Author: David Clegg

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: CASTLEFORD V SALFORD | BETFRED CHALLENGE CUP QUARTER-FINAL

The pain of any loss in a sudden-death cup-tie is bad enough when one side has clearly been the better of the two, but when there is virtually nothing to choose between either of them then it is considerably worse for those on the losing side.  The parity of the two teams in Saturday’s Betfred Challenge Cup Quarter-Final was underlined by the 18-18 draw at the end of eighty minutes, before moving into Golden Point extra time.

To lose in those circumstances is really heart-breaking, and takes so much longer to get over than the average, run-of-the-mill, league game.  For the more neutral-minded general public, however, this must have been the most riveting and enjoyable spectacle – a game balanced on a knife edge, with cut and thrust, thrills and spills, fifty-fifty decisions, an abundance of ifs and buts, the momentum swaying from one side to the other, and the result in doubt right up to that Golden Point drop-goal, one and a half minutes into extra time.

It takes two good teams to make a really good game, but this was a great game which did rugby league a world of good being as it was on national television, and everyone connected with the club can take great pride in our team’s contribution to such an excellent evening’s entertainment.

Not that it looked that way in the early stages, with Salford players really struggling to cope with holding onto possession.  With the ball being lost in the earliest of stages in several sets, it did give the impression that they have not, as yet, fully come to terms with the new laws on ball stealing, which are significantly more relaxed.

As if to make up for this, it was Salford, who, on their first real foray into the Castleford twenty metre area, opened the scoring, when Harvey Livett continued his scoring run by falling onto a loose ball in Castleford’s in-goal area, after having contested against Derrell Olpherts for possession in the air, from Kevin Brown’s high kick.  He also continued his one hundred percent goal kicking record for not only this, but the two subsequent Red Devils’ tries.

Indeed. It was both teams’ ability to cross their opponents’ line, just when it looked as though that was not to happen, which kept spectators on the edge of their lounge seats.  Twice Salford took the lead in the first half only to fall behind for the first time, 18-12, midway through the second half.

It has often been said that it is not how you start it is how you finish, that really matters, and for those who witnessed the Salford onslaught on the Castleford line and defence, in the final quarter, will swear testimony.  The never-say-die Red Devils launched wave after wave of attacks which had the Tigers back-pedalling, and stretched to capacity.  The kicking game, which had been excellent throughout, was now matched by slick, confident handling skills.

Twice Salford players crossed the Tigers’ line, and a further twice kicks into the in-goal area were within inches of bringing about a score, only for each to be ruled out by the combined adjudications of the match officials.  Some will feel some sympathy for the Yorkshire side’s being twice reduced to twelve men, and very briefly eleven, but, in truth, it was as a result of the tremendous pressure under which their whole team was under, which led to their indiscretions.

It has been said that the end-of-set charge-down, from the speedy Paul McShane, was the determining factor in the whole game, but there was possibly an even greater one, which came forty-five seconds before the half-time hooter sounded.  Castleford crossed for an equalising six-pointer, against a tiring defence which failed to number up and snuff out the attack, unlike the magnificent efforts that had nullified the Tigers for so much of the game.

Had Salford retaken the field for the second forty, still six points in the lead, the likelihood of extra time might never have materialised.  And that tiring defence was, one must assume, as a consequence of all the extra tackling forced upon them, as a result of all the aforementioned lost possession, in that opening quarter.

If only the magnificent Lee Mossop’s seventy-ninth minute try had come several minutes earlier by means of one of those near misses, there would have been enough time for the momentum, which they had generated, to take them over for a winning score before the final hooter.  As it was, the break in play, prior to the onset of extra time, served to bring some respite to the beleaguered Castleford side, affording them the opportunity to regroup and also retake the field with a full complement, including the deadly kicking boot of Gareth O’Brien.

It was not to be, sadly, but knowledge of all the neutrals whom they must surely have won round with such a spirited, dedicated, and enthusiastic performance, will enable all Salford supporters to hold their heads high and celebrate their team’s exceptional progress and improvement over the past seven days, which oh so nearly turned the tables on the team which had beaten them last week with much greater comfort.

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: SALFORD V CASTLEFORD

In what was a considerably improved first half performance, compared with other league matches so far this season, the Red Devils went head-to-head with the visiting Tigers for the first forty minutes, to be a matter of only seconds away from leaving the field, at half time, on equal terms.

Throughout the whole of that first period the two teams were so evenly matched that the whole game had been an arm wrestle from the start, with first one team and then the other briefly gaining the ascendency.  In order to do that, the Salford side showed from the outset the confidence and assuredness in their structures and systems which had come to the fore in the final quarter of their previous match against Leigh.

Indeed, it was Salford who settled first and had the better of the opening exchanges, with hooker Andy Ackers, being stopped centimetres from the visitors’ line, as a result of good, wide, expansive attacking rugby which had Castleford scrambling back to cover the danger.

If only he had managed to score at that moment, not only would it have provided the whole team with a fillip and injection of even greater confidence, it would have prevented the setback which followed.  A high Castleford kick at the end of the next set saw fullback, Elliot Kear, put under considerable pressure by Derrell Olpherts, and a Tigers try was the result.

A few weeks ago, the Salford heads would have dropped, but things have progressed significantly since then, and on this occasion, within four minutes the scores had been levelled, and four minutes after that the Red Devils had taken the lead.  Kallum Watkins it was, who, in similar vein to Olpherts, climbed above the Castleford defenders to take the ball and put Kevin Brown over by the posts.

Fine approach work, from the restart, set up a good attacking position and a strong run by skipper, Lee Mossop, gave hooker, Andy Ackers, sight of the line and he duly squirmed over from the play-the-ball.  Harvey Livett, who had been moved to left centre for the game, then underlined his invaluable versatility by taking over goal-kicking duties for the afternoon, which he did with a hundred percent success rate.

Indeed, another score was soon in the offing again following slick handling, but this time Brown was caught in two minds with too many feasible options, and a wayward pass, to nobody, rolled harmlessly into touch, and with it went the Salford momentum for a time.  Castleford were able to regroup, and five minutes later, drew level, at 12-12.

From that point, defences, which had been rather suspect on both sides, were tightened, and a lengthy, protracted arm-wrestle ensued, throughout which the Salford defence proved to be the measure of that of their visitors.  Not that it was a complete stalemate, because the Red Devils had another most promising line-break thwarted by a somewhat marginal forward pass from Watkins to Tui Lolohea, who was in the clear.

It would have been no more than the Red Devils deserved, had they gone in at the interval in the lead.  Drawing would have been acceptable, but what they really did not deserve was to finish the half in arrears.  Students of the game will frequently point to the demoralising impact that conceding a score either side of half time can have on a team, and the overall result.  Unforced errors can also be added to that, especially if they lead to scores.

With less than a minute left on the clock, an adjudged lost ball by Danny Addy in a tackle was further compounded by his questioning of the decision.  From halfway, Danny Richardson had no difficulty in putting his team two points into the lead.

Twenty-five seconds into the second half, on only the third play-the-ball of the half, a forward pass from Ackers, at dummy half, gave possession to the Tigers, who turned their lead into eight points, which made up the bulk of the ten-point difference between the two sides at the final whistle.

The second half, from thereon, became a war of attrition, but with the cushioning of their lead, one which the Tigers could more comfortably afford.  Match them, as Salford did for the majority of the time, discipline, especially for careless tackles, let them down.

With a penalty count of almost three to one in the half against them, they were deprived of an equal share of possession, and Castleford cheerfully took advantage of each additional set to build pressure and wear away at their hosts.  Even more significantly, a total of six points of their final score came from three penalty goals.

Nine minutes from the end, and then down to twelve men with Mossop in the sin-bin, Salford went over for a third try.  Brown’s kick into the in-goal area was latched onto by Lolohea.

Time was against them, however.  Castleford remained in control, and the Red Devils were left ruing the impact of their own costly errors.  Far more important, however, is that they now reflect on all that went so well in the first half, though rather more spasmodically in the second, and determine to produce the same with greater consistency, next week, in the Betfred Challenge Cup Quarter-Final rematch.

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: SALFORD v LEIGH

You just never know how a game is going to unfold, and throughout any match all a team can do is to hang on in with the opposition so that when the decisive moment comes, if it goes in their direction, they will be in a position to take advantage of it and secure the result for themselves.

That philosophy could never have been more aptly fitting than to Salford’s victory over Leigh, on Friday evening, when a finely balanced contest swung completely out of the grasp of the spirited Centurions, and suddenly the scoreboard was working overtime to keep track of the home side’s newfound dominance.

That crucial moment came almost exactly midway through the second half, when a most threatening Leigh attack, via their left flank, was thwarted to devastating effect.  Krisnan Inu it was who produced the most extraordinary feat of ball handling skill, which really has to be viewed in slow motion to be fully appreciated.  He not only blocked what could have been a try-scoring pass, he then one-handedly regathered and flipped out the ball, with unbelievable accuracy to wing partner, Ken Sio, and all this whilst he was tumbling forward onto the ground.

With ninety metres then to cover, Sio’s pace and clever tactical running skills – involving veering first inside and then out to the righthand corner as he neared the try line – prevented him being overhauled by his pursuing opposite number.

Inu’s conversion, from wide out, succeeded in opening up a ten-point gap which had the most profound of effects on the Red Devils.  Gone, suddenly, was all the apprehension that had seemed to have dogged their attack for much of the game, to be replaced by a self-belief, assurance, and confidence that they had lacked recently.

From that point on, the pace of their game went up two gears, the ball was swung about from side to side with an accuracy that they had struggled to produce earlier, support for the man with the ball increased, and holes in the visitors’ defence line were exploited to the full. Marshall’s men enjoyed their ascendency to the full, adding a further three tries in a ten-minute period, which had the Centurions on the rack for the remainder of the encounter.

The Leigh players themselves must have been totally bemused and bewildered by this turn of events, and particularly by the one-sided look of the scoreline, for, in truth, the game hitherto had been anything but that. Indeed, the Centurions had had the better of the early exchanges, as they out-enthused their hosts, winning the battle of the hard yardage with strong running which gave them field position to score the opening try.

It was the Salford kicking game, which, in the first half, troubled Leigh most, with a number of high bombs being dropped, and goal-line drop-outs being forced from others, all of which brought a period of concerted Salford attack, and a converted try, to take the lead.  That lead proved to be quite short-lived, however, as the possibility of protracted home dominance, on the back of it, never materialised.

Rather the reverse, in fact, was the case, with Leigh enjoying their greatest period of pressure, during which they regained the lead to take with them into half time.  It was nip and tuck on the resumption, with Salford regaining a slender lead, which they held right up to that crucial moment of Inu’s intervention and Sio’s finish.

Great as it was to have gained their first league points of the season, there were a number of individual performances to enhance the enjoyment of that. As expected the stalwarts of the side, Mossop, Ikahihifo, Brown, and Lolohea, were the go-to players but a number of others also stood out.

Not least of these were Elliott Kear who was a revelation at fullback, Oliver Roberts who had his best game to date for Salford, Harvey Livett who built upon his personal performance at Catalans with involvement in three tries, one of which he was the scorer, and Chris Atkin whose introduction at dummy-half led to a much more fluid attacking game. Good individual performances from them all, but it was teamwork which won the match.

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: CATALANS v SALFORD

It had all started so well, with Salford commencing the more brightly of the two sides.  Having gone head to head with their hosts for the four opening sets, and indeed at least matching, if not bettering them, for yardage and for questioning of their defence, the Red Devils got briefly on top, when, from their second end-of-set kick, Harvey Livett, ably assisted by Kevin Brown’s intelligently dropping out of the tackle, was able to relieve Sam Tomkins of possession and launch the visitors on a close goal-line examination of the Dragons’ defence.

A clever kick from Tui Lolohea, into the in-goal area, at the end of that set, brought about the rewards of a goal-line drop-out, and it really looked as though the Salford players could bring a real test to the French team.  That, though, was as good as it were to get for some time, with a forced pass on the second tackle, with little room for error, being seized upon by the home side to set up a counter-attack.

Ten minutes of finely balanced rugby was eventually brought to an end with a debatable refereeing decision giving possession to Catalans, and in their first real challenge to defend their own line, the Red Devils cracked – not once but twice with back-to-back tries – and with that the game had swung to the Dragons.

What followed became somewhat dispiriting, as individual errors became increasingly prevalent, and the sheer physical dominance of the Catalans side, allied to sundry gifts of possession through lost ball or careless handling, saw them wear the visitors down with all the extra tackling each error forced upon them.  Missed tackles, on occasions, led directly to tries.

Indeed, the French had really done a good job in identifying which players they needed to target for special attention, and Kevin Brown, for example, was so closely policed that he often received ball and posse, almost simultaneously.  Their superior line speed added significantly to Salford’s error count and so often snuffed out possible attacks before they had had time to develop momentum.

 

Just when Salford fans, fifty minutes in, were beginning to wonder whether their team would manage to get on the scoreboard, the Reds succeeded in rescuing themselves in that respect, and it was a well worked try when it came.

A strong hit up by prop, Jack Ormondroyd, followed by a quick play-the-ball enabled Brown to get the ball in space for once, and his well-timed pass put Livett through a half gap.  The try still needed scoring though, not just in getting to the line but also in his handling skill, whilst under considerable pressure from the opposition, in grounding the ball without losing control of it.

It was definitely not Salford’s day, however, as the scoreboard reflects, though on that form, many other sides are going to struggle to live with the Catalans side, at their home.  The Red Devils have started the season taking on three of the most dominant teams in the competition.  They have to put that behind them now, and concentrate on securing a victory, with a considerably improved performance, which would be helped by showing greater self-belief, in adversity, both individually, and as a team.

IN TRIBUTE – RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG NO 3

                                                  His Playing Days At The Willows

One game which had a significant effect on Doug Davies’s career was for the Liverpool based side, Huyton, against Salford, in the early seventies, and he distinguished himself that day with a fine performance, which he  capped by scoring a try, and that, among a number of other positive elements in his performance, led to his being approached by, then, Salford Chairman, Brian Snape, with a view to his transferring to the Reds.

The stark difference in his moving to such a high profile, highly professional club, certainly was not lost on him, particularly at his first training session at The Willows.

“It was like coming into a different world, yet every single person there welcomed me with a shake of the hand, and I realised then that this was still a club, and not just a group of stand-out players who were just doing things better than anyone else.  David Watkins, with all he had achieved in his playing career to that point, came right over to me and said, ‘Welcome Duggy’.  Instantly I felt part of the team.”

One of the hallmarks of the team’s play was their speed, and this was an element which Doug really had to work hard upon to get his own speed back to how it had been, prior to his leg injury.  Simply being among a group of such pacey individuals in itself helped with this considerably, because he just had to endeavour to keep up with them all.

“At training, we were put into groups of three to race alongside each other and I was always alongside Peter Banner and Keith Fielding.  Peter was given a five yard start over Keith, and I was given a five yard start over Peter for a run of forty yards which required us all to cross the line together.  Everything was timed, which meant that to finish together you had to be at your fastest every single time.

“Each of the three of us was highly motivated not to be last to finish, so it proved to be a really good way of training, in my opinion.  Alongside all the other ploys they used, this really showed what a highly professional club this was, and it was such a big thrill to be there.”

In such renowned company both in the squad, and in the backroom staff, it is fortunate that Doug’s own self-confidence, and confidence in his own playing ability, ensured that he in no way felt out of his depth among the talented individuals with whom he rubbed shoulders, whenever he was there.

“I really enjoy being among that type of company, and being among them lifted me, rather than overawing me.  Similarly, getting applause from the crowd, on the few occasions I scored, was most uplifting too.  I have to say that the spectators there were really good, and extremely knowledgeable, too.  Many of them travelled quite considerable distances from all over the northwest.”

“It was always exhilarating playing for Salford because it was a club which always wanted to be professional.  Everybody in the team wanted to do their best because of the talent in the reserves putting pressure on them to keep hold of their place.

“Beside all of that, just arriving at the club on a Friday evening was always a thrill.  The imposing front to the Social Club showed that this was a club that was as professional as it could be.  There was nothing to match it at any of the other clubs at that time – nothing else was in the same class; nothing else was as lavish.”

The sense of professionalism was further evidenced by the quality of the players in the squad, which, for any new player coming into the side, must have boosted their self-esteem, considerably.

“The point is that no-one in the squad ever felt that they were a star. Every single player thought that he was as good as everyone else, and that they were each equally as good as he was.  To be successful, a team has got to be like that – everyone has to have full confidence in themselves, and in everybody else.  It is the combination of the skills and talents that each person has that makes a winning team.

Doug’s own forte was undoubtedly his tackling, which he was more than happy to supply throughout any game in order to keep the team in contention until such times as the speed men were able to cut loose and run in the tries.

“When you take away all the flamboyance, flair, and speed which the team used to play with, it was little different from when I was playing at Widnes, Warrington, or Huyton.”

Absolutely fundamental to all this was the fact that the players really did get on extremely well with each other.

“Of all the time I was there, I never saw a single argument between any of us.  Everybody just seemed to agree over things, and acknowledge when they had made a mistake in respect of something.”

That this was the case, despite all the pressure the team was under to perform, and the expectation for them to win trophies, is undoubtedly credit to each and every one of them.

“We were encouraged in certain games by the payment of additional bonuses, but, to be honest, the money never really meant a great deal to me.  Yes, it was a professional game, but I played for the enjoyment of it, not the money that went with it.”

Not every player involved in the game at that time, however, was of such a disposition.

“There were some players around who were prepared to do some quite questionable acts, but I could never have been like that.  I certainly could never have been a bully, unlike certain others in the game at the time.”

The Friday night game was an unbelievable experience every other week with around twelve thousand spectators packed inside The Willows, roaring the team on.

“We honestly never heard the noise; it was there around you, but it just went over your head, yet nevertheless succeeded in lifting you.  There were occasions though when the players had difficulty in making themselves heard above it, when they were calling out the different moves.

“The understanding between the players was extremely high, and after a few matches alongside them all, I knew instinctively just where to stand so that if the ball came to me, something would happen.  It’s something you just get used to in a team.”

The undying respect that the supporters had for the players was in greatest evidence after the game, when they all rubbed shoulders in one or other of the bars, in the Social Club.

“It was always nice to meet the fans and to have a chat with them, and there were always the youngsters with their autograph books.  Not that I was one of the most sought-after people in this respect.”

Coming, as he did, a couple of years after the Wembley Cup Final, which he obviously missed out upon, there were, nevertheless, other occasions which stood out in his career as a Red Devil, not least of these being the winning of the 1973/4 First Division Championship, alongside, in the same season, the Lancashire Cup.

“It was a special season, when we felt we could win anything.  Probably the team was coming to its peak in terms of professionalism, because we were putting into games everything that we had been rehearsing in training.  And we did it in a relaxed manner.  Everything seemed to follow on from that.  It was a wonderful year.”

And did those special times continue!   Doug has a collection of medals from the whole of his playing career, but the large majority came within his time with Salford.  Alongside his 1973 pair, he also has another for the BBC2 Floodlit Cup.

“It was all so absolutely marvellous.  It makes me so proud to have been involved and to have achieved all that.”

The acquisition from St Helens of loose forward, Eric Prescott, had a direct impact upon Doug’s own role within the team.  Up until then he had turned out at loose forward, but coach, Cliff Evans, had sought Prescott to take over that position, at which point Doug promptly moved up to prop,  his magnificent tackling game would continue to benefit the side for the remainder of his time with the Red Devils.

The move certainly suited Doug himself, who was delighted at the new opportunity this presented him with.

“I absolutely loved playing at prop, once I got there, and I can honestly say that nothing, in all the time I played the game, ever upset me.  If I had been asked to turn out at fullback, I would have done so, and relished the experience this presented.

“Scrummaging was an art, and a big part of the game in those days, unlike today’s uncontested scrums.  It galvanised the forwards together as a pack, so that they weren’t pushed off the ball, and you got that man to man contact.

“Playing up front, therefore, gave me the job of controlling the opposition’s front row in the scrum, and stop them twisting around to help their hooker get a better view of the ball coming in.  I wasn’t the biggest of forwards, but I was always strong with the work I did.”

Message on the sad passing of former Salford forward Doug Davies

Salford Red Devils were deeply saddened today to hear about the passing of former Salford forward, Doug Davies, following a long illness.

Doug was born in Liverpool, in 1942, but grew up in Widnes, from where he joined local amateur rugby league club, St Ambrose, having been introduced to the game at school.

By the age of sixteen he had caught the attention of Warrington who signed him up as an amateur, in which capacity he not only represented their reserve team, but went on to represent the Lancashire County Team.

Two seasons later, in 1961, he was signed up on professional terms by home club Widnes where he played firstly, in the ‘A’ team, and later, in the first team before moving on to join Huyton.  It was during a game for them, in 1970, against high-riding Salford, that he caught the attention of then chairman, Brian Snape, who duly recruited him to join his team of stars.

At the end of a stalwart career with the illustrious Reds, during which he was a member of the First Division Championship winning team of 1973/74, and was on the trophy winning team of the 1972 Lancashire Cup and the 1974 BBC2 Floodlit Cup, he returned to Huyton for a further two years as player/coach and social club manager. This last role also incorporated the duties of groundsman and window cleaner within its remit, all of which speaks volumes for his commitment and dedication to the club and the game.

A year with Swinton brought the curtain down on his most impressive of careers, but his interest in the game was recently restored with the signing of his grandson, Ben, by Widnes, and his express wish then became that Ben, now with St Helens, would go on to surpass all that he, himself, had attained during his own playing days.

Doug will forever be remembered here at Salford for being a part of the 70s side that brought so much success to our club.  His funeral will take place on 7th April, at Widnes Crematorium, and the Salford Club will be represented, via video link.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 4

                                            Part 4 – HIS POST SALFORD CAREER

Bill may have decided that the dispiriting events of the Christmas ‘A’ team match at Warrington was to have been his last game, but there were those who tried to talk him around to playing again.  First of these were Leigh, who invited him down to training, shortly after he had left Salford, and, initially, he was quite open to accepting their invitation.

“I said I would go down the following Wednesday, which was my one clear night, only to be told that they didn’t train on Wednesdays, so that put paid to it all.

“Then a few years later Frankie Barrow, former St Helens fullback, was involved in setting up a new amateur club, Thatto Heath, and invited me to join the committee, which I did.  We started off at Thatto Labour Club, who were sponsoring us.

“It wasn’t long before I was pulling my boots on once more and turning out for them.  Even when I was forty-two, I was still playing but the aches and pains were taking their toll by this time, so I turned all my attention to my work on the committee.  I continued with that for a few seasons, until Frank left to coach first Swinton, and then Oldham, and a new committee came in which took the club in a different direction, which led me to leave.

“Even then it wasn’t the end of things because Frank came back with plans to set up yet another club, Portico Vine, and I, and former Warrington second row forward, Brian Gregory, were appointed joint coaches, which role we took up once we had each gained our coaching qualification.

“This gave a new impetus to my involvement, and I was turning out quite regularly in the team right throughout my fifties, until, at the age of sixty-two I finished completely.

“By this time, my son, Christopher, had joined the club playing in the centre, and I then had the greatest pleasure of playing alongside him in the team, which was a really nice way to finish my rugby career.

“Christopher became a detective in the Cheshire Police and went on to play for Great Britain Police Rugby League with whom he travelled to many countries, to play for them.

“On a final note my grandson is following our love of Rugby League and has just gained a scholarship with St Helens Rugby League Club.  Who knows maybe one day he could be playing at Salford.”

Part 1 – HIS EARLY CAREER

Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 3

                       Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES

Despite his two periods with Salford covering almost a decade, it is perhaps unsurprising that the players who most readily come to Bill’s mind are those who played alongside him during his first spell at the club.

“I can honestly say that that Salford side was the fastest team I have ever played in.  It is claimed to be a much faster game today than it was back then, but, believe me, that team would probably beat the majority of the present day sides.  They were just so fast, not just of foot but of thought too.

“Kenny Gill certainly wasn’t the most fleet of foot, but he was by far the quickest thinker.  He was doing things long before anyone else realised what was afoot.  He certainly had a great rugby brain on him.

“Chris Hesketh was lightning quick, and had a side-step to go with it.  He was also strong, and, off the field, was the most comical of people.”

A variety of hookers turned out for the Reds over a short period of only a few seasons, before moving on or finishing their career.  One such was Peter Walker.

“Peter was an extremely good hooker, who, in the days of contested scrums could rake the ball with consistency.  I knew his brother Malcolm Walker, who played for St Helens, from my time there, very well.  Sadly, Peter’s career was brought prematurely to an end when he broke his leg.

“By contrast, his understudy in the ‘A’ team was another St Helens lad, Ellis Devlin, who was equally good in the loose, and in today’s game would have revelled in the role.  Unfortunately, the necessity to ensure a steady supply of the ball took precedence over that, and so Ellis was restricted to occasional call ups to the first team.

“Dickie Evans, my former work colleague, was another player to secure the hooking role for a couple of seasons, and it was great to link up with him again after all the years.”

Undoubtedly, of all the players in the team over that era, the absolute stalwart among them, from his teammates’ perception, appears to have been Welsh international forward, Colin Dixon, and Bill, too, has very fond memories of him.

“Colin was always someone who would talk to you.  It would be frowned upon in this present day, but back then, after training a group of us would all go for a drink and a chat together.  Colin was one of us, and it was in that environment I began to notice his dry sense of humour which was really quite funny.

“He had a pub in Halifax, and whenever we played over there we would call in, on our way back, and then Colin would take on the role of host and look after everybody.

“He actually became coach, towards the end of his career, for a brief spell, during which we played an away match, at Warrington.  For some reason, we all seemed quite lethargic during the first half, and when we got into the dressing-room he shut the door and delivered a few home truths, followed by the challenge to do something about it, which we did by turning the game around and winning.

“It was the way he had addressed the players, though, in such an adult fashion, which invoked the desire and determination within each of us, for make no mistake about it, Warrington were a really good side at that time, and to go there and win was a real achievement.”

Right winger, Keith Fielding (Quality St Gang No 6), was another person who earned Bill’s respect both on, and off, the field.

“As far as speed was concerned, though, they didn’t come any faster than Keith and once he was in the clear, there was no-one going to stop him.

“Off the field, he too was a friendly chatty bloke, who always had time for you, and he certainly knew how to tell a story.  On one occasion, while travelling to an away match, he had Eric [Prescott] and me completely bewildered by a card trick, which seemed impossible, until we found out that he was getting signals from behind us, from Dickie Evans.”

With both of them hailing from, and living in, St Helens, and also having played together at Rochdale, before signing together on the same day for Salford, it would be most surprising if John Butler had not been one of the players of whom Bill has long and numerous memories.

“When he moved from Keighley to join Rochdale, we were all quite surprised, because we already had a couple of good halfbacks, but he slotted in really well, and within six months of joining, he was selected to play for Great Britain, and went on tour with them.

“He had a really nice sidestep and was very quick over thirty or forty yards, both of which made him ideal as a centre because of course, as a stand-off – and an international one at that – his handling skills were excellent.”

Bill also recalls a couple of other three-quarters, who, in any other side would have had far more first team opportunities than they ever had alongside the star-studded Salford pack line.  Gordon Graham was a rugby union convert who was brought to the club by his former schoolteacher, who, by then, had taken over the reins as Salford coach, Les Bettinson.

Gordon, who had been signed as a centre, played on the wing just as much as he did there, but more often than not had to be content with a place on the bench, which in those days often meant that he remained there for the whole game, as was the case with fellow three-quarter, Tony Redfern, whose signature was so sought after by the whole of the league that Salford had to sign him on his sixteenth birthday.

With David Watkins successfully making the transition to fullback, ‘A’ team fullback Frank Stead, a native of Widnes, whom Bill readily brings to mind, was another player who also had to be satisfied with only occasional outings in the number one jersey.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD PT 2

                     Part 2 –HIS MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Games against lower league clubs often used to cause the high-flying Reds rather more trouble than they had anticipated, because, for the opposition this was their golden opportunity to make a name for themselves, by overturning the star-studded Salford outfit.  In addition, for some individuals, there was also the added incentive that they might be lured to the Willows with some considerably more lucrative deal than they had hitherto been enjoying.

Thus, it was, that another game in 1974, against the Hornets, this time at their then home of The Athletic Ground, yet again, saw the local side triumph with not one, but two, Rochdale players, Bill and stand off John Butler, (Quality Street Gang No 2) playing their way into the Red Devils’ sights.

“We were both called up to the Directors’ Box straight after the match, and asked to make the move to join Salford, which we were both more than happy to do, because Salford were one of the top clubs at that time.”

The time span over which Bill was with Salford somewhat exaggerated the number of seasons in which he was available as a player, because, owing to work commitments following a significant promotion, he was forced to take a break from the game after three seasons.  This, however, did not prevent his return three seasons later, when pressures at work had eased sufficiently for him to play for a further two seasons.

“I was still working in ‘Parts’, but had risen to the top by getting the job as manager, and all that went with that, so work had to come first for a few years.  I then suddenly got a phone call from Salford asking me to go back there again, which by then I was able to do.”

Back in 1974, Salford had been keen to get both players – Bill to enhance their pack, and John to allow centre David Watkins to move to fullback, upon the imminent return to Cumbria of international, Paul Charlton – while, for their part, Rochdale were in need of the money they received in exchange for the pair.

For Bill and John, with both of them being from St Helens, it was of benefit to each to have the other as company, and they travelled together to their first training session.

“I remember walking into the dressing room for my first training session and wondering to myself what on earth I was doing there, full, as it was, of internationals such as Maurice Richards, Keith Fielding, Chris Hesketh and Colin Dixon. I felt completely overawed by the whole group.

“Fortunately, Eric Prescott, was also there, and that gave it all a sense of reality.  Cliff Evans was the coach, and he was an absolute gentleman, as also were his assistants, Les Bettinson and Alan McInnes, and they were all extremely good to me, which helped me settle in almost straight away.”

Bill certainly did not have long to wait for his first game, which came at the end of that Easter Weekend, on Easter Monday, when he made a winning start to his Salford career over Leigh.

“We certainly were a team to be reckoned with, and we always made good progress and were in contention for a lot of the trophies in all competitions, but the one that everyone really wanted was the First Division Championship, which we won twice, in 1974 and 1976.

“I was in the side that was successful in 1976, and in order to win it, we had to go to Keighley in the last match of the season and beat them, because were we to have lost, and Wigan had won away at Featherstone, the title would have been Wigan’s.  Keighley, for their part, needed to win to retain their first division status, so there was a lot riding on the result for both sides.

“As it turned out, despite the confines and idiosyncrasies of the pitch at Lawkholme Lane, we won comfortably, whilst Wigan failed to overturn Featherstone, so we were crowned Champions.”

Matches against St Helens were still always the occasions which Bill particularly enjoyed and there were two which stood out above the rest.  A year after losing to them in the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy Final, with Rochdale, he travelled to Knowsley Rd, with Salford, to face them in the semi-final of the same competition to extract his revenge.

“I got the same reception from the crowd I had previously received with Rochdale, and again it really fired me up.  I made a break and fed the ball to Chris Hesketh to score and we won.  Unfortunately, I had broken two bones in my foot, which then prevented me from playing in the final, but nevertheless, I had still had the satisfaction of having beaten Saints, at Saints.

“Then, in 1976, after winning the Championship for the second time, we won through to the Pemiership FInal, at the magnificent stadium of Station Road, Swinton, where we once again took on the Saints again.  I always remember that Colin wasn’t in too good a condition, and I was given the task of running up and down the touchline with him, prior to the match, to see whether he could take part, which he did, though not with his normal impact.

“At half time the score was 2-0 to the Saints, and we were well in contention, but in the second half they punished a couple of our mistakes in the last quarter to extend that for a 13-2 victory.  Nice as it would have been to have won, we were nevertheless still the Champions for that season, and had done extremely well, on the back of that, to have won through to the Final.  It just didn’t go our way on the day.

“Another game I remember was an away fixture at Widnes, because, before the game, Les Bettinson took me aside and told me that, although I was playing reasonably well, he hadn’t yet seen the best from me, and this gave me such a ‘gee up’ that I went out determined to show just what I could do, and followed it through with one of my best performances.  After the game, Les came back to me and said that that was just what he had been waiting for.”

As players matured, and perhaps lost some of their initial pace, they would gravitate towards the middle of the field, so for Bill, and his co-second rower, Mike Coulman (Quality St Gang No 1), a move up front to prop, was the logical progression, which both of them did at roughly the same time.  Bill’s move left room for the newly acquired Oldham and international second rower, Bob Irving, to take up the berth Bill had vacated.

Although the number of trophies the team succeeded in lifting was somewhat below the aspirations of the club itself, the quality of rugby, and the entertainment value that the players provided more than made up for that, and surpassed anything on offer from the majority of clubs.

Gaining promotion at work, at the end of three seasons, proved to be a double-edged sword, for Bill, who was in no doubt where his priorities lay, but that did not mean it was an easy move for him to turn his back, temporarily, on rugby league.

“Work had to come first but it was very difficult leaving the game behind, and during those intervening years I really did miss it, but I ensured I kept myself fit, and I did still look on myself as a Salford player, which I was because they had retained my registration.

“In fact, when circumstances allowed, I did go to the ground a few times to watch matches, especially when St Helens were playing there.  To be honest, I always felt that I would, one day, return to the club to pick up my playing career once more”.

During the time he was away there were several changes of coach, which was quite remarkable because over the whole of the previous decade there had been only three: Griff Jenkins, Cliff Evans, and Les Bettinson.

“Les’s time as coach came to an end shortly after I had put my career on hold, he was replaced by Stan McCormack, who had been a highly successful coach of St Helens over several seasons.  The appointment, however, did not work out at all, and he was replaced after only two months.

“Alex Murphy, it was, who had then taken over the reins.  Alex had been the best rugby league scrum half in the world, but things did not go as well as they had at his previous clubs Leigh and Warrington, and it all began to unravel to a degree.  Kenny Gill had already left to join Widnes followed there shortly afterwards by Eric Prescott.   Alan Grice and David Watkins had both gone to Swinton, while Colin Dixon and Chris Hesketh had both briefly had a try at coaching, but then retired from the game.

“By the time I returned, Kevin Ashcroft, was in the hot seat, but his assistant, Alan McInnes, another former Salford player, took a lot of the coaching sessions, and he was very methodical in the way he carried it out.

“All our training sessions were held at our training ground in Urmston.  Having our own training ground was quite a good thing because you were away from The Willows and the club itself, and were free to just partake in a more relaxed environment.”

As for the players who remained in the side, there were still a few, and they continued to endeavour to provide the quality of attacking rugby with which the club had been associated but it was sadly rather less effective than it had been, in terms of winning matches.

“Mike Coulman was still there, along with Steve Nash and Keith Fielding.  A recent addition to the pack had been John Mantle to the second row, but the team I returned to bore little in resemblance to the team I had left.”

There were, of course, a number of new players who had come into the side to replace those who had moved on.  Among them were people such as centres Sammy Turnbull, David Stephenson and Stewart Williams, and second rower David Major, son of former Warrington international, Harry Major.

Things very much took a turn for the worse around the Christmas period of 1983.

“It was in the week leading up to the New Year; I had a phone call informing me that there was an ‘A’ team game at Warrington, and asking whether i would I fill in to help out.  When I arrived, I walked into the dressing room and totally failed to recognise a single player, so much so that I thought I had gone into the wrong room.

“It turned out that they were all amateur players who had been drafted in.  We went out and did our best but unsurprisingly we got absolutely murdered.  Losing pay for the ‘A’ team was quite low, and this was accentuated when I went out and found I had been given a parking ticket, which more or less took care of it all.

“That proved to be my last professional game of my career, but nothing could ever, in any way tarnish the marvellous times I had throughout it, especially being a part of that wonderful team of the mid-seventies, which did so much to enhance the image of rugby league throughout the country.”

RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (7) – BILL SHEFFIELD

Salford’s former long-serving second row forward, Bill Sheffield, relates memories of his rugby league career.

CONTENTS

Part 1 – HIS EARLY CAREER

Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Part 3 – HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES

Part 4 – HIS POST SALFORD CAREER

                                                          Part 1 – HIS EARLY CAREER

Hailing, as he does from St Helens, Bill Sheffield found it very easy to become a supporter of the Saints, on account of the fact that the very first game he ever attended was watching them play in their 13-2 Challenge Cup Final triumph over Halifax, at Wembley, in 1956.

“My father was an avid supporter of St Helens and after that first introduction to the game, I became as big a fan as he was.  I played a bit of rugby at school, but, in those days, they didn’t seem to have a lot of competitive games.”

Indeed, it was not until he left school and took up work in a local garage, that, as a result of three of his colleagues there, Frank Barrow, Dickie Evans and David Harrison, playing for the Saints, Bill started to go with them at lunchtime into the local park, for a throw about with a ball.

“It was Dickie who really encouraged me to go to St Helens, which I did, and being only sixteen, I was put into the ‘C’ team, which was for under seventeens.  I had never really played in a competitive game before, but there were some very good coaches there at that time, who gave me a lot of advice and encouragement, and so I made my way through into the ‘B’ team for under nineteens.

“We had a really successful side that year playing in four finals, two of which we won.  Twelve of the lads were actually signed by St Helens. Not all of them made it through to the first team, but people like Alan Bishop, Joe Robinson and Les Jones all became top-flight players.

“We used to train twice a week in the evenings because of course we all had jobs, with the games being played on the Saturday afternoon.  That was the case for almost every club, and it wasn’t until I came to Salford that I first  experienced Friday night rugby.

“I spent two seasons continuing my progress through the ‘A’ team, and then, aged twenty, got the opportunity to make my debut in the first team.  It was the televised 1969 Champions v Cup Holders game, away at Castleford, following their Wembley victory over Salford, with St Helens having finished the season as Champions.

“I had gone with the team as travelling reserve, and not expecting to play at all, but prop, Cliff Watson, went down with a very bad migraine, which led to me being drafted into the team at second row, alongside Eric Prescott.  Part way through the second half I surprised everyone by taking the ball up and breaking through before rounding the fullback to score.”

Players’ contracts, in those days were primarily around their signing on fee, which in Bill’s case was a thousand pounds – a most substantial amount at that time – alongside weekly wage details, but, unlike today’s contracts of two to three seasons duration, players back then signed for life!  Or not, as Bill was shortly to discover.

“I was at the ground one day, part way through my first season, and was sent for by the Chairman, who informed me that Rochdale were interested in me, and that St Helens were keen on a player exchange deal involving Kelvin Earle, who had twice been on Challenge Cup winning teams, and upon leaving Saints at the end of his first stint there, had gone to Bradford where he had won yet another medal.”

Rochdale, at that time were one of the lowly sides in the league, so for Bill it was very much a case of one extreme to the other, but not always the way round that one might have expected.

“At Saints we had to provide all our own training kit, including our own boots.  I even had to share boots and running spikes with one of the other players because neither of us could afford both.  When I went to Rochdale, though we were really well looked after, with everything we needed, including new boots, being provided,”

On the field, however, things were nowhere near as good.

“We went to Hunslet for the last match of the season, where one time great, Geoff Gunney, by this time in his forties, won the man of the Match award, and we were well beaten.  Fortunately, during the close season there was a change of coach, with the renowned international centre, Frank Myler, coming in, which led in turn to the signing of a number of better quality players.

“Frank then moulded that group into a really good team, which, within a relatively short period of time, ended up in both the John Player and the BBC2 Floodlit Cup Finals, in the 1972/3 season.  So, after that initial set back, I ended up having a couple of really good years with them, and I have had a great deal of time for Rochdale, ever since.

“En route to the Floodlit Cup Final, we had to play Salford at the Willows, in the semi-final, on a rather unpleasant evening in the depth of winter.  The pitch, in those days held water quite badly and the middle even had to be covered with sand.  The Salford backs were all speedsters but on that quagmire, they couldn’t make any impression on us, and we controlled the game extremely well.

“Warren Ayres, our centre, had a superb match, and ran in two crucial tries, to take us through to the final against St Helens.  I’d played against the Saints a couple of time since leaving, but this time it was going to be in a cup final.

“Whenever you return to a former club, you always have a certain extra keenness about you to do well, but, on this occasion, it was the crowd that really got onto me as they always used to with one of their former players, and it was that which geed me up all the more so.  We didn’t win but were extremely unlucky to lose 5-2, because we had a try disallowed for an alleged knock on, but I wish we had had a video referee that afternoon to have checked it out.”