From Peter Fox to Pope Francis

In part two of our interview with the former England winger Ikram Butt, he discusses his professional playing days, his time in prison and the charities and worthwhile causes he has represented.

Through his charity work and rugby development, Butt has met the Pope and Prince Charles. He has an honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett University and a fellowship from Bradford College.

RR: What was is it like to be coached by the legendary Peter Fox?

IB: Words cannot describe how much respect I had for Peter Fox. He was not only the greatest coach of them all, he was a father figure who filled the void after I lost my father as an 11-year-old. He was a true gentleman and a larger-than-life character.

His vision and knowledge of the game were second to none and no one brought out the best in a player more than him. It was Peter who gave me my first real opportunity at Leeds, and it was he who resurrected my career at Featherstone.

There was never a dull moment when we were in his presence. He was like an encyclopaedia. He was very direct, honest and fair. If a player did not figure in his plans, Peter would always go out of his way to find him a suitable club.

We had a game plan and adapted accordingly for each match, but he would still encourage us to play what we saw. His team talks were legendary. On most occasions it was about how good they used to play back in his day, how skilful his brothers Neil and Don were, and how tough the likes of Johnny Thompson and Vince Farrar were.

Looking around the dressing room before each game, Peter would ensure the players felt ten feet taller.

RR: Tell us about life at Post Office Road.

IB: My fondest memories are from my stint at the mighty Featherstone Rovers. I scored a try and set one up in a Yorkshire Cup match against Bramley in a dream debut.

The fans were the most vocal and with that kind of support behind you, home and away, it was always like having an extra player. Peter had assembled a formidable squad that could beat any team in the league. We just didn’t do it as often as we would have liked. The captain was Deryck Fox, a model professional and a great leader with outstanding ball skills. He had a great kicking game and could tackle anyone.

We had many great games under Peter. One game that springs to mind was a Yorkshire Cup tie at the old Boulevard in 1991-1992. We were trailing 16-4with time running out. My centre partner Terry Manning and I looked at each other and made an unspoken agreement to get the job done. And that we did. I was able to make a break and put Terry in to score between the posts. Then, almost from the restart, I took a great pass of Slogger (Gary Price), evaded a couple of players and scored under the posts. The game was drawn and we won the replay.

RR: Was the Old Trafford win over Workington in 1993 the highlight of your time there?

IB: It was one of them. We had been involved in some big games at Featherstone Rovers, most notably playing at Elland Road in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, but I was forced to watch my hero Garry Schofield score what was later adjudged to be the try of the season as we lost to Leeds.

Winning the second division Championship and then the Premiership Final against Workington were certainly highlights. Confidence and form were running high going into that final, but we were up against a very experienced side who were on top form too.

Workington were in Division Three and did themselves proud. The atmosphere was electric, and I can remember the game being played at such a fast pace. I certainly felt every tackle.

The physicality at times got out of hand and we needed the referee to calm the players down. It was very tight, and we needed Newy (Paul Newlove) to rescue us with two tries. He is one of the best threequarters Rugby League has ever produced.

RR: Why did you join London Broncos in 1995?

IB: It came as quite a surprise. I got a call out of the blue from their coach Gary Greinke, who offered me terms there and then. It was a very good offer, but I said I would need time to consider the offer.

I rang Peter and asked for his advice. He was no longer at Featherstone – I’d have never considered leaving had he still been there. But I hadn’t got on with Steve Martin, one of my coaches at Featherstone, and I didn’t have a strong connection with David Ward, who succeeded Martin. I was struggling with a groin injury and was holding out for an end-of-season operation. I was getting married in the summer.

The Broncos invited Peter and me to the Challenge Cup Final to further discuss the offer and I went for it. With the advent of Super League, it seemed an ideal opportunity to go full-time.

RR: How did you end up in prison in 1996 and how do you look back on the experience?

IB: Just as you asked the question, the classic song from The Clash came to mind – ‘I fought the law and the law won’.

I was driving without insurance and, when stopped, I panicked and gave the police my brother’s details. The actual sentence was six months, but I served three.

Twenty-five years on, this conversation comes more naturally, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that I was very remorseful at the time and knew I had let everybody down.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. I had just moved to London and had recently got married. I was overwhelmed with the support from the Broncos and the Rugby League family.

The experience gave me a greater insight into the difficulties that young people in all communities face. Today I use my experience to help young offenders and those at risk of offending by delivering presentations at various settings, including prisons.

RR: How did the rest of your career pan out?

IB: The Broncos were very good to me, so I resumed my career there. I played in the 18-18 draw at Central Park in 1996, which ended up costing Wigan the title.

I recovered from my groin injury, but I didn’t fit into Tony Currie’s plans. Peter came down to speak to Tony, but he hadn’t signed me and probably wanted a more traditional winger than me.

So I packed my bags and went to Huddersfield and played in their promotion season of 1997. It gave me a chance to play alongside Garry Schofield again. He may only be a couple of years older than me, but he started his career so early, he was always a hero of mine growing up. Paul Dixon was there too.

I really enjoyed it. They got into Super League for 1998, but it was my decision to leave. At one point I’d only missed two games in nine years but when my groin injury struck, I was never quite the same.

I had two operations with my spell in prison in between. I lost a bit of hunger and desire as a result of all that. Peter helped me get a move to Hunslet, which was great for me because being part-time gave me a chance to focus on other things.

RR: Tell us about the charitable causes you are involved in.

IB: I’ve been involved in a few and I’m doing a lot with the homeless right now, but domestic violence is something I feel strongly about. I’ve approached it via the sporting arena, which seemed logical. Sport has a tremendous influence over men’s and youth culture. Young men and women play sport, watch sport and participate in sporting culture socially.

When we began introducing the initiative to Rugby League clubs, we were delighted by the positive response.

I witnessed inexcusable behaviour in my playing days in terms of dressing-room ‘banter’.

When I look back now, I was just as guilty as the perpetrators by not speaking out. At no point on any occasion did any person speak out against what was being said.

Comments were accepted as harmless and allowed boys and men to continue in an unconscionable manner to mistreat and abuse females. There were no organisations to offer any kind of education or training to tackle this.

Unfortunately, there is still very much a dressing-room culture within the sporting environment, whereby derogatory remarks go unchecked. Without the presence of females, the boys and men are uninhibited and unashamed to discuss, or brag about their exploits and conquests.

For this reason, working with men is crucial to encourage them to report violence and not be bystanders, because domestic violence still isn’t being talked about enough.

RR: How did you come to meet the Pope in 2016?

IB: Meeting his Excellency Pope Francis is certainly one of the highlights of the journey I’ve been on. BARA (the British Asian Rugby Association) has been a driving force in breaking down cultural and religious barriers and we formed a good relationship with a guy called Pierluigi Gentile, from the Lega Italia RL. It was he who arranged it.

You can imagine that when this opportunity was presented to us, we were ecstatic at the thought of meeting one of the most iconic figureheads on the planet. Dr Imam Asim MBE, a UK Government advisor, was also a key member of our delegation.

It was indeed an honour to have met His Holiness and shake his hand. He is a very engaging personality and easy to see why he’s made such a positive impact since becoming the Pontiff.

He listened carefully to what we had to say and was well aware of Rugby League. It seems strange to say that sentence – “the Pope was well aware of Rugby League” – but he was! I remember not taking my hand away and neither did he. We were talking and holding hands and I just thought this guy is amazing.

If you missed part one of this interview, click here to read it now.

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