'I had lunch with Newton 12 days ago' – Deacon mourns a friend

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The Independent Online

Paul Deacon was ignored by Wigan when he was a teenager who dreamed of running out in the cherry-and-white colours.

Instead, he was snapped up by Oldham, but after only four first-team games moved on to the Bradford Bulls. In 12 years there, he achieved just about everything he could have hoped for – winners' medals and Great Britain caps. "But I always secretly wanted to play for my home-town club," he says.

His chance came, quite unexpectedly, this season. Bradford were bringing in Matt Orford from Australia and Wigan needed an experienced half-back to help coach as well as play, while younger players matured. But the new coach, Michael Maguire, took one look at Deacon in pre-season training and told him to concentrate on playing.

It was the hardest pre-season Deacon has ever experienced. He still winces at the memory of running around the grounds of Haigh Hall in the snow. "I found out a lot about myself," he says. "For years at Bradford, I'd more or less been guaranteed my place. At Wigan, I could see how hard I was going to have to work just to get into the team."

With Sam Tomkins successfully redeployed at full-back, Deacon has slotted in at stand-off, where Maguire says his experience, organisation and kicking have been a major bonus. "The fact that it's my home-town club, the team I supported as a lad, has made it extra special for me" he adds.

Even during his long Bradford career, he continued to live in Wigan, travelling over the Pennines for years in the company of Terry Newton, whose death this week has hit him as hard as anybody. "I got a call and I just couldn't believe it," Deacon says. "News travels fast in rugby league circles, but I don't think it's sunk in yet. I had lunch with him 12 days ago and he seemed as happy as Larry."

Deacon and Newton went back a long way together. As the kingpins of their respective amateur sides, they played against each other from the age of 12. "We drove over to Bradford together for four years. You really get to know someone when you travel with them."

Deacon has been uncomfortable this week talking about the apparent suicide of his friend and the emotional impact that it could have on today's Grand Final, when there will be a minute's silence in Newton's memory. The St Helens captain, Keiron Cunningham, playing his last game, has expressed his confidence that it will be observed respectfully, even among Saints fans who regarded him as a pantomime villain.

Deacon was happier talking about another mate from his Bradford days, Stuart Fielden. The prop left the Bulls for Wigan four years ago as part of Brian Noble's successful battle to avoid relegation. He had not quite been his old, destructive self again until this season. "I'd say he's been our best player all year," Deacon says about Fielden. "He's played really well in every game he's played. He's right back in form and deserves to be picked for the Four Nations."

Fielden features in Deacon's favourite Bradford memory, coming from third in the Super League table to beat Leeds in the Grand Final in 2005. Winning at Old Trafford this time would run that close, or maybe even top it. This is the scenario he dreamed of as a boy, playing a major final with the team he had grown up supporting.

A full 15 years after Wigan snubbed him, it is finally going to happen – and it has already convinced him of one thing. "I want to play again next year," he says. "I'll even go through another of those pre-seasons."

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