Discovering the real Eddie Waring
He pioneered rugby league on television before illness turned him into a laughing stock, but now a new book seeks to rehabilitate atrue visionary
Tuesday 05 February 2008
The 13th season of Super League, which begins in earnest this week, will produce many things. An ever-increasing intensity of action, bigger crowds, higher viewing figures, new heroes – you can count on all of those.
But it will not produce a household name to compare with a little man in a trilby hat who died over 20 years ago. And a good thing that it won't, some with long memories might add, but the start of a new season and the publication of a lovingly-crafted new biography could mark a good time to reassess the legend of Eddie Waring.
For a good two decades, Waring was incomparably more famous than anyone actually playing the game of rugby league. In his heyday, the viewers who tuned into his commentaries on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon were numbered in the tens of millions. He appeared on It's a Knockout and Morecambe and Wise and was mimicked by Mike Yarwood and the Monty Python crew, but he was a national institution who polarised opinion between those who loved him and those who couldn't stand him.
Even now, the mere mention of his name, let alone a burst of his unmistakable nasal, chortling commentary, is enough to induce apoplexy among some devotees of the code. The author of Being Eddie Waring, Tony Hannan, observes that, as a long-serving BBC institution, he was sometimes accused of being part of a conspiracy to belittle and ridicule the game. That assessment is based on his latter years, when, it now emerges, he was suffering from Alzheimer's and his grasp of what was happening in front of him became tenuous.
That is the Eddie Waring most people remember, but Hannan argues that his contribution is in desperate need of reassessment. "There was so much more that he did on behalf of rugby league that has been disregarded," he says.
Waring's son, Tony, puts it another way. "It's a case of the prophet in his own land," he believes.
Waring's own land was the woollen town – and rugby league stronghold – of Dewsbury. He was never a rugby player of note, but had trials with Nottingham Forest as a centre-forward and once scored 10 goals in a match.
He was immersed in the game with which he became so inseparably associated from an early age, however, running the Dewsbury Boys' team, which he later rebranded, in an uncanny pre-echo of Super League 60 years later, as the Black Knights.
He first showed up on the game's radar, though, as the young secretary-manager of Dewsbury's professional club. Excluded from the armed forces by an ear condition, he took advantage of the wartime dislocation to build the best side Dewsbury had ever had, mainly by signing other clubs' stars who happened to be based in the area.
It was thus that legendary figures like Jim Sullivan, Gus Risman and Vic Hey came to play for Dewsbury, much to the annoyance of other clubs who were not quite as quick off the mark as the entrepreneurial Waring.
His nephew, Harry Waring's first memories of Eddie are at the old Crown Flatt ground. "We used to live next door, so I used to climb over the fence and go to the office, where he'd be quite likely to be talking terms with someone like Jim Sullivan," he recalls.
It was his parallel career as a newspaper journalist that took him to Australia on the first post-war tour in 1946, travelling with the team on HMS Indomitable and then from Fremantle to Sydney by train. He was one of several pressmen who made the trip, but such was his effortless genius for self-promotion that no one remembers the names of the others. As far as the myth was concerned, he was the first.
Legend also has it that, on the way home via America, he was alerted to the possibilities of sport on television by a conversation with Bob Hope. He certainly returned to England fired by the conviction that TV was the future for rugby league.
It was by nagging and hectoring an initially reluctant BBC that he got his chance to be part of that future. Early correspondence suggests that they at first regarded him as little more than a nuisance, but the Corporation's attitude changed when he got his feet under the table and they realised the scale of his personal following.
Early Waring commentaries, some of them unearthed for the promotion of Hannan's book, reveal an already quirky, staccato style, but nothing actually incoherent. At times, he could be the master of understated economy, as in his pithy comment on Don Fox's failed goal-kick that should have won the 1968 Challenge Cup final.
"He's missed it," he said. "Poor lad." It was rugby league's "they think it's all over" moment.
The later efforts were something else. As the years and his condition took their toll, they became more and more disjointed – and even those closest to him noticed.
His nephew, Harry, like Tony the veteran of hundreds of climbs up rickety ladders to TV gantries with him, recalls one match when he appeared to be losing it. "It was a floodlit match at Castleford and I thought he was struggling. As we were walking to his car, I asked him if he was thinking of retiring. He said: 'I'll know when to go', but he didn't and they let him go on too long."
The Beeb stuck solidly with Waring, despite a marketing report that branded him as one of the game's problems and a supporters' petition that called for his replacement.
"That hurt him," says Tony. "He thought it was unjustified – people claiming that he didn't know the game, which obviously wasn't true."
Harry remembers Eddie being verbally abused by a gang of youths at Wakefield or Hull KR – he isn't sure which – and he was wary of the public after that. He was happy to perpetuate the myth that he lived in the Queens Hotel in Leeds, because that helped to keep the world at arm's length.
Those troubled latter years when he became a caricature of himself have, Tony believes, obscured the memory of so much else he did for the game. "He was a pioneer and a visionary," he says. Among the areas in which he blazed the way were floodlit rugby and development in France, America and the south of England. He was the first to take road-shows around the country and the first to publish a year-book.
"He just thought it was the best game in the world and he would do anything he could to promote it," Tony says.
Far from being a fusty old reactionary, his dad would, he says, have loved Super League. "He would have relished all the razzmatazz."
Harry agrees, with one small proviso that is a reminder that, for Eddie Waring, the game was ultimately the thing.
"He would have loved it and he would have found a role in it – although he might have thought it tended to be a bit one-dimensional compared to his day."
Waring's words 'He's missed it... the poor lad'
"He's missed it, he's missed it! He's on the ground... he's missed it! Well, and there goes the whistle for time. What a dramatic... everybody's got their head in their hands... and he's sure in tears, he's in tears is the poor lad." - When Don Fox missed his kick in front of the posts at the end of the 1968 Challenge Cup final, losing it for Wakefield Trinity against Leeds.
"It's a test of a lot of things: speed, strength, courage and – faith, I suppose." - In the dying minutes of the 1978 Challenge Cup final.
"He's gone for an early bath" - Waring coined the term for a sending-off...
"It's an up and under!" ...and for a kick and chase
"You're looking at one ton of rugby – meat, brawn, muscle, brain, the lot of it!"
Being Eddie Waring by Tony Hannan (Mainstream, £14.99)
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