This is the first of a two-part interview with Phil Holmes Jr, co-author of Reluctant Hero: The John Holmes Story. Here he talks about gathering material for a book about a man who meant so much, to so many.
Few in rugby league are held in as high regard as John Holmes.
At Leeds, nobody is.
So when Holmes’ nephew, Phil junior, decided with his father, Phil senior, to take on the task of producing Reluctant Hero: The John Holmes Story, they realised the challenge they were undertaking.
“One of the reasons behind the book was John being so quiet,” Phil Jr told Rugby League Books. “There were things my dad was finding out through John’s team-mates, there were things John’s team-mates were finding out through my dad, and there were even things John’s Great Britain team-mates were finding out from his Leeds team-mates, and vice-versa.
“He kept himself to himself, but he had an absolutely massive bond with the guys he played with.”
That bond was never more keenly on display than when Phil Holmes Jr went to meet David Ward as part of his research for ‘Reluctant Hero’.
“David was quite emotional when I went to see him,” he explained.
“I got to play for Wardy for a few years at Batley, and I’ve got vivid memories of one training session. It was a Tuesday night and we all thought we were in for a quiet session, but Wardy absolutely flogged us. We were throwing up, collapsing, the lot.
“At the end of the night, he barked over to me: ‘Holmesy, my office, now.’ I went in wondering what was wrong, why he was in such a foul mood, and he just went mad. ‘Have you seen the Yorkshire Evening Post tonight? They’ve named a Greatest Ever Leeds team and they’ve put Garry Schofield at stand-off. John should have been in there by a country mile.’
“And that was it. We’d all been flogged because Wardy was upset about John not being selected in this imaginary team. That was how much respect John had from the guys he played with.”
However, Holmes Jr did not just rely on memories from John Holmes’ rugby colleagues. “The whole family helped out,” he says. “I was conscious of not stepping on people’s toes, and we were quite sensitive of the fact that everyone in the family thought highly of John.
“My uncle Brian, and my dad, Phil Snr, went through their memories of growing up in Leeds. It’s a family book, and everyone contributed to it quite a lot.
“I was brought up on the game, and it’s still my dad’s life. The whole game is in his blood and I don’t think there was much else in their (John and Phil Snr’s) lives as kids.”
He added: “My cousin Mike also contributed a huge amount. He’s another rugby league fanatic, and he went to every Leeds game home and away for about 20 years.
“He used to come home, write up the team-sheet and write his own report. If I ever asked John something and he couldn’t remember, we’d get the Kellogg’s cornflake box out of the loft – which was where Mike had kept his reports – and go through to find what we were looking for.”
Phil Holmes Jr only caught the later years of John’s career, but it was enough to leave an indelible impression.
“My main memory of him playing is watching the 1984 John Player Trophy Final at Wigan, when the post snapped. I was at Wembley in 1978, but I was only three years old so I don’t remember it.
“In 1984 Harry Jepson got me into Holt Park School as a nine-year-old, and the teacher immediately said ‘ah, you’re John’s nephew – get yourself in at stand-off’. I had three or four years of watching him playing and trying to copy what he did, as you do with your idols. I grew up with John and Brett Kenny as my two rugby heroes.”
Eventually, those early memories helped to form part of what was Phil Jr’s first foray into book writing.
“I’m a PE teacher, but I absorb books a lot and I love reading. About 10 years ago I said to my wife that I wanted to write a book, but it was always one of those things that got put off and I never got round to it. Doing one on John just seemed perfect.”
The result – a touching, emotional and well-crafted read – has already been reprinted by publishers Scratching Shed.
Part Two of this interview will be posted on Friday, 28 January.