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Alex Murphy is one of the most interesting and brightest Rugby League talents Great Britain has ever produced. Known popularly as "Murph the Mouth", he was a controversial figure as player, coach and pundit, never afraid to make his opinion known.
Murphy, however, had the talent to back it up. Signed by St Helens on his 16th birthday, he enjoyed a massively successful playing career with Saints, Leigh and Warrington, joining an elite group of players who captained three different sides to Challenge Cup victories at Wembley. No less successful as a Coach, he coached those three same clubs to varying degrees of success. This book from 1988 tells the story of his career up to that point.
As biographies go, this is a pretty straightforward affair. It provides a more or less chronological account of Murphy's career from his first encounters with the game through to his current (at the time) coaching position at St Helens. It looks back at some of the memorable incidents and matches in which Murphy was involved and recounts his role in them. It also includes comments and thoughts from some of the people who have been important to him throughout his career - players, club officials and family and close friends.
This simple approach works well. It gives the book an obvious, logical structure and makes it very readable. I've read some biographies/autobiographies which leap around all over the place making it difficult to keep track of how events relate to each other. This chronological account is easy to follow and will help fill in some of the blanks for people who perhaps only remember certain aspects of Murphy's career
Murphy dates from an era when players still held down full time jobs, whilst training and playing as a Rugby League player. As such, the discipline and work ethic which is instilled in him shines through. Murphy played hard and trained hard and was deeply intolerant of anyone who looked to take an easy route through life, or wasted their talent through a lazy attitude. This belief comes through very strongly in the text and through Murphy's comments. Both author and subject prove themselves to be deeply knowledgeable about the sport, which makes it a real treat for genuine fans of the game. Unlike many recent autobiographies "hilarious" anecdotes about drinking binges and puerile practical jokes are all but absent. This gives it a far more serious tone which helps to get across the message of how tough a sport Rugby League is.
True, the book does focus (quite rightly) on the game itself and it is aimed fairly and squarely at fans and people who already know about it. If you don't know a huge amount about Rugby League then you probably won't want to read this book. Then again, it's not aimed at the mass market audience and is intended to fill a niche amongst existing fans.
Author Brian Clarke keeps the tone light and straightforward. Chapters focus on single seasons so that they can be analysed in greater depth, but they are also kept reasonably short. Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of every single match or every event in that season, Clarke concentrates on the key events. This more succinct style stops the book from getting too bogged down in unnecessary detail, whilst giving an idea of the highs and lows a club and its players go through in any one season.
As an experienced sports journalist (Clarke was a Rugby League reporter for local radio when the book was written) Clarke's is ideally placed to write the book. He background in radio is adapted well for the written word, with a sharp, punchy style that gets the message across without being long-winded. He takes just 155 pages to cover the 30+ years of Murphy's League career, yet you never feel that he is rushing things or missing out important information. He doesn't feel the need to fill additional pages with unnecessary anecdotes, irrelevant background information or "dream teams" selections. He tells the story of Murphy's career efficiently and in an interesting fashion, and then ends the book. There are a few modern sports biographers who would do well to copy his style.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is that this feels a little like an unfinished tale. It was written shortly after Murphy returned to St Helens (as Coach) in the mid-1980s and, as such, there is no reference to some of the key events from his time there (including a still-painful 27-0 defeat of his team at Wembley in the 1989 Challenge Cup Final by arch-rivals Wigan and his eventual sacking). Anyone wanting to know what happened later will have to invest in Murphy's later autobiography, Saint and Sinner (published in the new century).
The other major gripe is that for a player and coach who caused (deliberately or otherwise) controversy throughout his career, this feels like a rather sanitised tale. Murphy was a supremely talented, cocky and arrogant player who (mostly) played the game fairly, but always stretched the rules to breaking point - something which seriously annoyed opposition fans, players and officials. He was involved in innumerable controversial incidents throughout his career, yet these are barely referenced. Even where they are mentioned, it is often only in passing, as though they were storms in a teacup, blown out of all proportion at the time (some of them were). Controversy has followed Murphy wherever he has been and it would have been interesting to get the great man's own perspective on some of these incidents.
Instead, there's a slight feeling that Murphy has been canonised by everyone he played against. Most of the testimonials are from players who admired him and with whom he shares a mutual respect. Whilst there is no doubt that Murphy was a rare talent who deserves all the praise, it would have made for a more interesting (and in many ways, fitting) read to hear from some of those who did not fully appreciate "Murphy's Law".
If you're a fan of Rugby League and sporting history, this really is a great book. Despite being pretty old, it can be picked up fairly easily second hand from a well-known online store and will only cost you around £2. Trust me: it's much more interesting and informative than many modern sports biographies. If only England had a few players of Murphy's caliber now, they might actually be able to beat Australia.
Murphy's Law: A biography of Alex Murphy
Brian Clarke, Heinemann
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