyond, has been an absolute credit to rugby league, rugby union, Salford, and himself.

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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