Rugby League Heroes: Danny Wilson

A mercurial and enigmatic stand-off or centre for Swinton Lions in the 1980s, the Danny Wilson story has always been worth telling. He played rugby union in an era when Wales didn’t select black players and so ventured north to Manchester with his family in 1980. He was as naturally talented a player as anyone in the game but could never quite escape suggestions that his off-field lifestyle prevented him from fulfilling his potential. He is the father of the ex-footballers Ryan and Rhodri Giggs.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
When I scored for Wales against England in 1984 at Ebbw Vale. England had all the greats playing like Ellery Hanley and Garry Schofield, and I was lucky enough to be named man of the match. My son Rhodri recently found my jersey from that game online and bought it for me.

You switched codes in 1980, by which point the Welsh rugby union was yet to cap a player of colour. Did you feel your race was holding you back?
Maybe. I played for Cardiff in 1976 with Gareth Edwards and there were just two black players – me and Carl Smith – in the top league who were black. Maybe I’d have got a chance with Wales if I’d hung around, but who knows?

What is your heritage?
My two grandfathers are from Sierra Leone. I’m from Tiger Bay in South Wales where Billy Boston is also from. I knew Billy well – I was a regular in his pub!

As a first-teamer at Cardiff RUFC, you played as ‘A N Other’ for both Widnes and Barrow in 1978. Do you remember much about those experiences? How concerned were you about being found out and banned by union?
I also trialled with Wigan, Leeds and York and played for their ‘A’ teams. Wigan wanted to sign me in 1975 or 1976, but I wasn’t interested. I used to play for Cardiff on a Saturday and then go up north and play Rugby League as ‘A N Other’ on the Sunday. Sometimes I’d get a couple of hundred quid, which was good money in the ‘seventies.
My first-team debut for Widnes was against Warrington, a local derby. I played alongside Jim Mills who was from the same area as me. I broke my ribs in the first ten minutes. I should have come off, but I didn’t want to show myself up.

How did you explain the injury to Cardiff?
I told Cardiff I’d been in car accident! You’d be surprised how many players went up north on a Sunday for a game. Paul Ringer was a famous rugby union player, and he came up with me for a trial either just before or just after he first played for Wales.

As well as your race, there were suggestions that your “turbulent lifestyle off the pitch” prevented you from playing union for Wales. Is that fair?
Maybe. I liked a drink like everyone else, but I was always singled out because I was a black guy. I suppose I was a big head as well. Any trouble, bang, they had me, the coppers. Mostly I brought things on myself, so I have no excuses.

Why did you plump for Swinton in 1980?
I wasn’t interested in signing for Swinton, to be honest. A couple of hundred quid as a triallist was good money, so I was happy to go up there for some games but not commit permanently. I played one Sunday, and they came to take me to the train station on the Monday. On the way to the station, they showed me some houses and said, “If you sign, this house is yours”. I had two kids and lived on a council estate, so I couldn’t resist. I phoned my missus and told her I’d signed and we were moving.

You played centre and stand-off. Which did you prefer?
Stand-off. I’d played fly-half in union, so it was my natural position.

You played mainly second-division rugby with the Lions. Did you have ambitions of moving to a Division One club?
I loved playing against the top sides, but when we got promoted in 1985, I did my knee against Bradford Northern a few games into the new season and missed about six months. That really pissed me off because I used to play better against the better sides. St Helens, Hull and Warrington all came in for me at some point. [Warrington coach] Tony Barrow once told me the Swinton Chairman wouldn’t entertain the idea. But, to be honest, my boys were settled and playing football in the area, so I wasn’t keen to leave Swinton.

You won four Welsh caps. What are your memories other than the game in 1984?
I remember my debut in France and playing England at Hull. Colin Dixon was a hero of mine, and I knew all his family, so it was great to play with him. He was a great player. Glyn Shaw was a lovely guy and a good player. Trevor Skerrett was as hard as nails. Paul Woods was as mad as a hatter. John Bevan was a hero of mine in rugby union, so it was great to be a team-mate of him.

A recent book on Swinton by Stephen Wild said you could “win matches on [your] own with dazzling pace, a mesmerising sidestep, or some amazing sleight of hand [but] the downside was his team-mates usually didn’t know what he was going to do next, or whether in fact he would turn up on matchday in the right mood to perform.” Is that a fair analysis?
Yes, totally! My motivation wasn’t always there. I wasn’t fond of the hill at Batley. Sometimes I wasn’t interested. I couldn’t stand going up to Workington. Bob Irving told me they were all giants up there and the dressing-room pegs were all seven feet in the air. I thought he was winding me up, but they were! On the other hand, I was so up for the big games like playing against Leeds in the 1983 Regal Trophy. I scored twice and we only lost to a last-minute try. We played Widnes at Swinton once, and I was really up for that. I wanted to show them what they’d missed out on.

In that Regal Trophy run, you also kicked a record-equalling five drop-goals against Hunslet and started a huge fight against Keighley. 
[laughs] I started a huge brawl and then ended up sitting on the ball while everyone else was fighting! Yes, I played in the era of two-point drop goals. I kicked four with the right and one with the left against Hunslet and believe it’s still a joint record.

Did you receive much racist abuse as a player?
Not really. There was the occasional ‘n’ word, but I got more playing union in the valleys in Wales than I did in League. It just went over the top of my head. But I do remember a couple of incidents. In one game, a fullback – I can’t remember the player or the team – came at me calling me a nigger. He said, “Run at me and I’ll take your head off!” So, I ran at him, left him on his backside and scored under the posts. After the game, I said, “That’s what a nigger can do, so f*** off, loser!”
I had another strange experience from my own coach. We were losing at Batley one day and the coach said at the end of his team talk, “Go out and work like niggers!” Green Vigo and I just looked at each other. The other players were embarrassed. I don’t think he was racist, that was just the sort of language that was being used at the time. Anyway, I scored a great try in the second half, and just stared at him as I walked back.

Are you aware of a story told by Simon Kelner in his book ‘To Jerusalem and Back’ of how, when his father was on his deathbed, all he and his brother could talk about with their dad was you, as you were their favourite player?
That’s lovely to hear. I didn’t know that. I loved Swinton. They were lovely people. I loved fans wanting to talk to you, but I’m glad I played before everyone had a phone. I never thought I was better than anyone. I was just able to be myself. It was a very different world to my footballer son. I was never up my own arse.

What are your memories of Swinton beating Papua New Guinea in 1987?
It was a big deal for Swinton to play an international team. They were as tough as teak, but they were all midgets! You punched them, and they just laughed at you. In the bar afterwards, they all had hat, scarves and gloves on. That’s the main thing I remember.

As Swinton’s best player, were you often targeted by opponents?
All the time! I had my jaw broken twice. I had so many other injuries. It happened all the time, every game. It was part of the sport back then. I had a few bangs on the head and my memory isn’t the best now.

Why did you leave Swinton in 1988?
I’d just split up with my missus and my head wasn’t in a good place. I should have gone back to Wales. But Mike Marsden, the Chairman of Springfield Borough, gave me a good deal. I only played four games and got sent off on my debut. I returned to Wales in 1989 or 1990. I did some coaching at a club called Mountain Ash in the Valleys and played a few games.

Were your sons good rugby players?
Ryan was okay. He played for Salford Boys and scored three or four tries in one game. I took him to sprint training at Salford and he used to beat me at 14 or 15, so I didn’t take him again! Ryan didn’t have the build for Rugby League, but Rhodri could have made it. He was a good stepper and was a bit braver.

Do you still watch Rugby League?
Not much, but I like Bevan French and Jai Field. Rugby League has become bang, bang, bang and I can’t relate to it any more. I don’t find it exciting. There are no characters.

Did you have a difficult summer with Ryan’s trial? What is the media intrusion like?
I’ve had heaps of calls, and I tell them politely to go away. We get the long-lens cameras at the end of the street. I have an eleven-year-old son, Beau, who’s going to be a good rugby player, and he doesn’t need that. He plays both codes. If he grows and progresses, he’ll be one to watch. He can tackle and he’s got his dad’s sidestep!

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