Name: Malcolm Alker
Club: Salford City Reds
Previous Clubs: None
Representative: England (2 caps), Lancashire (1 game)
First professional game: 1997
Honours: National League One winner (2003, 2008), National League Cup winner (2003 & 2008)
AMONG the Salford line-up that was beaten 30-12 by Sheffield on an August Bank Holiday afternoon in 1997 were five kids drafted into Andy Gregory’s side amid an injury crisis that saw nine first-teamers on the injured list.
Back then in the world of Rugby League, Bradford Bulls had just clinched the title – the last won on a first-past-the-post basis – by hammering Paris St Germain as Bullmania gripped the game, Kevin Sinfield had debuted for Leeds three days earlier (also against the Eagles), Bobbie Goulding was in trouble for being red-carded after a high tackle on Leeds’s Jamie Mathiou while Hull Sharks had just won promotion to Super League and would replace the recently relegated Oldham Bears.
Salford had enjoyed an outstanding first season in the top flight despite the Sheffield loss. An impressive league double over Gregory’s old club Wigan helped them to a final placing of sixth.
The kids who came into the Salford side that afternoon were Phil Knowles, Ricky Helliwell, Neil McPherson, Phil Waring and Malcolm Alker. The first four made a total of 18 Super League appearances, 14 of which were Waring’s but Alker, on the other hand, went on to figure in more than 350 games for the club going on to establish himself as one of the greatest players to have ever pulled on the red jersey.
“I actually made the bench the year before for a game at Featherstone but I didn’t get on to play,” remembers Alker, who played his junior football for Orrell St James and Wigan St Pat’s.
“But I’ll never forget that Salford game because Paul Broadbent caught me with a beauty under the left eye and I needed nine stitches. I’ve still got the scar!”
But he will only play twice more, if fit, before he takes on a permanent assistant-coaching role on Shaun McRae’s staff next season. He missed the game with Hull Kingston Rovers on Sunday due to a back injury but will find out this week if he is fit to play this weekend at Huddersfield before hopefully signing off with his last ever game when the Reds entertain Wakefield on 5 September.
“Rugby’s been a big part of my life, but it has to come to an end for everybody at some point,” says Alker.
“I’ve been with Salford right through my professional career and the club runs right through every vein in my body.
“But I’m fortunate that I’ll still be in the game when I finish playing. The stress factors will be different and there’ll be a lot more of an administration side to it, but I’ll still be in an environment with the boys which I’ll thrive in.
“Not being out of the game when I finish playing has softened the blow a little bit.”
Alker initially joined the coaching staff during the last off-season, helping McRae, particularly in the club’s preparation for the 2010 season.
“My role will be full-time assistant to Shaun. It’s a massive job – there’ll be a lot of hard work on and off the field. We’re going to introduce some new structures into next year’s pre-season and there’ll be a lot of liaising with ourselves and the 20s and 18s, making sure that, as a club, we’re all doing the same things and progressing forward as a club, not just as a first team. We’ll be investing in the youth as well and hopefully things will snowball from there.
“I did a lot [of coaching] this year in pre-season – I did a conditioning component and I helped Shaun do a skills component,” he continues.
“It was quite difficult but we did the best we could with the resources we had.
“Shaun pulled me out of the coaching when the season started because my priority was to play – that’s what I get paid for at the moment. I was on and off as assistant coach but hopefully when I become full-time I can have a big influence in helping Shaun, and hopefully I can build a reputation for myself as a coach.
“As for my relationship with the lads changing, I might not be able to have a night out with the lads but you still have to interract. We need to manipulate the players in the right way to get the best out of them.
“Different coaches do things differently – some in Super League have the occasional drink with their players after a game, but some don’t.
“I’d like to think I’ll be a head coach one day. I’m not taking on the assistant role for the sake of it.
“I’ve turned down an offer to continue playing in Super League to do this, and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t have ambitions in coaching. I may be good enough, I may not be, but it’s up to me to prove my strengths and improve my weaknesses and hope I get the opportunity one day.”
Alker is delighted with the signings that have been made by the Reds and is confident that they can establish themselves as a play-off force in the near future. For 2011 the club have added Canterbury’s stalwart fullback Luke Patten, Bradford centre Chris Nero, Wakefield’s powerhouse hooker Tevita Leo-Latu, Warrington’s experienced back-rower Vinnie Anderson and Wigan’s impact prop Iafeta Paleassina.
“We’ve signed a lot of good players for next season – a good mix of youth and experience. I think there’s going to be a couple more signings, but I can’t disclose who!
“The stadium’s coming out of the ground now which is great for the licence bid so things are pointing towards a bright future for everyone here.”
Alker insists that his relationship with McRae is fine despite him losing the captaincy after a pre-season incident in Florida in 2009. Alker was re-instated shortly but the whole episode smacked of a public-relations mishap for the club, who went on to finish second last in their first season back in the top flight after their 2007 relegation.
“The captaincy was taken off me and it was my own fault,” Alker admits. “I’ve learned my lessons from that – that’s what life’s all about.
“But I came through it. The captaincy was taken off me and I’m not sure if it was Shaun’s decision or the board’s decision, but I know it was Shaun who requested that I get it back and that’s why I got it back.
“He had enough belief in me to want me back in that role and we have a good, strong working relationship. Hopefully that will progress and get stronger and we’ll get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as we work together on a full-time basis. We’ll come up with a formula that’s best for the team.”
Alker claims to have few regrets when he looks back at his 14-year professional career, but admits that a couple of offers came his way that still have him wondering what might have been. The first came from Bradford after Salford’s 2002 relegation and the second from St George-Illawarra Dragons after Salford finished fifth in 2006.
“I’ve made big decisions – I turned down St George Illawarra. If I’d gone over there I’d have come back a much better player – and I’d have earned more money! – but I decided to stay because I had a young family and a testimonial around the corner. It was at the wrong time for me – a year earlier or a year later could have been the perfect time.
“I also turned down Bradford when Salford got relegated in 2002. Loyalty is one of my very strong points. I believe in seeing through something you’ve started and I wanted to help us get back into Super League.”
Alker also missed out on a Great Britain jersey for an Ashes series in the unluckiest fashion in 2001. With Keiron Cunninghan and Terry Newton injured, Alker was told by Great Britain management that he was due to play only for him to miss out.
“I got cited for a fight in the last game against Wakefield,” he recalls. “Phil Clarke, the manager of Great Britain, phoned and told me I was playing, but he rang me up three hours later and told me they’d found out I’d been banned after the Wakefield incident.
“It’s also a massive regret that I won’t play at the new [Salford] stadium, but it’s not to be and I’ll have to make the best of the situation,” says Alker before looking immediately to the future.
“Hopefully next year we can become a play-off team and we can then move to the new stadium with new expectations, a bigger fanbase and bigger sponsorships on board. That’s all part and parcel of challenging the top four teams on a regular basis.”