It is sad to report the passing of one of the most popular characters on the rugby league scene at the age of 71 after a long illness.
Saints Heritage Number #879
Born St Helens 24th February 1950
Died St Helens 7th May 2021
Alan Gwilliam, whose first name was Joseph, was a pupil at St Anselms School and a product of the famous nursery at Blackbrook ARLFC. He turned professional with the Saints on 28th September 1971, when the club had just celebrated their second consecutive Championship success. He made his debut soon afterwards, when he came off the bench against Batley, in a 35-5 victory at Knowsley Road on 25th October.
Although Alan was essentially a scrum-half, he could fill in at centre, as well as in the halves and he was utilised off the bench on 15 occasions during his 47 appearances for the seniors. A really tough customer, his best season was in 1973-74, when he made 25 appearances and scored 6 tries. He became a valuable squad member, especially when scrum-half Ken Kelly was transferred to Bradford Northern in 1973.
One particular highlight was playing in the number 7 jersey in a marvellous 11-7 success against the visiting Kangaroos at Knowsley Road on 13th November 1973, when he was partnered at stand-off by Dave Eckersley. Five days later, he scored a hat-trick of tries against reigning Champions Dewsbury, as Saints cruised to a 35-3 win. This time, his half-back partner on that occasion was the redoubtable Geoff Pimblett.
Alan was selected for one major final, the Merit Competition clash against Warrington, at Central Park, Wigan on 18th May 1974, but was a non-playing substitute as Saints lost 12-13. Jeff Heaton was at scrum-half that day, with Alex Murphy the Warrington captain.
Alan was joined by his elder brother Ken at the start of the 1974-75 campaign and both were in the ‘15’ when Ken made his debut against Warrington on 23rd August 1974. They played a number of games together in the first team over the next few seasons. Alan’s final game for the Saints was against the visiting Australians on 12th October 1975, when the Green and Golds triumphed by 7-32. Ironically, Alan’s stand-off partner was an Australian – Les Mara, from Balmain, who went on to have a rather chequered lifestyle when he returned Down Under!
Alan then joined Warrington, where he made 136 appearances in six years, scoring 18 tries. He played in the 1977 Premiership final for the Wires against the Saints and had a ‘disagreement’ with Harry Pinner resulting in an early bath for both players! It was a key loss for the Wires on the day, as Alan was playing the proverbial ‘blinder’! There was one more amazing Australian link too, when he played scrum-half against the visiting 1978 Kangaroos at Wilderspool when Warrington beat them in a memorable 15-12 victory and Man of the Match Alan scored the winning try. Former Saint Billy Benyon was the captain of Warrington that night, with hooker Tommy Cunningham another signed from the St Helens club. Not many have the honour of beating a touring team twice in their career! “It was an unforgettable experience for me,” remembers Alan’s wife, Margaret. “The day after I was due in hospital to give birth to Ann Marie and because of the celebrations, we only got home at about 2 o’clock!”
After a brief spell coaching at Wilderspool, Alan then served the amateur game with distinction, in a coaching capacity at Parkside and Blackbrook, the latter with Steve Peters. James Roby and James Graham were two who benefitted from his undoubted expertise and experience at the Blackbrook club. His sons, David and Ian were also signed by the Saints from Blackbrook, which made him very proud indeed.
He was a straight-talking guy, but Alan was really caring and had a heart of gold. Tony Atherton, who suffered a life-changing injury while playing for the A team at Knowsley Road remembers him as a great friend who helped him during his recovery: “I started at Saints when I was 15 and learned a lot just from training with him. Alan was scrum-half and I was stand-off in the A Team for a couple of years and he was such a good player, with so much variety in his game and so difficult for the opposition to deal with. Later when he went to Warrington, he would take me to watch the matches and really looked after me. We remained close friends ever since.”
A former bricklayer by trade, Alan went into the licensed trade initially at the Nags Head at Irlam and the Nelson’s Quarterdeck in Birchwood before he moved on to the Sportsmans [Talbot Hotel] in Duke Street. Then it was to the NALGO club before becoming the popular steward at Greenalls Club in Alder Hey Road.
He made countless friends and acquaintances from his time playing and coaching rugby league, together with his time at Greenalls and with his membership of both the St Helens and Warrington Players Associations. He was a real unsung hero in lots of ways and will be missed by so many.
Everyone at St Helens RFC send their condolences to Alan’s wife Margaret [they married in 1971] and family at this sad time, especially his children Phillip, Ann Marie, David and Ian, together with his grandchildren.
Funeral details will be announced at a later date.