Rugby League Heroes: Mike Ford (part one)

As a 19-year-old, Mike Ford partnered the great Brett Kenny in the halves for Wigan at Wembley in the classic 1985 Challenge Cup Final.

He went on to play for several other clubs, most notably Castleford, where he won the 1994 Regal Trophy against his former side. He also played in Australia for Eastern Suburbs and South Queensland Crushers.

He moved into coaching with Bramley and Oldham before a successful code switch in 2002. His three sons played union, including George, who has starred for England since 2014.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be? 

Playing for Wigan at Wembley in 1985 is one for obvious reasons. I was so young. The whole occasion was fantastic. I don’t think about it much, but it does get brought up a lot. There was just short of 100,000 there, and to beat Hull was just fantastic. David Stephenson passed away earlier this year and he played in that game. We were texting each other until just recently. He was a good mate.

Were you intimidated that Brett Kenny’s last scrum-half partner had been Peter Sterling?

I didn’t feel intimidated. I was too young for that. I felt privileged to play with possibly the best player in the world at the time. He was very calm and laid back. He didn’t necessarily inspire you with a speech, but there were little talks on and off the field. I couldn’t spin the ball off my left hand, but I could very soon after meeting Brett. His calming influence and him demanding the ball when something was on were two features that stood out. He unleashed the outside backs. He could read a game so well. Steve Ella came over later, and I learned so much from him too. They both came from the Jack Gibson era at Parramatta.

You were born in Oldham. Did you support them as a kid?

Yes. My dad was a big Oldham fan and took me to the ‘Sheddings. A fella called Charlie Saul was my PE teacher at primary school, and he was sports mad. He became the Oldham Schools’ coach, and we played Hull at Wembley in the curtain-raiser to the 1977 Challenge Cup Final. I played second row, would you believe? We won 10-5, I think. Phil Larder was the PE teacher at my secondary school, and he was the best you could have. I was so lucky to have gone to those schools. When I had Jack Robinson and Maurice Lindsay in my parents’ lounge in Oldham in 1982, offering me a contract, I said to my dad, “Just ring Oldham one more time.” So he did. They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes either, so I went to Wigan. 

What were your early experiences of Wigan?

I signed on my 17th birthday as an amateur because I wanted to go on the BARLA Under-19 tour to New Zealand. I was on the side of the pitch at Oldham St Annes one day in April 1983. The day before we’d had a BARLA training session in Leeds, and I’d decided not to play for St Annes because I’d got a knock. Then I got an urgent message to get to Wigan because Jimmy Fairhurst had pulled up injured. “Are you fit?” I was asked. “Dead right I am,” I said, and I went the short distance to Central Park to make my Wigan debut against Oldham. My brother-in-law, Chris Willis, was playing for Oldham. We won the game 7-2, and I was named man of the match. I played three more games that season. 

The tour was a fantastic experience. We won the first seven matches, which was unheard of, but we lost the second Test. We had a great squad. Deryck Fox was scrum-half and I was stand-off. Garry Schofield captained the side from the centres. 

Your first professional coach was Alex Murphy. What was he like?

Alex was quite intimidating. Nowadays, players get to a game three or four hours early, have some food and a massage, get strapped, have a walk though things and do some video work. With Alex, it was a case of reporting to the changing rooms at 2pm if kick-off was at 3. We’d laugh and joke and read the programme for 15 minutes then Alex would come in wearing his sheepskin coat and shout at us for ten to 15 minutes. David Stephenson told me, “Don’t look him in the eye,” because he’d lay into you. We’d get changed at about half-two, have a rub maybe, then it was time for another bollocking. The warm-up was high knees in the changing room – we didn’t warm up on the pitch. Glyn Shaw gave everyone a shot of port and then we went out. If you played well, Alex would tell the world you should be playing for Great Britain. If you played badly, he’d threaten you with the transfer list. In the end, he right-hooked Maurice Lindsay and got sacked.

Were you there for Alex’s infamous team talk that was televised by ITV in 1983?

I was there, and I do remember it. It epitomised that era, I suppose. Alex is a legend, but players today are too educated for that approach. A few of my coaches shaped me as a coach because I learned what not to do. I knew what I wanted as a player. I knew what information I needed to improve. In my early Rugby League days, if we lost on a Sunday, the coach would tell you on the Tuesday what you should have done. What use is that? Why didn’t they tell me before the game? 

When Alex went, Colin Clarke and Alan McInnes took over. Do joint coaches work? 

Well, they did work. They only got sacked because Maurice’s approach was to get the world’s best at everything, and he managed to get Graham Lowe. You can’t argue with that. Alan was very analytical. He was a coach who could make you better. Colin motivated you, put an arm round you when needed and challenged you. He handled the older players very well. Alan and Colin did nothing wrong, but Maurice wanted Graham.

Why did you leave?

Like I said, Maurice wanted the best, and he signed Andy Gregory. I played in a few finals for Wigan and was the first-choice scrum-half for a couple of years. When Andy came, I’d be making the bench at best, but I wanted to play. Leigh came in for me. Graeme West advised me to check them out before I signed to see what sort of club I would be playing for, but I stupidly ignored him. I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I went there. I hadn’t appreciated what I’d left and how much of a step down it was. We avoided relegation at Leigh, but I soon moved on to Oldham when they came knocking.

You toured with the Lions in 1988. How do you look back at your international career?

It would have been nice to play more for my country but there was a certain Andy Gregory ahead of me! He was one of the best players in the world, and I respected him so much. Mal Reilly and Phil Larder were good coaches.

I had some real highs and lows on the 1988 Lions Tour. I captained the midweek team three times. The first time was in North Queensland in the second game in Australia, and I scored three tries in an easy win. I thought I was pushing for a place on the bench for the Tests, but I injured my shoulder at Suncorp, which was down to poor tackle technique. I still have pain from that injury now. My dad advised me to come home, but I didn’t want to, and my form dropped. They were struggling for a hooker in the third Test, and had they needed a hooker earlier, it could have been me.

I played for England against Wales in 1992 and twice for Great Britain against France in 1993. I have no particular memories of those games. I scored in both French games, but I can’t remember much else. I think I played well against Wales and put Ellery Hanley in for a try. Malcolm gave the players a report after every game, and his comments about me were kind.

Was the 1989-90 season the highlight of your time at Oldham? 

Yes, we had an extraordinary season as a Division Two team. We won 36-6 at St Helens in the Lancashire Cup and then beat Wigan 19-18 in the semi-final. I got the drop-goal. But we lost to Warrington in the final. We only started to play when we went behind. We then had a great Challenge Cup run, winning 16-4 away at Widnes, the newly crowned world champions. We played Warrington again in the semi-final, and we were much better than in the Lancashire Cup Final. We were 10-6 down in the last minute when I put a kick through for our winger Paul Lord and he scored, but it was disallowed for offside. I thought it might have been the right decision, but when I saw the tape, he was onside. Then in the Premiership Final at Old Trafford, we were being thrashed by Hull KR. We brought on a young kid called Tommy Martyn, and he scored the winning try! It was an incredible year. You wouldn’t get a second division side having Cup runs like that now. Tony Barrow was a Colin Clarke type character – a great motivator.

Your next port of call was Castleford in 1991. 

It was the first time I was properly coached, and it was by Darryl van de Velde. There are two types of coaches – those who talk about being disciplined and doing the right thing at the right time. Then you have technical coaches. Darryl was more of the first. He made me understand the game. When to kick for touch, when to go wide and so on. He taught the squad so much about life in general. He had loads of stories and he captured your imagination. He wasn’t a chest-banging, motivational talker. I thought I knew everything, but I realised I knew nothing. Darryl used to give you a score out of ten. I’d have a great game one day, chipping over the top, and he gave me a six. Then in another game, I’d think I’d done nothing special, but he’d give me a nine. It took me six months to work him out, but he said my job was making other players play well – getting into the right field positions etc. “You are me on the field,” he would say. It was the first time I heard anyone talk about building pressure. 

I love Castleford. I loved the crowd. They really welcomed me.

Two of your Castleford teammates were St John Ellis and David Nelson, who are no longer with us. Can you tell us about them? 

They were great wingers. David was electric and strong for a winger. He could finish like the best of them. I knew Singe better because we went to the Crushers together. He was a brilliant player. He brought light to the dressing room. He was a funny, funny character. We coached against each other – Oldham v Doncaster. I was at Saracens when he passed away in 2005 and it was devastating.

Part 2 of this interview will feature in next week’s League Express.

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