Tag: Bill Sheffield

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.”