Following more than 2000 appearances for National Division Two North side, Preston Grasshoppers, 71 year old winger, Keith Brierley, has finally decided to call time on a career that has spanned an incredible 53 years.
The final time he wore the hooped jersey was on 20th April 2013, to the sound of tremendous applause, and he played the full 80 minutes of the 6th teams match against Blackpool 1st XV. His level of commitment to the game is very admirable and inspiring to all.
Warmheartedly known as ‘Dad’ by fans, players and coaches alike, Keith began on the ‘Hoppers fourth team aged just 18 years old. After battling his way up through the ranks, he finally made his first team debut against Vale of Lune, from Lancaster, in September 1965; a performance which he said caused him to: “fall in love with the game”.
Initially, his ambition was simply to become a regular in the fourths, but his passion spurred him on to constantly improve and maintain the high standard for such a long time. Brierley said: “I never thought beyond the next season, I never even dreamt that I’d last this long. I’m very fortunate”.
However, back when he was an apprentice for industrial manufacturers, English Electric, his interest lied with football. When two of his friends asked him to switch sports, he replied: “I’m just a working class boy, we don’t play rugby union, that’s a ‘Toff’s’ game”.
After finally persuading him to give it a try, Keith trained over the summer of 1960 with Preston Grasshoppers, receiving his first match opportunity shortly after; but as a stand in for the opposition. When Birkenhead Park turned up with only 14 players, and with no substitutes allowed, he was asked to fill in and did so as a gesture of good sportsmanship.
Upon the Birkenhead captain asking his position, he had no idea having never played competitively before, so was placed on the wing due to his speed. He told us: “I asked their captain, ‘what do I do?’ And the captain said ‘put your head down and run’. So I did that for the next 50 years!”
During his career, he toured all over Britain, playing against some of the top sides from the North West, Scotland, Cornwall and South Wales. He recalls his favourite try from a particular tour of South Wales, where he ran 75 yards to score between the posts, subsequently receiving applause from both sets of fans.
Another vivid memory, and a performance he described as “golden”, was in a closely contested win against United Services Portsmouth. He scored the three tries Preston required for victory, one of which was another of his finest. He said: “They kicked off; I caught the ball on the right wing, went through the whole of their pack and scored under the posts.”
His secret to his extensive fitness was to train over summer at a variety of sports, including football and cricket. He recalls a team mate telling him: “In the olden days, people used to play rugby to keep fit, but nowadays you have to be fit to play rugby”, a statement which he has always applied to his game.
He also credits his persistence to being lucky to never pick up any ‘serious injuries’. However, he did suffer from a dislocated shoulder, torn hamstring and deformed fingers in his time, which certainly sound serious enough, but he bounced back from all of them.
His decision to retire from the game came when he felt he was not being selected enough down to fears over his safety. But nevertheless, he told the sixth team captain: “If I ever thought I needed protection, I would never cross the line onto the field of play”.
These days, ‘Dad’ regularly supports the ‘Hoppers first team on Saturdays, coaches the thirds on Thursdays, and has been suggested as the next sixth team manager. He is also very supportive of sessions to bring young players into the game; ensuring he will be fondly remembered as a club legend and a true ambassador of rugby union.
*This was originally submitted as part of a first year portfolio