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Back in the day: John Berry - Cheltenham, Stroud, Old Patesians

All Areas > Sport > Rugby Union

Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Tuesday, 25th June 2019, 09:00, Tags: Back In The Day

John Berry with grandson Finlay John Berry with grandson Finlay

John Berry moved south to this part of the world as an 18-year-old and never went home.

That was well over half a century ago and the rugby clubs that he played for – Cheltenham, Stroud and Old Patesians – are certainly glad that he stayed because he scored an absolute stack of tries for all three of them.

Now just turned 74, Berry was a free-scoring winger back in the days when rugby was a truly amateur sport and players would think nothing of playing 40-plus games a season.

And his was some record because he scored 115 tries for Cheltenham, 108 for Stroud and about 25 for Old Pats – “I scored one for the Pats in Milwaukee in the US,” he said – as well as one for Gloucestershire.

It was a career that saw him play in five decades – 1957 to 1994 – and he scored a three, four and five-point try.

“I played in a vets game at Stroud when I was 48 and that was when I scored a five-point try,” he said. “I dived over from a few yards and that’s when I realised I had completed the set.”

Born and bred in Huddersfield, Berry could turn his hand to most sports when he was growing up – football, cricket, rugby, sprinting – so it would have come as little surprise to those who knew him that he wanted to become a PE teacher.

And fortunately for the aforementioned three clubs, he came to study in Cheltenham.

“My PE teacher at school went to St Paul’s College in Cheltenham – it’s now the University of Gloucestershire – and he said that not only was it a very good teaching college it should also improve my rugby,” said Berry.

And Berry must have been a pretty good pupil because he listened to what his teacher said and took on board his advice, and it’s fair to say he has never looked back even though he had to move out to the right-wing to thrive in the great game that is rugby.

“I’d played mainly in the centre when I was at school but when I got to St Paul’s College I found there were England Schools players all over the place, including Paul Tate who was a much better centre than me,” he recalled.

“My coach in Huddersfield always said I’d end up on the wing because I was quick so I was quite happy.”

Tate and Berry would go on to become great friends and they, along with Bob Redwood and Pete Fereday, went on to run rings round many an opponent during their three years as students.

All four of them were mates and Berry recalled: “We’d play colleges and universities in midweek and club matches on Saturdays. We’d play the 2nd teams of Coventry and Moseley who were two of the strongest clubs back then, we’d play Welsh teams and I also remember we played Lydney.

“I remember that game because one of their supporters shouted, ‘Hammer them Lydney, they’re only schoolboys!’”

They did get hammered that day but the fab four – Berry, Tate, Redwood and Fereday – had done enough during their three years at college to catch the eye of others who knew their rugby.

“We were contacted by Cheltenham with a view to joining the club,” Berry explained. “They told us they’d find us teaching jobs and find us a home.”

That was in 1967 and in those days it’s fair to say that Cheltenham were a lot stronger than they are today.

“They had a really good fixture list,” continued Berry. “They told us that they had a really good pack but they felt the four of us could enhance the backs.”

And it wasn’t long before Berry was making his 1st XV debut for his new club.

“It was at Northampton,” he recalled. “I think my previous game was on tour in Cornwall at the end of the previous season! We lost 21-6 and I don’t remember seeing much of the ball!”

But once he’d got a taste for life in the 1st XV, Berry wanted more, much more.

“I was amazed that I was playing gate-paying rugby,” he said. “We were amateur but we were first class, people were paying to watch us play.

“Just before I joined the club were playing Cardiff and Newport and while I was there we played Bristol, Gloucester, Bath, Exeter, Coventry, Moseley, London Irish, London Scottish, Wasps, Pontypridd, Bridgend, Ebbw Vale, Pontypool, Saracens, Northampton and Leicester.

“The other day I looked at the Premiership table and put a tick by every club I had played against, I then put a ‘W’ next to every club we’d beaten and a ‘T’ against every side I’d scored a try.

“From 1967 to 1972 we held our own with all the big clubs in the country. We beat them all and I scored a lot of tries. It’s something that I’m really proud of, we played a lot of good rugby.”

So what were Berry’s strengths as a winger?

“I could step off both feet,” he said. “I had a change of pace and I had quick acceleration, I was quick over five, 10, 20 yards.

“I had an eye for an opening and I could finish.

“My claim to fame was that if I made a clean interception I was never caught. And I could also chip the ball over the full-back and catch it if I was hemmed in.

“We were well coached but I was born with pace and you can’t coach pace.”

And Berry certainly was quick.

“I sprinted and long jumped for Yorkshire Schools in the 1962 English Schools’ athletics championships at Hull,” he said, “and in 1965 I ran the equivalent of 10.8 for the 100 metres and was ranked in the top 50 seniors in Great Britain.”

He was rubbing shoulders with some quick boys back then and in those first five years at Cheltenham – he played for them for seven seasons until 1974 – he also rubbed shoulders with some stellar names.

“Future England prop Phil Blakeway,” said Berry. “Fly-half Bob Redwood who was one of the best players I ever played with, John Fidler, the legendary Dave Protherough who was our hooker and captain, Bernard Capaldi, a back row who should have played for England.

“Scrum-half John Woodward, who under-rated himself, Bob White, who played in the centre and went on to play for Gloucester, Tony Colwyn, who played in the second row.

“He was a lord, Lord Colwyn, he was also a dentist and a drummer in a rock band, the 60s were a bit like that.

“Tony Osman played on the opposite wing to me and then there was Pete Tapsell, a prop.

“Richie Akenhead was another. He was a goalkicking fly-half who won us many games in the 73/74 season that we looked like losing before moving to Moseley where he had great success.

“They were nearly all local players who wanted to play for Cheltenham. In those days all the best players in the town wanted to play for Cheltenham.

“We were lucky because a lot of Gloucester players who weren’t getting enough game time came over to play for us and RAF Innsworth provided with us with quite a few players.”

But as with so many good things, good times do have a habit of coming to an end and that is certainly what happened at Cheltenham.

“By 1972/73 we were losing the better players and not replacing them,” said Berry, who also played full-back, fly-half and centre for Cheltenham on occasion as well as captaining the side a number of times. “But we still had a hard fixture list and that’s why we started to take some hammerings.

“In 1972/73 we conceded 1,000 points, that’s a lot of points especially when you consider there were only three points for a try.”

Berry has great memories about pretty much all of his rugby career, but he does have some regrets about his last two seasons with Cheltenham.

“I wasted two years of my career in an under-performing side,” he said. “I had the chance to go to Gloucester in 1970 and I should have taken it.

“But all my mates were at Cheltenham, we had a good team and I didn’t feel like I was a Gloucester boy.”

And in those first five years at Cheltenham he was certainly involved in some great games.

“I played against some seriously good players,” he said.

“I played against Rod Webb of Coventry and he had a hand-off like a piston. He played for England and was a real handful.

“He was 14-stone and I was 12-stone, but I scored a try against him and we won.

“That was on a Tuesday night and on the Saturday he was playing for England against Wales.”

Wales and British Lion JJ Williams was another Berry took on – “Cor, he was quick,” he recalls – and he also played against England and British Lion Mike Slemen whom he described as “ahead of his time because he was so versatile”.

Closer to home Berry also went toe-to-toe with Alan Morley, another ex-England international who still holds the record for most tries scored in first-class rugby, a record that stands at 479.

Morley played for Bristol, of course, and Berry recalled: “He wasn’t blazing fast but he was strong. I remember playing against him in midweek and we lost 67-3, we were getting poleaxed!

“After he’d scored his fifth try against us I asked him if we could swap teams and I pretended to exchange shirts with him!”

Berry knew Morley pretty well because the England flier was in the Gloucestershire side when Berry made his debut for the county.

In those days the county championship was a main event and Berry said: “I played 10 times in 10 years and I played in the final in 1970.

“We beat Lancashire 9-6 in the semi-final at Kingsholm in front of 18,000 but then lost the final to Staffordshire.

“The final was played at Burton-on-Trent, we lost 11-9 and I had a try disallowed.

“Nine times out of 10 we’d have won that game, if the game had been played at Kingsholm we’d have put 30 points on them.”

By the time Berry made his final appearance for Gloucestershire in 1979, he’d already made the short journey down the road from Cheltenham to Stroud, a club he joined at the start of the 1974/75 season.

“I loved it at Stroud,” Berry said. “There were a number of ex-Cheltenham players at the club and we won the County Cup in 1979.

“We played a lot of top teams, including Worcester who were a junior club back then. We’d always put 30 points on them.”

His time at Stroud coincided with a few injury problems and at the age of 34 he tore the cartilage in his left knee.

He recovered but although still quick he wasn’t as quick as before.

He joined Old Pats in 1981 and spent six seasons with them before hanging up his boots in 1987.

“I played at Pats until I was 41 but after two more operations on my knee I thought that was enough,” explained Berry, who looks back on his time at the club with great fondness.

“They were a great social club and I went on tour to America and France with them.

“My best years were at Cheltenham, I had some great years at Stroud but I was creaking when I got to Old Pats.”

But while the final whistle was blowing on his rugby playing career, his sporting career was about to go into extra time.

“I played cricket for nearly 25 years after I stopped playing rugby,” he said. “I hadn’t played since I was 16. I was a batsman and played from 1987 to 2011 for Coombe Hill and Boddington, Marle Hill and St Stephen’s.”

He was a good batsman too. In fact he was a good all-round sportsman because he also played football in his younger days and these days play a bit of golf – he’d just played a round at Brickhampton Court before talking to The Local Answer.

And he took that sporting versatility into his teaching, coaching sports such as water polo as well as football, rugby and cricket.

But it is for his rugby that he will always be best known around these parts and during his time at Pate’s Grammar School he was lucky enough to coach alongside “the legendary Peter Kingston”, a scrum-half who was capped five times by England.

By the time Berry retired in 2012 at the end of a school tour to South Africa, rugby was a very different to the game to the one he had played in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

“The boys couldn’t understand why only three points were award for a try,” he chuckled. “I remember playing in a 0-0 when I was at school.

“And they couldn’t understand why there weren’t any replacements until the mid-70s.

“In those days the back row would go into the front row at scrums if needed.

“I remember playing at Lydney and going round their full-back and tearing my hamstring, I was obliged to limp round for the next 75 minutes!”

And there was certainly no concussion protocol as there is today.

“I remember being hit on the temple at Rugby,” said Berry. “I was unconscious. But a cold sponge and a bucket of water brought me round and I played on. And I played on the Tuesday as well!

“In those days we’d play on a Saturday and then in midweek. I think I played 48 games in one season.

“If we were playing at say Coventry on a Tuesday when I was at Cheltenham, I’d rush to leave work at 4pm, meet the Cheltenham coach at the old Athletic Ground for a 7.15pm kick-off, be back at midnight, asleep by 1am and then back at school at 9am the following morning.

“I don’t know how we managed to do it but we’re all agreed that we wouldn’t change it.”

Berry still watches Cheltenham play occasionally and he may go more regularly next season because his grandson Finlay is at the club.

Finlay is a pupil at Cheltenham College and was part of the school’s unbeaten 1st XV squad in the season just gone.

Berry, who lives in Charlton Kings, still retains links with Old Pats as well and was at a recent 60s, 70s and 80s reunion at the club organised by Pats stalwart Dave Kingscott.

He also watches Cheltenham Town play football and Gloucester play rugby so sport remains a huge part of his life.

It’s not the only interest in his life, though, because one of his three daughters is a prominent figure in the world of politics.

“My daughter Sian is co-leader of the UK Green Party with Jonathan Bartley,” said Berry. “Next year she’ll be standing as a candidate for the London mayoral election for a third time.

“She was a student at Pate’s Grammar School, she’s a daughter of Cheltenham.”

Meanwhile, her two sisters are more like their dad in that they are big into their sport.

“My middle daughter Joanna played county schools’ badminton and my youngest daughter Natalie played football for Cheltenham Town Ladies and the Gloucestershire Women’s FA. She was left-footed and she’s only just retired. She also played cricket at Dymock and now plays at Dumbleton.”

Berry is understandably proud of all three of his girls and he’s proud too of his time spent at Cheltenham Rugby Club.

“It was a privilege and an honour to have played for them at the level I did,” he said.

“Can I take this opportunity on behalf of Paul Tate, Pete Fereday the late Bob Redwood and myself to thank all the officials and supporters of Cheltenham Rugby Club who welcomed us to the club in September 1967.

“This includes Ken Fisher, Dai Walters, Roy Marchant, Ben Edwards, Barrie Lewis and many others. I’m pleased we were able to repay some of their support on the playing field.”

Other Images

The Cheltenham team for the first game of the 1968/69 season against Northampton
The Stroud team in 1978
John Berry with daughter Sian
John Berry with the Pate’s Grammar School Under-13 team in 2007

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