Mike Gregory: The dream that became a nightmare

After a glittering playing career, Mike Gregory was appointed head coach of Wigan three years ago. Then he was struck down by serious illness. What followed was a long and sometimes acrimonious battle against the club - one that was concluded last week. In his first interview since then he talks to Dave Hadfield
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From Mike Gregory's front doorstep on the outskirts of Wigan, you can almost see the JJB Stadium, home to a sporting institution of which, despite the settlement he reached with them at an employment tribunal last week, he still takes a very mixed view.

Gregory is the former Great Britain captain, described at his tribunal as "a national hero" and scorer of what is perhaps the most famous try of the modern era. He won 20 caps for his country, the most memorable of them in the third Test in Sydney in 1988, when his score from long range clinched the first British victory over Australia in a decade.

In 2003, he was appointed to his "dream job" as first acting head coach and then head coach in his own right at Wigan, the home-town club for which he had longed to play, but never did. Within months, the dream had turned into a nightmare.

Earlier that year, he had spent 10 days in Australia, where he believes he was bitten by an insect. That produced a skin rash and, from March onwards, symptoms of weakness in his wrists and neck. In October, a week before he took Wigan to the Super League Grand Final, he collapsed. One doctor diagnosed motor neurone disease; others believed it could be a progressive muscular atrophy caused by an infection triggered by the insect bite.

The following April, with the Challenge Cup final looming, he requested and was given leave of absence to travel to America for tests and treatment. The Cup final at Cardiff turned out to be his last match in charge, because he never returned to work. That was the essence of Gregory's claim against Wigan last week, which was withdrawn after they paid him £17,500 - that the club should have made efforts to allow him to carry on doing his job, or as much of it as he could have managed.

Wigan's response is that it would have been both unsafe and unrealistic for Gregory to return in the condition he was then, and that they had little choice but to make another appointment. Neither side disputes that the club continued paying Gregory until his contract expired last October.

Gregory, a byword for fitness and dedication to training during his playing career, attended last week's tribunal in a wheelchair and now has very limited movement in his upper body. He still has all his old sharpness of mind and sense of humour, but speaking is increasingly a major effort.

"But don't judge me as I am now," he says, without any hint of self-pity. "Think of me as I was two years ago. I believe honestly that I could have done the job for another year, until May 2005. I would have said then that it was getting too hard and I would have stepped down. Doing that would have had a major positive effect on me. I would have been doing the job I loved with people I got on with."

In many ways Gregory's story has a resonance well beyond its sporting context. It is about how society in general and employers in particular deal with serious illness and disability.

Gregory's wife, Erica, saw the impact of what he saw as Wigan's rejection. "It was as though they just didn't want someone looking like Mike around the place any more," she says. "It did damage his self-esteem. It made him feel as though he was somehow unworthy... They told him to stay away from a club which was a lifeline to Mike - it was his passion. If his life was going to be cut short, he only had one chance at this job. If he felt he couldn't do it any more, he loved those players so much that he would have stood down himself."

Gregory, now 41, was denied that option. The Disability Rights Commission, which backed his case at the employment tribunal, argues that, under the law as it now stands, he should have been given it.

"You would think that the contribution Mike made to Wigan's success would merit better treatment, but far too often employers are far more keen to show disabled people the door than to make the adjustments necessary to keep them in work," says the DRC's spokesman, Patrick Edwards, who realises that work is often a hostile environment for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions.

Gregory, who spent most of his playing career at Warrington, was always regarded as one of the most fiercely determined men in the game and, despite his condition, he has brought the same tenacity to this battle - on both the medical and the legal front. "I knew I had to go all the way with this, after the way I've been treated," he says. "I still have a lot of time for people at the club. The players, the coaching staff, the office staff and the supporters have all been great."

Wigan players past and present visit him, keep in touch by phone and support the various functions that have raised money for a trust fund to help the family, which also encompasses the couple's two sons, Sam, aged eight, and four-year-old Ben. It is at an official level that the Gregorys feel that Wigan have washed their hands of him.

"None of the functions that have been held have had anything to do with the club," Erica says. "Yes, they paid him until his contract expired in October, but that was only after a series of meetings. I'm sure they regard me as a very difficult woman. But I'm not a difficult woman. I'm just sticking up for my husband and they don't like it."

Erica Gregory, described at the tribunal as "a remarkable woman," is perhaps uniquely equipped to do just that. Before she had to give up work to look after Mike, she was a biochemist. The back room of their house is now an office overflowing with medical and legal documentation and the search for treatment to improve his health has taken them to the Netherlands for stem-cell therapy as well as to America. "But as far as Wigan were concerned it was simply a case of, 'You've got motor neurone disease. You're terminally ill'," she says.

Wigan outlined its position in more detail yesterday, in response to Gregory's interview for this article. "The club did consider bringing Mike back to work but the matter was complicated by Mrs Gregory, who kept insisting that Mike did not have motor neurone disease and would recover from a temporary infection caused by an insect bite," the club said it a statement.

"This was not supported by independent medical opinion from one of the country's leading neurologists, who insisted Mike had motor neurone disease. The club continually tried to establish clarity by asking Mike to submit to an examination by the club's own medical officer. Neither Mr nor Mrs Gregory would agree to this request, which dragged matters on.

"The club are in no doubt that it could not have returned Mike to work without the support of the club doctor. It would have placed too much stress upon Mike and would have been wrong for the club to create such a situation. Without the clarity of a medical examination we could not simply rely on Mrs Gregory's opinion."

Wigan also pointed out, as they had after the settlement at the tribunal, that they "had honoured every penny of our contractual obligation." That, as far as the Gregorys are concerned, has never been the issue. Erica Gregory wonders how it is possible to recompense someone who has lost their dream. She says: "£17,500 doesn't do it."