Now a self-confessed rugby league addict, that wasn’t always the case for Martin Gleeson as he admitted to Get ’em Onside this week.
Throughout his career, with the range of off-field problems he endured, Gleeson confessed to falling completely out of love with the game. Speaking of his past issues in the game, the one-time England captain acknowledged that some stuff he did was down to “stupidity and naivety,” sharing that he felt he began to lose that passion for the game in 2010, the same year team-mate Terry Newton committed suicide. “I didn’t enjoy what I was doing as much as I should have done. For the next couple of years, I despised the game and it’s hard to understand why. Something had changed.”
That didn’t stop Gleeson helping Wigan to their first Grand Final triumph for twelve years. The former England centre crossed for two tries as his hometown team lifted the Super League title in what understandably was, for the then 30-year-old, a hugely emotional game. “It was a good one. We were on fire that year, I was playing well but I’d had a tough year personally. Tez [Terry Newton] had died and we were sat under one of the stands in the changing rooms and we were all Wiganers,” he said, listing the Tomkins brothers, Liam Farrell and Sean O’Loughlin as just a handful of those team-mates. He continued, saying that “it does have a different feel to it when that’s the case. Everyone’s local and the families are rooted in Wigan.” Comparing it to the make-up of most other Super League clubs, he suggested that there isn’t the local attachment there of the players in contrast to that of Wigan. “It meant so much for all of the lads and we knew it was a huge opportunity; it was more than just us – we were representing our families and the town.”
The initial parts of his rugby league education, however, was a long way away from his fellow Wiganers as his family moved to Australia when he was young. Speaking of that different sort of coaching, Gleeson confirmed the huge differences in the upbringing he had in the sport compared to that his counterparts in the UK had. “The conditions in Brisbane were firm ground compared to the sludge over here. Everyone was so quick and, yeah, you had a few big guys but everyone was just leaner,” he explained, further revealing that on a short return back to the UK and playing for his local team he found that “some player were bigger but slower at the same time.” With a smile on his face he recalled the sorts of things you could do on a rugby field in Australia to what you couldn’t over here – something those of us who have watched recent NRL games this season in comparison with the weather-affected Super League encounters can understand. “It probably helped my career because of the way I played the game, it suited me better,” he further added.
When he did return to the UK full-time, Gleeson spent two seasons with Huddersfield before moving to St Helens. As a boyhood Wigan fan, he admitted that playing for the Saints didn’t really bother him. “It wasn’t a problem. Wigan’s a huge rugby town but, because we moved to Australia, I kind of missed the boat with them,” he said. “When you start playing professionally you lose that ‘fan’ in you and it changes. It wasn’t a problem for me, going to Saints with the team they had was great! They were so successful – you’re not going to turn that down! It was an opportunity to win trophies and I played around some great players that made me better.”
Returning to off-field difficulties, Gleeson offered his insight on the current prominence of mental health awareness in rugby league and whether it was around when he was a player. “I don’t know if it was or it wasn’t but when you’re like that I don’t know that people want to speak to anyone anyway,” he said, acknowledging the difficulties that people have when talking about their mental health. “After off-field distractions led to me leaving Wigan, I went to Hull FC for a fresh start and ended up failing the drugs test. It took me totally by surprise. I moved away, nobody even saw me and I didn’t watch a rugby game,” suggesting that it was his way of dealing with his problems and not the fault of anybody else. However, after a year he said that “I found a purpose again,” revealing that something flickered and that he got a focus back. “I turned a corner mentally and after that it was full steam ahead. I became an obsessed freak with training.”
Displaying an awareness now of how he is as a person, Gleeson continued and suggested that people need to be aware of what they’re like. “I know what I’m like and I know exactly what I’m good at and not good at. You learn more about yourself when you get older and I know I can’t put myself in this or that situation because that could possibly happen.” He confessed to having an addictive personality but now he has harnessed that trait into a positive thing. “I train a lot, I’m mad on my diet and I’m obsessed with my work with Salford,” he said. “I do the attack and the details of that. You find other things to focus on. I put my power and focus into that.”
Returning to focus on his playing career, he spoke of the privilege he was handed in the form of the England captaincy by Tony Smith in 2008. “I got on well with him, it was an honour,” he confirmed, revealing that his most enjoyable rugby was with the national team. The former star further explained his belief that the powers that be need to commit more effort to promoting the international scene currently, saying that “they don’t pay it anywhere near enough attention, there’s nothing there and union dwarfs our game. It’s embarrassing. There’s not enough priority or games given to it.” However, he said that “he is glad that the Great Britain Kangaroo tests are coming back and it is a step in the right direction.”
Speaking more of his respect for Smith, who arrived at Warrington just before Gleeson departed in 2009, he reasoned that the Australian is the best man he is aware of to set a culture at a club and to keep his players motivated. “He came in and brought a professionalism and discipline to a club, little things like making sure a player who was ill came in to see the doctor instead of calling in sick. He introduced standards like that.” Now, Warrington are one of the biggest teams in the competition and Gleeson believes that Smith was key to that as well as those in the boardroom who provided him with the ability to bring in staff and to build the club up from what the centre admitted, in his opinion, wasn’t up to scratch before.
Perhaps the experience he had with Smith led to Gleeson’s interest in coaching. “I’ve always been a thinker about the game when I played,” revealing that Lee Briers and himself sometimes involved themselves in coaching when at Warrington under Paul Cullen. “Sometimes the players came up with ways in training to break down teams. As soon as I came back from my ban [handed to him when at Hull FC] I came to play at Salford and Sean Long was assistant coach. He was doing a lot of the attack stuff and I’d been studying the game just before I came back. We looked at the coaching stuff on his laptop behind the scenes,” the two-time Super League winner revealed, imparting that Long aided his development as a coach. Acknowledging the irritating niggles he suffered towards the end of his career, the Wigan-born 37 year old added that he was offered the chance to take a coaching role at the club. “I used the last year of my contract as coaching experience and took the under-19s.” Some of the players he coached as he began his off-field career are now working with him again on a daily basis. “The likes of [Ryan] Lannon, Woody [Josh Wood] and [Jake] Bibby are in there,” and he joked that other players refer to him as their dad. “It’s good, I enjoy it.” He initially started as an assistant alongside current head coach Ian Watson under then-head coach Iestyn Harris, doing part of the attack work then while Watson did the defensive and it is a testament to that partnership that they have stuck with those roles since his former assistant took the top job. “Watto took charge as he was a lot more experienced and we just carried on the partnership. It works, it’s good.” He is aware that the things he has experienced before in his career, good and bad, leave him in a good position to help those around him currently.
Focusing on the here and now, he acknowledged that Salford’s start has been inconsistent. Furthermore, the constant rumours of players exiting the club hinder that, Gleeson saying “it doesn’t help, but we have to deal with it the best we can. We know we’re lacking in certain areas; losing Dobbo [Michael Dobson, retired], Ben Murdoch-Masila [Warrington] as a strike player and Gaz [O’Brien] doesn’t help.” He did, however, comment that he feels there is promise there. “We feel we have a competitive squad and we will improve as the season goes on. When we play well we can compete with any team.”
His final point explained his belief that Salford can give anybody a game on their day and that they will be tough to beat – that last one being something which could be attributed to Gleeson himself; the issues that he suffered may well have signalled the complete end of an association with the sport he grew up loving. He is now, however, back enjoying it and keen to help Salford push forward into the future.