THE BIG INTERVIEW
MALCOLM Alden changed the face of Preston Grasshoppers’ youth system back in the 1980s and ignited a hotbed which produced a mass of England rugby union internationals.
After coaching the colts to their first ever Lancashire Cup victory in 1984, the Welshman installed a ‘thinking rugby’ mentality which led to the discovery of many future stars.
Alden ‘toughened up’ former England captain Steve Borthwick when he was a junior Hopper and revealed that the Sanderson brothers – Pat and Alex, who also went on to represent the Three Lions – joined the club because of its reputation for nurturing talent.
The 72-year-old’s four year stint as Hoppers president has just ended and the club celebrated Alden’s impact at Lightfoot Green Lane with a testimonial match on Boxing Day.
Hundreds of past players, team-mates and friends flocked to raise money for Alden’s chosen charity, the Rosemere Cancer Foundation.
The humble coach has lived in Preston for a number of years and told the Evening Post about how a visit to a disco staged at the club fuelled a 50-year association.
He said: “I was at university in Salford and my flat mate was from Preston.
“He used to come back at weekends and I’d come back too, we went to a disco at Hoppers and then I started playing a few matches.
“I ended up getting a job in Preston after university in 1965/66.
“I played at No.3 and featured in the first team for a number of years.
“Someone asked me if I could take over the colts.
“I told them I’d never coached before and they said ‘well you’ve played rugby haven’t you?’
“And so I gave it a go, I never ended up doing any coaching with the clipboards and all that.
“I just told people to play the game as it is presented to you.
“Challenge your opposite number if he is a bit bigger than you, beat him for pace. If he’s quicker than you find a way to beat that.
“Just play it as you see it .
“What I was trying to achieve is thinking rugby over clockwork rugby.
“We won the Lancashire Cup for the first time in 1984.
“We played against Waterloo and we were the curtain raiser for the first XV’s final against Liverpool.
“We went to France in 1987 to play against our twin town.
“And I ended up coaching the colts for 23 years.
“I was joined by Mick Hill who was the backs coach.
“I think we reached 10 county cup finals and we won six of them.
“I used to say to the colts, ‘I’m hoping half way through the season you don’t need me to see it, you can read the game and know what the man opposite of you is going to do’.”
“I coached many England players.
“Paul Grayson who became England flyhalf.
“He was at Preston college and played football for Accrington Stanley.
“He came down with a friend, we tried him in a few places in the backs and he settled at flyhalf.
“Alex and Pat Sanderson joined. Their dad rang me asking if they could come and play at Hoppers because we had a good colts set-up.
“Steve Borthwick was playing in a school match. His mum and dad were taking him to the car park because he had damaged his ankle.
“I called over and said he could use our physio and facilities and by sheer coincidence he developed into a great player.
“He ended up playing for the colts and I spent quite a lot of time with Steve before he went to New Zealand with England schools.
“We practised toughening up exercises before he went on that tour.”
Alden, originally from Llanelly in Wales, coached the colts whilseWill Greenwood’s father Dick was the first XV coach.
The Welshman worked in tandem with Greenwood ensuring that the colts got to play on a Saturday before the first XV and second XV.
And Alden believes modern day rugby is lacking that ‘natural progression’ which saw youngsters easily make the switch to senior rugby.
Alden stopped coaching the youth team when games were switched to a Sunday instead of Saturday.
The coach believes the change meant talented Hoppers youngsters like Mike Haley – who now plays for Sale Sharks in the Premiership – were snapped up by academy teams rather than rise up through the ranks at Lightfoot Green.
He said: “The difference back then was the colts were a Saturday team.
“At that time the colts were second in the pecking order to the first team so we got to use the first team facilities.
“Iain Balshaw was mainly coached by Mick Hill who coached the backs.
“Steve Currie went on to play Rugby League.
“I looked at a photo of the first team from more than 10 years ago and 13 of the team were ex-colts.
“Now I don’t know how many members of the first team were colts.
“A lot of them are grammar school boys.
“Ashton High School used to play rugby but a lot of schools don’t play rugby now.
“Lads go off to university and don’t come back or they are picked up by academy sides like Sale Sharks.
“Mike Haley is an ex-Hoppers colt but he went to Sale’s academy.
“Now he is playing for Sale’s first team.
“With it being a Sunday team now the players coming out of our colts don’t know anyone in the first or second teams.
“They don’t get to mix and experience senior rugby on a Saturday.
“When Dick Greenwood ran the first team the colts would be training with the first or second team.
“It meant there were ex-colts who they could go and chat to in the bar.
“A colt could go and chat to an ex-colt who played their position and had progressed to the first team and ask them for tips and advice.
“Progression was built in, so it was easier for the colts to make the jump into the first and second teams because they knew everyone and felt part of it already.
“Now that doesn’t really happen.
“A lot of the colts are grammar school boys and because they already play on Saturday the colts play on Sunday.
“You are not allowed to play two matches on the same day any more. So they don’t get to mix with the first XV or second XV.” One of the members of the successful 1984 cup team moved to Italy and asked Alden to fly over and help coach his new club.
The Italian rugby union club Amatori Rugby Formia was set up in 2006 and after establishing links with Hoppers have worked a grasshopper into their badge.
Alden said: “Italian rugby club Amatori Rugby Formia coach John Lavalle – who was part of the 1984 cup winning side – asked if we could go out and give them some coaching.
“They have been over here twice and played a few Hoppers teams since just to get experience.
“Two or three of the players are coming over to Hoppers to play and get some more experience.
“The emblem of Formia is a phoenix rising from the ashes and the pitch they play on is made of volcanic ash.
“I’m hoping to go out again next year.
“John came over from Italy to play in my testimonial, a lad came over from Australia and a few came up from London.”
As he looks back on his time with the club, Alden hopes he has left a lasting legacy.
“Hopefully I have been able to get people to think more about the potential of the game,” he said.
“Thinking rugby rather than clockwork rugby, predicting the players’ moves before they get a chance to be successful, no matter what your skill level is.
“I’ve always said that Hoppers is the best social club that I have ever been to – where rugby is the main activity.
“When I grew up, the only game we played was rugby I’d play for the grammar school in the morning and then the local village team afterwards.
“When I finished coaching, I was asked to take over the third team.
“So I coached them for seven years.
“In the second and third year we got promoted and we ended up in the same tier as the second team.
“It was quite funny to see Hoppers v Hoppers on the fixture list. “I played my last full game at 63.
“It was in a memorial game and I was asked if I would make a cameo.
“A couple of players got injured and so I ended up playing the whole match!
“I spent four years as President, I did a year more than normal. But I will still be involved with the club.
“The testimonial was great, I’d like to thank everyone for coming.”