Cumbrian rivals unite to mourn the death of one of their favourite sons

North-west clubs come together to honour Garry Purdham, the player killed in last week's shootings
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The Independent Online

Whitehaven's rugby league players went on an emotional journey yesterday. This was not the usual 40-mile trip down the Irish Sea coast for a Co-operative Championship game at Barrow.

A few miles out of town, the team bus diverted to the village of Gosforth, stopped at a hedge festooned with floral tributes as they turned their thoughts to one of their number, shot dead at the age of 31 at that spot less than a week before.

"It was an emotional moment," said the Whitehaven coach, Ged Stokes. "There weren't many people catching each other's eyes."

Every rugby league player in the country observed a minute's silence in memory of Garry Purdham at the weekend, but this was the first chance for his hometown club, the one with which he turned professional, to pay its respects.

Purdham was one of 12 people gunned down on Derrick Bird's infamous rampage last Wednesday and he was inevitably in the forefront of many minds and many memories at Barrow, down at the bottom of the Cumbrian coast, last night.

"There's quite a few of the team who came through in their careers alongside Garry," said Stokes. "In these sort of circumstances, the players need to express themselves."

The club organised grief counselling for the sort of men who never really imagine they will need that sort of thing, but Stokes admitted: "I don't know how it's going to take them."

The sense of communal Cumbrian grief, not just for Purdham but also for the other 11 victims of what is still an incomprehensible tragedy, found another expression last night in the way that not two teams, but three lined up for the minute's silence before kick-off.

Along with Barrow and Whitehaven, the players of Workington, where Purdham finished his professional career three years ago before starting to play again for his amateur club, Egremont Rangers, were also there in full kit.

"We thought it was only right that Workington should be involved, because what has happened has affected all the people of the west of the county," said the Barrow chairman, Des Johnston. He and his counterparts from the other two clubs laid wreaths on the half-way line which were later transported to the scene of the crime, ready for a county-wide minute of silence today.

"This is a county of fine divisions," said Stokes, a New Zealander but a long-term resident. "It doesn't take much to divide us, but this is one thing that has united us."

Cumbria has cultivated a sense of stoicism in the face of disaster, be it the winter floods or the recent fatal school-bus crash, but for the county's big rugby league community nothing has quite hit home like the loss of one of their favourites.

There was always a strong chance that the horror of last Wednesday would have a rugby league connection. Somebody at Rugby League headquarters in Leeds spotted the name among the list of the dead and phoned the Whitehaven stalwart, John Cox.

"It's not our Garry, is it?" she said. "I had to tell her that unfortunately it was our Garry," Cox said.

It was certainly "our Garry" who was being mourned by members of the Purdham family, who were at the match but asked for their privacy to be respected. His brother, the England international, Rob Purdham, is on compassionate leave from his club, Harlequins.

But the sense of loss spread far beyond the immediate family. Behind the goal-posts at Craven Park, Haven fan Terry Bone described him as "the nicest bloke you could wish to meet" and his son, Gareth, recalled playing alongside him in junior rugby.

"It's affected it tonight," said Bone senior. "This should have been a humdinger, but it just feels completely flat. We're a close community and this seems to have got to everyone."

For the record, Barrow won 30-0, but, for once on the coast of Cumbria, that did not seem to be the main point.