AS a nipper, his parents bought him a pair of boxing gloves for Christmas, but it was on the rugby field, not the ring, that Arnold “Boxer” Walker found sporting fame.

One of the smallest players in the game, but with the biggest of hearts, “Boxer” punched holes in the best of defences and regularly knocked down men twice his size.

Great players aren’t always legends, but Walker is, a terrier-like scrum-half with the X factor.

He’s universally known throughout the RL world as “Boxer, ranking among a rare group of elite West Cumbrians to be idolised in both the Whitehaven and Workington “enemy” camps.

Arnold Walker, a true marra, born and bred at Kells, is a rugby personality who appears to be as popular today as he was during his illustrious career, the mark of a legend.

His biggest achievement was in joining the select band of Whitehaven players to wear the full Great Britain jersey although his recent induction to the club’s Hall of Fame gave him almost an equal thrill.

Walker’s deeds are fabled, talked about more than 20 years since hanging up his boots but never (until now) has it been explained how he became Boxer.

“It was like this, he said. “When I was about five years old there used to be a shop on Kells with pictures of famous fighters like Turpin and Freddie Mills in the window. So I asked Father Christmas for boxing gloves and a punch bag. On Christmas day while most of the other kids were out on their new bikes I was wearing my boxing gloves when this man walked past and said: ‘How’s your fettle young boxer.’ “It just stuck.”

On the field of play, Boxer Walker, with his flowing blonde hair, was always a fighter but only in the most sporting sense. Aggressive even pugnacious this will’o’-the-whisp scrum-half played the game hard but fair and courageously at the highest level, a No.7 with the so-called killer instinct. Whoever coined the phrase “putting your body on the line” might have been thinking of him.

“I wasn’t frightened of anything. People still say today ‘don’t you think you did too much tackling’ but that was a big part of my game, that was my style. In six tackles, I have seen me tackle five opponents off the belt....and loved it. I would rather tackle a big ‘un than a little ‘un because there was more to get hold of.

“Talking over a pint at Derwent Park one day I said to Iain MacCorquodale (crack Town goalkicking winger): “Corky’ why have I to do all your tackling?” He said: ‘Look marra, you do my tackling and I’ll put money in your pocket putting that ball between the sticks.’

“Corky’ did just that, he was a marvellous kicker, and he scored some good tries as well.”

Like most rugby league superstars, Arnie Walker kept his feet firmly on the ground, his head out of the clouds and never lost his down-to-earth roots among the people and community that helped mould him into the tough, talented player he was.

“There’s nothing better I loved after a match than for kids to come up to me and say:’ Mr Walker, any chance of your autograph. I would just fill up.

“It’s the same today when I go down to The Recre and dad’s say ‘go and get Boxer’s autograph.’

“That makes my day, knowing you are still not forgotten after 20-odd years.

“I was just the same, absolutely rugby daft. My hero was Alex Murphy, I wanted to be him when we were playing in the schoolyard at St Begh’s but I was never able to play against him, I just missed out by six months. Alex had started coaching Warrington when I was at Town. The funny thing was that Alex Murphy’s name was pencilled in the Wires team to play against us but he never ran out.

“Roger Millward was the best No.7 Walker played against (“electric”) but he also had some ding-dongs with the likes of Reggie Bowden (Widnes) and New Zealand Test scrum-half Clayton Friend who was to follow him at Whitehaven.

“I liked battling the likes of Reggie. If he hit me he knew he’d get one back and vice versa. In those days if you didn’t come off with blood on your shirt they thought you hadn’t been in a game. I always remember referee Billy Thompson, a great character, saying to me and a few others that if the blood bin had been brought in then he would have been standing in the middle of the pitch on his own.”

For Boxer Walker, the road to stardom began at the Welfare ground, where a straw-haired titch of a lad became mascot for the famous 1958-59 Kells team which went down in history by winning everything under Jeff Bawden.

Paul Charlton, Spanky McFarlane, Matty McLeod, Eddie Brennan, Phil Kitchin etc were his heroes in a team and so many of them just seemed to sign for Workington instead of their home town team.

So, as a marra why did you also go to the old enemy? — “My father (Duncan Walker) and Jim Kitchen were founders of the Kells club and really I think we all wanted to play for Whitehaven, but I suppose it was down to money in the end. Whitehaven might have offered us £700, but because Town put on an extra £50 we went up there.”

Tom Mitchell spotted Walker at 16; not many people got to wear, let alone own, Tom’s Texan sombrero velour hat, but Boxer did, winning it from “The Godfather” after vowing to win a match, then wearing it proudly on special occasions!

Glory days at Derwent Park culminated in the magnificent 1977 Lancashire Cup final triumph over Wigan, on top of county championship triumphs.

“When I first went to Workington Sol” Roper, the master scrum half, was my coach, he was magic and taught me lots. Later on I was dead lucky to play behind one of the best packs in the game. We had the likes of the Gorley brothers, Eddie Bowman, big Jim Mills, Ralph Calvin, Alan Banks, Bobby Blackwood and Billy Pattinson, they were just awesome. I suppose I was a cheeky so-and-so and the stuff I used to say to them on the field I can’t repeat, they could have turned round and plonked me at any time but there was no back chat and these fantastic forwards just got on with knocking over all before them.

“I was just saying to Eddie Bowman the other day that if we could have kept that side together, we also had Ian Wright (the best centre I have ever played with), then we could have gone all the way to Wembley.

“Les and Peter Gorley, my two best mates, were allowed to go, so was Eddie, they all got international honours but it was just a shame they had to leave to get their caps.”

Walker was soon to make the short journey to his home town club....for a mind-boggling £30,000, a Whitehaven club record in 1980.

Arnie’s form was good enough to get him in the Great Britain team, but ironically he admits: “I played my best rugby at Workington. Going to Whitehaven with that big price tag on my head (I think only “Knocker” Norton and George Fairburn had gone for bigger transfer fees) made me a marked man. Opposition coaches were saying ‘I want that Walker nailed as soon as you get on the field.’ It was true I had to watch myself, they were all out to get me.”

But Boxer’s skill, daring and bravery could no longer be ignored by the international selectors. Only a broken cheekbone kept him out of the first two Tests against the New Zealand Tourists, but he was in for the third which Britain won at Headingley to square the series.

“Andy Gregory said I’d have won a bagful of caps if I’d gone up the M6 as well, but I didn’t want to travel; I was just glad to stay and get my Great Britain shirt. My biggest disappointment was when I didn’t go on the 1979 Australian Tour. Steve Nash and Gary Stephens both went but someone called Redfearn from Bradford came in from nowhere to grab the spot everyone was tipping me for.

“Up here you don’t have to be 100 per cent to play for Great Britain, you have to be 200 per cent.”

Amid all the highlights, one awful moment will live forever in the memories of the Haven fans who saw the First Division match with Hull KR at The Recre on October 12, 1981. Walker sustained a serious neck injury and it could have been even worse.

The Whitehaven skipper was pole-axed in a controversial double tackle and lay motionless on the ground for what seemed an eternity.

“Some fans were so worried, they thought that because I was so still for so long that I’d died out there on the pitch. I wasn’t unconscious but very dazed. Thank God for the doctor, he saw how serious it was and stopped me being carted off to the touchline, otherwise who knows what would have happened if I’d been moved.

“Afterwards I couldn’t help thinking about John Burke, my stand-off partner at Town. It was me who passed the ball to John in that game against Leeds at Headingley in 1978. Two big forwards hit him and he was carried off. We were told after the game that John had been given the last rites and had a broken neck. He was paralysed and I think he’s still in a wheelchair.

“John broke his second and third vertebrae. In the second neck injury that ended my own career, I broke my fourth and fifth; there’s not much difference being in a wheelchair and staying on your feet.”

Walker’s courage saw him recover from the first injury, so much so that he actually finished that First Division season as player-coach before, like predecessor Phil Kitchin, he too got the sack.

“If you don’t get results what else can you expect and you also have to take the knocks.”

Boxer continued to put body on the line until that second, more fateful, injury came in only the second match of the 83-84 season at Widnes.

“One minute you’re a bit of a hero, the next you know you'll never put your boots on again; it hits hard, but just to think I was captain of Town, Whitehaven and Cumbria, winning two county champ-ionships, playing twice for my county against Australia and scoring the match-winn-ing try in our brilliant team which beat The Kiwis at The was all a pleasure.”

Arnold’s best (combined) Town-Haven team from all the players he played with and against, himself inclu-ded, is : Paul Charlton; Keith Davies, Vince Gribbin, Ian Wright, Iain MacCorquodale; Phil Kitchin, Arnold Walker; Eddie Bowman, Howard Allen, John McFarlane, Les Gorley, Peter Gorley, Gordon Cottier. Subs: Ralph Calvin, Ian Rudd, Bill Pattinson, Tom Gainford.