'The careers adviser didn't like my rugby league idea. I think I proved him wrong'

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The Independent Online

Alex Murphy is aiming to cap a 50-year career by taking Leigh into Super League.

On top of a filing cabinet, in the rabbit-warren of offices which are crammed under the main stand at Leigh, there is a badly discoloured rugby ball displayed in a glass case.

"Look at that! Someone tried to clean it with acid," says Alex Murphy, who also produces a series of framed front-pages that are leaning against the wall. They tell the story of the game in which the ball was used - the 1971 Challenge Cup final victory over Leeds.

"That's what's kept this club alive - memories."

Murphy should know; he is central to most of them. If he is still at Hilton Park next season, he will be celebrating a half-century in rugby league. He has already been involved in guiding the club's fortunes in five different decades.

"I remember going to see the careers' adviser at school when I was 11 or 12 and he asked me what I was going to do. I already knew I wasn't going to be a rocket scientist, so I told him I wanted to go into rugby league. He said that was all very well, but I couldn't do that for very long, so I suppose I've proved him wrong."

Murphy would not have been in the game now, had it not been for a deputation from the new Leigh board that flew out last year to see him in the south of France, where he spends part of every summer.

"I had a lot of doubts about coming back," he said. "If it hadn't been the south of France, a beautiful day with the sun shining, I probably wouldn't have done it, but there were five directors who'd come a long way and they seemed genuine."

The role he agreed to take on, that of director of football, is not particularly hands-on. Indeed, he has his detractors who will tell you that he was not very hands-on in some of the jobs earlier in his career.

That is to miss the point. You did not hire Alex Murphy for the hours he was going to put in; you did it for the instant effect he could have on players, with an arm round the shoulders here, a paintstripper half-time blast - that greatly outgunned Sir Alex Ferguson's feeble hairdryer - there.

He will be at arm's length at Widnes on Sunday, when Leigh play Whitehaven for the chance to be promoted to Super League, leaving Leigh's bright young coach, Darren Abram, to get on with it.

"The only people on that coach will be the players and the coaching staff," he said. "All the directors, including me, will be on another coach. I don't want anyone saying anything stupid to them."

Leigh have been to three previous Grand Finals and have faltered on the brink of Super League on each occasion. "We're better prepared this time, but it's still going to be very, very difficult," he said. "Whitehaven on their day can beat anyone, but I still think that if we play as we can, we should have a little bit too much for them."

That's the easy part. If Leigh win and if, as seems likely, they meet the criteria for promotion, they will start a hectic winter of preparation for Super League.

Murphy does not demur from the general opinion that there are, at best, five or six players of Super League standard in the current first-team squad. Some players - and Abram, for that matter - have jobs or businesses that they might be unwilling to give up for the uncertain prospect of life as full-time professionals. Players on the market elsewhere who could improve the side are, by and large, already spoken for.

"We know that it's a huge job," Murphy said. "My favourite memory of Leigh is winning the Cup in '71, but staying in Super League would be a much bigger achievement than that. I wish I could wave a magic wand and produce 17 Super League players, but I can't. What we can do is throw in some of the kids who have done so well for us in the academy this year. There's a lot of rugby talent in this town and, if you don't give them a chance, you'll never find out if there's another Wayne Rooney out there or another player like me."

Murphy would be many good judges' choice as the best-ever to play the game. As a coach, one of his trump cards was his ability to pluck out players under-rated elsewhere, but in whom he had confidence for a specific role. He did it in all his trophy-winning sides at Leigh.

And he must try to do it again if they go up this time, and bring top-flight rugby back to Hilton Park before they move to a new ground on the other side of the town centre. First, though, there is the small matter of Whitehaven. Leigh have beaten them three times this season - including a 30-16 win two weeks ago still commemorated on the scoreboard - but that has not prevented them slipping up in similar circumstances in recent seasons.

"The big thing for us is our support," he said. "We've already sold 4,500 tickets and those fans deserve to experience Super League. We're not saying it's going to be easy, but we believe we should have the right to have a try."

And when Leigh do that, their history, in which Alex Murphy has played such a prominent role, shows that surprising things can happen.


1939: Born in St Helens.

1955: Signs for Saints.

1958: Youngest player to tour Australia at 19.

1961: Try-scorer in Saints' victory at Wembley.

1966: Refuses third Great Britain tour when not named as captain and becomes player-coach at Leigh.

1971: Leigh defeat Leeds at Wembley, Murphy leaves for Warrington, wins 27th and last Test cap.

1974: Warrington win Challenge Cup, one of a series of trophies under Murphy.

1978: Starts unsuccessful stint at Salford.

1980: Returns to Leigh.

1982: Leigh win First Division Championship, Murphy leaves for Wigan.

1984: Sacked after famous altercation with Maurice Lindsay.

1985: Becomes coach of Leigh for third time, then joins Saints.

1990: Back to Leigh for fourth time

1991: Joins Huddersfield.

1994: Leaves Huddersfield.

1996-7: Football executive, later coach at Warrington.

1999: Awarded OBE.

2003: Returns to Leigh as director of football.

2005? Murphy celebrates 50 years in the game with Leigh in Super League.