By a sublime coincidence, the same weekend that rugby league was counting the cost of Ben Flower’s excesses at Old Trafford, a Wigan forward of an earlier era was putting it into perspective.
Bill Ashurst is well qualified to assure us that worse things happened on the field in his day. A lot of them happened because he made them happen. Ashurst was not just one of the most skilful forwards ever to play the game, he was, by his own admission, one of the most violent and cynical.
His autobiography, Tries and Prayers, published this month, also tells how he became a born-again Christian, whose declared ambition now is to apologise in person to everyone he wronged on the pitch. It could take some time, because he did more than his share of damage. As a former pastor of his put it: “If God can change you, Billy, he can change anybody.”
Ashurst says: “I’m not proud of a lot of the things that I did. But that was the way the game was then.
“I was at Old Trafford for the Grand Final and, when I saw what Flower did I was gobsmacked. I thought I’d gone back in time, but what he did was a one-off. In my days it happened every week. It was more toe-to-toe, but if someone had hit me high he’d better watch out when we played each other again, because I’d get my own back.”
He recalls a “friendly” for his Australian club Penrith that was a classic example of getting his retaliation in first. “This guy was running at me with his elbow out,” Ashurst says. “I’d just passed the ball and I thought, ‘He’s going to do me.’ I got in first, put my elbow up and hit him. He went straight down and his face was open... That was how the game was then – an evil game.”
He usually came out on top in the villainy stakes. “But don’t forget that time when you almost died in the ambulance,” says his wife, Sheila, from the other side of the front room in Ince, Greater Manchester, referring to an incident after he was taken out when he came back to play against Wigan for Wakefield.
Ashurst was never a fighter off the pitch, but on it he describes himself as “a genius and an animal at the same time”.
When he was an 18-year-old centre, just making his way at Wigan in the mid-Sixties, the great Billy Boston, his boyhood hero, requested that he play alongside him in his testimonial game. “I gave him a pass for a try,” Ashurst says, “and told him: ‘Don’t retire, Billy, stick with me, I’ll make you a star’.”
He was cocky, he was brash and he was not handicapped by false modesty. Moving to his regular position in the second row, he had six stormy seasons with his hometown club before spending three years in Australia, where he was recently voted the Penrith Panthers’ best-ever player in his position.
He was widely credited with saving Wakefield Trinity from relegation when he joined them for what was then a world record transfer fee. The startling statistic is that he won just three Great Britain caps; that might have had something to do with his reputation as a difficult man to deal with, or with his well-known disdain for training.
A Penrith committee man once watched him go through the motions on the training pitch and shouted: “If you don’t want to do it, Bill, fuck off.” When hauled in later to explain his absence, he said: “I didn’t want to do it, so I fucked off.” Nobody else could have got away with that.
There was always the darker side, however, right to the end of his playing career. He was over 40 when he came out of retirement to play for Runcorn, the lowly club he was coaching, in a John Player Trophy tie at Wigan.
His farewell to a game in which he had displayed such ability was a sending off for headbutting Andy Goodway. He was particularly embarrassed about that transgression in 1988 – not just because he had retaliated to the wrong man, but because much of the pre-match publicity had centred on his recent conversion to evangelical Christianity. He was not a good recommendation for his new faith.
In Tries and Prayers Ashurst is equally honest and brutally frank about something even more fundamental to his life. For years he was sexually abused by his father, something that has no doubt affected his attitudes as a young man, especially when he was “living the idiot life” of booze and birds.
He could never come to terms with his boyhood experiences until he dragged them out into the daylight, first in testimony at his church and now in this book.
“I can honestly say that it doesn’t bother me any more – and talking about it might just help someone else,” he says. “In fact, I know someone it has helped, just by showing that it is possible to come through it.”
Bill was encouraged to tell his full story by Sheila, who he says saved him by taking him back and forgiving him after years of infidelity. That led to him going with her to church and ultimately committing himself to it. He says that he was never a preacher as such, but he has been in demand, telling his story to congregations well beyond Wigan.
It is a story with another cruel twist. We are discussing the state of his knees, which, in common with a lot of players, stopped working properly some time ago, when he casually drops into the conversation that he is going to hospital later in the week for treatment for prostate cancer. He seems entirely relaxed about it, although he needs more time if he is to deliver an apology to everyone due one.
On the other hand, if he paid a visit to everyone he made look a better player, let alone everyone who marvelled at his skills from the terraces, it would be a longer journey still.
‘Tries and Prayers: A Rugby League Journey’ by Bill Ashurst with Steve Manning (London League Publications, £14.95)Reuse content