Alexander James Murphy by Alex Service, with additional comments from Dave Dooley
The Saints faced a fixture backlog of 3 games in 5 days shortly before the 1956 Challenge Cup Final. For the last match of the sequence, at home to Whitehaven on 11th April, the Board selected a virtual reserve side. Skipper George Parsons was the only regular on duty that day as the lads from the` A` team, inspired by the prospect of a hefty bonus, beat the Cumbrians in every department of the game. Making his debut in the 21-7 success was Alex Murphy, an effervescent little half-back who exuded an air of confidence which totally belied his youthful appearance.
Under Jim Sullivan`s expert guidance, the 16 year old was to develop rapidly into a brilliant scrum half and certainly one of the most controversial. "You either like him or loathe him", wrote one critic, "but you can never ignore him!" Whether tangling with officials, like the imposing figure of `Sergeant Major` Eric Clay or scoring a dazzling thirty-yard try, there was always something happening when `Mr. Magic` was on the field.
Thatto Heath`s greatest rugby son was born at home at 25 Sunbury Street on April 22nd, 1939. Young Murphy was so promising in later years at St. Austin`s School, that he played in both junior and senior teams at ten years of age! Town and County honours at schoolboy level soon followed, delighting his Headmaster and mentor, Gerry Landers.
As soon as he left St. Austin`s, the talented youngster was invited to further his rugby education at the Summer School held at Knowsley Road. He certainly impressed Jim Sullivan, who took the unprecedented step of allowing him to train with the first team throughout the following season - even though he was still too young to sign for the Club!
"On training nights, I would run down the sprint track with the senior backs", he remembers. "And they were no mean performers when it came to speed. The wingers were Frank Carlton and Eric Ledger, and for extra competition, there was Alec Davies just to rub it in."
Stiff competition indeed for a rather small boy of 15 complete with a heavy pair of football boots. Alex had continued to turn out for St. Austin`s intermediate team who won the final of a local Cup Competition at Knowsley Road on the eve of his 16th birthday. After the match, he was whisked up to the Boardroom to be met by Chairman Harry Cook and two other Directors - Lionel Swift and Joe Harrison, who offered him terms he had little hesitation in accepting. An `Iron Curtain` immediately descended around the lad from `Donkey Common`.
Representatives of at least four other Clubs were waiting outside as the youthful prodigy was smuggled away to Joe Harrison`s house in Millbrook Lane. The deputation spent the time playing snooker interspersed with tea and sandwiches until after the `witching hour` when the necessary forms were signed. From the Club`s angle, the deal was most satisfactory as Murphy had become a Saint for just `£80 - incredible by today`s standards - yet it seemed like a King`s ransom to him at the time!
Things could not happen quickly enough for young Murphy. After several `A` team games, he asked for a run out with the big boys, was refused, and promptly demanded a transfer. The matter was soon resolved, however, and he continued to learn his trade in the tough testing ground of reserve team football. Eager to impress, the youngster tried to go it alone far too often and was receiving quite a hammering from some of the more hardened professionals on the circuit. One man who helped Murphy to curb his rather impetuous instincts was` A` team captain Max Garbler. The Aussie loose forward told him to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible and attempt only the occasional solo break to catch defences napping. Needless to say, he took no notice until one match saw him carried from the pitch in a semi-conscious state. "Now will you take my advice?" asked Garbler - when the effects of concussion had eventually subsided! Alex was glad to and the partnership, based on mutual respect, began to flourish.
Jim Sullivan was a hard taskmaster who made sure his players` feet stayed firmly on the ground - and Murphy was no exception. After his first team debut, Alex went to the next training session extra early, hoping to hear Sullivan sing his praises. Instead he received a right dressing down as the coach listed all the things he had done wrong during the match. The dejected youngster was then told to get stripped for a training session all on his own.
"That night I resolved to be so good the next I played in the first team, that even the great Jim Sullivan would have to say so," Murphy recalls. "But he himself had decided that, and from then on he would be waiting for me in his track suit to give me individual coaching before the others arrived. "
The wily Saints` coach believed that speed would lift a player out of the `ordinary` bracket into a class of his own. There was no doubting Murphy`s football ability and Sullivan concentrated on trying to improve his biggest natural asset - devastating pace. As a result, his training consisted almost exclusively of sprint work twice weekly for the next two years. Thirty yard distances were marked with silver paper and Sullivan`s instructions were to jog up to the silver paper,flat out for thirty yards, then a gradual tailing off to avoid muscle damage.
Under Sully`s lung-bursting regime, Murphy soon made the number seven jersey his own. In his first full season, 1957/58, he scorched in for 27 tries - no mean feat for a scrum half - as Saints finished in second place in the League table behind Oldham. This haul included a hat trick against Leeds in the match when Tom Van Vollenhoven made his debut. He added another two three try tricks against Swinton and Liverpool City in the same campaign. Yet even the `Master` could not have predicted his young pupil`s meteoric rise to fame over the next few months.
Without even a County appearance to his name the quicksilver Murphy was a shock choice for the forthcoming Australian tour trials. Although he gave himself little chance of success, the selectors obviously believed that speed would be a considerable asset on the hard Australian grounds. The jubilant teenager was one of six Knowsley Road favourites to be selected for the trip `Down Under` - the Club`s greatest achievement in international football to that date. Alan Prescott captained the squad and his other St. Helens team mates included Frank Carlton, GlynMoses, Abe Terry, Vince Karalius and Murphy, who at just turned 18, became the youngest ever player to be selected for an Australian tour.
The lad from Thatto Heath capped a remarkable success story by being selected for all three Tests. He was in outstanding form as Britain walloped the `Green and Golds` by the record score of 40-17 in the third and deciding Test at Sydney. Indeed, his response to some unruly behaviour from the 68,720 crowd provided Tour Manager Tom Mitchell with one of his most memorable moments `Down Under`: "Towards the end of the game the crowd started throwing oranges and beer glasses on to the field. Alex Murphy, all of 18 years old, picked up a glass and turned and toasted all four sides of the ground - a magic memory! Murphy grew from boy to man in a couple of months."
It was the start of a 13 year international career during which time Murphy made 27 appearances for Great Britain and established himself as the greatest all-round scrum half ever to play Rugby League.
In the Championship winning season of 1958/9 he romped in for a further three hat tricks against Hunslet, Hull and Workington Town as the Saints clocked up an incredible 1000+ points in league matches! Alex rounded off the season on a high as his brace of touchdowns helped lift the Championship trophy over Hunslet in one of the best rugby league matches ever to have been played. After securing his first winner`s medal in the 1960 Lancashire Cup Final over Swinton Alex lined up against Wigan in the 1961 Rugby League Challenge Cup Final. In an epic battle beautiful support work by Murphy saw him scamper over for a try that separated the sides at the break. Of course the famous Vollenhoven length of the field try sealed the match for the Saints over their arch-rivals. The following season saw Alex score a try in the Lancashire Cup Final win over Swinton. At the end of that campaign Alex went on the 1962 Ashes Tour down under. It was a sweet and sour affair with Alex in fine form as Great Britain defeated Australia by two tests to one. However, Alex returned home with a serious shoulder injury and missed the first three months of the season. Alex was soon back to his best and the next two seasons saw him add a further two Lancashire Cup winner`s medals and a Western divisional Championship medal to his impressive collection.
Alex was captain of the team for the rest of his playing career at the Saints. In the 1964/5 season Alex led the team to the top of the league at the end of the season and collected the Lancashire League title on the way. His masterful leadership on the pitch and his tactical awareness were streets ahead of other mere mortals. Despite an unexpected loss in the Championship Final, Saints went into the following season with a side brimming with confidence. Murphy guided the Saints to the top of the league and into the Finals of the Challenge Cup and League Championship. Saints nearly didn`t make Wembley that year as they were trailing Hull KR in a third round tie with time up on the clock. Alex hoisted a huge `up and under` that descended in the in-goal area. Murphy following up his last gasp effort pounced on the ball and Saints were through to the semi-final. The Challenge Cup Final of 1966 was made a one-sided Final as Alex exploited Wigan`s frailties to implement a game strategy that was unbeatable on the day. His late drop goal demonstrated his ability to kill a game and the amount of time that he always seemed to have with the ball in his hand. That match had repercussions for the sport as the RFL responded with rule changes. Indeed, many pundits claim that the tap penalty and the one-point drop goal were introduced to combat Mr. Murphy`s tactical genius. One week later Alex lifted the Championship Trophy with an emphatic 35 points to 12 victory over Halifax. It was Murphy`s last donning of a Saints` jersey.
While four trophies sat on the Knowsley Road sideboard, Tommy Bishop, John Mantle and Cliff Watson travelled to Australia with Great Britain to battle for the Ashes. Skipper Alex Murphy would have been the fourth St. Helens representative, but the 26 year old, who had enjoyed a phenomenally successful testimonial year, declined to make his third trip `Down Under` - primarily for business reasons - although he was clearly disappointed at being overlooked as Tour Captain in favour of Leeds` Harry Poole.
Despite being the most successful Captain in St. Helens history, Murphy was unhappy at being `shifted out` to the threequarters and told the Club that he had no intention of playing out of position in the centre any more. By the time Alex joined his team mates for the pre-season training, two Australian Clubs had shown an interest in obtaining his signature - a move which initially appealed to him. As the 1966/67 Campaign began, Murphy declined to play and was promptly refused training facilities at Knowsley Road. He trained alone on the Pilkington Recreation Ground at Windle City and at the end of September, his written transfer request was granted by the Board who put him on the list at `£12,000.
The size of the fee intentionally staggered top English and Australian Clubs and on Sunday 9th October it was announced that Leigh had secured his services on contract at an agreed wage in the position of Coach - clearly a reaction to the `ridiculous and unrealistic` price put on his head. As long as he did not play for the East Lancashire Club, the perplexed St. Helens Board would receive absolutely nothing.
Yet 24 hours later came news of an offer from North Sydney which it was thought impossible to refuse. Murphy would have earned `£10,000 over 4 years, with Norths agreeing to pay St. Helens `£8,000 for releasing him from their register. Despite his contract with Leigh, Major Jack Rubin the Chairman would not stand in his way.
"We were all set to go," Murphy later recalled. "1 had put my house up for sale, my wife resigned from her teaching post and I packed in my business and sold my lorry and machinery."
When the Australian contract arrived, however, Murphy shocked the St. Helens Club by returning it unsigned! At the eleventh hour he had accepted a new `£30 a week 5 year agreement with Leigh as the highest paid Coach in the Rubgy League.
By a bitter irony, Murphy`s first game at the helm was against his still-seething former Club in a league match at Hilton Park on November 2nd. An injury-hit St. Helens outfit, who had played at Barrow in the Floodlit Competition the previous night, lost their 10 match unbeaten run by 29-5 to a faster and more determined Leigh side.
"It never entered my mind to leave Saints in the first place." revealed Murphy in the Rugby Leaguer in 1987. "But events took over and there was a lot of pride involved on both sides and the situation reached the stage where a parting of the ways became inevitable." The final chapter in the `Murphy Affair` saw Leigh secure his playing registration after much wrangling for `£6,000 twelve months later.
On Wednesday 15th September 1967, Alex Murphy`s first appearance as a Leigh player at St. Helens caused traffic chaos as over 20,000 packed into Knowsley Road. This time not even the great man`s presence on the field was enough to prevent a crushing 22- 0 defeat by Joe Coan`s rampaging Saints. Such setbacks proved to be rare, however, for Murphy followed in the footsteps of his mentor Jim Sullivan. It was the start of a new and equally successful career as a player-coach with Leigh and Warrington, and Coach of Salford, Wigan, Leigh (twice) and England.
Nearly two decades after the initial break with St. Helens, on November 18th 1985, the prodigal son returned in a blaze of glory to take charge of his hometown team. A jubilant Murphy, hailed as the `Messiah` by Chairman Lawrie Prescott insisted that his wandering days were now over.
"l am going to make St. Helens the best Club side in the World." vowed the irrepressible `Mr. Magic`. It`s Wigan at the moment, but we are going to take their place. The war starts now!"
By Alex Service with additional comments from Dave Dooley
Player match listings are a work in progress. Competitions: