Alex Murphy (born St Helens, Lancashire, 22nd April 1939) was an English rugby league footballer and coach who enjoyed a prodigious career as a scrum-half, often as controversial as he was prolific. One scribe suggested “You either like him or loathe him, but you certainly can’t ignore him!” Few would argue.
Murphy’s playing career was spent at three clubs, St Helens, Leigh, and Warrington. He assumed a player-coach role of the latter two clubs, and would expand his coaching portfolio at the end of his career to clubs such as Wigan and Huddersfield. He later returned to both Warrington and Leigh respectively as a football manager.
On making his debut for Great Britain in 1958, he became the youngest player to tour Australasia for Great Britain.
Although Murphy was brought up on the game of rugby league, during his National Service he played rugby union for the RAF. It is suggested that the RAF signed him for his rugby talent, and he would frequently star in a Royal Air Force team in union the same week he played his rugby league for St Helens. This is considered something of a rare exception when one considers that playing rugby league during this time would normally lead to a ban from playing rugby union.
The natural talent that Murphy would bring to rugby league was apparent from an early age. At ten years old he played in both the junior and senior XIIIs at St Austin's School, Thatto Heath, and he had town and county schoolboy honours by the time he signed for his native St Helens on his sixteenth birthday in 1955. The signing itself is was almost akin to a military operation. St Helens representatives smuggled Murphy 'under cover' to a nearby house until the clock struck midnight to signal Murphy’s sixteenth birthday, and his eligibility to sign professional terms. He would go on to enjoy a successful career at St Helens, Leigh, and Warrington.
Murphy began his career at St Helens where one would expect to find a youngster, playing reserve team rugby (known then as the ‘A’ team) learning his trade and building a reputation. Yet these humble beginnings were too much for the confident youngster. After several "A" team games, Murphy demanded a place in the first team. This demand was refused and so he promptly demanded a transfer. The dispute was settled by legendary St Helens coach Jim Sullivan who would offer expert tutelage to the scrum half in his early days. Murphy’s first team debut was against Whitehaven at Knowsley Road in the same season that he had signed for his hometown team. However, such was his perceived arrogance, that after his first team debut, coach Sullivan listed his mistakes and gave him extra and solo training as punishment.
His career at St Helens went on to be long and successful, with 319 appearances, 175 tries, 42 goals giving him a total of 609 points.
Murphy left St Helens to become player-coach at Leigh, but the move characteristically was shrouded in controversy. Murphy had become unhappy at being moved to the centres to accommodate the signing of Tommy Bishop. As the 1966/67 season began, Murphy declined to play for St Helens. He trained alone, and the news that Murphy was unsettled spread rapidly. The Australian club, North Sydney indicated their interest in obtaining his signature. At the end of September, Murphy submitted a written transfer request to the St Helens Board who accepted it, putting him on the list at £12,000.
North Sydney tabled a bid of St Helens' £8,000 for Murphy which was accepted. It seemed that the scrum half would be making the voyage down under that other British players such as Dick Huddart (and, at a later date, Malcolm Reilly) had made. However, at the last minute, Murphy agreed a 5-year deal with Leigh to become the highest paid coach in the Rugby League.
Murphy's first game in charge of his new team was against his former club in a league match at Hilton Park. Murphy’s Leigh overcame a depleted St Helens side by 29-5. Murphy later recounted in an issue of the Rugby Leaguer some 20 years later that:
"It never entered my mind to leave Saints in the first place. 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."
In 1971, Leigh reached the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final and Murphy won the Lance Todd Trophy for being voted the Man-of-the-Match as Leigh defeated Leeds, 24-7. This was a match where Murphy's ability to attract controversy was once again exemplified. He was involved in an altercation with Leeds' Syd Hynes which resulted in the Yorkshireman being sent off. Prostrate Murphy lay on the ground from what appeared to be an elbow from his opponent. Upon Hynes being sent from the field, Murphy made what appeared like a miraculous recovery and continued to be instrumental in his side's victory.
Murphy left Leigh shortly afterwards to become player-coach at Warrington and, in 1974, captained them to a 24-9 win in the Challenge Cup Final against Featherstone Rovers before retiring as a player.
As coach in 1975, he took Warrington to the Challenge Cup Final the first of several such appointments he had with different clubs.
Upon retirement, Murphy built upon the experience he had acquired as a player-coach by taking up the reigns as a full-time coach. He was appointed to high-profile roles at Salford, Wigan, Leigh and St Helens. In 1991, he joined Huddersfield: within a year, promotion to the Second Division had been achieved.
- Murphy was also employed as a commentator by BBC television for a spell, and was employed to write opinion columns for newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and the Manchester Evening News. One was known as ‘Murphy’s Mouth.’
- In 2006 he became Chairman of Oxford Cavaliers Rugby League Club.