If there was a decade or an era in sport that was able to capture the mind of its fans, I feel like it must be the 80s or 90s. Now, yes, I may not have lived throughout such a distinctive and cultural era as the 80s but from the constant stories I hear growing up to the clips that are so easy viewable these days, I know it must have been one sight to behold and that an everlasting impression was made. Throughout that time there were not many players in rugby league as electrifying and exciting to witness as Offiah was. Now, as the man himself celebrates his 52nd birthday, it becomes that time again as we add another one to the in-depth series and focus on the career of one of British rugby league’s finest……
Born in London, Offiah first made a name for himself in the Middlesex 7s competition with potential suitors coming through to try and acquire the raw talent after a string of impressive performances. By 1987, Doug Laughton and Widnes had eventually acquired the speedster’s services and brought the young sensation up north to the realms of rugby league.
A raw deal as he was, scepticism remained of whether he was more than just a guy who could run fast but become that all round rugby league player. However, it was long after that the criticism and sceptics would be tossed out like a dirty pair of old socks as Offiah quickly became one of the most recognised and talked about players in the league. That frightening pace and acceleration which was so revered as he came into the league became the prime talking point as his opponents were left helpless as the winger strode by them with such a freaky ease. It was be the debut season to end all debut seasons as he rewrote the Widnes history books with 42 tries, breaking the club record for most tries in a season once held by Frank Myler and all in all provided a huge influence as Widnes brought home RFL Championship honours for the first time since 1978. An outstanding effort culminated with the young prodigy winning the Man of Steel in his first ever season in professional rugby league.
A season more remembered as he claimed his first Great Britain call up for the tour of Australasia in 1988. If the pressure of being picked for international duty after your first ever season in rugby league was a daunting prospect it certainly did not show, scoring an incredible 19 tries throughout matches against Australia, New Zealand and its domestic clubs.
If he was able to be as dominating as he was in the game for the first two years, would could only imagine how he could deal playing domestic competition on the other side of the world in Australia. During the off season in 1989, Offiah spent 12 games playing for Eastern Suburbs providing good value as he scored nine times before making the move back to Widnes in time for the 1989-90 season.
Despite a tough act to lead on from, that season provided nothing but even more success as Widnes ran rampant, winning back to back RFL Championship titles alongside another epic try-scoring season from the young sensation. After only two seasons in to his professional rugby league career, his try-scoring to games ratio became nothing short of outstanding if the records are anything to go by as he scored just short of a remarkable 100 tries.
After four seasons with Widnes and 175 tries later, Offiah had quickly gone from a sceptical raw talent to a man that struck fear into oppositions on both sides of the world. It was so much so that the team of them of the moment, Wigan, dished out a world record fee of £440,000 to sign the exciting talent in time for the 1989-90 season. A record transfer fee that stood right up until Stuart Fielden signed for Wigan from Bradford Bulls in 2006 for an extra £10,000.
Whilst at the Lancashire outfit, the emerging superstar had picked up right from where he had left off at Widnes, forming one of the most devasting partnerships of the decade alongside Gene Miles. The concept of ‘making an impact’ was seemingly etched into his DNA, producing another debut season to remember, scoring 30 tries in 15 games. A statistic that gave another nod to a club’s history books as he equalled Wigan’s record for most tries in a game with 10 against Leeds in the Premiership semi-final.
The move to Wigan obviously not do anything to dampen his trophy winning capability as he played amongst a team that won four Challenge Cup, five RFL Championships, three Regal Trophies and one Lancashire County Cup. If his appearance to try-scoring ratio was impeccable whilst at Widnes, it was nothing but even greater whilst at Wigan, scoring 186 tries in 159 appearances. A more than instinctive and prolific try scorer which quickly reflected on his Great Britain career, scoring 26 tries in 33 appearances from 1988 to 1994.
As he moved on to the later years of his rugby league career, his ability to get over the try line did not look to fade away as he went on to sign for the London Broncos in 1996, featuring 48 times and scoring 34 tries before seeing out his league career at Salford in 2001.
There is not a great deal more you can say about a player such as Offiah. There was the speed, the physique, the acceleration, the agility to go alongside an unfathomable try scoring ability. The realm of British rugby league had probably not seen such an exciting talent since the days of Billy Boston or even Brian Bevan. There maybe be those who suggest that all he brought to the table was that of speed, but you look at the numbers and you just know that cannot be held true. A record of 444 tries in 424 appearances throughout an accomplished rugby league career takes more than just then god given pace. It takes instinct, timing, agility, athleticism, strength all but to name a few.
The man possessed an undeniable ability to leave you on the edge of your seat with your mouth a gape as the man left another opponent in his wake in which you could only compare to something out of a Looney Tunes sketch. The legendary rugby league winger became entwined throughout an era of British sport that captured the minds of its fans. Whether it was the likes of Sebastian Coe, Nick Faldo, Linford Christie or Ian Botham, Offiah placed himself among a defining era of British sport and was able to encapsulate the rugby league world and the minds of its fans.
Happy Birthday Martin Offiah.