Weekend Interview - Right place, right time works well for Simon Middleton

Simon Middleton, the England Women head coach looks on during a training session. Picture: David Rogers/RFU/The RFU Collection
Simon Middleton, the England Women head coach looks on during a training session. Picture: David Rogers/RFU/The RFU Collection
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WHEN he first started playing rugby union at Knottingley, Simon Middleton would never have guessed even switching codes to star with neighbouring Castleford Tigers, let alone returning to Yorkshire more than 30 years later in charge of the England Women’s national side.

“It would have been pie in the sky” is his brief summation when posed that question ahead of facing Canada at Doncaster Knights’ Castle Park tomorrow.

That is how it happened, though, in a fascinating career that has recently seen Middleton travel across the globe as one of the RFU’s elite coaches.

He left his role as Bishop Burton College director of rugby to become England Women’s Sevens head coach in 2014, assisting the first XV team when they won the World Cup the same year, and took on his current role in 2015, finishing runners-up to New Zealand in last year’s defence.

All the time, he has still lived in Pontefract which, fittingly, is barely 19 miles north of where his England side, venturing away from the cocoon of Twickenham, will now play their first-ever Test match in the Broad Acres.

Yet, in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, the 52-year-old readily conceded most of his storied career – which included a long spell as Leeds Tykes assistant as they soared into the Heineken Cup – has occurred simply by pure chance.

“I was telling the tale to the girls just recently how I got into union,” recalled Middleton.

“At school, I was a skinny, ginger-haired kid who nobody wanted in their team. But my brother was playing at Knottingley and it was him who got me in there.

“I was 17 and I just got the bug. I loved it at Knottingley; it was a brilliant club, great people.

“I was a Fev (Featherstone Rovers) fan as my dad was Fev-mad but I loved the rugby union internationals. When the Five Nations came around it was the best time of the year and I loved playing; I lived for Saturdays when I was with Knottingley.

BACK THEN: Simon Middleton scorches away for a try for Castleford against Keighley.

BACK THEN: Simon Middleton scorches away for a try for Castleford against Keighley.

“But then – when the move to Castleford happened – it was literally right place, right time.”

Although Knottingley were way down the pyramid when the entire sport was still officially amateur – they currently reside in Yorkshire Three alongside the likes of Wensleydale – the nearby Castleford rugby league side was, of course, the illustrious semi-professional neighbours.

Indeed, in 1989, just two years before Middleton made the switch, they had bought Graham Steadman from Featherstone for a world-record £170,000 fee.

Ironically, Steadman started out at Knottingley, too, just like Kellingley-born Middleton.

I was fortunate enough that I was coaching in the Premiership so he saw it as bit of a coup. And I just loved it; they were great to work with, so refreshing and their attitude is great.

Simon Middleton

“He left just before I really got into the Knottingley team,” remembers Middleton.

“But it was Steady who rang up about Cas wanting me. I was playing in a game at Castleford rugby union’s ground for Yorkshire. They were showcasing their new floodlights in a special match and a few ringers had been put in to level things out.

“I was asked if I fancied a run-out at full-back. I just said ‘yes.’ The Cas coach Daryl van de Velde was down watching Yorkshire’s scrum-half Dave Scully.

“They were massive on signing him back then but he was with Wakefield and on the fringe of England. It never happened.

“I just had one of those games, though, where everything came off for me. Darryl saw it. It was a lucky break. I got a phone call asking if I wanted to have a trial at Cas but I thought it was a p*ss take, someone pretending to be Darryl van de Velde.

“Steady actually had to phone me the day after and said ‘Mate, that WAS van de Velde last night’.

OPENING: Former England Women head coach Gary Street. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

OPENING: Former England Women head coach Gary Street. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

“I went down. That was it – one minute watching them on telly, the next sat with them all in the changing rooms. Literally, I got that break by being in that place at the right time. Steady took me under his wing at Wheldon Road while Darryl was great. He was a huge influence on me.”

It was a great Castleford side under the popular Queenslander’s command, too, with the likes of Kiwi great Tawera Nikau, legendary Great Britain prop Lee Crooks, the dazzling Steadman at full-back and Mike Ford at scrum-half.

Winger Middleton – aged 25 – was a big hit in the 13-man code, scoring 83 tries in 170 games for the club and featuring in the famous 1994 Regal Trophy final win over mighty Wigan.

That was a deserved highlight; he was dropped for the Challenge Cup final at Wembley against the same team just two years previously. Middleton mused: “I played every game that season apart from the final. He put Jonny Wray in instead to face (Martin) Offiah – who had a field day! It was one of those moments that can send you either way; I just thought I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Looking back it’s one of those things that, without doubt, changed my career for the better.

“It helps you massively when you come to a job like this; when I now sit down with a girl and say she’s not got into the Olympics Sevens team or she’s not playing in the World Cup final I know what she’s going through. I know, as I’ve been there.”

Middleton returned to union for a brief spell with Otley to aid his return from an injury – “another great club that took me right back to those days at Knottingley” – and faced Leeds.

Soon after, having been released by Castleford in 1997, Tykes’s enigmatic boss Phil Davies got in touch about a move.

“I played a season and a half there – a bit too long, definitely – then joined the staff,” he added, going on to be an assistant at Headingley from 1999 to 2011.

“I was working all the time at a local business; I had that lack of pressure about my life depending on it (rugby).

“I got on with Phil. I was able to stand up to him! He was a tough guy – a great guy – but it was one of those situations where I knew I could say my bit and it worked well for me. In the past it didn’t.

“We had some great times at Leeds – in and out of the Premiership, Heineken Cup, that year we won the Powergen Cup and escaped relegation when Matt Holt scored on the last play at Bath.

“While there I did my Level Four coaching and Gary Street – England Women’s Head Coach at the time – was also on the course. We became really good friends.

“He asked me if I’d do some guest coaching with the girls as it was only just on the rise with the women’s game then.

“I was fortunate enough that I was coaching in the Premiership so he saw it as bit of a coup.

“And I just loved it; they were great to work with, so refreshing and their attitude is great.

“I did that for a couple of years and a lot of defence consultancy going into the 2010 World Cup.

“It was a big rugby league way in to union at the time; Phil Larder, Dave Ellis, Fordy – a good friend from Cas – and Steady also went in. That’s how I started.

“And now we’re here back in Doncaster for our first game in Yorkshire.

“It’s an exciting time.”