Dewsbury Rams’ player liaison officer Ray Abbey has an almost unrivalled history of playing and working in the sport of Rugby League.
Today, he is a key member of staff at our club and his work and overall service to the sport was recognised with a Heritage Award at last year’s presentation night.
As the club faces an unprecedented battle, Ray offered an insight into his own history in the sport and his views on the present situation.
“My first experience of rugby league was when I was five years old going to watch my local club Hunslet Parkside on a Saturday afternoon and that became a way of life.
“The first time I went to Parkside is with my dad. He lifted me over the turnstile and then we went to get a good view.
“This was in winter and it was when winter’s were bad. There was a lot of frost and snow on the ground.
“They covered the pitch with straw and me and my mates used to sit in an amongst the straw and watch the match.
“So that was the first time I got involved in rugby league. I’m 77 now and never been away from the game since.
“I started to play from a young age at school and then just followed it through. I went through all the age groups.
“If you look back then in the town of Hunslet alone there were 19 schools who played rugby league football.
“All had three teams between them, so in the area there were 50 to 60 teams. Some did play football but most played rugby league back then.
“There has been two things in my lifetime that have affected the game badly.
“The first thing was the stoppage of the conveyor belt of players through schools.
“Every place like Hunslet, so Leeds, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Castleford, to name a few, had great teams at senior levels.
“Take the Leeds area – there were inter-city teams who would play each other at a high level and a lot of those players came through schools.
“Hunslet had under-17 and 19s teams and a lot of those players in my time went on to play for Yorkshire in the county leagues.
“That’s what you worked up to in school. Once you got used to the amateur leagues you could then sign on professional at 16 ,and that’s what I did.
“It meant that you developed your game at the right time and at the right stage for you.
“That’s how good and important it was, but also that’s why we created a successful way of thinking at Hunslet in particular.
“My hopes and dreams when I signed my contract in 1959 were firstly to not get any bad injuries.
“I would say from 1959 into the early 60s were the best years of my playing career.
“I was able to travel to Hunslet v Wigan in the Challenge Cup Final in 1965.
“Back then you could take a squad of 18 to Wembley but only 15 could play, so you’d have two subs.
“I had played in previous rounds up to the final, and whilst I unfortunately didn’t play in the final myself I got a medal still and it was a very proud moment for me.
“Out of the 18 players who went, every single one of them were Hunslet supporters who came through the local school system.
“That is the biggest difference from then to now – the majority of lads don’t play for the town they were born in.
“Fast forward some 50 years and when Neil Kelly was the Dewsbury coach and he asked me to come back on board.
“It was one of the first games we played, a friendly match at Huddersfield.
“As the bus was dropping down through Dewsbury past the old ground and in to the town centre it stopped.
“Neil stood up and said: ‘Just a minute lads, be quiet. I want to say something to you. Whilst we are going through Dewsbury I want to show you the town you are playing for’.
“I think what he meant was he wanted to instill some pride into the team because we only had a few local lads playing for us at that time.
“That’s the difference, there aren’t local players now. Players used to work, socialise and play for the town they loved.
“I played for Hunslet from 15 years of age to 22. The Wembley team of 1965 broke up, and after Hunslet I played for Bramley.
“I was very lucky in my career because of the four sides I either played for or managed, which were Hunslet, Bramley, Dewsbury and Leeds and I am still connected to all of them.
“I still hold a deep feeling and connection for all four.
“Bramley in particular was a smashing little club. I have some great memories from there.
I finished my career early due to family reasons and business reasons. I also suffered a bit of an injury which nearly turned into a serious injury.
“If the injury had become serious then it would have affected my working life.
“When I finished playing I did the next best thing.
“I got a call from Harry Jepson, who was like a father figure to us all at Hunslet.
“He called me and said ‘Why don’t you go into coaching, Ray?’, and he told me there was a position at Hunslet Parkside for the under 17s and 19s sides.
“It upset me when I went back because all that hard work that was built up from when I was there had been demolished into nothing.
“I rang a few people and got them on board, we built up the school system again and within three years we had won the National Trophy at Blackpool.
“Out of the 13 players we had at Hunslet Parkside, 11 went on to sign pro deals.
“Bramley then rang me and asked if I would go and coach them.
“I agreed, but I look back on what we built at Hunslet Parkside – it was magnificent – and various players went on to become stars in international rugby.
“I knew I could leave Hunslet Parkside in good hands as they went from strength to strength.
“There were some terrific people when I went back to Bramley. I went back three or four times in my career and I was assistant coach to Maurice Bamford.
“From Bramley, I moved on to Dewsbury where I slotted in to a coaching role.
“The reason I went to Dewsbury was because I knew Bramley were on their way out, sadly.
“Bernard Shoeman, who is a great friend of mine was the then secretary of Dewsbury who offered me the role in 1982.
“At the time, the club wasn’t in the greatest of places and support was dropping off.
“I remember when these types of clubs had huge crowds and it was sad to see it going down, so I finished up at Dewsbury, taking over the first team by the end of the season.
“Then the following season was about to start in the September and they wanted to get Tommy Smales back, who of course was a fantastic coach for the club before.
“They asked me to stay on to work under him – I agreed and said I’d talk to him.
“However, during the close season, I got a call from Harry Jepson asking me what my plans were for the future.
“I said I don’t know where I fit in and need to work it out with Tommy Smales, as he’s been brought in.
“Harry said that he was at Leeds and they’d like to offer me a coaching role at the club and would I go for a chat.
“So I went to meet them and came away thinking that moving to Leeds would suit me better for where I was in my life. So I agreed and ended up coaching Leeds.
“I left Dewsbury on good terms and I was sad to leave because I’ve always thought Dewsbury fans are very loyal and decent people who love their club and are true rugby league supporters.
“The offer was just right for me to go to Leeds. I had seven good years at Leeds and enjoyed my time there.
“I worked with some great coaches and players. I worked under Maurice Bamford again and became the assistant coach under him.
“After seven years or so it was the early 1990s and there were big changes being made at the club.
“They knew they’d be going full time from part time and as I was only one of three people at the time in the backroom staff they asked to stay on full time.
“Whilst that was great, it did create a dilemma for me because I had worked with some of the people in a part-time role from the start.
“They wouldn’t be around anymore if the club went full-time. There was only going to be me, the physio and kit man going to be kept on.
“I had to make a decision, I decided to resign and it was the right time for me to go if they were breaking the team up.
“I left on good terms at Leeds and as soon as I left the club, Maurice Bamford rang me up, he’d become the boss at Bramley and offered me a job back there.
“I did bits and bats at Bramley, but that sadly didn’t last and I joined Neil Kelly in 1999 at Dewsbury.
“They were great days for the club and they had some wonderful players who deserved to win things.
“When I look at old photos from that 2000 season it fills me with pride.
“After that, I dropped out of the game a little bit due to personal reasons, but I was still on committees and doing things.
“Then when Neil Kelly went back to Dewsbury a few years ago he asked me back as the player Liason Officer, which was great and I enjoy it.
“I’ve kept going with Lee Greenwood coming in who I think is a bright young and enthusiastic coach.
“I remember Dewsbury as a club before Mark Sawyer got involved and it wasn’t in a good place at all.
“It was really on its backside and he came in and saved the club.
“In my opinion, without Mark being at the club, I very much doubt if the town would have a team to support.
“I know it’s hard and people may not always agree with decisions taken, but we should never forget where it’s come from.
“I couldn’t believe the changes the club has gone through since coming back.
“This world crisis is the biggest thing to happen in my lifetime and I just hope the Rugby League family can get through it together – supporters, players and staff – because hopefully we can come out stronger.”