The most basic reason I wrote They Walked On Water – about the 1968 ‘Watersplash Final’ between Leeds and Wakefield Trinity – was that nobody else had done.
A book about just one match might seem quite a challenge, but this was no ordinary match.
It was played in thunderstorms, with hail and lightning, and the referee, John Hebblethwaite, said that at one point on the pitch during the match, there was water nine inches deep.
It was controversial that the match went ahead in the first place and Hebblethwaite’s hugely contentious award of an obstruction try to Leeds is still vigorously debated 45 years on, particularly down Wakefield way.
The Cup was clearly in Leeds’s hands with just seconds to go when, kicking off after Leeds had gone 11-7 ahead with a penalty, Trinity’s Don Fox fooled the Leeds defence by sending the ball to the opposite side of the field where his wing, Ken Hirst, kicked ahead to score under the bar.
Fox’s subsequent failed conversion – with Eddie Waring’s “...poor lad” commentary – is undoubtedly the most repeated clip from any rugby league match and among the most famous in British sport.
Fox had to live with that goal miss for the rest of his life and the end of that match also marked the end of the wonderful era of Sixties successes for Trinity when they won the Challenge Cup three times and the Championship twice. A ‘Watersplash’ victory would have meant the first ‘double’ in the club’s history.
I had grown up from being a small boy with Trinity’s successes and my teenage years in the marvellous ‘Swinging 60s’ were wonderfully enhanced by following the best rugby league team around.
I was in my late teens at the time of the ’68 final, it was my first visit to Wembley and only the second time I had been to London.
But the end of that match was, quite frankly, my crash-landing into adulthood and, the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was an important story here which inter-twined my personal memories with those of others involved with this match.
The book, then, is based on my own account of Wembley that day and those of many others I have talked to who were there, including many of the players.
It was a particular privilege to speak to those who were on the field that day.
Their descriptions of the playing conditions are quite remarkable and I have a lasting memory of Leeds hooker Tony Crosby’s account of trying to keep one arm free in the front row to keep his head off the ground because of his genuine fear of drowning if a scrum collapsed.
Trinity’s David Jeanes told me he’d ended up with “a mouth full of all sorts of things” after each tackle in pools of water.
The conditions meant the players’ jerseys were totally clean after 80 minutes and Leeds’s Ken Eyre recalled his body being covered in dye from his shirt when he changed at the end.
I was especially grateful to John Hebblethwaite’s son, Dave, and Don Fox’s son, Greg, for their help and it was a pleasure at the book’s launch to introduce to each other two men whose fathers undoubtedly created sporting history.
All the royalties will go to the Rugby League Benevolent Fund, of which I am a trustee. They Walked On Water is another reminder of rugby league’s great heritage in this World Cup year.
There is a new spirit of optimism nowadays at Trinity and, as we look towards a much brighter future, it is only right we also should celebrate a quite remarkable past.