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