Rugby League Heroes: Ray Ashby

Liverpool City’s GB star

St Helens-born Ray Ashby made his name at Wigan, where he became one of the best fullbacks in the world.
He is best known for his outstanding performance at Wembley in 1965 that saw him named a joint winner of the Lance Todd Trophy along with Hunslet’s Brian Gabbitas. He also played for Liverpool City and Blackpool. He won two Great Britain caps.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
The obvious one from 1965 at Wembley. I remember everything about it. When we looked around the ground on the Friday, Brian McTigue took me to the Royal Box and said, “Don’t be like me at my first time at Wembley. As soon as you walk through the gates onto the pitch, start remembering everything. Then you’ll remember if for the rest of your life.” That was wonderful advice because I still remember it all.

It is still regarded as one of the truly great finals. Can you talk us through it?
I wanted Hunslet to kick off so we could enjoy some early possession, but they put it out on the full and Laurie Gilfedder kicked the penalty from halfway. That gave us all confidence. Billy Langton kicked an equalising penalty, but we never fell behind. They failed to find touch and I caught it. I was tackled on the ten-metre line and a couple of tackles later, Keith Holden scored.
I had a big part in Trevor Lake’s first try. I was the dummy runner. The ball was on the Ashton-Boston side of the field. I came in on the dummy run. My Great Britain team-mate Geoff Shelton should have been marking Keith, but he was taken out by my run. Keith ran behind Langton and put Lakey over. They pulled one back before half-time to make it 12-9. I missed the tackle, but I learned my lesson and saved two in the first half. I’d also stopped Geoff Gunney in the first half when it was 5-4.
I went into half-time blaming myself, but no one pointed the finger.
We’d played well and it had been a cracking game. Laurie scored another from 65 yards in the corner. With 20 minutes left, I made a break, fending off three tacklers inside our half to get up to the Hunslet 25-yard line. My dad Les, who played for Pilkington Recs, had taught me to pass the ball both ways. I ran straight at Langton, veered to the left, straightened up and then threw the perfect pass to Trevor. He could catch pigeons, so I knew he was going to score. We were 20-9 up and I think we knew it would be our day then. Hunslet got it back to 20-16 but we saw the game out.

Do you have a favourite moment?
Two. First, when I walked onto the pitch. And then when I made the break for Trevor to score. I went to the Wigan fans, and they were chanting my name. “Ashby da, da, da; Ashby, da, da, da!” It was such a wonderful feeling. I’d put those two moments up there with signing for Wigan and playing for Great Britain as the best moments of my career.

When did you find out that you and Brian had won the Lance Todd Trophy?
Cliff Morgan, the head of sport at the BBC and a Welsh rugby union international, invited me to do an interview with David Coleman but I still didn’t realise. I was celebrating with the fans, and it hadn’t registered. When the penny dropped, I still didn’t know Brian had won it with me. Suddenly he was stood with David Coleman, and we were going to be interviewed together. Before the interview, I asked Cliff if he smoked and when he said yes, I asked him to light me one. Fred Ward, the Hunslet skipper, was being interviewed. Then it was our turn, and I had the cig behind my back with smoke coming over my head. But it had a calming effect and I needed that.
Talking of Brian and Hunslet, they have always been wonderful to me. They made me an honorary member of the Parksiders and I’ve got a Parksider tie. I helped beat them at Wembley, yet they’ve opened their arms to me, and they are so welcoming.

Going back to the start of your journey, what are your earliest Rugby League memories?
There were six in my family – I had three brothers and one sister I went to Lowe House RC Boys School as an infant. Right the way through, there were good rugby players. I played all the way through and captained the school at rugby, football and cricket, but I fancied rugby more than the others. I was taught how to tackle properly at seven, and how not to have my head in the wrong place.
I played for the town side and the county. When I left school, there was an Under-18’s league with about 12 teams. I played for Glover’s Ropery. I progressed a lot and we won the league. When I was 17, Blackbrook wanted me as fullback and captain of their 18-21’s team. Jack Case coached us. His son George played for us, and George’s son Brian played for Wigan in the 1980s. I then had trials at Saints, but they decided I wasn’t fast enough. Blackbrook’s last game of the season was at Knowsley Road against Saints B team, and we beat them to win the Cup, which the Saints chairman presented to me. That was quite satisfying, given they’d just rejected me.

Tell us about signing with Liverpool City and your time there.
I’d played at Knotty Ash before in the under-18s and we won 55-0 with me converting all eleven tries, so I had good memories of the place. The ground was pretty primitive, and the money wasn’t very good, but the guy who ran the ‘A’ Team at Liverpool City persuaded my dad to get me down there with some of my mates because they had so many injuries. There were six matches left in the 1954-55 season, and we won three. They’d barely won three all season.
I had to get two buses there, so it was a difficult journey. One day I was late because the buses were full, and they dropped me. I was skipper! Liverpool was a good foundation for me. I was there eight years.
One game I remember was during the big freeze of 1962-63. Barely a game was played for months, but we had a Challenge Cup game against Roose, an amateur side from Barrow, at Widnes. Widnes is a chemical town and they managed to get something from ICI to thaw the pitch. But they only put it on the middle of the field. The edges were rock hard and if you ran up the wing, your boots sounded like you were on concrete!

You earned your first Great Britain cap while you were there.
I’m not sure if I was the club’s first international, but I think I was the first from the Liverpool City era to play for Great Britain. My Test debut was at Leigh against France. The floodlights may as well have been 100-watt bulbs. How I took one of the high kicks, I don’t know. I had a good game and tackled well. I made a couple of breaks and got some headlines in the press. The international set-up was very different to today. There were no hotels – we made our own way to the ground and there wasn’t even any training.
My second cap was also against the French, in the sludge at Swinton. That didn’t suit my game. It was a tight game, but Marcel Bescos, the French skipper, got sent off. He wouldn’t leave the field, so the game was held up for ten minutes.

You reached Wembley again in 1966. How do you feel about the tactics employed by Saints that day and, in particular, Alex Murphy?
I remember it all again! It was a nothing game. Colin Clarke was banned, having been sent off for premature striking at the scrum. We’d sold Bill Sayer to Saints in the summer of 1965, so in came Tommy Woosey. Joe Egan came down to teach him a few lessons, but you can’t learn in three or four sessions what takes several years. It was to no avail. Alex Murphy kept giving away penalties because in those days, there’d be a scrum after you kicked for touch and Alex knew Bill would win all the scrums against Tommy. We were starved of possession, and we lost. Many years later, I sat next to Alex at a Lance Todd dinner, and he said, “Ray, I was only bothered about going down there for the tin pot.” We won two scrums all day. I don’t know why the ref didn’t send him off, but that just didn’t happen in those days. Len Killeen kicked a goal from 65 yards that day. I couldn’t believe it.

What was the rivalry like between Wigan and Saints in the 1960s?
It was really intense, but my strongest memory is that both sets of players used to share the big communal bath after a match. Both grounds had just one bath, so we’d all jump in together with bottles of ale and bottles of shampoo being passed around. Anything that had happened on the pitch was forgotten about, but we’d be able to hear the speccies walking away arguing about the game, and there we were all having a bath together!

Why did you leave Wigan?
I was looking to retire because I was in my 30s then Blackpool kept coming to my house and persuaded me to play for them. I was pleased to go there, and they looked after me when I did my ankle ligaments.

Who was the best coach you played for?
Eric Ashton was very good, and he was there for you whether it was a rugby issue or not. He was very knowledgeable and knew the game inside out. He wasn’t brash and he had a way of talking to people. He was a great man. Liverpool had a different coach every year and they all had different plans, so we never really got anywhere.

Who were the best players of your day?
The three icons were Brian Bevan, Tom van Vollenhoven and Billy Boston. I played with Brian Bevan in a charity match. I never got to play alongside Tom, only against him. Bev had the speed to veer around you and he was gone. Tommy Voll was brilliant. He was good in defence, and he had the pace to get past you on the touchline, even when you thought you had him. Billy was different. He had the speed; he could go past you or fend you. If you got him on the hips, he would knock you away. Defensively, he could pick out the centre and sort him out. As an all-round player, Billy was probably number one. I knew him as the best of the three. We were room-mates at Wembley, and we would chat away. You’d never know he was a rugby player because he was so modest and such a gentleman.