Rugby League Heroes: Kevin Ashcroft

WITH underdogs Leigh playing Champions Leeds in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup on Friday, Kevin Ashcroft is a great name from the past who has experience of this fixture, helping the Leythers upset the odds at Wembley in 1971. The talented hooker also played for Dewsbury, Rochdale Hornets, Warrington and Great Britain before embarking upon a coaching career. Ashcroft is a colourful personality with numerous tales from the past and strong opinions on the current state of the game.

RR: How did a young lad from Lancashire end up playing for Dewsbury? KA: We used to play rugby in the street and one of the lads was called Gwyne Davies, the brother of Alan, who was a magnificent centre for Great Britain. Gwyne came to watch me in a game and invited me to come along to trials at Dewsbury with him. I didn’t even know where Dewsbury was, but there was a few of us and one of the lads got a car from the club to take us over when we signed. I wasn’t at Dewsbury for long, but I loved every minute.

RR: Tell us about your last Dewsbury game, after which Gwyne received a sine-die ban. KA: I’ve never seen anything like it – he hit the referee for disallowing a try! I have never heard a stadium so quiet when he did it. No one could believe what he’d done. When he did it, he just turned around and walked off the field. Gwyne was so talented, just like Alan. But he wouldn’t train, whereas Alan was dedicated. That was the difference. Gwyne’s sidestep was unbelievable. He married a much older woman, who was very rich. She owned about 30 houses. She was a lovely woman and she got Gwyne back on the straight and narrow. I remember at the wedding thinking she probably didn’t have very long left! And he died three months after her.

RR: You were at Rochdale when they signed several Fijians. Joe Levula was called the “Pele of Fijian sport”. What do you remember of the Hornets? KA: One day Arthur Walker from Rochdale came to me in the bar after a Dewsbury game and told me he’d signed me. I knew nothing about it and told him I didn’t want to go, but he said if I didn’t, I couldn’t play for anyone as he’d paid a transfer fee. You could buy four terraced houses for what he paid! I was so happy to play alongside Stan Owen, the hardest man to play the game. I could hit anybody because Stan was alongside me! I played a few games with Joe, but he was 39 when he signed. He’d told Arthur he was 29! The Fijian lads were lovely. Tomorrow never came for them, they just lived for today.

RR: How did your move to Leigh come about? KA: Again, I knew nothing about it. I was told to meet Alex Murphy behind the stand after a game and I thought he wanted a fight, as we’d never got on. I’d broken his nose in a previous game. So I got there and he said, “Don’t be late Tuesday, we‘ve signed you!” That was it and we were together for years. He was an unbelievable influence on me. He was the worst trainer ever born, but he didn’t need to train because he was so talented. His pace was electric. He once beat a greyhound over 20 yards for charity. He had legs like tree trunks – he had to be physical because everyone in the league wanted to kill him! There’ll never be another Alex Murphy. He is the greatest player of all time.

RR: What do you remember of the 1968 World Cup? I couldn’t believe I was there. You become a family on tour. You’re in the middle of nowhere, travelling all over the place. Those friendships never break. I was privileged to go to Australia three times.

RR: You roomed with Jim Mills on one tour. What was that like? KA: I had to sleep on the landing for three nights. I tried suffocating him because of his snoring but he said [Ashcroft puts on a Welsh accent]: “If you shake me again boyo, I’ll break your jaw!” It was like being in a piggery! But he was great to play with because if it kicked off, he’d look after you.

RR: Has Leigh’s underdog status in the 1971 Challenge Cup Final become mythologised? You only finished one place behind Leeds in the league. KA: Yes, we were amazed at the underdog tag. In the sheds, Murph passed around the ‘Manchester Evening News’, which called us “No hopers Leigh!” I think it was written by Jack McNamara. People wrote us off, and I don’t know why. The guy that got us to relax was the winger Joe Walsh. He was a real character. He’d be in a team talk and would just start singing! He was mad and we all loved him. Leeds were the big-city team. We were just a small cotton town. But we knew what we could do.

RR: Your three-year-old son made headlines too. KA: [laughs]. We had to smuggle Gary into Wembley because they wouldn’t allow mascots! We put him in the skip that had all the kit in and wheeled him in. Murph was superstitious and wanted him there because he’d been our mascot all year. It worked like clockwork. We got him dressed, smuggled him into the tunnel and he walked out with the Chairman Jack Harding and met all the dignitaries.

RR: It’s time somebody told the truth about the Murphy-Syd Hynes incident! So, what happened? KA: The truth is, Hynes never touched him! Murph did his John Wayne act and deserved two Oscars for it. I told him not to get up and said that Syd had been sent off. So Murph carried on the act and was stretchered off, but he was back on in five minutes. It didn’t win us the game, but by god it helped.

RR: How tough a decision was it to sign for Warrington straight after? KA: It was very hard to leave. After the final, there were rumours Murph was leaving, so I asked him, and he admitted it. He asked me if I was working on Monday and I said yes, so he said he’d nip round with the papers to sign me! Warrington paid £8,000. I was happy at Leigh but wanted to play for Alex. He always chased the money and he’d done his job at Leigh. He now wanted to do a job elsewhere.

RR: You’re in the Warrington Hall of Fame after a very successful three-year stay. KA: We had a fantastic team spirit. I remember two of us breaking into the boardroom and drinking all the whisky. Ossie Davies, the Chairman, was the nicest gentleman you could ever meet but one night, Murph kept spiking his drink. He couldn’t walk or talk. Four of us had to take him to bed. Alex asked how he was the next day and he said, “Don’t you f***ing talk to me!” Years later, I’d ask Ossie if he’d sobered up and would get the same answer. But that’s the sort of team spirit we had, and we won things. Murph turned good players into brilliant players.

RR: As a hooker, what were contested scrums like? KA: They were hard. Your front three had to be nutters and there was always something to settle from a previous match. The speccies loved that. All the hookers in my day were mad.

RR: How do you look back on your coaching career? KA: It was very good – I really enjoyed it. John Wilkinson supported me 100 per cent at Salford. I wasn’t strict – maybe that was my problem. You can’t give someone ability – all you can do is nurture them. When I look back at my career, it’s been unbelievable. I’m one of the luckiest lads alive.

RR: With Leigh, you won promotion to the top flight in 1992 but were sacked and replaced by Jim Crellin, who lasted three games. Was that the lowest point of your career? KA: It was. I signed kids from Leigh Miners, Leigh East and Wigan St Pats. We had ten amateurs and they played their cods off. We did everything right, but when you’re not a big name, they thought they could do better. But what a terrible decision! The players wouldn’t play for him. He was stuck up, but you can’t be like that. He was aloof, and they wouldn’t play for him.

RR: What do you remember of Tommy Grainey, who passed away during the winter? KA: He was my best friend. He was my assistant for years. He was the most honest lad on this earth. He was from a family of eleven. With a bit more pace, he’d have been a great player.

RR: You told me in 2005 that there was more chance of plaiting sawdust than us beating Australia. Why have we been unable to do so in the modern era? KA: We’ve too many Australians in our game. The only way to beat them is to get a team of Englishmen, keep them together and train with one thing in mind – and that is to beat Australia. But go through the Super League teams and it’s a case of spot the English player. We need to build up our base again and the only way to do that is through the club game. Bill Fallowfield will be turning in his grave. He wouldn’t have allowed this number of overseas payers. He said two was fine. Then it became three. Now it’s however many you want.