Rugby League’s Quality Street Gang – John Butler

CONTENTS

Part 1 – HIS EARLY RUGBY LEAGUE CAREER

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

Part 3 –HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES AND COACHES

Part 4 – HIS REPRESENTATIVE HONOURS

Part 5 – HIS POST SALFORD CAREER

 

Part 1 – HIS EARLY RUGBY LEAGUE CAREER

It was at what was, arguably, the peak of the Salford team of the sixties and seventies that John Butler, who had already gained international honours whilst with Rochdale Hornets, was approached and readily agreed to a move to join the high flying Reds, not as a stand off which was where he had predominantly played and gained his representative honours, but as a centre to the try-scoring machine, who was his winger-to-be, Keith Fielding.

The return, in 1974, of fullback, Paul Charlton, to his native Cumbria, had led to incumbent centre, David Watkins, taking Charlton’s place at the back, and John, who, most timely, had had an outstanding game for the resurgent Hornets in a closely fought league game at The Willows, was brought in to join the three-quarter line.

Born in the hotbed of rugby league, the Thatto Heath area of St Helens, to former, thirties, St Helens second rower of the same name, John Jnr, from his earliest memories, was absolutely in love with the game, and grew up playing for St Austin’s Primary School, and also the St Helens Town Team, before moving on to join Saints’ C, and then B, teams.

“When I was fifteen, the school team I played in won the Lancashire Cup, and that attracted the interest of Saints who I joined.  We trained on a Wednesday and played each Saturday,” he recalls. “During that time, I actually had a spell playing in the forwards, either in the second row or at loose forward.  I wasn’t a particularly big lad, but I remained in those positions right up to the age of nineteen.”

By the time he was seventeen he was selected, at loose forward, for Lancashire County, and continued to play for them, in that same position, even when he had been recast as a stand off by his club side.

“Because of that I had started to think of myself as a loose forward and believed that that was where my future lay, so that when I turned professional with Keighley, it was as a loose forward.”

He had been playing in the St Helens ‘A’ team for a couple of seasons, having been led to believe he would be signed up by the Saints, but such is the unpredictability of professional sport that in the end this singularly failed to materialise.

“I was actually in the Board Room, with my father, ready to sign, and the whole thing fell through there and then.  I was completely gutted,” he reflects.

“I suppose a certain amount of good  luck came from it, though, because back in 1969 they just had so many great players already there, and in addition they could sign brilliant Welshmen, which they seemed to have the happy knack of being able to do.”

Many a lesser person would have thrown in the towel after an incident like that, but John is of sterner stuff, and in his case, it just spurred him on to achieve his ambition by means of a different route.

“I just took the first offer that came along, which happened to be Keighley.  It was not the most convenient of arrangements with living almost two hours journey away, which I had to do for both playing and training arrangements.  It just wore me down in the end.”

Second division Keighley was undoubtedly a different club environment from St Helens, but he really liked it there.  Just being out in the country was something of an attraction in itself, and there was a uniqueness about the pitch.

“When you were playing down the slope you knew you could put your boot to the ball and it would find touch, no problem.  They were also very serious about the game, and enthusiastic – not just the supporters but the club itself.  While the players obviously weren’t as talented as those at St Helens, they really did have a keenness about them for the game, which was great.”

When he arrived, he found the stand off half position was already filled by player coach, Alan Kellett, but team selection lay in the hands of the directors, and they had no compunction in replacing the incumbent stand-off with John.  Having taken a little time to settle in, during which he had operated at loose forward, he was given the number six jersey, which saw him strike up an extremely good relationship with his scrum half, Colin Evans.

By 1973, after four years with the club, he realised that he couldn’t continue with the amount of travelling involved, and he began to look around for another club.  His eventual move to Rochdale very nearly did not happen, when, on a scouting mission, the club’s directors were singularly unimpressed with the performance of the Keighley loose forward who they assumed to be John.  In fact, he had had to pull out of the game and the Hornets contingent had spent their time running the rule over someone else.

It was only as a result of his approaching coach, Frank Myler, on the insistence of John senior, that he was given the opportunity of playing trials there, but, on this time, Myler’s insistence, at stand-off.  When those trials ultimately led to his joining the Hornets, who still resided in those days at the old Athletic Ground, John felt that he was making a significant step forward in his playing career, so well was the team doing, at that time.

“We had some really good players, including former Great Britain captain Bill Holiday, Terry Fogerty and future Salford-to-be signings Billy Sheffield and Stewart Williams.  We even beat Salford a couple of times, one of them being in a Premiership game.”

He remembers this last game particularly because for some reason he had no boots to wear and ended up playing in a pair belonging to second row forward Alan Hodgkinson, which were two sizes too large.

On top of that he was up against the renowned Kenny Gill, but despite all this adversity, they came away with the win, which led to John, together with second row teammate, Billy Sheffield, being offered the opportunity of joining the elite ranks of Salford.

 

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

His arrival at The Willows bore no qualms whatsoever for him because earlier that year he had been on international duty on a tour down under, where he had become well acquainted with a good percentage of the Salford team, who made up a significant proportion of the England line up.

“Virtually the whole of the backline was made up of Salford players, not to mention the likes of Colin Dixon in the second row,” he remembers.  “I walked into the dressing room for the first time and immediately felt at home among all those familiar faces.”

“I signed on Good Friday, 1975, and played my first match in the traditional home Easter Monday fixture, against Wigan.”

It was to be Wigan, however, who took the spoils on the day, but more surprisingly for John, he was selected to play at loose forward, having been told that he had been signed as a centre.

“The club had won the First Division Championship in 1973, so it turned out that I was joining them just around their peak, despite their having a dip in fortunes that season, but we went on to regain the Championship again, the following year.”

Joining such an illustrious group of players also raised, to some extent, the quality of his own game.

“I had developed as a player while with Rochdale, but I became much more sophisticated in my style during my time at Salford, simply because I was playing alongside players who possessed such incredible talent.”

One of the hallmarks of such a highly successful team was the close bond between them all, with everyone getting on so very well together, with the pinnacle of his time here coming in the ‘75/6 season, with the winning, for the second time, of the First Division Championship.

“We went nine games unbeaten at the start of the season, which got us off to a flyer, until we lost to Widnes in the Lancashire Cup Final, at Wigan.  It was absolutely freezing, that day.  I had a dreadful cold and the only thing I can remember about the game was feeling sorry for myself.”

Despite this reversal, the season continued to go well for them, with, just before Christmas, their making the semi-final of the John Player Trophy, when, despite having home advantage against Hull, the Airlie Birds upset the form book by booking themselves a place in the Final.

“They came straight down the middle at us, with a blonde-haired lad called Boxall, who bounced our lads out of the way, and totally destroyed us on the day.”

As invariably happened, the Challenge Cup, in the depth of winter, ground to a halt at the second-round stage, when Saints, the visitors, put paid to any further advance for the Red Devils for yet another season.

Towards the end of the season, however, things all came right, with Salford going into the last game of the season needing a win against an equally determined Keighley, desperately trying to avoid relegation, at Lawkholme Lane, in order to win the First Division Championship.   Their victory, in a keenly fought encounter, enabled them to bring home the Trophy for the second time, following their earlier success in ‘73/74.

For John, having started his professional career there, it was seeing that small ground so fully packed with spectators which really struck him.

“Even stranger than that, the Keighley Supporters Association had me out on the pitch, before the match presenting trophies to school teams.  It just felt that life had gone a full circle.”

One match which stands out in his memory was the semi-final of the Premiership, against Wakefield.

“We’d played them in the league at the weekend, and then had to play them mid-week.  We won, and I scored two tries, and I can still remember what a wonderful feeling I got at the end of that game.”

The most harrowing event to have occurred during his time with Salford was the tragic death on the field of Leeds’s half back Chris Sanderson, in 1977, in a league match at The Willows.

“I can remember that incident quite clearly.  Kenny Gill had the ball, and he drew Chris who turned in.  That put me through the gap, which had been created and I ended up forty yards down the field, on the red shale of the running track in front of the main stand. I got up to see Chris lying prostrate on the ground with everyone round him.

“They carried him off, and we continued with the game for a further ten minutes or so, when Sid Hynes came walking on, with tears in his eyes.  He went straight up to the referee, who brought the game to an immediate halt.

“To this day I don’t know the cause of death though there was speculation that he had swallowed his tongue, but if you look at the league table for that year, Leeds and Salford played one match fewer than everyone else.

“It was the last game of the season and I certainly would not have liked to have played in a rematch the following week.”

Looking back on his four seasons at the Willows, the thing which he finds most astonishing is how little the side had to show, trophy-wise, for all the talent, flair, flamboyance, and entertainment they provided for the fans.  Unbelievably, they won only one trophy in that time, but he assures me there were other compensations.

“Over the years, I have had access to various rugby league magazines which I always enjoy reading, but it is quite incredible the number of times there are references in them relating back to those wonderful Friday evenings at The Willows.  So, for all the fact that we didn’t win much during that time, it is something I am really proud of.

“It is so rewarding that what we achieved all that time ago is still being talked about, and reading, about it brings it all back to me, so easily.”

Apart from this, however, John has little in the way of memorabilia, other than a couple of photographs and international jerseys which he has hanging up on the wall at home.

By 1979, the club had started to deteriorate as key players got older, and their best years were now behind them.  Some of them were looking ahead with a view to getting into coaching, which one or two of them did, for relatively short periods, with the Red Devils.

 

Part 3 – HIS SALFORD TEAM MATES AND COACHES

The absolutely great team spirit which clearly existed throughout the squad, back then, was founded on the sheer calibre of talent spread completely throughout the team.

Among the players, who stand out in John’s memory, second row forwards, Colin Dixon and Mike Coulman, are ones he recalls with the utmost respect.

“Colin was the ultimate rugby league forward.  His athleticism, talent and attitude were second to none, and his reliability in defence was steadfast.

“Both he and Mike had the physique, and the pace of foot, to be tremendous threats to every opposing side we met.  They were the ones who would make the initial breaks, either by their sheer acceleration off the mark, or their strength and physique to break through attempted tackles, and I had to ensure I kept up with them to be on hand, in order to keep the moves alive.

“If then I took the ball on a bit further there were people like Keith Fielding and Maurice Richards to put in the finishing touches.  They were quite different styles of winger with the sheer speed of Fielding, and then the illusive running style of Richards.”

John particularly remembers the close friendship he struck up with Stevie Nash, who moved from Featherstone shortly after his own move from Rochdale.

“I’d been very friendly with Peter Banner, who was the regular scrum half when I arrived, but I had got to know Steve from the internationals and when he came we really got on well.  He would even come round to my house to help me out with work that needed doing on it, which was extremely helpful because he had a bricklaying/building company.”

The change of scrum half, which eventually saw Banner making the reverse journey to Featherstone, directly led to a change in the style of play of the whole team, because they both had quite different styles from each other.

“Peter was more of a running scrum half, whereas Steve preferred to be among the forwards and orchestrating things there.   He was terrific to play with, and so different from Peter.  I’d settled into the centre by then, and we still continued to have a great attacking backline the like of which Salford had had for several seasons.  Gordon Graham was a newly acquired centre who invariably took up the mantle of back substitute.”

It was not solely the stars of the team, of whom he has such lasting memories.

“Alan Grice was a player who really gave everything he had in every game he took part, while loose forward, Eric Prescott was a tremendous player.  He could kick, and get a ball away, to extremely good effect.

“One of the really unsung heroes of my time was another second rower, John Knighton, who first claimed his place in the side during a period when Colin was playing at loose forward, but then continued to hold onto it, despite all the intense competition for that position.  That just shows how important to the side he had become.”

Operating in the centre, John had a marvellous opportunity to be able to admire the exploits of his co-centre, Chris Hesketh.

“Chris was unique in everything he did. He just played what was in front of him but had so many ploys he could use, that he kept everyone guessing as to just what he was going to do.  He was also captain during my time there, and as such was quite simply the best captain I have ever played under.”

John also had the opportunity of first-hand observation of up and coming youngsters who were to become the next generation of the club, such as Sam Turnbull, Stewart Williams, and Chris McGreal.

Whilst the greater part of his time here was a relatively stable period for both him and the club, with former Salford, and Cumbrian, centre Les Bettinson, taking over the coaching role from the ailing Cliff Evans, the last few months of John’s Salford career was one of some little turbulence, with Les being replaced by a succession of short-lived appointments from within the team, including Chris Hesketh, and Colin Dixon.

The shortest of all, at this time came with the introduction of the highly experienced and much celebrated, former St Helens coach, Stan McComick, who lasted barely a couple of months (February to March 1978) before giving way to the renowned Alex Murphy.

For John, this proved to be a little problematic, owing to the personalities of the two of them.

“We didn’t seem to get along very well when he came, and I got the impression he wanted to replace me.  We get on a whole lot better now, but we didn’t really gel at that time and things didn’t work out, so I eventually left to join Wigan.

 

Part 4 – HIS REPRESENTATIVE HONOURS

John’s international career dates back to early 1974 when he was called up to be a part of the Great Britain squad travelling to the south of France to face Grenoble, as part of the preparations for the forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand, during the summer.

“I was invited along as seventeenth man, behind Kenny Gill, who already had the stand-off role wrapped up, but it proved to be an ideal opportunity to become acquainted with the likes of Chris Hesketh, Paul Charlton and David Watkins.  All the players involved really did make up a great side, and they were virtually all from the same club.”

Unsurprisingly, the Great Britain team won convincingly, with John’s future wing partner, Keith Fielding, running in a hat-trick of tries.

“I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get to play, but when, a few weeks later, the touring team was announced, having been seventeenth man in Grenoble, I was fully expecting to be in the squad – but I wasn’t.”

Fate, on occasions, however, can produce a strange result, which it did on this occasion, when, very sadly, Keith Fielding had to withdraw from the tour owing to an extremely distressing family bereavement, and John was brought in to replace him.

“Reg Parker, the tour manager, phoned me up to give me the news and told me that he, personally, had wanted me included from the outset, but that once the team had been announced he had had my name pencilled in as first replacement, no matter who dropped out.

“So I got the nod, and on the twenty-third of May, I travelled with them down under.  Thankfully, I did have a bit of time to prepare for it having been approached about it towards the end of March.

“It never remotely bothered me, thereafter, that I had not been in from the start.  I was so delighted, I just packed my boots and got on with all the preparations.  It was something I had always wanted to do.”

Tours, in those days were much weightier events than they ever are today, with this particular one continuing right through to the end of August.  Over the period they were away, John was involved in as many as eighteen games, though sadly, none of them were test matches.

“That was a terrible disappointment at the time, though I have grown to be a bit more mellow with it now.  I felt, at the time, that had I been given that one opportunity I could really have brought something to the team.”

Nevertheless, he still relishes the opportunity he had of being a part of the whole set up, not to mention the utter pride he felt in pulling on the GB jersey at a number of famous grounds.

“I really was determined to make the best I could of every game I played in, and I turned out in a variety of positions.  That was the understanding I had with Reg Parker.

“When I was a kid, I used to follow these tours whenever they took place, and had got to know the names of almost all of these remarkable grounds. So, actually to be going and playing on grounds, such at Towamba, Wagga- Wagga, and Illawarra, was wonderful.”

Not only did he achieve his ambition of playing on them he also had the additional bonus of scoring a total of eight tries throughout the tour.  Of all the matches in which he played, the one which stands out in his memory was one against New South Wales, on Sydney Cricket Ground.

“That gave me such a buzz, because it was so iconic and unique.  I’m a great cricket lover, anyway, so to be playing on the same surface that so many famous names from the past, in both sports, had played, was incredible.

“I went back in 2014, and, like all tourists, we had our photographs taken in front of the pavilion, in the knowledge that I had actually played there.

“The whole tour itself was something which, in retrospect, means so much to me, because there are just so many great players who have never had that experience, themselves.”

Although the tour itself was to be the culmination and conclusion to his international career, following his move to Salford further representative honours awaited him with Lancashire County, in his newly acquired position of centre-three-quarter.

His first outing at this level came with a winning start, in 1975, over a team of Other Nationalities assembled to swell the number of county games, the day before the birth of his baby daughter.  Oher fixtures were, of course, against Cumbria and Yorkshire, and John was to go on and play nine or ten games over the time he was at Salford.

Even though he was no longer involved with the national team – something which really surprised him as he firmly believes that he became a better player with Salford – there was still a great deal of pride in being recognised to play for Lancashire, and he assures me that he got considerable enjoyment from doing so.

 

Part 5 – HIS POST SALFORD CAREER

In this day and age, the opportunity to sign for Wigan would, in the case of most players, be jumped at, but back in 1979, when John arrived at Central Park, it was very far removed from the illustrious environment of the present club.

“Things might have been deteriorating at Salford, over a couple of years, but when I got to Wigan it was like a club in crisis.”

Far from challenging for major honours as they always had been, the 1980/1 season found  the Riversiders languishing in the second division, and the fact that they were selected as the first post-war team to play in London in the opening fixture against the newly formed Fulham club was just about as good as it got for them, other than attaining their return to the first division at the end of the season.

For John, his fortunes on the pitch somewhat reflected those of the club, with his breaking his leg part way through his first season, 1979/80, and then returning to face that second division opposition for the following season, upon his return to fitness.  Consequently, the assurances of Maurice Lyndsey, of better times to come, failed to make any impression on him, and a move to the team of his childhood aspirations, St Helens, became a dream come true.

Delightful as it was for him to see the club, which had released him as a youngster, having to pay a quite substantial transfer fee for him, on his arrival there, John found yet another club in something of a decline.  Even more dispiriting for him was that he sustained another long-term injury this time to his knee.

“I just could not get fit after it.  It was swollen all the time, so I then had two dicey knees with that together with the injury I’d sustained at Wigan.  As a result of these, I had both knees replaced in 2015.”

Nevertheless, he did, once fit, retain his place in the first team for some time, until the arrival of a certain Mal Meninga put paid to it completely.

“I looked at the size of him and decided that they’d probably prefer him to me, so, at the age of thirty-four, it seemed the logical time to call it a day.

“The game of rugby league has brought so much pleasure to my life, and to my family.  It would be hard to think what else I would have otherwise been doing, all those years I was playing. Being selected for the 74 tour was a fabulous experience, and the memories I returned with will stay with me always.

“Initially, I would have loved to have stayed at Saints, my home town club that I’d fanatically followed everywhere as a child, and had the chance to force myself into the great sides they produced.  Instead though, I gained so many fond memories of all my other clubs, Keighley, Rochdale, and Wigan, and all the great friends, Theresa, my wife, and I made and still see to this day, and of course, I did eventually end up where it had all started, at Knowsley Road, St. Helens.

“Pride of place must definitely go to my time at The Willows, with the star players, and the great free, fast flowing rugby, they produced.  People still speak to me now about those magical Friday night games and it fills me with pride to have been a part of such a special period for the Reds.

“My most grateful thanks to the great game of rugby; it was a hoot.”