Moving stories reveal stark realities of northern culture

A review by Andy Wilson

Sport as social history, anyone? Two rugby league books that have been published in recent weeks – one biography, one autobiography, whose subject matters really are chalk and cheese – are as fascinating for their insights into the development of northern working-class culture over the last few decades as for the professional stories of the players involved.

John Holmes grew up in 1950s Kirkstall, a couple of miles from Headingley, where he would wear the blue and amber of Leeds with great distinction in a career spanning the next four decades.

'There was a strong sense of community within that area of Leeds,' recalls his brother Phil, who began working with his own son, Phil Jr, an English teacher at Leeds grammar school, to tell John's story shortly before his death from cancer last autumn at the age of 59. 'A row of shops would provide everything any family would require ... bakers, Bradbury's butchers, a paper shop and, for the children, the most wonderful yet frustrating shop in the neighbourhood – Stead's Toys, situated where McDonald's is today.'
Terry Newton grew up in 1980s Wigan, and the first couple of chapters of his autobiography include a stabbing, a couple of thefts, a few fights, and 'getting pissed on Merrydown or Diamond White cider'. That's progress, presumably.
Both turn out to be tragic and moving stories, sympathetically told – in Newton's case by Phil Wilkinson, the Wigan Evening Post and Observer writer who, like the Holmes family, has done an excellent job.
Holmes had already lost his younger sister, Barbara, and his first wife, Jenny, to cancer before being diagnosed himself in early 2008. His brother and nephew relate how he handled such trauma with the same understated dignity and stubbornness that had made him an astonishingly modest local Leeds hero, who for years after his retirement would catch the bus into Horsforth every Friday night to watch Sky's Super League coverage with a select group of friends in the pub.
There are passages in Newton's book that are equally moving, notably those concerning the death of his younger sister, Leanne, as a result of heroin addiction. Certainly the book succeeds in revealing an endearing side of a player who was more loathed than loved during his career, even before he had worldwide notoriety thrust upon him earlier this year as the first sportsman ever to test positive for human growth hormone.
The former Leeds, Wigan, Bradford and Great Britain hooker had been working on the book for months before that bombshell. As he says in a blunt prologue that sets the tone for what follows: 'This book wasn't supposed to start like this. I'd practically finished it when I had to break the news to Phil Wilkinson, my ghost writer, that we might have to redo the ending.'

They have redone much more than that, and Newton's account of why, then how – and how easily – he took HGH (human growth hormone), and of being caught, is as riveting as it is worrying. He estimates that around 30 rugby league players may have been administering the injections – in Newton's case in secret, with the phials hidden behind a toolbox in the garage where neither his wife nor children could find them.

He states as fact that at least a few were, including the player who sold him the first package for £150 at a service station on the M62. Slightly more encouragingly, he claims that they have all stopped as a result of Newton's ban, which came after he had been targeted for a blood test.
At the age of 31, and with another 20 months of his two-year suspension to run, Newton is now running a pub called the Ben Jonson – 'apparently it's named after a poet, and not the Canadian drugs cheat,' he notes – and wants to help warn a new generation of players away from risking a dangerous and potentially career-ending quick fix.
'Not every player will be like Kris Radlinski or Sean O'Loughlin or Paul Deacon, who had nice upbringings and were always sensible lads,' he says in a telling passage. 'There are also plenty of players who are on the same wavelength as me.
'Rugby league is a rough game and of course it attracts people from rough backgrounds, but it shouldn't be ashamed of that – it should be proud of it. Rugby league gave me a path out of trouble, and there are people in the game who grew up on rough estates like me, who probably need a bit of advice to put them back on the straight and narrow.'
Leeds in the 50s and 60s, where John Holmes and his two older brothers used to make their rugby ball out of rolled up newspaper, pinch the odd sip of Tetley's from the jug they would carry down to the Cardigan Arms and then back to their dad, and later feast on scraps from the family fish and chip shop in Horsforth, suddenly sounds impossibly romantic.
Both books also contain plenty of good rugby tales - Newton's recollections of Wigan and his early days with Leeds, and Holmes's unlikely route to tackling Bob Fulton out of the 1972 World Cup final, which involved a Widnes player falling off a tower of chairs. The warmth of the tribute that was paid to Holmes following his death last autumn, with the biggest parade of former team-mates I can remember before Leeds's play-off victory against the Catalans Dragons, removed any doubts that he will be remembered as one of the club's favourite sons.

Andy Wilson writes on rugby league and cricket for the Guardian newspaper.
Reluctant Hero: The John Holmes Story, is published by Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. 
Coming Clean, is published by Vertical Editions.

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