Rugby League Heroes: Mike Ford (part two)

In last week’s issue, Mike Ford told us about the early parts of his career, including partnering the great Brett Kenny in the halves for Wigan at Wembley in the classic 1985 Challenge Cup Final.

This week we look at his later playing career, his move into coaching and his switch of codes to rugby union and his views on the essential differences between the two codes.

The highlight of your time at Castleford was the 1994 Regal Trophy Final. How did you beat Wigan so easily?

It was just our day. Everything went right. We all played well at the same time, whereas Wigan had problems behind the scenes with John Dorahy. We were the only ones to beat them in a major final back then, and we did it in style – five tries to nil. We also beat Bradford Northern in the Yorkshire Cup Final, which was nice for me because I’d also won the Lancashire Cup final. That team should have done better though. We lost at Wembley without turning up in 1992. We lost to Wigan in the 1994 semi-final, which was very close, and Simon Middleton had a crucial try disallowed in the corner. We also lost to them in the Premiership Final when we didn’t play well.

Which halfbacks did you enjoy doing battle with?

Greg (Andy Gregory) was the best. He was one of the smallest halfbacks, but physical too. The way he went to the line and played was superb. Neil Holding from Saints would give you a crack round the head to put you off. Paul Harkin at Hull KR and Greg Mackey at Warrington were very good too. And of course, there was Shaun Edwards. 

You played in the 1995 Winfield Cup with South Queensland Crushers, a new team, having played once for Eastern Suburbs ten years earlier.

After Wembley, Chika Ferguson got me over to the Roosters. Arthur Beetson was the coach, and I went over to cover the scrum-half, Laurie Spina. I only played once, in an away win at Canberra, when I got the last half-an-hour off the bench. I went to the Crushers in 1995 because of Darryl. I had about six months when I didn’t play, getting acclimatised, soaking it up and getting ready for the season. I played 15 times and then came back to England and signed with Warrington.

What was Mario Fenech like?

Bob Lindner was the coach with Mario the captain. Mario was a good guy and a big personality. He was a demanding team-mate. He was a character off the field, but a different animal on it.

Why did you only spend the 1995-96 season at Warrington?

Brian Johnson was the coach and, late in the season, we lost 80-0 to Saints in a midweek Regal Trophy semi-final. There was nothing we could do; it was just one of those nights. We played them again on the Sunday, took the lead, but lost 54-12. I was captain. Anyway, Brian resigned after the 80-0 defeat. Alex came in and pushed me out. I got myself in a rut, feeling sorry for myself. I spent about six months in the doldrums. “What are they blaming me for?” I wondered. I went to Wakefield, which was a bad move. I was still sulking, then I went back to Castleford, which was great, but I’d wasted six months. 

You were back at Castleford in 1997 and 1998. Having beaten Leeds and Bradford, why did you lose to Sheffield Eagles in the 1998 Challenge Cup quarter-final?

John Joyner got sacked after a poor start to 1997. Mick Morgan took over as caretaker and signed me. He made me captain after one training session, which was incredible. Then Stuart Raper came in and kept me on as captain. 

I remember the draw being made for the Sheffield game. We were in the clubhouse together, and there were some cheers. I must admit, I thought it was a great draw too, but that attitude cost us. I remember the [Keith Senior] punch [on Barrie-Jon Mather], but I don’t remember much else. We didn’t prepare mentally and it’s a big regret.

Why did you go to Bramley as player-coach?

I was 32 when I left Castleford. I had a contract offer from Salford, but I’d always wanted to coach. Until you try, there’s no proof in the pudding. A guy called Bill Cliffe was a massive Castleford supporter, and he was also on the board at Bramley. He joked about me signing, and I said I would do if they made me coach. I was prepared to drop a level and use my playing ability to get me a coaching job. It was a great learning experience. There was no pressure on us. I learned about the lower divisions and all the players in it. Looking back, it was one of the best things I did. The team to beat was Hull KR, and we beat them at Headingley. I signed Garry Schofield and some other lads I later took to Oldham. Mark Sibson came from Student Rugby League and he was a cracking player.

You moved to Oldham in 2000 and reached the play-offs in successive years, losing the Grand Final to Widnes in 2001.

Oldham had just finished second-last when I agreed to join them. Bramley had beaten them comprehensively, but I went there because it had been my dream to coach Oldham. Only five players turned up to my first coaching session. I’ll never forget that! We lost to Leigh in the play-offs, and it was painful, especially the way they celebrated. We beat them a year later, but we lost to an almost full-time Widnes in the Grand Final. 

That was your last game in Rugby League. Why did you move to union?

I’d just signed for three more years as player-coach. I was 35. But in 2001, I’d started to ease myself out of the team. Neil Roden took over as scrum-half with me sometimes on the bench. If I’d stayed, I’d have barely played. The move to rugby union was pretty quick. I’d had an interview for the Huddersfield Super League job, but Tony Smith got it. I went for the Warrington job, but it went to an Australian called Steve Anderson. The feedback was “No experience, sorry!” 

And then Ireland offered me a 100-day contract to work for them in the Six Nations and then go back to Rugby League. It was a brilliant opportunity. I could work with high-class players with Ireland and then come back to Oldham with new ideas. My assistant, Aiden Walker, would be promoted when I was away. It was an all-round great situation for everyone, but Chris Hamilton just couldn’t see the positives. I was always going to come back, but he started talking about getting a transfer fee for me, so I ended up resigning. It was a 100-day contract, and yet I stayed in union for 20 years.

Did you have chances to come back to League?

Shaun McRae offered me the assistant coaching job at Hull. Brian Noble offered me the same at Bradford. But I went to the 2003 World Cup, and I’d never experienced anything like it. I still intended to go back to Rugby League, but Ireland offered me a four-year deal and really wanted me to stay. Union’s international stage turns your head a bit, and you start looking deeper. There are just so many more opportunities compared to Rugby League.

How might the last 20 years have gone for you and your sons, if you had stayed in Rugby League? 

They would have all played Rugby League. George is 29 with over 80 caps for England. Steve McNamara offered him an unbelievable contract when he was 15 or 16. I’ve no doubt he’d have gone all the way in Rugby League. My first three years of coaching were good, so I’d like to think I’d have got promoted with Oldham or I’d have got a Super League job. 

Is there more job stability for a British coach in union rather than Rugby League or does the same short-term mentality exist when it comes to coaches?

I wasn’t sacked in League and I have been in union, so I might not be the best person to ask! It’s probably quite similar, it’s just there are a lot more jobs in rugby union. There are way more jobs with England alone, then there are the other Six Nations teams. You look at coaches who were coaching in League at the same time as me, and you don’t know where they are now.

Has union learned in recent years that it’s perhaps not worth pursuing high-profile Rugby League players?

Yeah, probably! There’ll always be the odd occasion where it’ll happen again. The outside backs can probably make it. Every player in rugby union has to be able to kick the ball and understand the game. The game is getting quicker and quicker. Rugby League is simpler to understand and watch. Union is more complex. The ruck is the big difference. I love both codes. Rugby League became the more spectator-friendly game, but rugby union is more of a challenge. Most of the teams play differently to each other, whereas many League teams play the same way.

Was the signing of Sam Burgess a mistake?

I’d rather not talk about him. He has said things about me, and I’d prefer to leave it alone.

What are you doing these days? 

My last job at Leicester ended a year ago, and I’m back in Oldham now. We’ve settled back home, and I have various business interests here, but if the right job came up in terms of coaching a team, I’d look at it, and that includes Rugby League. I see it as a positive that I’ve been in rugby union. I’ve been coaching Rugby League in rugby union – how to catch, run, pass and tackle. People say you’ve been out of the game too long, but coaching is coaching, and when you’re experienced in getting the best out of people and creating the right environments and cultures, it’s not too different.

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