Garry Purdham’s devotion to his family and working life on the farm was matched only by his absolute dedication to the sport he loved.
As Ged Stokes, his former Workington coach, stated whilst paying tribute to Garry in June: few men managed to strike the balance between home life, work and play as perfectly.
The 13-a-side code is such an integral part of the Cumbrian way of life that Purdham was always going to make his mark within his local community.
He stood out from the beginning and his myriad, admirable qualities as a footballer ensured that it would only be a matter of time before he was more widely respected, further afield.
He began to get noticed beyond the confines of Egremont when selected for the BARLA Youth team that opposed a strong France outfit in the winter of 1996. It was his 5th minute touchdown that put Great Britain on their way to a 20-12 victory at Whitehaven, in December of that year.
Four months later, he had moved from second-row to loose-forward for the return meeting at the Charlety Stadium, Paris, when a French side containing Julien Rinaldi, Eric Anselme, David Ferriol and Laurent Frayssinous exacted revenge.
At the end of that season, Garry’s excellent form alongside his 16 year-old brother Robert in Egremont’s National Conference Premier Division side ensured that he was named in the BARLA Youth squad for their 9-game tour to Australia.
He was one of 11 players from Cumbrian clubs to make the Phil Kitchin-coached party, being accompanied Egremont colleagues John-Paul Young and Graham Wilson and future Whitehaven team-mates Marc Jackson, Stephen Kirkbride and Phil Sherwen.
Purdham, it came as no surprise to learn, proved the model tourist. Ever willing to play out of position for the benefit of the team, always prepared put in that bit extra when training, helping with chores and doing whatever was required. Garry had a wonderful time despite being in a squad that managed just two victories.
He played in both ‘tests’ against an Australian Schoolboys side that included Lenny Beckett, Mark McLinden, Luke Bailey, Casey McGuire, Luke Patten and a half-back who would light up the Recreation Ground in Whitehaven’s NL1 table-topping 2005 season, Joel Penny.
The Young Lions were out of their depth, losing by 50 points each time, with Garry playing centre on the former occasion and then stand-off, opposite McLinden, in the second meeting at Wynnum-Manly’s Kougari Oval.
There was barely time to draw breath, upon his return home, before Garry was pitch-forked straight into another National Conference season.
Egremont had finished at the foot of the table in the previous season but were spared relegation by the entry of a crop of fledgling teams that had resulted in the expansion of the Conference divisions. And they made the most of their reprieve.
It was a remarkable winter that brought unbridled joy to visitors to Gillfoot Park as Egremont embarked upon a highly unlikely title-winning campaign.
With a side boasting a quartet of quality former professionals in Willie Richardson, Mark Beckwith. Dylan Stainton and David Lightfoot, playing alongside their wily player-coach John Brocklebank, Rangers evolved into a relentless side that was energised by the infusion of two such precocious talents as teenagers Garry and Robert Purdham.
Egremont gathered a momentum during the second half of the season that simply proved unstoppable. And they duly reeled in Woolston Rovers, after the Warrington outfit had built a substantial lead at the top of the table. Eventually, Rangers clinched the championship with their 22-12 away win against West Hull at the Circle on 9 May 1998.
In addition to taking the title, Egremont caused one of the great Challenge Cup upsets that season when not just beating Workington but ‘nilling’ them at the Recreation Ground. Rob crossed for the opening try of the game and a place in history beckoned the amateurs as they completed an 18-0 win. Garry was an absentee when the fifth-round visit to Sheffield resulted in an 84-6 defeat, yet few would have believed Rangers had gone out to the eventual winners.
After such an impressive showing on Whitehaven territory, against Workington of all teams, it was only a matter of time before the Purdham brothers were enticed to the Recreation Ground on professional contracts. They duly put pen to paper in time for the start of the 1999 season.
Former New Zealand test legend Kevin Tamati was the man who gave, firstly, Garry, and then Rob their first-team debuts for Whitehaven. Neither disappointed the Kiwi hard man.
Garry was blooded first, coming off the sub’s bench on a freezing midweek March evening for their home defeat of Lancashire Lynx, having been a non-playing sub’ against Leigh a fortnight previously. He made six sub’ appearances but had dropped out of the team by the time Rob made his bow at Hunslet.
The brothers first played alongside each other in a professional capacity on 2 January 2000, with Rob operating at stand-off and Garry coming off the bench to score his first Whitehaven try in the 42-0 home defeat of …Workington.
Garry would save his tries for the ‘bigger-name’ opposition in that NFP season – Leigh, Oldham and Hull KR – and was in the side humiliated 98-4 when Whitehaven suffered their club record defeat in the Cup at Wigan.
There was further glamorous Cup opposition in store when St Helens visited the Recre’ for their 5th-round tie the following season. Garry and his colleagues fared creditably before succumbing 34-22 to the side that would lift the trophy at Twickenham two months later.
2001 proved to be Garry’s finest in terms of consistency and durability, missing just one of 30 league and cup games, as he played his last season alongside his brother. Rob was headed for the capital, for London Broncos and international recognition in 2002.
That was the year in which Garry crossed the whitewash on a personal-best 7 occasions, finishing the season with tries in three consecutive games – against Doncaster, Chorley and Swinton - for the only time in a career that would be more synonymous with prodigious tackling stints and tireless, unstinting performances that few were capable of emulating.
It was no coincidence that Garry came of age as a player under Paul Cullen, a coach whose enthusiasm for the game is so infectious and a man who would value a wholly committed performer like Garry Purdham so highly.
By the time Cullen moved on to take charge of his beloved Warrington at the end of 2002, the 25 year-old Purdham was beginning to feel the effects of a knee injury that would require four operations in six years.
He managed 19 appearances without scoring in Steve McCormack’s 2003 debut season at the Recre’, and, sadly, was forced to sit out the 2004 NL1 grand final that Whitehaven lost in extra-time to Leigh.
By the time ‘Haven completed their table-topping NL1 season and qualified for a second successive grand final, in 2005, Garry had moved up the coast to Workington, initially on a month’s loan.
His final appearance in the chocolate-blue-and-gold was as sub’ in the 20-6 home defeat of Doncaster on 24 April 2005, with his seven-season Whitehaven career having yielded 126 appearances, including 23 as substitute, and 15 tries.
Impressing Ged Stokes enormously with his initial performances for Workington, his first score for his new club was to be the solitary drop-goal of his professional career - at Gateshead on 10 July 2005. It gave Town a 29-24 lead with time running out on an afternoon when Jonny Limmer scored a second-half try hat-trick, but they were beaten on the bell by a converted try from Rob Line.
Underlining how cyclical sport often is, Garry had the misfortune to be in the Workington Town side beaten by amateur opponents Thornhill in the 2006 Challenge Cup competition. Eight years after starring in Egremont’s famous defeat of Town, it must have been sobering experience to be on the other side of the ledger that day at Dewsbury.
The following season brought a more pleasant Challenge Cup memory as Town battled through to a 4th-round meeting with Leeds Rhinos at Headingley. Workington travelled on a wing and a prayer and were on the wrong end of a 72-10 score-line against the team that would win the Super League title a few months later. But Garry was among a group of players given a heart-warming reception from the Headingley fans for their gallant effort.
His final season in the professional ranks was to prove a cruel one for Garry.
After playing in Town’s opening game of the season against Halifax, his sole appearance between February and August was as substitute at Swinton. He finished the campaign with three league appearances, though, marking his farewell appearance with a try (20th of his career) from loose-forward in Town’s 16-40 defeat at Oldham on 24 August 2008.
Garry spoke optimistically in the local press of ‘one more season’ depending on his progress from a further knee operation. But, deep down, he knew his pro’ career was over at just turned 30.
At a time when Rob was preparing for the trip to Australia with England’s 2008 World Cup squad, having starred in the rout of Wales at Doncaster, Garry was looking to life beyond semi-professional football. And he knew what he wanted to do.
It was inevitable that he would return to Gillfoot Park to ‘put something back’ at grassroots level, passing on his wealth of experience and knowledge. And he would derive further pleasure from the game when coaching the youngsters including his son, Cameron.
For Garry Purdham, as for the vast majority of rugby league players, there were no visits to Wembley, no test matches, no grand final appearances at Old Trafford. There was not even the Cumbria county call-up that he would have cherished so much, mainly because of the intermittent nature in which their fixtures fell during the era in which he starred.
He missed out on Whitehaven’s finest league season in living memory because of injury. And the move to Workington was hampered by his deteriorating knee. But he was an absolute trojan in every single one of 184 appearances for the two clubs, as playing colleagues and supporters alike will readily testify.
Without men of his ilk, the sport we love could not possibly be tagged the ‘Greatest Game of All’, as it is often referred to by its devotees. The players make the game unique and supporters will forgive them anything except a lack of effort. No such accusation could ever have been levelled at Garry Purdham.
His standards never dropped. His commitment never waned. He was the perfect ambassador for his sport. And he made the most of his considerable talent - without ever compromising the way of life that meant everything to him.
He played the game and lived his life on his own rather special terms. RIP Garry Purdham.