Rugby League Heroes: Tommy Martyn

TOMMY MARTYN was one of the great players of the early Super League years, helping a brilliant and flamboyant St Helens team to numerous successes. In particular, he shone in the 2000 season, and was shortlisted to win the Man of Steel award, which eventually went to his halfback partner, Sean Long. He played in the World Cup later that year for an Ireland team which went on to win the admiration of many. But a Great Britain cap eluded him, as a succession of coaches ignored the talented stand-off, often preferring to play loose forwards in the role. Martyn is the son of Tommy senior, who starred for Warrington and Leigh, and he is the nephew of Mick, a Lions tourist in 1958. Martyn also played for Oldham and Leigh and currently works for St Helens.

RR: You’re often referred to as the best player never to play for Great Britain. How does that tag sit with you?
TM: I was disappointed not to get a Great Britain cap, but it was down to whichever coach at the time didn’t rate me. I’ve no beef with that. What pissed me off more than anything was that players were picked out of position at stand-off. Andy Goodway said I may be included, but nothing came of it. I then got into the squad in 2001 but broke my thumb at the end of the season. Ian Millward asked me to play at Hull. He wasn’t bothered if I didn’t touch the ball, he just wanted me to direct the traffic. Anyway, I scored the winning try but aggravated the thumb further. And that was the end of my Great Britain chances!

RR: Why do English halfbacks so often fail to take their club form onto the international stage?
TM: Maybe it’s the pressure from the coach or going into a different environment. In my time, Andy Farrell made a lot of the calls for Great Britain. He was the main ballplayer and go-to man. A few good players went to Wigan and never flourished because he was the main man.

RR: Have skill levels dropped since your day?
TM: Yeah, they seem to have. A lot of teams play the same way – out the back to the fullback. The game plans are all the same. I’m not sure it’s an enjoyable spectacle at the moment.

RR: What do you remember of your father’s career?
TM: From the age of two or three, we followed my father home and away. My mum was at every game and is probably as knowledgeable about the game as I am! Warrington were a great family club. My dad was a running forward early in his career and then a ballplayer. Leigh had forwards running off my dad and he put them through gaps. I picked up a bit of that.

RR: You were part of a great Oldham team, along with Chris Joynt and Barrie McDermott. What are your memories of your time there?
TM: We had a reunion last week because Wally Gibson was over, and we talked about how we had a bloody good team! Mike Ford, John Henderson and Paul Round were coming towards the end of their careers, but we had David Bradbury, Barrie and Joynty coming through. It was a young team and if we’d stuck together, we’d have done some serious damage.

RR: How did the move to Saints come about?
TM: I’d heard they were sniffing around the year before when they signed Sonny Nickle and Joynty, but not me. Then the next year [1993], they told me they could only sign me when Gary Connolly went to Wigan, so I was probably the only person who wanted Gary to leave Saints!

RR: How did St Helens go from perennial bridesmaids to champions?
TM: We went full time. We had three or four full-time players before that. The rest, like me, would be getting up at 4am and going to work. I was a lorry driver, driving to Leicester or Nottingham and then training. When we were full-time, so we could practice a lot more. Diet, strength and so much more improved.

RR: What do you remember of the 1996 and 1997 Wembley successes?
TM: In 1996 Shaun McRae had seen little of me but still picked me on the bench. I wasn’t on long after clashing knees with Matt Calland. We won, but I was gutted I hadn’t played a big part. I vowed that if I got back I’d grab the opportunity with both hands and it was something I did in 1997. I remember the announcement that I’d won the Lance Todd. There was a scrum on our 20-metre line. At the break in play, they announced I’d won it. If you look at the tape, I was screaming with delight!

RR: There was a theory back then that the Lance Todd Trophy was jinxed and sure enough you got injured shortly after!

TM: I’d never played for Ireland and really wanted to. My family were from Galway. We had a bloody good team as well, especially in 2000. There were three minutes left when I jumped for a high ball, came down and smashed my knee. It was ten days after I’d won the Lance Todd, just as I was due to go in for contract talks.

RR: Were you ever paid what you thought you were worth?
TM: No. I was happy getting paid for doing what I loved, but I wasn’t on half of what my halfback partners and the other top players were on. There were times when I thought ‘Why should I bother?’ But I loved the job.

RR: You played alongside Bobbie Goulding and then Sean Long. How did they differ?
TM: With Bobbie, he was a cross-field runner and you tried to hit the gaps. Longy was more direct. He took the line on and you’d have to keep up with him in case he broke through. Both were inspirational, and you can’t split them. But you couldn‘t pair them together because they were so different. Bobbie would get us fired up. We had so many runners who could hit a gap off him. Sean had blistering pace. He’d attract defenders and if he got the ball to me, I knew if I sucked one defender in, we’d have a big overlap.

RR: When Ellery Hanley coached Saints, there were rumours that you might leave. Were they true?
TM: I knew I was on my way out, along with Vila Matautia and Keiron Cunningham. Graham Holroyd and Richard Pachniuk were coming in. I asked the board, but they denied it. Then my house got broken into and the girl dealing with my claim was Graham’s girlfriend! She told me Saints were going to sign him. So that’s how I knew, but in the end, Darrell Trindall came in instead of Graham. Under Ellery, it was all about discipline. No one was ever late. He encouraged us to get the ref in our back pocket. He taught us how to talk to the refs. “Is everything okay, sir?” We limited errors and were always first to a loose ball. He got the lads in peak physical condition. He did a good job.

RR: What happened when he left?
TM: I’d decided to stay and battle my corner, although I’d nearly signed for Ian Millward at Leigh. I spoke to him a lot about my situation at Saints because I lived in Leigh. Then Ellery was moved on and Millward came in. I was worried how senior players like Kevin Iro, Paul Newlove and Chris Joynt would take to Millward, because in one of his first sessions, we were on hands and knees, at full stretch, putting the ball over the line! I thought they wouldn‘t take to him, but they did. The lads bought into his philosophy and we became a really entertaining team.

RR: The Super League social media outlets recently used your try assist for Peter Shiels in a match from 2001 to promote the recent Good Friday derby. What do you remember of that moment?
TM: I didn’t know that! It came from Ian Millward, who had studied a Ricky Stuart video of him looking one way and passing under his arm with a reverse flick for someone to score. We practised it for ages and then it happened. I grubbered, it bounced up and I saw Shiels behind me. In a split second, I thought ‘Should I do it?’ I panicked and just threw it up! It was more of a lob, but he had long arms and I knew he would take it in. We had rehearsed it, but not quite like that!

RR: As the time ticked away, did you believe Leigh were going to lose the 2004 Grand Final to Whitehaven?
TM: No, we always believed in ourselves. It’s never over till the fat lady sings. We wanted to be in Super League. I wasn’t due to play because I had an arm injury. The surgeon told me that if I had any ambition of picking up my son, then I should retire immediately. So, I told Darren Abram I wouldn’t be playing in the final, and he understood. Then we went to the end-of-season awards and Whitehaven cleaned up, despite us having finished top and having won the National League Cup! It bamboozled us, and I said to my wife I was going to play. We played cat and mouse with Whitehaven, saying I wouldn’t play. Whitehaven scored an early try and Darren sent a message out for me to stop running around like a lunatic! One of their players seriously tried to hurt me and I told him where to go. That’s my abiding memory! Our fitness told in the end, especially during extra-time.

Pick up Monday’s League Express for Richard de la Riviere’s latest instalment in RUGBY LEAGUE HEROES