RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (5) – RON HILL – PART 3

CONTENTS

Part 1 – HIS EARLY RUGBY CAREER

Part 2 – MEMORIES OF HIS TIME WITH SALFORD

Part 3 – SALFORD’S 1969 CHALLENGE CUP RUN

Part 4 –HE REMEMBERS HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES AND CHAIRMAN

Part 5 – HIS POST SALFORD CAREER

Part 3 – SALFORD’S 1969 CHALLENGE CUP RUN

Salford’s challenge for the Cup, in 1969, started in the January with the first of three home ties, this one being against Batley, from the lower echelons of the division, and unsurprisingly, the Reds ran out 20 points to 3 victors.

“We never had any qualms about taking on Batley – we were most confident from the moment the draw was made, and rightly so as things worked out. We made no special preparations for the game, and just took things in the same way we always did for our league games.”

The next round brought Workington Town as Salford’s opponents, and there will have been many a Salford fan extremely thankful that the number 23 ball came out ahead of Town’s, because journeys up to Cumbria seldom made for happy return treks home.

“I used to like playing against Workington because they were all such tough characters, so you knew exactly what to expect and so were prepared for them. The journalists however, were convinced that we were in for a shock, because Workington had a hooker named Malcolm Moss, who would provide a lion’s share of possession from the scrums, which were of course keenly contested in those days, for their big pack to grind out a surprise win.

“Unfortunately, poor Malcolm Moss only lasted for one scrum, and then had to be replaced owing to an injury he had sustained while packed down, much to the ire of their flamboyant Chairman, Tom Mitchell, and coach, Ike Southward. Indeed, Mitchell had quite a lot to say about the incident, and me, whom he blamed for it in their programme later in the season, when we played up there in a league game, which we also won.”

Unlike the unfortunate Moss, Ron continued on through the tie, capping it by scoring a try and two goals, in the 12-5 victory. Having already kicked four goals, against Batley, he was well on his way to scoring in every round up to, and including, the Final.

Widnes were next to find they faced a visit to The Willows and what a memorable afternoon that proved to be, with the gates rumoured to having been closed on a capacity 14,000 crowd, around half an hour before kick-off.

Home advantage at this stage of the competition is always of significant benefit to any team, but at that time The Willows’ playing surface had a uniqueness all of its own owing to its extremely poor drainage, and during the winters it turned into a total quagmire. The groundsman’s only way of dealing with the problem was to sprinkle sand onto the surface, but as the weeks wore on the amount of sand lying on it got greater and greater, making it more and more unpleasant for the players particularly when being tackled.

“It was absolutely dreadful, and I remember having to go home, game after game, and soak in the bath for lengthy periods to soak the soreness out of my skin.  Opposition teams complained about it to a considerable degree.”

The pitch, however, does not win matches, and against such a resolute cup-fighting team as the Chemics, it required Salford to be at their best, in order to progress any further. Fortunately, they were so, and an attacking move at the Social Club end of the ground, midway through the second half, saw the ball moved from left to right with the attacking prowess of winger Bill Burgess straining to be unleashed, so when the ball came to Ron, instead of catching it and passing it on, he just tipped it with the palm of his hand on to Burgess, who glided over in the corner for the final try, which took the score to an unassailable 20 points to 7.

“As the ball came to me, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Bill had got a bit of room in which to work. Had I caught the ball and then passed it on, the chance would have been lost. I had to get it to him as quickly as I could so just palmed it on its way into his hands. In fact, I am fairly sure that had I actually taken possession, I would have been hit by a couple of defenders and wouldn’t even have had the chance to pass it.

“Widnes were a very good side, with George Nicholls, Ray French, and the two O’Neill brothers, Mike and Steve, within it. We, however, had had such a fillip in our confidence, after having beaten Workington, that we had really begun to believe that we could get to Wembley, that year, and once the draw was made and we had another home tie we knew that out fate was in our own hands.”

The third, and final ‘W’ turned out to be against Warrington, in the semi-final, at Wigan.

“We went to Blackpool and stayed at Mr Snape’s Stuart Hotel for the week, and trained at Blackpool Football Ground, where we were welcomed by the legendary, Stan Mortenson, and then  extremely well looked after, all of which boosted our confidence ahead of the game, so that by the time we were arriving at Central Park we were as confident as anyone could be.”

That confidence was certainly needed ten minutes into the game when fullback, Ken Gwilliam, made an unfortunate error to allow Warrington to touch down for a three point advantage. What was most significant, however, was the way the rest of the team rallied round him to console him, whilst the unsuccessful conversion attempt was being taken.

“My lasting memory of the game was an early incident involving referee, Eric Clay.  He called me out, in front of the full Main Stand, for something he had spotted, and started wagging his finger at me. What he actually said was that were Salford to get a last minute penalty in front of the sticks with which to win the game and I were no longer on the pitch to take the kick at goal, it would not go down very well with the club. I actually thought his handling of the situation was very fair.

“As it happened, that last minute penalty came just on half time, but rather than being in front of the posts, it was virtually on the touchline. Fortunately, I was still on the field to be able to land it from right in front of the bulk of the Warrington supporters to give us a 9-3 half time lead. When it went over I felt I had justified my time at Salford.”

Just as with Widnes in the quarter final, the Warrington team contained many household names, not least hooker, Len McIntyre, and scrum half, Parry Gordon.

“Parry was a keen exponent of exploiting the blind side, but I had always been told, as a loose forward, that the blind side was my territory, and that if anything went wrong around there then it was my fault.  On this occasion authority was established early on, and Parry chose to work at trying to open up other routes through our defence.

“When the final whistle blew on our 15-7 victory, we were elated. We had got to Wembley, and that was all that mattered at that moment in time. We went back to The Willows for a meal in the restaurant, and then celebrated along with the fans who had packed into the club, and I still have one of the empty Jeroboam bottles of champagne which were quaffed on what was a night to remember.”

The weeks running up to the Final might have seemed an eternity to some Salford fans, but for Ron it was a particularly anxious time as he had picked up a knee injury, which threatened to keep him on the side-lines. It was predominantly thanks to a physiotherapist friend back home, in Yorkshire, that he made the recovery in time to take his place in the line-up.

“The week before Wembley we had to play Leeds, at Headingley, in the semi-final of the league play-offs, and Mr Snape announced that the team which played in that match would be the same one to play at Wembley, so I had to play in order to prove my fitness. We were winning at half time, but Leeds got on top in the second-half, and they went through to beat Castleford in the Final of that competition, a fortnight later.

“That we had lost for the first time in many months did not in any way damage morale and confidence because we had all come through the game unscathed, so consequently we would all be going into the final, which is what happened.”

The fact that the Challenge Cup Final turned out to be against Ron’s former club, Castleford, from whom he had only six months earlier transferred, was an extremely wry turn of events, which made him a much sought after celebrity, as far as the press was concerned

“We all returned to Blackpool, for the runup to the Final, where we were somewhat sheltered from all the hype which was going on throughout rugby league circles as a result of the Final being contested by two clubs, which had both, for decades, been in the shadows. I, on the other hand, having been so recently a Castleford player and still living in the local area, was in some demand by journalists for interviews.”

Questions to which he was required to find an answer included: What’s it going to be like playing against your friends?

“The clear answer was that they would be my friends again, once the game was over.  Privately, though, it was evident to me that I not only knew our opponents as friends but also their individual strengths and weaknesses, their ploys and their reading of the game. Also, it would be good meeting up with them all after the game.”

One of Ron’s fellow forwards, prop, Charlie Bott, had an additional reason of his own to be excited about the coming encounter.

“Charlie was over the moon about the fact that the trophy was to be presented by the, then, Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Charlie was a big fan of the Premier’s, and the fact that he would be meeting his political hero in the pre-match introductions really excited him. It was all he talked about all week.

“Nevertheless, having such a hard worker in our pack was worth all that, and I just loved playing alongside him, and his co-prop, Terry Ogden, who used his extremely clever ball-handling skills to set up many of our planned forward moves.”

They travelled down to London by coach, on the Friday, and payed a visit to Wembley Stadium on arriving there.

“We had a walk around the ground and dressing-room, and I have to admit I was very disappointed with the condition of the ground. That year, they had held The Horse of the Year Show, the previous week, and there were bare patches all over it, whereas I had been expecting to walk out onto a carpet.”

The day of the match dawned fine and sunny, and there began a gradual build up to the kick-off.

“There were not many of us who were particularly nervous, and it is always good to have a bit of nervousness before a game, in order to build yourself up for it. I don’t think anybody froze, on the day, and you only have to look at how close the game was to realise that. We were winning 4-3 at half time, but then lost 11-6.  Had Chris Hesketh’s ‘try’ been awarded, our half-time lead might well have been enough to have seen us through.

“It was a very tight game, and we gave a good account of ourselves, but were just not quite good enough on the day. The Castleford halfbacks, Hepworth and Hardisty, took more and more control in the second half, and Alan Hardisty was a great player who knew how to box up a talented opponent such as David Watkins. With Keith Hepworth at scrum half the pair were known as the ‘H’ Bombs, and they each scored a try in the second-half, Hardisty off a short ball from Malcolm Reilly, and then Hepworth going over, late on.

“I landed three goals, for our tally, but I also missed two kicks, which I would normally have fancied my chances of getting. Then, late on in the game, we got another penalty out wide, close to the touchline, but I have often thought over the years that, had I kicked those other two, it would have been a difficult kick but I could have been the player to have brought the glory back to Salford.

“It was disappointing to lose a final in that way, but for us to have taken our supporters back to Wembley after such a long time, was something they really appreciated. So much so that, when we returned to Salford, we paraded on an open-top bus, through the streets and onto the balcony of the Civic Centre, followed by a reception by the Lord Mayor. The number of people who turned out to wave us on our way was absolutely phenomenal – well beyond anything I would have imagined.

“That was a truly memorable occasion, and I know all the lads were really touched by the response from all the supporters in turning out in those numbers even though we had lost. The great thing for me personally was that after I had broken the great taboo of ‘going north’, my father had felt unable to go out for months afterwards, so it was absolutely great to have all my family come down to watch me play at Wembley. I felt as though I had been able to repay them that way.

“Among all the Salford players, I was the one who had most determination to put a good face on the disappointment of losing, because, on going up to receive my medal, I was not going to let the Castleford Directors see me downcast in any way.

“There were those who made comment about the fact that I should have stopped at Castleford to have won but my response was that had I stayed at Castleford I probably wouldn’t even have been playing, because they were very much a ‘home town’ team. Trevor Bedford, for example had played in the  third round against Leeds, had been taken down to Wembley with the expectation of being substitute, only to be told on the day of the game that he was not going to be involved, as he was being replaced by a home grown Castleford lad. That, I feel sure, would have happened to me.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it has been argued that we possibly got to Wembley a year or so too early in the development of the team, which continued with the players forging a greater and greater understanding among themselves, as the seasons proceeded.

“It also has to be remembered that we had to play against a very good side in Cas, who returned the following season and defeated Wigan, and, in addition to that, we then had a change of coach shortly before I left, with Griff Jenkins being replaced by Cliff Evans.”

The 1969 Challenge Cup Final is available to watch here on RDTV. Supporters can purchase RDTV at a discounted rate by becoming a squad builder.