The date was Friday 7th March and it was at Pendleton Bowling Club in Salford that held the kick-off a much deserved testimonial year held in aid of Rugby League legend, Andy Gregory. As the small, but intimate room filled up, Andy Gregory walked around welcoming familiar faces, both young and old, with a handshake and a hug.
Rather than a money making event, a night with Andy Gregory can be best described as a night in with a friend. That's how Andy Gregory makes you feel. Despite being small in stature, Andy is huge in character. Upon looking around the room it was clear how much affection the City of Salford has for this Wigan-born hero. Gregory's relationship with Salford was perhaps destiny as both his Uncle Harold and his late father, Arthur Gregory, played fullback for the Red Devils in the unglamourous times of the late 50's. Gregory Snr. went on to make 194 appearances, scoring 28 tries for Salford, whilst his brother, Harold, also joined Salford as a scrum half in 1958, making 34 appearances and 14 tries.
A night with Andy Gregory featured a plethora of former Salford Rugby League heroes. The top table was a who's who of Salford Rugby – Local born former Salford captain Ian Blease, Andy Burgess, cult prop forward hero Paul Forber, Salford hooker legend Mark Lee plus the brilliant early 90's stars, Wiganer, John Gillfillian and Cumbrian Martin Birkett. Former Super League referee and current Rugby Union whistleblower, Karl Kirkpatrick, was also a special guest.
Humorous stories were told of the legendary team bonding sessions, whilst Paul Forber gave the audience an insight into the kindness of Andy Gregory. On one occasion, whilst car sharing with Forber, Gregory was told that Forber was owed £7,000 by the club and that as soon as he received it he would purchase a new car. Upon being dropped off home, Gregory asked Forber to wait outside. Moments later, Gregory appeared and handed Forber an envelope containing £7,000 telling Forber to go and purchase his car and pay it back when he could. Such stories are in abundance when it comes to Andy Gregory, generosity being one of his strengths and at times, as Andy admits, also his weakness.
Andy was asked about the feeling in the Salford camp when that famous Challenge Cup quarter final draw was made live on television in 1996. Salford stalwart, Mark Lee, explained how the Reds' players were gathered at Puccinis in Swinton to watch the draw. Upon hearing that the all conquering and famous Wigan were to be the opponents at The Willows, Gregory immediately declared that 'We will beat them.' Gregory showing no fear at the fact Wigan hadn't lost a Challenge Cup fixture in a run that included 43 games and 8 consecutive Wembley Finals.
As history now gloriously documents, Andy Gregory delivered on his pre-match statement. Not only did Salford beat the star studded Wigan 26–16 but they did it in style in front of a full house at The Willows.
Gregory told all about how the 'Angry Ant' nickname came about when, during the Ashes tour of Australia, the hard to please Australian press were enamoured by not only his display for Great Britain but also his tenacity when coming up against the so-called Kangaroo hard men.
Unbeknownst to some in League circles, Gregory actually made 2 debuts for the Salford club. It was on the 17th November 1978, playing against Barrow at The Willows, that Andy Gregory first pulled on the scarlet jersey as a trialist at the tender age of 17.
Andy, who at the time was combining amateur rugby with working as a pot washer for Great Universal Stores, had gained Salford chief scout Albert White's attention whilst playing for Wigan St. Patricks. White called Gregory asking him to come down for a trial at The Willows. The Salford side at the time were without star playmaker, Steve Nash, who was on international duty. To Andy's delight he was given the nod to play in that weeks' home game against Barrow despite Salford coach Alex Murphy's comment 'he's not very big is he' when introduced to his trialist scrum half.
Gregory spoke with nostalgic emotion when discussing lining up alongside Salford legends Colin Dixon, Mike Coulman, Chris Hesketh, David Watkins and Kenny Gill. Unsurprisingly, Gregory had a hell of a game taking the 'Man of the Match' award. Due to being a trialist, Gregory was down on the teamsheet as A. N. Other, that was until the matchday announcer gave the secret away that A. N. Other and MOTM was 'Andrew Gregory from Wigan'. At that moment, Salford coach, Murphy, jumped up from the dug out, cracking his head on the concrete roof in the process and with claret flowing down his head stormed towards the announcer office and gave him the biggest blast ever seen.
After that match, the greatest secret in Rugby League was out. Gregory was the future star of the sport. Salford chairman, Brian Snape, offered Andy £1,500 to sign for the Reds, but as Andy explained in his autobiography, 'Pint Size' his father, Arthur, had gotten wind of the fact he had played for Salford, and took it upon himself to assist with negotiations. Due to leaving Salford on not the best of terms, Gregory senior insisted on £2,000 for his sons' prized signature, a fee which Salford weren't prepared to meet. This would surely go down as one of the greatest missed signing of all time, as Andy Gregory was about to become a world class, genuine superstar.
In 1980, Widnes were the powerhouse of British Rugby League and trumped Wigan to Gregory's signature. It was with the chemics that Andy first tasted silverware glory.
Andy Gregory made his test debut against France in 1981 and made three tours of Australia (1984, 1988 & 1992) with the Lions. Impressing the masses with his James Cagney-style toughness and astute ball play, Gregory was named England's 'Player of the Year' in 1987 - the mastermind of Great Britain's 26–12 win in the third test of the 1988 Ashes series.
Andy played for Widnes from 1980 until 1984. The end of his debut season was capped with a trip to Wembley for his first Challenge Cup Final against Hull Kingston Rovers. Despite having a tooth removed the night before the game, he finished with a try and almost won the Lance Todd Trophy for 'Man of the Match' as Widnes won 18–9.
Gregory again reached the final with Widnes the following season, but this time lost out to Hull. In total, he played 141 games for Widnes scoring 43 tries and earning GB caps while at the club.
It was in 1985 that Andy joined Warrington, a debut season that they still talk about today. When playing Leeds at Headingly, Warrington scored nine tries. Gregory scored one and made the other eight. Before leaving Warrington in 1986, he played 60 games winning another trophy, this time the 1986 Premiership Trophy Final as Warrington were victors over Halifax.
After a successful two seasons at Wilderspool, it was in 1987 that Andy finally joined his hometown club in Wigan earning himself a £130,000 contract.
In true Andy Gregory-style, he responded to the pressure placed upon him by the media winning the 'Player of the Year' Award - No small achievement in a side that boasted a galaxy of stars a team that achieved an unparalleled 29 consecutive wins.
Also, in 1987, he played a pivotal part in the inaugural World Club Challenge win over Australian champions Manly-Warringah and, although he was only small in height, he dominated games on the field from halfback. In 1988, Gregory also kicked a goal in Wigan's 32–12 Challenge Cup final win over Halifax, winning the Lance Todd Trophy for the first time, a feat he repeated in 1990 as Wigan blitzed Warrington 36–14.
Gregory had a stellar career at Wigan, playing 182 times for the club winning the World Club Challenge, 5 Challenge Cups (the first player to do so), 4 Championships, 2 Regal Trophies, 2 Lancashire Cups, 1 John Player Trophy and 1 Premiership.
Gregory also became the first and only ever player to appear in 8 Challenge Cup finals.
In 1989, Gregory played several months of the 1989 NSWRL season in the Winfield Cup with the famous Australian outfit Illawarra Steelers.
Gregory shone for Illawarra in a thrilling contest against the Brisbane Broncos in the Panasonic Cup Final played at the Parramatta Stadium in Sydney. Depsite the 20–22 loss, Andy was given the 'Man of the Match' award.
This contest remains Illawarra Steelers' only appearance in a cup final.
Andy played nine league games for Illawarra, scoring tries against Penrith, Gold Coast Seagulls and South Sydney. His first league game was against Manly and his last was against Eastern Suburbs.
Andy Gregory's class again came to the fore in Great Britain's brilliant win over Australia in the first test of the 1990 Ashes series.
During the 1991–92 Rugby Football League season, Gregory played for defending champions Wigan in their 1991 World Club Challenge victory against the visiting Penrith Panthers at the famous Anfield stadium in Liverpool.
Andy was transferred to Leeds in 1992 when he was sold for just £15,000. Gregory failed to achieve the same heights at Leeds as he did at Wigan - something not helped by successive injuries. It was after two seasons with the Loiners that Gregory came full circle and was transferred to the Salford club that was owned by John Wilkinson.
Andy made his second debut for Salford during the 1993/94 season. Despite several 'Man of the Match' performances, it was during the 1995 season that Salford were in crisis and, after a run of defeats, Australian Garry Jack was sacked and replaced.
When Jack was sacked, he made it known how he felt by calling Gregory's mobile from the departure lounge at Manchester Aiport 'I'm f*cking delighted you haven't got in' (Salford were just denied a place in the first season of Super League) and hung the phone up. Not exactly tasteful conduct from the Aussie fullback considering the hero worship bestowed upon him at the time by the Salford faithful.
It was after the departure of Garry Jack that Andy Gregory, the player, hung up his boots and Andy Gregory, the coach, was born.
Salford finished 12th out of 16 teams, but due to a realignment of the divisions to accommodate the new Super League format, Salford were relegated.
Gregory outlined his expectations and warned the Salford players that he wasn't prepared to carry any passengers 'They had to prove that they were proud to wear the Red shirt'.
Andy's first full season in charge of Salford sealed the first division Championship Bowl after defeating Hull KR at The Willows. They were once more faced with having to beat that seasons' deadly rivals Keighley Cougars at Old Trafford.
It was the month of August 1996 that Andy tasted Grand Final success when his Salford side were convincing winners as they disposed of Keighley Cougars 21–4 at Old Trafford, wrapping up the first division title for the second time that year – this time it was even sweeter as Salford had at last been rightfully accepted into The Super League.
As previously noted, one of Andy's greatest days as a coach happened at The Willows on the 11th February 1996. As Salford went on to produce one of the Rugby League Challenge Cup's greatest upsets, his part timers not only beat Wigan 26–16 on national television but showed the Rugby League world that the name of Salford should never be underestimated.
The 1997 season was Salford's inaugural Super League season and went on to be an incredible campaign as Salford exceeded expectations winning their first five fixtures. Whilst doing the double over Wigan, Saint Helens and Paris Saint Germain, Salford finished the season in 6th position winning 12/22 fixtures.
The highlight of that inaugural season, in Andy's opinion, was the match against Australian opposition. Often described as the greatest ever upset in the Super League era, it was on the 3rd August that Salford defeated the Adelaide Rams 14–12 in front of 7,000 supporters at The Willows.
Not only had Andy made Salford a formidable side in the league in the league, he also led his Red Devils to a Challenge Cup semi-final, victories over Castleford, Paris and Warrington. Salford had Wembley fever, but the dream was shattered as the Reds were out scored by a the star-studded Saint Helens side who then went on to lift the famous trophy defeating Bradford in an epic Wembley final.
It was due to Andy's dedication to young British talent that 1997 witnessed the debut of Salford's youngest ever club captain, Malcolm Alker. Alker, alongside another young talent, Stuart Littler, both went on to become Reds Legends and a mainstay in the Salford team for over 12 years.
Gregory could have been forgiven for thinking he had finally brought back the glory days as in 1998 Salford made their second consecutive appearance in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.
The much fancied Reds faced Mark Aston's Sheffield Eagles at Headingly. With twelve minutes remaining the Reds were leading 18–10 and Reds supporters were already planning the trip to Wembley for the first time in nearly thirty years.
But then tragedy struck – Sheffield scored twice in the final 12 minutes to win 18–22. A match that Andy admitted that still to this he day cannot watch.
As if to rub salt into the wound Sheffield went on to record the greatest ever Challenge Cup upset, defeating Wigan Warriors at Wembley to lift the famous old trophy.
Unfortunately for Andy, Salford's league campaign took a nosedive after the semi final defeat and his Reds finished the 1998 season in 11th position. Unfairly at the time, Gregory was made a scapegoat for the dismal results and the loss of star players, Nathan Mcavoy and Scott Naylor, who both joined the Bradford Bulls. Unbeknownst to those supporters calling for Gregory's head, Salford were in trouble financially and were happy to recieve the much needed £100,000 for McAvoy's signature who could have left on a free transfer 12 months later.
The 1999 season signalled the end of Andy's coaching career with Salford losing 10 out of 11 fixtures. It was the month of May and after a heavy loss at Bradford, Andy decided he had reached the end of the line and called chairman John Wilkinson to offer his resignation. Wilkinson accepted the resignation, but later when the statement was released by Salford, the headlines reported Andy Gregory had been sacked. Disappointing considering the long and mutually respectful relationship Andy had formed with the Chairman and board of directors.
Despite Andy's acrimonious departure from Salford in 1999 he has continued to be an enthusiastic supporter of The Original Red Devils, both in the media and in person.
My personal experience of witnessing this was in January 2013, when Salford RLFC looked destined for administration. At this time I was distraught at the thought of losing the club I have supported all my life.
I felt the only thing I could do was to try and raise some much needed funds. I set about organising a fundraiser night as part of the S.O.S campaign (Save Our Salford) at a local social club.
Despite only having seven days to arrange and promote this evening, there was only one person I wanted to help in the hosting of this event. That person was Andy Gregory. Due to not having contact details for Andy, I decided to search his name on a well-known social networking site.
It was within half an hour of sending a private message that I received a phone call from Andy. He spoke to me with such warmth and passion about the planned evening, offering his support and contacts to ensure a successful night. Alongside his wife Nicola, not only did Andy attend the fundraiser, he also gathered many other former Salford players to the event. Andy stayed for the duration of the evening and engaged and greeted every single Salford supporter as though they were lifetime friends.
It was whilst observing such kindness that I was certain I was in the presence of not only a Rugby League legend but a true gentleman.
Only a handful of Rugby League players have a reputation that breaks from the game's heartlands.
Gregory is such a person, with 26 Great Britain caps, 23 winners medals, 2 Lance Todd Trophies and a domestic career that has made him a household name and hero at Widnes, Warrington, Wigan, Illawarra and Salford.
"The one who is truly generous, gives from the goodness of his heart and not to expect some type of repayment or gain."
The above quote is my testament to Andrew Gregory, not just a husband and father, but a hero to thousands of people who call Rugby League the greatest sport in the world.
I would like to wish Andy and his wife, Nicola, a wonderful and successful testimonial year.
Andy Gregory Testimonial Next Event; Saturday, March 29th: Haydock Park Racecourse - A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the Official Andy Gregory Testimonial Year Inaugural Gala Dinner, with special sporting guest stars. Enjoy a 4-course meal, plus live music from The Commissars. Dress to party!
With 200 places already taken prior to the official announcement, there's only a handful of tables still available at this special event.
Donations of £450 per table of 10 guests will be accepted. Subject to availability at the time of booking. For more information, or to secure your booking contact Stuart Murphy now at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Andy Gregory's testimonial website: www.andygregory7.com
Follow us: Andy @MrGreg7, and me, Louise @MsCityRedGirl
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