A Long Time Between Visits

15th July 2018

In An Ordinary Spectator, I recall the occasion in September 1965 when I was taken by my father and my uncle Bob to the Fartown Ground in Huddersfield to watch the rugby league fixture with our team, Hunslet. During the match, Brian Gabbitas – the latter’s stand-off and one of our favourite players – suffered a broken jaw. Dad saw the incident – a late and cowardly off-the-ball assault – and he told me later who did it. Gabbitas never played again. (The following week, I was on my travels again – this time with just my uncle, as my Dad couldn’t get the time off work – to Lawkholme Lane in Keighley and another Hunslet defeat).

Huddersfield moved out of the Fartown ground in 1992 and, two years later, took up station in what is now called the John Smith’s Stadium. On Thursday, I went there to watch the Super League match between the Huddersfield Giants and Wigan Warriors.

I took the train from Leeds and, on alighting at Huddersfield Station, made the short walk across the square to the GeorgeHotel. It was there, in August 1895, that the representatives of 21 clubs met to confirm their resignation from the Rugby Football Union to form their own Northern Rugby Football Union. (At the meeting, Dewsbury decided not to secede; Stockport did so by telegraph).

Although the GeorgeHotel is one of the most significant sites in British sporting history – the birthplace of Rugby League – it now presents a somewhat sorry picture. The Grade II-listed building, with its Italianate facade, built in 1851, was closed in 2013. The site security notice on the locked front door refers to the standard fare of hard hats, deep excavations and no unauthorised entry. The contents of the Rugby League Heritage Centre, which had been established in the hotel in 2005, were placed in storage and now await the arrival of the NationalRugbyLeagueMuseum, which is scheduled to open in Bradford in 2020.

The match was of some significance. With three games left to play in the regular season, Huddersfield occupied eighth place in the league table – two points ahead of Leeds – with hopes of being in the “Super Eights” in the season’s final phase, rather than having to compete in the “Qualifiers” (with three other Super League sides and four teams from the Championship) to decide the final four places in next year’s Super League. For their part, Wigan were looking to consolidate their second place in the table, which would not only (by definition) secure a top-four position and a Super League semi-final berth, but also a home fixture for that match.

Huddersfield deserved their win. They overcame the setback of the officials seeming to miss an obvious knock-on in the build-up to an early Wigan try – after a month of World Cup viewing, I waited in vain for the VAR referral – and the temporary loss of their star winger Jermaine McGillvary following a head-high tackle. The initial 0-6 deficit had been transformed into a healthy 20-6 lead before Wigan scored their only other try (nonchalantly converted from the touchline by Sam Tomkins) two minutes from time: 20-12.

I was impressed by the Huddersfield half-backs – Lee Gaskell and Danny Brough – whose varied passing and attacking kicks were inadequately dealt with by the visitors; their respective contributions led to tries for Darnell McIntosh and Leroy Cudjoe. For their part, Wigan were let down by an uncharacteristically disjointed attack and some poor discipline, Huddersfield befitting on more than one occasion from a penalty kick to relieve their lines. However, I wonder if the visitors might have had some consolation in the performance of Samy Kibula, an 18 year-old on his debut – 6 ft 3 ins, 18 stones – who made a couple of impressive runs, his powerful leg drive earning additional yards after apparently being held in the tackle.

Although this was a match of some importance for the reasons mentioned, played on a pleasant summer’s evening in nice surroundings, the attendance was not huge: it was officially given as 5264. The lady in the stand next to me said that it was about the norm, apart from the home fixture with the Catalan Dragons, which had been free entry and attracted over 9,000. (She was a sound judge: the average of Huddersfield’s other 8 home league fixtures this season has been 5356). For a key fixture in British rugby league’s premier division, this struck me as slightly worrying.

As noted, in 1965, there had been a week between my visits to the rugby league grounds in Huddersfield and Keighley. This time, it was only a day. The Lawkholme Lane ground in Keighley has been called the Cougar Stadium since the re-branding of the club in 1991. On Friday, on my first visit for over half a century, I took in the Betfred League 1 encounter between the Keighley Cougars and Oldham Roughyeds.

I mentioned in the previous blog (“Oystercatchers and Blue Plaques”, 9th July 2018) that there are still probably nine clubs challenging for the two promotion places from League 1 to the Championship. WorkingtonTown and Hunslet, covered there, are two of them. Friday’s contestants were two others, although the hosts’ current financial difficulties have recently forced them to release a couple of their key players; Oldham, in third place in the table at the start of the evening’s proceedings, seemed to have the more realistic prospects.

It was a hard attritional game with the defences generally on top; there were only two tries, one to each side in the first half. Although Oldham held an 8-7 half-time lead, Keighley kept their defensive shape and their discipline and they were rewarded with four second half penalty goals to secure the 15-8 victory. The final whistle was greeted with great celebration by the local faithful: the majority of the 510 attendance, as Oldham’s support probably numbered a couple of coachloads at most. (I noted that the visitors’ supporters were mainly decked in their side’s traditional colours of red and white – the strip I recall from a couple of tightly fought Challenge Cup ties with Hunslet in the 1960s – even though the team took the field in green).

The Danny Jones Stand at CougarPark is not very deep and so, even though I was close to the back, I was near enough to the pitch when the play was in front of me to sense the full physical contact which the combatants experience. Rugby league is – and always has been – a game for the courageous. The players in this, the third tier of the professional sport in this country, might have lacked the speed or skills of those on show the previous evening at the John Smith Stadium, but there was no compromise in their determination and commitment.

After the game had finished and most of the crowd had begun to leave the ground, I went down and stood on the touchline. In the distance, the view of Rombalds Moor was disappearing in the fading light. One of the Keighley players – stocky and muscular – walked towards me on his way to the changing room. “Well done”, I said quietly, realising as I did so that I could have been the William Hartnell character in Lindsay Anderson’s classic film version of This Sporting Life. He gave me a proud smile, “Cheers, pal”.

There is much discussion at present in the rugby league media and by various interested parties about the future of the sport. This has many sub-plots – the structure of Super League, the arrangements for promotion and relegation, the options for international expansion and competition, et al – all set against the new round of negotiations with television companies and other media outlets which will come around before too long.

Another such component concerns the future of the traditional clubs in the rugby league heartlands that for some time have been living from hand-to-mouth on average crowds of a few hundred or so. I have seen four of them in the last week (WorkingtonTown, Hunslet, Keighley and Oldham) and there are others, for example Barrow and Whitehaven. How will be their futures be resolved, when the soft capital that they have in terms of history and community – evidenced on Friday in the neatly presented Hall of Fame I enjoyed visiting in the Keighley clubhouse at half-time – is matched with the cold hard disciplines of power structures and market forces?

In the meantime, I reflect on my second trip to Lawkholme Lane/Cougar Park, the home of Keighley RLFC, 52 years and 10 months after my first. It has indeed been a long time between visits.

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