The son of a Rugby League icon who joined a top level Australian club when he was aged 19 and later recovered from a life ban to play for all four Cumbrian teams, Gary Charlton has a career story like no other.
The Whitehaven coach’s playing days could accurately be described as being colourful, going from the amateur fields of Cumbria to the Gold Coast and back again.
When he turned to coaching, he had a successful five-year stint in joint charge of Workington Town, before breaking a self-imposed break from the game to steer Haven to promotion last season.
Runs in the Family
With his dad being former Workington, Salford and Great Britain World Cup winner Paul, there was only likely to be one sporting path he would take.
“I was brought up with a rugby ball – it was always going to be Rugby League,” Charlton reflected.
“Dad was a very good Rugby League player, and that was something I always tried my best to do, to emulate him.
“I was never going to get to that standard but I really enjoyed my career.”
That started as a junior in Kells’ ranks and included BARLA recognition as a tough and talented teenager, before he went on to play for local team St Bees at open-age level as a 16 year old.
At 19 he moved to Egremont as they joined the National Conference, which was when a remarkable move came out of the blue.
“My dad had always thought about going over to live in Australia after touring there and I got the chance to trial with Gold Coast Giants, as it was then,” Charlton explained.
“They had just been accepted into the Sydney league and me and my dad went over earlier than my mum and sister because I couldn’t turn down the chance to play in what was effectively the NRL then.
“I had a full weekend of trial games and got a two-year contract out of it.
“It was just out of this world when I look back on it now.
“I went from playing with amateur lads at Egremont to training with the likes of Ron Gibbs, Chris Close and Tony Rampling.
“They were State of Origin players – it was a hell of a jump.
“I tried my best over there for a couple of years, played mostly reserve grade and came off the bench a couple of times in first grade.
“Training with the likes of Rampling, Close, Gibbs and later Bob Lindner was an absolute eye opener. Looking back I don’t think I realised what I had.
“They say dreams don’t come true, but they did for me – I was watching Origin the year before with Chris Close in and the next year I was training with him.
“But all good things come to an end and I never got a second contract.”
Instead, having had a short stint at Hull KR in between his two years on the Gold Coast that was cut short by a broken arm, Charlton returned to Cumbria to sign for his old Kells coach Barry Smith at Whitehaven.
Shortly after that, his career was dealt what looked like a devastating blow.
Still only in his early 20s, he was handed the notorious sine die suspension – effectively a life ban from the sport – for a tackle on Castleford’s Graham Steadman.
“We all do things we regret in life and that’s one thing I regret,” Charlton admitted.
“It was a forearm to the head of Graham Steadman. There had been three or four instances of those tackles that season and, while the others got four to eight games, I seemed to be made an example of.
“I thought I was let down by the directors of the club at the time.
“It wasn’t the best tackle to make, but going to the disciplinary hearings at that time was like attending a bingo call – you never knew what numbers were coming out.
“When they told me it was sine die I didn’t understand it because I’d never heard of it. It was only when somebody told me I couldn’t play rugby again that I realised how devastating it was.
The Border Raider
“There were eight or ten games to go in the season and I think they made me a scapegoat to try and eradicate that sort of tackle. They told me to re-apply again in six months, which was effectively the start of the next season.
“I knuckled down and trained hard and as soon as they told me I could play I signed for Carlisle.”
Charlton loved his time at the now sadly defunct Border Raiders.
“I had seven years there and some brilliant times with great players,” Charlton said.
“There was Clayton Friend, Hitro Okesene, Steve Brierley, Barry Williams and George Graham.
“We were never the best paid Rugby League players, but there was something special at the club.
“Brad Hepi went there, Tane Manihera and Steve Georgallis.
“But when they merged with Barrow I didn’t really want to go down there at the time because I’d just had a child, and I went back to Whitehaven.”
There, Charlton would play with another crop of talented overseas players in Aaron Lester, Leroy Joe and Siose Muliumu, under Kiwi coach Stan Martin.
But the arrival of Kevin Tamati as Martin’s successor spelled the end of his time at the Recreation Ground and this time he did join Barrow, coached at the time by his dad Paul, who had also taken charge of Charlton at Carlisle.
“My dad’s like me – he’s Rugby League through and through and whatever you do he wants you to be fit, train hard and carry on learning,” Charlton said.
“A lot of people think when you get to playing professional Rugby League that you don’t need to learn any more, but he was always wanting to push players and ask more of them.”
Another former Carlisle man, Gary Murdock, then took Charlton for a career swansong at Workington, completing a rare full house of professional Cumbrian clubs.
“Gary wanted somebody who could still play a bit of rugby, take a team around the field and add some steel to the pack,” Charlton explained.
“I was 35, but I’d kept myself fit and I had a couple of years at Workington before I finished up.
Visiting the South Pacific
“I think I could have done another couple of years if my knee injury didn’t finish me, and as soon as I finished I got into coaching.”
That started back at Egremont as player-coach – “a great club run by good people” – and progressed to BARLA representative level, first at county level with Martin Oglanby, then with the national under-21s and finally open-age alongside John Fieldhouse.
“We went to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa on tour with a great bunch of lads,” Charlton recalled.
“That was a definite highlight of my coaching career.”
Charlton and Oglanby’s work had by this time earned the attention of their former club Workington, and they pair took over at Town in July 2009.
They had four and a half years in charge together, leading the club to promotion in 2012 and to the play-offs in the second tier the following season.
“It was unusual to be joint coaches but we worked well together. I think we had a good cop, bad cop thing going on,” said Charlton, who laughs when asked which one he was.
“Usually after two or three years at a club the lads can get stale hearing the same voice, but it worked for us and we put together a good team on a budget.”
Oglanby left at the end of the 2013 season and Charlton followed him one game into the following campaign, starting a break from the sport that lasted until Haven came calling in late 2018.
“I’d done a bit of radio work with BBC Cumbria and enjoyed that, but when Whitehaven came to me and said they wanted to go down the local player route, that really interested me,” he explained.
“Working with the coaching staff of Jonty Gorley, Scott McAvoy and Barry Quayle has been great.
“Like we did at Workington, we wanted to give everybody a chance and if a player catches on to what you’re doing then hopefully they improve and the team does well.”
Haven certainly did last season, defying pre-season predictions to clinch promotion by finishing top ahead of a number of bigger spending rivals, which gives Charlton immense pride.
He continues to relish his coaching role, but pauses for thought when asked how he would have dealt with Gary Charlton the player.
A different game
“I’ve never thought about that,” he adds, with another laugh.
“I always had that will to win and possibly too much aggression in my game, but the sport wasn’t as clean as it is now; it was dog eat dog and people could hurt you.
“We were always told to get over the top of the opposition in the forwards and that would win you the game.
“I’ve done things that I regretted on the field, but people have to understand that things can happen in a split second when you’re playing; it was never premeditated.
“The one thing that has changed since I played was that when we came off a rugby field after we’d lost, I’d be devastated for days – my missus knew the result as soon as she saw my face.
“Nowadays I watch lads coming off laughing and joking after losing – I know you’re with your mates, but you’ve just been beaten.
“I think a lot comes down to winning and losing bonuses being different now, and if things were more incentive-based you might see a different kind of Rugby League player again.”