David Clegg Speaks With Salford Foundation’s John Blackburn, Following Their Highly Successful Willows’ Memory Night
It is now five and a half years since the then Salford City Reds vacated their old ground, The Willows, home for a hundred and ten years, but last Sunday night, those years were rolled back as fans, officials, and former players relived those eleven decades of history, in an evening of unashamed nostalgia, in the Lowry Quays Theatre.
The event was the brainchild of the Salford Foundation’s longstanding servant, and former player himself, John Blackburn, whose inspiration for the scheme to recreate the experiences, enjoyment, and legacy from having been at The Willows, came from his own love of the club and his involvement with it throughout his lifetime.
“It was a part of everyone’s lives for over a hundred years,” insists the driving force behind the project, “and that includes myself, having gone there watching as a boy with my father, when I was five years of age, meeting my wife there, having both my twenty first and wedding reception there, and holding my mother’s funeral there, so it was clearly a big factor in my life, just as it undoubtedly was for many other people.
“I felt that there needed to be some form of legacy to mark just what the venue had meant to so many, so we applied for a grant from the National Heritage Lottery and were awarded forty-two thousand pounds to instigate the project,” he recall.
The fact that, on the day, the whole event clashed with the appearance of the Salford Red Devils in the Challenge Cup Semi-Final, somewhat overshadowed it, and a number of elements which had been arranged for during the day, sadly, had to be dropped. Even the attendance at the evening event was affected a little, but, nevertheless, a more than impressive number made the effort to support both aspects of the club’s life.
“Over three hundred and fifty people attended, ” he reports, “whilst I have had an untold number of people getting in touch with me to apologise for not being able to come, and many of them are now wanting to know whether they can get copies of the film.”
The first part of the evening was, in fact, the showing of this film, which included interviews with many significant figures from the past, including Chris Hesketh, Maurice Richards, Andy Burgess, Ian Blease, and Ian Watson, all of whom shared with us their memories of playing there.
“The requirements of the funding were such that besides being a history of the Willows, it should also incorporate elements of social history, which we provided by means of interviews with the local public,” John explains. “We also included music pertinent to the various periods of our time there.
“It was important that we got a good balance within it, and it was far from containing only factual information.”
This was helped to some extent by the interesting variety of people who contributed with quite distinctive memories of their own. Club historian, Graham Morris, who had also been club secretary for a spell during the sixties, was obviously a fount of knowledge of many aspects of the internal machinations of Salford RLFC.
Similarly, Paul Snape, son of former chairman, Keith Snape, and also nephew of our inimitable chairman of the sixties, G Brian Snape, who, over a decade, oversaw the transformation of a side struggling at the foot of the table into a top class outfit, which was rather scathingly, but most flatteringly, referred to as The Quality Street Gang. His perspective from within the family was of utmost interest.
There was also previously-seen footage involving our long serving chairman and benefactor, John Wilkinson, who, although he was unable to attend on the night, has since had the opportunity to view something which encapsulates over thirty years of his life.
As a professional piece of work, the whole film was extremely good, having variety, and proceeding at pace, in order to include the many aspects involved.
After this relatively passive opening for everyone to the event, the rest of the evening was rather more hands on, as all were invited to relive a seventies evening at the Willows.
“From the sixties onwards, a large part of the history of the club was The Willows Variety Centre,” John reminds us, “and a number of various artists, such as Gary Barlow and Lisa Stansfield started their careers there, whilst many big stars also performed there.
“For many people in the north-west, the Variety Centre was a venue in its own right, with their having little knowledge about the rugby side of things, so we decided to try and recreate a show which would invoke memories from a lot of different people.
“We tried to surround ourselves with the best people in order to put on a show that was a replication of a night out in the sixties and seventies. Danny Doherty, another member of our staff, was very heavily involved in working towards the event, and his father, Charlie Henry took on the role of lead singer in a tribute band to The Drifters. We also used one of the comperes from back then, Pete McClaine to introduce the show which also featured, crooner, Mike Sherman, and comedian, Austin Knight.”
Many people will remember a pair, Brian & Michael, who had a hit, entitled ‘Matchstalk Men’, towards the end of the seventies, even appearing on Top of the Pops singing same. They now front a full group calling themselves Matchstalk Men, and they too added to the nostalgia of the evening.
“Every night at The Willows, in those days, involved Bingo,” John reminisces, “so we had a variation on that, called Stand Up Bingo. By the end of the evening, everyone was dancing in the aisles to the Drifters’ ‘Under The Boardwalk’, and instead of finishing at 10.30, as planned, the Lowry had to insist on us leaving once it got to eleven o’clock, as their licence for playing music, for the evening, expired at that point.
“Since then we have had a fantastic response from those who attended, all congratulating us on the whole event.”