Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD
As with all up and coming players, there were a number of hurdles which Alan Grice had to overcome, in his endeavours to become a professional player, before a contract of any kind was forthcoming. These included playing a set number of trial games, and, in the run up to that, undertaking a series of training sessions, in preparation. Alan’s induction into the team at his first training session involved a meeting with the renowned former Wigan, Widnes, and Great Britain prop, Frank Collier.
“He was a massive fellow, and he had an equally big reputation. We were all sent off to start with a couple of laps round the pitch, but as we were about to start, he came up to me to inform me that it would be in my best interest to finish after he had done, as he didn’t want to be last. Comparing the difference in our sizes, I was only too happy to oblige, and so contentedly jogged round behind him.
“He was a formidable player and had brought to the Salford team a presence on the field which ensured respect from every opponent, at that time.”
Alan’s last trial game was in the Final of the Lancashire Shield, against Swinton, at Swinton, which Salford unfortunately lost.
“Swinton were a good side in those days, but so too were Salford, which made it a really closely fought game. Neutral venues were not used for ‘A’ team finals and so the home advantage Swinton had, helped them to their win.”
Playing in the Salford ‘A’ team in the late sixties and early seventies brought with it a status quite of its own, with Friday evening crowds often in excess of a thousand, because word soon got round that the rugby this side played was also of an extraordinarily high quality. Indeed, the players were well incentivised to do so with a number of bonuses on offer, as encouragement.
Promotion to the first team came in his winning debut against Featherstone Rovers, at The Willows, in October 1970.
“It came earlier than I expected, but the coach, Cliff Evans, spent a lot of time coaching individuals, and I had benefitted from that. When we played our pre-season friendly, he had included a number of the newcomers, including me, in the squad. He clearly had everything under control in everything he did.
“He was the thinking man’s coach because he knew exactly what he wanted. He was a schoolteacher, by profession, and this showed through in the way he spoke to, and handled, his players. He had been at Swinton, before coming to Salford, so he already had a good deal of coaching experience behind him, and that helped too.
“All the moves he taught us were ones he had worked at Swinton, but as other teams came to recognise them, they started to produce these themselves, only with different names by which to identify them.”
It was Cliff, in fact, who recognised Alan’s potential as a front rower.
“He was a little unsure, at the outset, as to which position best suited me, but after a short while decided that I would make a prop, and he selected me on the bench a few times, to gain experience, alongside Charlie Bott and, occasionally, Colin Dixon.
“Scrummaging was a great factor in the game, because back then scrums were keenly contested, and getting possession for you team at each one was absolutely vital. Just how you stand and how you distribute your weight when packing could help your hooker get an earlier strike at the ball. Similarly, the angle at which you packed down by turning slightly was another way of gaining him an advantage.”
“The really special thing about the Salford club was the friendliness of the whole place, and the good spirit among all the players, which always helped us in our games, and which also contributed to the longevity of our careers, either here, at Salford, or elsewhere.”
The role Alan undertook within the team was to be that of first receiver from dummy-half, at each play-the-ball.
“They had me as the link between the two half-backs. Peter Banner (Rugby League’s Quality Street Gang #4) had an exceptionally long and accurate pass, and I then had the role of sending the ball on to Kenny Gill (RLQSG#10), which gave him a bit of extra space he found of benefit in organising an attack. David Watkins and Chris Hesketh, outside him, then, had even more space in which to operate, so that our backline became absolutely phenomenal.
”They had one particular move, known as ‘Torquay’, from which they scored every time. It involved Charlton coming on a dummy run with the ball actually going out to either Watkins or Hesketh, via Gill, and ending up with the centre concerned going in, under the posts.”
Not that the forwards were totally excluded from the attacking moves, and Alan, himself, was involved in some of these.
“One was based on the back row pair of Mike Coulman (RLQSG#1) and Colin Dixon, who were used as foils in order to prise an opening for one of us props to go through. Although everyone would have the right to call a move, it was always Gill who would have the final say in this.
It was however the bonhomie within the side which Alan feels was the most significant factor which cemented them together, as a group.
“We all did quite a lot of socialising together and enjoyed one another’s company, which was so beneficial to our success as a team. Much of that was down to our Chairman, Brian Snape. He was such a decent person, and whenever it turned out that we didn’t have a game, we would have a weekend’s training away at an hotel in Cheshire, Mottram Hall, which he owned. I would room up with Mike Coulman, who worked for the Chairman.”
During his total of ten years at the club, Alan was involved in many of the successes of that period, not least winning of the Lancashire Cup, in 1972, the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in ’73, and the First Division Championship in both 1973/4 and ‘75/6.
“I still have all the medals from those occasions. We were unlucky not to have won more, because we played in four Lancashire Cup Finals, but won only the one. We were really close in all the others, with us ending up only a couple of points behind the opposition.
“One of them was against Widnes which they won 6-4, at Wigan, and even though they beat us, we played really well that day. Some days you just don’t get the luck you need to win through.
“The games which stood out most to me were the two Floodlit Cup Finals, with a replay away at Warrington on an absolutely dreadful night, after we had fought out a nil-nil draw at The Willows the week before. Even though no-one scored in that first match, it was a great game, with the tackling of both teams being extremely high in calibre.
“Warrington were certainly favourites for the replay, because they had a really good pack with the likes of Kevin Ashcroft hooking for them, which was always going to ensure them a good supply of possession.
“I remember standing outside the ground with the water level rising and rising, quite convinced it would be called off, but then Eddie Waring walked in and told us we needed to get changed because the game was going to be on. It was only played because it was on TV.
“It was alright for the first half hour, but after that it was just a quagmire. It was very much a forwards game in those conditions and the forwards tackled every bit as well as they had done the week before. We were fortunate that we scored fairly early in the game, after Watkins had made a good break, because after that you just couldn’t run on it.”
As something of a break from normal league and cup fixtures the Reds were often chosen to play warm up games against touring sides.
“I really enjoyed playing against the tourists, and we had some really good matches against them. In one of them New Zealand were ahead 28-0 at half time but we ended up winning 30-28. Then on another occasion, we played against the Ausie touring team, and they won it with a try in the last couple of minutes.
“Those games were at a different level from the norm, being so much faster and much more intense, not to mention our coming up against the strength of the individuals involved.
“For the whole of the time I was at the club I thoroughly enjoyed playing for Salford. It was such a nice environment with really great guys who were fabulous players, and because of that we were able to win so many matches. We would no sooner come to an end of one winning run having unexpectedly lost to somebody, than we would start yet another possibly even longer run still.”