Terry Newton: his final interview

On Sunday, the former Great Britain hooker was found hanged, aged 31. Three months after his doping ban, he spoke frankly about his life to Dave Hadfield for this article, originally published in June
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Terry Newton used to despise people who cheat at sport. He still does, which makes it pretty hard to live with himself at the moment.

Newton, as few, least of all him, will need to be reminded, recently achieved a notable first for rugby league, by becoming the first sportsman anywhere in the world to test positive for human growth hormone.

It is not the distinction for which he wants to be remembered.

Cheat. It's a word Terry uses a lot, especially about himself. Whatever anyone else thinks about his decision to start injecting himself with little syringes of HGH in his garage, they probably don't have as low an opinion of his actions as he does.

"I've let everyone down. My parents, my family, my team-mates and, perhaps most of all, the fans."

He sees plenty of those fans in his new role as mine host at the pub he now runs with his father-in-law, Keith Holden, the former Wigan scrum-half. By a surreal coincidence, the pub is called the Ben Jonson, needing just an 'h' to transform the Elizabethan playwright into the disgraced, drug-taking Canadian sprinter. It's an irony that isn't lost on Newton. He even manages to laugh about it, although he does so through clenched teeth.

Terry has decided, though, that there is only one way to take his disgrace – and that is on the chin. As well as being the first to be caught by an HGH blood test, he believes he might have established another precedent.

"I think I'm the first player to fail a drug test and say 'Fair enough. I'm guilty. I cheated'." He was pretty direct on the pitch; now he is off it.

So far, the reaction to his honesty about his transgression has been good. Old mates like Kris Radlinski and Brian Carney from his Wigan days and Sean Gleeson from Wakefield have stuck by him, while simultaneously telling him what an idiot he has been. He has also encountered little open hostility from the general public. "The fans who come in here have been pretty understanding – at least to my face. They might talk differently behind my back, but I thoroughly deserve that."

He doesn't ask for anyone's sympathy, Terry Newton, but he is willing to explain why he did what he did.

Let's be honest about this, it's in his interests to do so. As well as his pub, he has his autobiography, Coming Clean, to promote. The two threads even come together in a slightly bizarre way, with the book on sale over the bar. "Two pints of lager, a packet of crisps and a 280-page confession, please," as a typical order might run.

For most of his career, the initials HGH meant nothing to Newton. "When I was playing at Leeds, Wigan and Bradford, nobody had heard of it," he says. After his "last big move" to Wakefield, however, he began to hear whispers about this gear that helped you recover from injuries more quickly by speeding up the regeneration of cells. Best of all, it was supposedly undetectable. The gossip was that there were players who were getting a helping hand and were getting away with it.

And Terry was starting to think he needed a helping hand. With the miles on the clock and the way he played the game, the injuries were taking longer to shift and the aches and pains on a Monday morning were getting worse. It was getting harder to keep up with younger players at training.

That was when he made his fateful decision to contact a player at another club, who he knew was on HGH, and to buy his own supply. "I was cheating, but I thought other people were cheating too – and that there was no way of getting found out."

The other circumstance he asks us to take into account is the death of his sister, Leanne, from complications caused by heroin addiction.

Newton admits that there is something deeply illogical about the death of a loved one through drugs pushing you towards drugs – even completely different ones. "But my head was up my arse at the time," is the way he puts it. "I'm not using that as an excuse, but I wasn't thinking right and I wouldn't have done what I did if I'd had a clear mind."

That loss has left its mark on him – he is still on anti-depressants – and made him as anti-drug as a convicted drug-user can be. That is why Gareth Hock is one of the more intriguing regular visitors to the Ben Jonson. Wigan's international second-rower is a little deeper into his two-year ban – in his case, for using cocaine – than Newton.

"He comes in, but he isn't drinking and he's training the house down. He's never trained as hard in his life and he looks fantastic. He's going to kill it when he gets back in Super League. He'll be better than ever and I'm just glad I don't have to play against him. Even the two years he's lost he'll probably get back at the end of his career."

Despite that optimistic prediction, Newton has rather more sympathy for Hock than he has for himself.

"I still think he was treated pretty harshly. I don't think he should get the same length of time as me. He just made one stupid mistake, but it wasn't performance-enhancing and he didn't set out to cheat like I did."

Despite that, there is one aspect of Hock's future that he would like for himself. In his book, he says that he is resigned to not playing again; now he is nowhere near as sure.

For one thing, he is not finding it a chore to keep fit. For another, there is the tantalising prospect that he might not have to serve the full two years of his ban, imposed in February.

He has had an approach from the UK Anti-Doping Agency – the body he refers to affectionately in his book as "the cock-watchers" – asking whether he would be prepared to help in the fight against the relatively new threat that HGH presents to the integrity of sport. In return, there is the possibility of a reduction in his sentence.

"I've told them I won't name names. Under no circumstances would I do that," he says, echoing his answer to the Rugby Football League when they asked him to do just that. Besides, he says, the only name he knows for sure is the player who supplied him with the hormone and he isn't about to reveal his identity.

What he is prepared to do is tell the agency about the availability and effects of the drug, as well as the attitude of players to it.

"If it stops one player who is thinking about going on it from doing so, that's worth it to me." That contribution, he hopes, might also earn him an early release, but is he kidding himself? A spokesman for UK Anti-Doping could not say whether or not Newton had been approached, but did confirm that there is room within their rules for a sanction to be reduced in return for information.

That would usually, but not always, involve identifying others who are cheating. Without names, it would, says the agency, "need to be very good information" and any reduction would have to be authorised by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

At 31, the difference between a two- and a one-year break from the game could be the difference between playing again and not.

"Even then, I think Super League might be beyond me," he says. "But I'd like to think I could still do a job at a slightly lower level."

A season or two as the "old head" in a Championship side would be a redemption of sorts. This isn't the way he wants to finish, with everybody remembering the manner in which his career ended, rather than what he achieved during it.

"If people don't think of that, they think of the Sean Long business."

Ah yes, his old mate Longy, who he grew up alongside and whose cheekbone and eye-socket he shattered with his elbow in 2005. It is, along with leaving Wigan shortly afterwards, the other great regret of his career.

But, terrible though he still feels about it, he insists that he did not do it intentionally. The disciplinary board didn't agree with him and gave him seven matches, plus another three for clobbering Lee Gilmour, which he admits he did intend. It did more than any other match of his career to cement the image of Terry Newton as a pantomime villain.

Newton grew up on a tough estate at Worsley Mesnes, just five minutes from the Ben Jonson, but it took more than that upbringing to make him the notorious hard-nut he was to become. Although he was a prop as a kid, he was always an undersized one. "I was never the biggest in any team I played in, so I had to be that bit more aggressive than anyone else." It was an attitude, learned early, which he took with him throughout his whole career.

And it wasn't a bad one. As he notes in his own personal checklist, he achieved most of his ambitions: playing at Wembley, winning the Challenge Cup, captaining Wigan, playing in Grand Finals, representing Great Britain and beating Australia in their own back-yard.

"What I've done doesn't cancel all that out," he says, hopefully and perhaps slightly plaintively.

If he has one favourite memory from all that lot, one game he would like to experience again tomorrow if the world worked that way, it would be going to St Helens with a team full of kids and winning.

"I'm just glad," he says, "that what happened to me didn't happen to some young kid at the start of his career." Most of all, though, he wishes he had never heard of Human Growth Hormone and never crossed that line marked "cheat".

This interview by Dave Hadfield first appeared in Rugby League World. Newton never did strike a deal with the UK Anti-Doping Authority to reduce the length of his ban.