Rugby League: Promise of fresh glory for Gregory

A spell of soul-searching in the sun has rejuvenated Super League coach after a bad year
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AMID ALL the changes that have taken place at Salford as they prepare for what they believe will be a vastly better year than last, the most significant is that the glint is back in Andy Gregory's eye.

The club's coach, the longest-serving in Super League, despite the precariousness of his role, had a hunted, unhappy look about him during last year's rugby league season. "I couldn't wait for that season to end," he says. "Now I can't wait for this one to start."

The metamorphosis of Gregory has come just in time. His friends and admirers were worried sick about him last year as he went into a downward spiral that mirrored his team's troubles on the field.

"I was totally down and I didn't give 100 per cent commitment to the job, but this year I'm completely focused," he said. "It's been well publicised the problems I've had, but now I feel great."

The problems centred around the break-up of his marriage and a self-confessed descent into heavy drinking, not helped by taking over a pub at the precise time when he was most vulnerable.

"I think a lot of it was down to my divorce, which was totally my own doing. What changed my life around was two directors of the club who took me on holiday. We talked about my problems with drink and they managed to convince me that I'd had a great career and I'd still got a great life. When I came back, I was a different person."

If that sounds like a bit of a lavish advert for Gran Canaria, then his appearance and demeanour bear out the claims of a transformation.

For the first time since his playing days as the finest British scrum- half of his generation, he is working out regularly with his players and looks fit and alert once more.

He is not claiming that he does not have the odd pint - and he opened a new pub, appropriately next door to the complex that will house his old club Wigan's new ground last night - but the demons are under control.

And, as the pain has lifted from his shoulders, the mood at the whole club has changed. "It's the best atmosphere since I came here," he says, "including the season when we finished sixth in Super League."

Last season was a dreadful disappointment after that benchmark, with Salford dropping to 11th place, and an air of disillusionment and crisis hanging over The Willows.

There were few weeks when it did not look as though Gregory might either quit or be sacked, but the Salford chairman, John Wilkinson, stuck by him and gave him the breathing space to sort himself out - something that Gregory will never forget.

"Most of the supporters stuck with me as well, although there were a few who were having a go. They seemed to forget what we had achieved here."

Gregory believes now that he persisted too long with some of the players who had done a good job for him. Wilkinson has now backed his judgement by allowing a major re-structuring over the close season. Even during a winter notable for its transfer activity, few clubs have brought in 11 new players and much of Gregory's peace of mind will inevitably depend on how well they gel.

"There are no excuses now," he says. "We've got a great squad together, with competition in all positions, so now it's up to the coaches."

Among the changes are a complete clear-out of the overseas quota and the recruitment of five new Australians, who will add, between them, some of the elements that were missing last season, like ball-skill in the forwards and pace out wide.

"People who were critical last season also lost sight of the fact that we didn't have a proper gym or training facilities. We were like nomads up and down the East Lancs Road."

That is something else that has been put right for 1999 and it is obvious just by looking at Gregory that he has derived as much benefit from it as anyone.

"I wasn't happy last year. I did what I had to do, but I wasn't enjoying it. Now I'm buzzing and I'm delighted about the way the squad has been training. We came off the pitch today and just said to ourselves `That'll do us'."

He knows as well as anybody that the most optimistic of pre-season sentiments can evaporate with an early series of defeats, but whatever it cost to take Andy Gregory soul-searching in the Canaries already looks like money well spent.

"We will be successful this year," he promises. As far as re-discovering his own direction is concerned, the success has begun.