Alex Murphy, one of the greatest players of all time and a member of the Hall of Fame, spoke to me in 2007 for League Express’s ‘My Life in Rugby League’, the week before his beloved Saints took on Catalans at the new Wembley.
What do you remember about your early days as a St Helens player?
I played my first game at the back end of 16-years-old when we beat Whitehaven and George Parsons was the captain back then. That was in April 1956. Jim Sullivan was our coach and he was a wonderful tutor for me. In the two hours before training he would show me all sorts of things he thought I should know and I regard him as the best coach that’s ever coached and it was like having a second dad. He just knew everything about rugby.
What do you remember about the 1958 British Lions tour to Australia that you went on?
We used to have trial matches back then before the tour and I played against a lad called Johnny Fishwick from Rochdale. I think I had a very good game and that got me in. The other scrum-half in the party was Frank Pitchford after Jeff Stevenson had cried off and I was selected for the first Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground against Australia. To be quite honest, I probably had the worst match of my Rugby League career and I thought my international career was over. I tried to run through people that day instead of around them and we lost 25-8. Keith Holman, the Australian scrum-half, had a great game. Our captain Alan Prescott took me to one side and told me where I’d gone wrong.
The next Test is famous for Alan playing with a broken arm.
That’s the greatest achievement that any team has ever achieved. To beat the Aussies over there is special anyway, especially after we’d lost the first Test. But to do it after Alan broke his arm in the first few minutes. It was just incredible the way he played on and it’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen in this game. He didn’t just stay out there, he played a full part and led us to victory with only 11 men because we’d lost other players to injury as well.
Did the Australians not target his weakness?
No, to give them their due, they didn’t. They obviously wanted to win but I think even they were proud of what Alan was doing. They played fair and deserve credit for that. After that, we went on to thrash them in the third Test. They’d probably lost their confidence after the second game and were probably a bit embarrassed. The momentum was with us and we wrapped it up. The whole thing was absolutely outstanding.
You then played with a broken arm on the 1962 tour in a game against their leading club side St George.
That’s right. I broke a piece of bone in a tackle and couldn’t bend or straighten my arm. The Tests were finished and the last real challenge was St George, who had a great side. We absolutely annihilated them. I played because I was about the only member of the squad who hadn’t won a man of the match award on the tour and I ended up winning it in that game! But I was off for six months when I got home.
On Saturday, the Challenge Cup final returns to Wembley. What do you remember about the stadium?
It is unbelievable and the greatest moment of any player’s life. Forget the Grand Final, don’t listen to Sky, this is the big one and I’d stake my life that if you ask anyone in Australia, New Zealand or here, they will tell you that this is the one that they want to play in. It’s like something out of a story book. The atmosphere is brilliant. The walk down the tunnel onto the field is something that you will never ever forget.
Tell us about the 1961 final against Wigan.
I trained well all week but I had one of the worst games of my life. I promised myself afterwards that I’d never ever get uptight about a game of Rugby League again and fortunately that was the case. I went back and played in three more finals, captaining three different sides and winning each time.
The first of those three was 1966, also against Wigan.
The 1966 final was the best St Helens side ever. We were magnificent and we destroyed Wigan. We had toughness, skills, the lot. The semi-finals are for winning and Wembley is for entertaining and that’s what we did that day. That 1966 side would beat any team.
Even the current Saints side?
Yes, I think so. The St Helens team today is fantastic and not too far behind our side from 1966.
Five years later you were back at Wembley leading Leigh to victory over Leeds. Does it rile you that you were regarded as such underdogs when there was little between you on the league ladder?
That’s right. We’d beaten Leeds twice that season and we had a great young side. People pointed to all the international players that Leeds had but that didn’t matter to us. We were actually 66/1 in the early rounds to win the Cup which was ridiculous. No one really gave us a chance but I was completely confident and there were no nerves in me whatsoever.
What happened with the Syd Hynes sending-off?
I barely remember anything about it. I remember being in the bath in our changing room under the supervision of the Wembley doctor, not our own club doctor but the lads wanted me back out there if I was OK. I didn’t feel too good though and I nearly dropped the Cup down the stairs but they did a good job on me with the smelling salts etc. There’s been a lot of rubbish spoken about the incident, stuff like me winking on the stretcher. People seem to think I’m a better actor than I think I am! Syd and I are great friends and we always have been. The game wasn’t a contest in the end, with us winning easily. Their only try was an obstruction try and we put in one of the best ever Wembley performances.
You then moved onto Warrington and won the 1974 final with them.
Yes, I remember their Chairman asking me to go and watch a game against Huddersfield. I sat in the directors’ box and watched them get beaten by about 58-3. I told the Chairman that I wasn’t too sure if I wanted the job! But he persuaded me to and in eight years we won 11 trophies. Wembley 1974 against Featherstone was the highlight of course and it was my last Wembley as a player.
You were the player-coach in the 1971 and 1974 Wembley successes but it’s something we no longer have in the game. How difficult was it combining the roles?
It was very difficult because you’ve got to get everything right but one thing I managed to do was to instill confidence in the sides I was involved with. We always knew we were going to win and that makes the job a lot easier. You have to learn how to man-manage because it’s the most important thing about the job and that’s something that I could do.
Was it difficult to take the Wigan coaching job given your St Helens playing career?
Yes, it was. It was very difficult but Wigan were a massive club and it was something that I wanted to do. The Wigan supporters, with the exception of Saints supporters, are second to none. I had to build the side from scratch though because they’d just come out of the second division. We did well even though I never spent a lot of money. My biggest signing was Shaun Edwards and before all that, I was even responsible for bringing Maurice [Lindsay] into the game. He used to be on the dogs at Bolton and we’d go there after games.
Is it true that you once threw a telephone at him?
Yes, although I shouldn’t have done that. He knew that if he pushed me hard enough that I’d react and that’s what happened. You can only humiliate a person so much. It was after a Sevens tournament and I went to him for my bonus. He pulled out a wad of notes from his pocket, called me a money grabbing little bastard and threw a few notes onto the floor. I’d never been treated like that by anybody. The trouble with Maurice is that he likes the limelight but the press were coming to me instead of him. He didn’t like that. I don’t hold grudges though and I quite like Maurice. He’s done a lot of good for the game, but also a lot of bad things.
What do you think of the new Wembley?
They’ve done a magnificent job. I loved the old Wembley but this is something from another planet. The supporters will make this place their new home.