Dishonesty the enemy of a coach driven by the desire for a wider audience

The Brian Noble interview: He has guided the Bulls to Super League and world glory. And what's more, says Andrew Longmore, he is English
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It might surprise a few down Old Trafford way that the most successful coach in the country over the past 12 months has not just been offered a handsome new £10 million contract and the keys to footballing immortality. It would equally perplex them to learn that the single most thrilling performance to grace the hallowed turf of Manchester United's grand stadium came from Bradford Bulls in the Super League Grand Final. But then we are talking rugby league, yesterday's game.

It might surprise a few down Old Trafford way that the most successful coach in the country over the past 12 months has not just been offered a handsome new £10 million contract and the keys to footballing immortality. It would equally perplex them to learn that the single most thrilling performance to grace the hallowed turf of Manchester United's grand stadium came from Bradford Bulls in the Super League Grand Final. But then we are talking rugby league, yesterday's game.

Odsal is a world away, a terraced hulk of a ground sunk into the hills to the south- west of Bradford. Even on a fresh to numbing winter wind, you can smell the game here, see for real the crowd who packed into the stadium one afternoon in 1954 to watch a Challenge Cup Final replay between Halifax and Warrington. The official attendance was 102,569. But locals swear 120,000 were at Odsal that day. There were four cars in the car park. Last week, redevelopment plans were postponed once again, condemning the Bulls to a further year in exile across town at Valley Parade.

Logic would dictate that Bradford should house its two significant sporting teams – the Bulls and City – under one roof, but sport remains thankfully and beautifully resistant to the rational thought of accountants. Odsal is a rugby league stadium and has earnt its preservation order. The Bulls, Super League champions, world club champions and the 2001 Challenge Cup finalists, still ply their trade from a row of low-slung cabins perched above the ground. Brian Noble remembers a time when the players had to troop back up to the changing rooms through the heart of the most vociferous and critical section of the crowd. Occasionally, there were some disagreements along the way, sometimes the odd scrap, player and critic, nothing fancy.

Noble has earnt his place in Bulls' history, as a former captain of the club, a tough tackler, good enough to captain the Great Britain squad on the 1984 tour of Australia, but more significantly now as one of the youngest, brightest and most innovative coaches in the game. His first season in charge proved a triumph not just for Noble himself, but for the Bulls' brave and pioneering decision to appoint an Englishman, a man born and bred in the Bradford suburb of Manningham, to coach his own club. At the time, in October 2000, Noble was the only non-antipodean coach in Super League. Now, at the start of a new season, half the coaches in the league are English.

Noble is reluctant to take much credit for the shift. Though his appointment to succeed Matthew Elliott at Bradford was hailed as a breakthrough, he tried not to think too hard about it. Noble had his first club to run, a tradition to uphold and a name to make without enduring the further pressures of national identity. "I'd lie if I said I hadn't thought about it," he says. "But I didn't need the whole of the game saying I was flying the flag for English coaches or people saying: 'If you fail, we've all failed'. There have been some outstanding Australian coaches here, but a lot of people on boards and committees were not looking at CVs, they were listening to accents. I've always said that if there is an Englishman out there who can do the job as well, give him the opportunity rather than giving it to someone just because they can say 'G'day, mate'." But there is no doubt that Noble's success in leading the Bulls to two trophies while resurrecting a swagger and a style many felt the club had lost has prompted new confidence in the skill and knowledge of British coaches.

In the middle of last week, Noble could be found in the very different cultural surroundings of the University Parks in Oxford, invited to bring his expertise to bear on the Dark Blues' attempt to win their third successive varsity league match. For two hours Noble and his assistants cajoled and persuaded an enthusiastic group of students through the finer arts of the game, starting with simple passing exercises, then developing more complex patterns of attack and defence. He cannot actually remember accepting the invitation, but admired the panache of the request anyway. Though not the most fertile of recruiting grounds for his Super League team, you never know when you might need a future captain of industry on your side. Noble was particularly thrilled that a number of rugby union players had bothered to turn out on an afternoon franked with a stiff northerly. But it was a telling, unglamorous, appearance illustrative of an imaginative thinker and a man still utterly passionate about spreading the word.

We talk of union and the dismantling of the barriers. Noble has all the medals of potential league prejudice, yet his mind is refreshingly receptive to change. Influences can come from anywhere, he says, from his library of books on coaching and sport or from the local park in Batley or Dewsbury. He was brought up in Manningham, a deprived area of the town, his parents were divorced when he was young, and because his father died when he was barely 11, much of the childcare was thrust upon his elder sister and brother while Noble's mother kept a household of five children by working days and evenings.

His love of rugby league was instant, the result of one of those strange and inexplicable acts of fate. As a young boy, Noble was a football player like his brothers until one morning the football was called off and he was drafted into the school rugby league side. "I said to the master: 'But I don't play rugby'. He said: 'Well, you do now'."

And has done ever since, signing apprentice forms for Bradford Northern and semi-pro forms a year later. He received a signing-on fee of £150, enough to buy him a battered Vauxhall Viva, and a blazer and tie which he wore solidly for three weeks.

"Sociologists and people would say I had a disadvantaged childhood or whatever, but I don't worry about that," he says. "I had a fantastic childhood, the best I could have had. I had plenty of love and happiness and sport was the key. We played on the streets, had six weeks' holiday in the summer and played 57 innings of cricket and everyone played. Yeah, there were some thugs, some kids who fell off the straight and narrow, but that's the same anywhere."

At the age of 18, Noble joined the police, as instructive a period of coaching education as any he has undertaken since. "You're taught humility pretty quick when you're on your own in the middle of Bradford town centre on a Friday night surrounded by five blokes on firewater wanting to beat the hell out of you. You learn to speak their language and you learn to cut your cloth to suit the situation. I never hid behind my uniform, I never believed in that style of policing anyway." Deceit rarely works on the street, and it certainly does not work in the robust confines of a rugby league dressing-room.

"As a coach you've got to be honest. I've got 17 places in my squad for a game, which means that five players will be disappointed. That's my toughest decision every week, picking the team. Sometimes it's just gut feeling. I'm not picking you because I think someone else will do a better job. I had to leave three players out of the Grand Final last season and I felt as bad for them afterwards as I did for the victory, because I know deep down you don't feel part of the team.

"I played over 400 games for Bradford and then I started to creak and I knew I wasn't doing it any more. But the coach wasn't telling me that. It's a horrible thing when you start getting old as a player, you start lying to yourself. That's when you need a coach to be strong and honest, because the players know. But the hardest thing in the world is to tell them."

Often, when coaches champion the virtue of honesty, it is time to head for the door. But Noble practises his preaching. Each Monday, his team have to fill in a review form for the weekend's game. Were they well prepared, did they execute the game plan well, was the game plan a load of bull. The answers would be useless without a sense of trust and without a coach prepared to listen. At 41, Noble is not that much older than some of his senior players, so his style within the dressing room is persuasive, democratic, inclusive, at times eccentric. But the players know where they stand, he believes, and even if they disagree with it, trust his judgement. "There is an element of acting in every coach," he says. "There are times when you want to rip players' heads off and you have to put your arms around them, and times when they play fantastically well, but you can see things drifting and you become angry. The old adage 'We still won', I don't believe in that. An attitude will get you somewhere down the line and then you'll get a battering."

When Leon Pryce punched a player from behind in the match against Leeds, an incident similar to Martin Johnson's attack on Robbie Russell, Noble rounded on his player afterwards in front of the whole team. "The thing that upset me most was that the guy didn't see the punch coming," he says. "Had Leon fronted up, he would have had a bit of sympathy, because he had obviously been provoked. But it was a cheap shot. I told them: 'We're tough enough at Bradford, we don't need cheap shots'."

What impressed shrewd observers about the Bulls' play last season was its freedom of expression. Noble instilled a sense of confidence in a side which had developed a reputation for freezing on the big occasion. At Old Trafford an hour and a half before the biggest game of the season, the Bulls' card school was still going strong, to the surprise of a few. But Noble had noticed a photograph of the players in the tunnel before the Challenge Cup Final at Twickenham in the spring. Focused faces, tight with tension. "I saw them again at Old Trafford and the focus was still there, but they looked relaxed. On the big stage, you have got to take the tension and the strain away from them."

That day, the Bulls played with the wind in their hair. "But it's not just confidence on the day, it's confidence on Monday, Tuesday, all through the week."

Yet the danger for league is that, like Odsal, it lapses into obsolescence. "I still believe there are people out there who think it's all cloth caps and whippets," says Noble. "That's just my perception. I'd love my game to have a wider audience." But if union keeps poaching his best players, such as Henry Paul, the coach in him relishes the challenge of developing new ones. Betraying the future is a far worse crime than betraying the past, he says. With one exception. "I'd love to get my hands on a player like Jonny Wilkinson," he laughs. "Ten years ago, we'd have taken out the chequebook and gone and got him." Instead, the Bulls have bought The Volcano, Lesley Vainikolo, 17 stones' worth of Tongan flier. "One awesome dude," as Noble calls his new recruit, a description that could equally cloak the coach if Noble's second season matches his first.

Biography: Brian David Noble.

Born: 14 February 1961, Bradford.

Height: 5ft 8in.

Weight: 13st 11lb.

Family: Wife, Barbara; two sons, Ben, 18, on the books at the Bulls, and Tom, 13.

Playing career: Debut for Bradford 1978-79. Captain of the Great Britain Lions for the tour of Australasia in 1984. Played in excess of 400 games for Bradford Northern. One of Britain's finest hookers.

Coaching career: A spell with the Cronulla Sharks in Australia was followed by period as assistant coach at Wakefield Trinity. Returned as assistant coach to Bradford before taking up main role.