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Alex Murphy is one of the most famous names in the history of Rugby League. In collecting a full set of available trophies, his feats on the field for St Helens, Leigh and Great Britain made him a legend in his own lifetime, a legend reinforced by successful coaching spells with Leigh, Wigan and St. Helens. However, here I am concerned to record a lesser known success of the great man?s career: as coach of Huddersfield between 1991 and 1994.
In 1988, Fartown (as Huddersfield RLFC is known by the fans) was in a mess: bottom of the 2nd Division with a few amateurs making up the team; being thrashed by all and sundry in front of crowds of about 300; and the chairman wanted rid of the club. Although many people in the town could reel off the great Fartown sides of the 1950s they could not name one single current player and most did not seem much bothered whether the club lived or died.
Then a new board took over. Over the next three years they made only limited progress but they did stabilise the club. Under a steady procession of coaches, by 1991 we had progressed from whipping boys to mid-table 3rd division mediocrity in the RFL?s new league structure. Then we heard that the board wanted Alex Murphy as coach. Hardly anybody took the first reports seriously. It would be great but, realistically, why should one of the greatest figures in the history of the game want to come slumming in the basement? Anyway, Murphy turned up as a guest at an early season Yorkshire Cup game. By half-time we were 10 points down and being played off the park by a poor York side. . Murphy was persuaded to give the team a half-time pep talk in which he reportedly told them to just play basic rugby. He obviously made an impression because they went out and blasted York off the park with 28 unanswered points. Such was the impression the performance made on Murphy that he took the coaching job and so began the best year of my, and I suspect many other fans?, rugby lives.
After a month or so just watching and learning, Murphy cleared out the players he did not want. For the rest of the season, we lived the dream. Memories of the nightmare days of 1988 were swept away in what to we fans seemed an inexorable progress towards the 3rd Division Championship. Suddenly the club was no longer a joke in the town and gates increased at least ten-fold. We knew that we were winning so easily not so much because we had better players but because of the demands Murphy made on them for a total effort over 80 minutes. One example of the standards demanded by Murphy remains indelibly imprinted on my mind: his bawling at a player who missed a tackle, even though we were about 70 ?0 up at the time.
Murphy did two more seasons with us and made us a force to be reckoned with in the 2nd Division. In 1992-93 we finished 3rd and missed promotion by one place, not bad given a dreadful start to the season in which we lost probably at least 7 or 8 games as Murphy rebuilt the side. By now the club was well enough regarded by the RFL to get a fixture as part of Australia?s warm-up for the 1992 World Cup Final; the game produced the winning score line from which the occasional Huddersfield fanzine Fartown 2 v Australia 0* takes it title.
A return to the top flight seemed possible in 1993-94, especially after setting a new club record by winning the first 10 games of the season, but even Murphy could not counter boardroom feuding and debt running into hundreds of thousands dollars and in 1994 he left the club. But his legacy still remains. Without the Great Man?s contribution we would not have so quickly become a respected force in RL and would not have been able to move into a modern ground as part of a then unique partnership with the local authority and Huddersfield soccer club. And without that, we would never have got into the ESL. That is why, even a decade later, I still see Huddersfield Giants competing for a top 6 spot as The House That Murphy Built.
* With 71 minutes to go. (It ended 2-66).
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