Lyon in winter wilderness

Stephen Brenkley reports on the double life which has undermined a player's league career
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The Independent Online
ALL David Lyon wants to do is work. Well, not quite all, which is where his troubles began. Lyon also wants to play rugby league, the brand new super rugby league, that is.

There is something faintly romantic about the combination: a man pursues a successful career for most of the week and then still finds the energy and sense of purpose to compete as a top-class sportsman in his spare time. Whatever the rewards on offer, it seems reminiscent of the old days and somehow puts sport in perspective.

One of Lyon's employers, however, is refusing to sanction this arrangement and it is not Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council. The authority, where he began work as an apprentice paviour 13 years ago and is now a highways inspector, is both accommodating and helpful. This is not quite the case with St Helens, the club he signed for from Warrington in 1992. With rugby league about to become "super" they insist that if he wants to play for them he should give up his career and become a full-time full-back.

"I thought we had reached an agreement," Lyon said. "I sat down with the coach and the chairman for two hours and we worked out that I could still work and do the necessary training with the team. Then the board came back and said there couldn't be an exception."

Matters have reached stalemate. Lyon is out of contract, he has no club and no immediate likelihood of playing again. He also has no intention of abandoning his highways career. It is difficult to hear Lyon's tale without thinking again of the honourable way in which rugby league started precisely a century ago over broken-time payments to players who would otherwise lose money because they were not at their everyday jobs. Now there can be no broken-time payments because in most of Super League cases there can be no jobs.

Until now, most players have had employment outside the game - if they could get it - because it was not only expected but financially imperative. Rugby league might have been condemned as professional by people at Twickenham but semi-professional - and sometimes barely that in terms of the proportion of a player's pay packet - would have been more accurate.

Lyon is obviously upset by the club's stand. At the age of 29, having finally recovered from a groin injury which lasted almost 18 months, he genuinely feels he can do both jobs well. He has, he insisted, taken good physical care of himself and looks it. He keeps fit, as they say, for fun. His local authority employers are happy for him to use the flexi- time system for his sport; his colleagues are invariably obliging in providing cover. He has promised all his days off and holidays to the club.

"I can't see why there has been all this fuss. The least I hoped they would do is give it a go. I have worked hard to get where I am and I've got my family's future to think of, pension rights, etc. There is no way at all I could earn enough out of the Super League in the short time I've got left to secure that."

At Knowsley Road, where they have been installed as the latest pretenders to Wigan's crown, there can be no room in the brave new world for flexi- time and colleagues providing cover. As the chief executive David Howes put it, the problem to consider embraced the team's overall preparation, their mental approach, the camaraderie, the bonding. Nothing about the broadness of mind a committed part-timer might bring to the team.

"We can fully understand the human drama of it all and the emotional conflicts involved," he said, getting neatly into the human drama of it all. "We fully appreciate that David has a career and sympathise. He's not alone. We offered him a part-time contract for the coming short season but he rejected it because he wasn't happy with the terms. From January we expect all players to be full-time. It's like an orchestra. All of them have got to be there. You couldn't have a trombonist who kept wanting days off practice." The club have made Lyon available to others, so far without offers.

Both sides are anxious there should be no acrimony. Lyon is grateful to the club for standing by him during his injury and feels he has a rapport with the fans. But he also considers himself still to be one of the best full-backs in Britain, a view with which it is hard to disagree. He is slowly, painfully coming to terms with the prospect that he may be finished at the top in his prime. His record as First Division veteran, Great Britain tourist, Wembley Challenge Cup final try-scorer counts for nought, not while he is also a highways inspector.

There is a sad irony to consider. "To be honest, I'm in favour of the game going full-time," Lyon said. "It is without doubt the way to go. It'll do it good." But not now, not yet, not so swiftly.