The Man Sitting Next To Me

16th March 2021

My father – William (Bill) Rigg – features prominently during the many years of sports spectating that I have described in An Ordinary Spectator. It is appropriate that – today – I refer to him again.

In the book, I noted that, when he first took me to the Parkside ground in south Leeds to watch his beloved Hunslet play rugby league, there were three reasons why I would sit on his shoulders as he stood at the back of the stand: so that I could see over the heads of the other spectators; so that he could explain to me what was going on (the points tally, scrums, the referee’s signals, and so on); and so that he could explain to me what was really going on, especially the different roles of the players (the speedy winger, the skilful half-back, the lonely full-back as the last line of defence…). I was six years old and I lapped it up.

My father’s own induction to Parkside had occurred in the early 1930s, when he had been regularly taken to the ground by his maternal grandfather, a Scotsman called Peter McBride, and his uncle Willie McBride. Dad’s father – my namesake, John Rigg – rarely attended, as his duties as a policeman meant that he had to work on most Saturdays.

We shared the enjoyment of Hunslet’s success in the first half of the 1960s – a Yorkshire Cup, a Second Division championship, a Challenge Cup final appearance at Wembley – and then the pain of the club’s precipitate decline in the years to 1973, when Parkside was sold for industrial warehousing and the club folded. Shortly afterwards, I left to go to university, but we made sure that, after the club had been resurrected as New Hunslet – when it initially endured a peripatetic existence playing at a number of venues, including both the greyhound and football stadiums on Elland Road, before settling permanently at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton – we took in a fixture during my Christmas and Easter vacations. By that stage, mine was obviously a more distant attachment to the club, but Dad remained hopelessly optimistic: at one stage he endured a 12-month stretch without a home win.

My father was never one for shouting and hollering at the players and officials. He would naturally get excited at the creation of a scoring chance or a fine defensive tackle, but his preferred approach was as a more reflective observer with whom I would occasionally share a quiet aside about a team’s tactics or a player’s speed or a coach’s options… The one (fairly) hard and fast rule we had was that the bag of sweets purchased for the occasion – usually toffees or mints – could not be breached until the first points had been scored.

Rather oddly, given that the Chandos Park ground of Roundhay RUFC was situated only about half a mile from home, it was some 7 years after my league spectating debut that we first attended a rugby union match: as it turned out, a full-blooded encounter between Roundhay and Headingley. We had watched the international fixtures on television, of course, but this was our initial live exposure to the “other” code. Afterwards, we wasted little time in analysing what we had seen – basically far more kicking and much less handling than in league – but that did not prevent us making further trips to both the Roundhay and Headingley grounds, the latter in particular to watch Yorkshire in the Northern Group of the County Championship.

I graduated to watching the bigger rugby league matches with my father at an early stage, beginning with the Great Britain vs Australia test match at Headingley in 1963. Subsequently, we regularly took in the Leeds-based league internationals against Australia or New Zealand. Then, for the 15 years or so from the mid-1980s, we made the annual pilgrimage to Wembley (him from Leeds, me from London and then Scotland, joined by my uncle Vic from Hampshire) for the Challenge Cup final, irrespective of who was playing in it. My father liked the spectacle of the big occasion, though I sense he was also drawn to the Wembley events by the attraction of our annual ritual and the repetition of the familiar.

And so to the cricket at Headingley, for which our first visits together even post-dated our joint venture into rugby union. I had been to see both Yorkshire and England play many times – either with friends or by myself – before my father and I started to attend the occasional match.

After all these years, it is astonishing what remains in the memory. I remember us watching Middlesex play at Headingley in 1972 and Dad being enthralled by the idiosyncratic run-up of John Price, who began each of his long journeys to the wicket by running directly towards us in our seats at long-off. A couple of years later, we saw Phil Carrick take some Surrey wickets one afternoon at Bradford Park Avenue. Then, in the August Bank Holiday Roses Match at Headingley in 1979, we watched Yorkshire complete a thrilling victory over Lancashire, the action being interrupted at one point by the sombre announcement over the loudspeaker that Lord Mountbatten had been killed in an explosion on his boat, followed by the gasps of shock from the spectators sitting around us. These were rare excursions, however: Dad was working during the week and I would be playing cricket at weekends.

Our joint visits to the soccer – all two of them – came later still, both Leeds United matches at Elland Road in 1981: a 1-1 cup-tie against Coventry City and a goalless league game against Liverpool. He said after the latter game that he had really enjoyed watching the skill of David Johnson and Kenny Dalglish in the Liverpool attack, but the truth was that he was simply not much of a soccer person. It was no surprise, of course, when he reminded me that his previous visit to Elland Road had been to watch Hunslet beat Leeds in the 1938 rugby league Championship final.

It was after my father had retired that we formed a more regular cricket-spectating partnership, notably for the second and third days of the Headingley test: the former in the lower tier of the Football Stand, the latter higher up in the balcony. He was the man sitting next to me as we watched the centuries being compiled (Gooch, Ponting, Steven Waugh), the five-fors hauled in (Reiffel, Waqar Younis, Mallender) and the ducks lined up in a row (Atherton, Flintoff, Cronje).

We only conversed infrequently during the actual play: just the occasional whispered comment about a change in the field or a dropped catch. Our discussions were primarily reserved for the lunch interval – my mother’s sandwiches consumed in the seats on the other side of the stand, overlooking the rugby pitch – or, later, back at the parental home. We would compare notes on what we had observed: the trim neatness of Alec Stewart’s appearance, the notable deceleration in Mike Smith’s delivery stride (against Australia in 1997, his only test), the impressive urgency of the young Michael Vaughan’s running between the wickets… We were invariably on the same wavelength.

The Indian tourists of 2002 produced a batting masterclass. In the gathering gloom of the Friday evening – as the lights on the scoreboard came on – Sourav Ganguly hit Ashley Giles over the old pavilion and Sachin Tendulkar deposited Andrew Caddick several rows back into the Members’ seating in front of the old bowling green. 628 for 8 declared.

That was the last match that we watched together. Two years later, my father was claimed by mesothelioma.

Who knows whether I will be able to resume my rugby or cricket-watching this year. If the latter, it will not be for a test match – Ganguly and Tendulkar also provided my swansong – but perhaps a Championship or T20 fixture at Headingley. And, if so, it is fairly likely that at some point – probably to the slight discomfort of those in my immediate vicinity – I will find that I am muttering quietly. Nothing serious, just a hushed aside to my invisible neighbour about the altered field-setting or that latest missed chance.

I know that the man will be sitting next to me. And that we will compare notes again later.

Incidentally, he was born 100 years ago today.

William Alexander Rigg: born in Hunslet, Leeds, 16th March 1921; died in Moortown, Leeds, 2nd June 2004.

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