The 13th season of Super League and the publication of a lovingly-crafted new biography could mark a good time to reassess the legend of sports journalist and broadcaster Eddie Waring, DAVE HADFIELD writes in The Independent
For a good two decades, Eddie Waring was incomparably more famous than anyone actually playing the game of rugby league. In his heyday, the viewers who tuned into his commentaries on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon were numbered in the tens of millions.
He appeared on It’s a Knockout and Morecambe and Wise and was mimicked by Mike Yarwood and the Monty Python crew, but he was a national institution who polarised opinion between those who loved him and those who couldn’t stand him.
Even now, the mere mention of his name, let alone a burst of his unmistakable nasal, chortling commentary, is enough to induce apoplexy among some devotees of the code. The author of Being Eddie Waring, Tony Hannan, observes that, as a long-serving BBC institution, he was sometimes accused of being part of a conspiracy to belittle and ridicule the game. That assessment is based on his latter years, when, it now emerges, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and his grasp of what was happening in front of him became tenuous.
That is the Eddie Waring most people remember, but Hannan argues that his contribution is in desperate need of reassessment. “There was so much more that he did on behalf of rugby league that has been disregarded,” he says.
Waring’s son, Tony, puts it another way. “It’s a case of the prophet in his own land,” he believes.
Waring’s own land was the woollen town â€“ and rugby league stronghold â€“ of Dewsbury. He was never a rugby player of note, but had trials with Nottingham Forest as a centre-forward and once scored 10 goals in a match.
He first showed up on rugby league’s radar as the young secretary-manager of Dewsbury’s professional club. Excluded from the armed forces by an ear condition, he took advantage of the wartime dislocation to build the best side Dewsbury had ever had, mainly by signing other clubs’ stars who happened to be based in the area.
It was thus that legendary figures like Jim Sullivan, Gus Risman and Vic Hey came to play for Dewsbury, much to the annoyance of other clubs who were not quite as quick off the mark as the entrepreneurial Waring.
It was his parallel career as a newspaper journalist that took him to Australia on the first post-war tour in 1946, travelling with the team on HMS Indomitable and then from Fremantle to Sydney by train. He was one of several pressmen who made the trip, but such was his effortless genius for self-promotion that no one remembers the names of the others. As far as the myth was concerned, he was the first.
Legend also has it that, on the way home via America, he was alerted to the possibilities of sport on television by a conversation with Bob Hope. He certainly returned to England fired by the conviction that TV was the future for rugby league.
It was by nagging and hectoring an initially reluctant BBC that he got his chance to be part of that future. Early correspondence suggests that they at first regarded him as little more than a nuisance, but the Corporation’s attitude changed when he got his feet under the table and they realised the scale of his personal following.
Early Waring commentaries, some of them unearthed for the promotion of Hannan’s book, reveal an already quirky, staccato style, but nothing actually incoherent. At times, he could be the master of understated economy, as in his pithy comment on Don Fox’s failed goal-kick that should have won the 1968 Challenge Cup final.
“He’s missed it,” he said. “Poor lad.” It was rugby league’s “they think it’s all over” moment.
The troubled latter years when he became a caricature of himself have, Tony believes, obscured the memory of so much else he did for the game. “He was a pioneer and a visionary,” he says. Among the areas in which he blazed the way were floodlit rugby and development in France, America and the south of England. He was the first to take road-shows around the country and the first to publish a year-book.
“He just thought it was the best game in the world and he would do anything he could to promote it,” Tony says.
Being Eddie Waring by Tony Hannan (Mainstream, Â£14.99)