Even Longer Times Between Visits – Part 2

18th August 2022

In the previous blog (“Even Longer Times Between Visits – Part 1”, 17th August 2022), I reported on my attendance at last Friday’s Super League encounter between the Castleford Tigers and Catalan Dragons at The Mend-a-Hose Jungle. The 57 years and 110 days since my previous visit to the ground – when it was simply called Wheldon Road – for the Castleford versus Hunslet fixture in April 1965 represented a personal record for the longest period between visits to the same sports venue.

On Sunday afternoon, I beat the record again.

My visit to what is still generally called Mount Pleasant (although the sponsors would certainly prefer the Fox’s Biscuit Stadium) – for the Championship match between the Batley Bulldogs and Barrow Raiders – took place 58 years and 167 days after I had seen Hunslet defeat Batley on that ground in a second-round Challenge Cup tie in February 1964.

Batley’s association with Mount Pleasant makes Castleford’s presence at Wheldon Road (where they have played since 1927) seem like a recently arranged tenancy. It dates from 1880, some 15 years before the “Great Split” within English rugby and the formation of what was initially called the Northern Rugby Football Union, of which the club – then affectionately known as the “Gallant Youths” rather than the Bulldogs – was a founder member. It was those early years of the Northern Union that provided Batley with its richest haul of silverware; the club won the first Challenge Cup final in 1897 and landed the trophy twice more in the next four years.

I arrived at the Batley bus station (from Leeds via circuitous route through Morley) with plenty of time before the kick-off. I was fairly sure of the route to the ground, but I decided to check with a middle-aged man wearing a Batley replica rugby shirt, who was standing near the station exit. “Through the Market Place, left at Fox’s Biscuits and then right, up that bloody great hill”. His directions were spot on.

The Market Place is an impressive public space. Its principal buildings – notably Batley Town Hall and the former Carnegie Library (now the Batley Library and Art Gallery) – date from Edwardian times. These are complemented by the Methodist Church at the bottom of the square, next to which is the neat three-storeyed Jo Cox House, part of the Yorkshire Children’s Centre and named in honour of the town’s former MP, who was murdered in 2016. The external façade of an Italian restaurant is presented in sympathy with the surrounding architecture.

I still have the match programmes for the 1964 fixture – purchased for the princely sum of three old pence – the contents of which neatly captured the vastly different hold on the public’s attention that the early rounds of the Challenge Cup had in that era, compared with today. The introductory paragraph opened with: “The day which has been eagerly anticipated by thousands of sports fans for some time has dawned at last”. I remember that the attendance was indeed sizeable – 11,500, a figure that has not subsequently been surpassed for a Batley home fixture.

As with my visit to Castleford a year later (reported yesterday), I have a clear memory (I think) of where I was in the ground. My recollection is that, in order to see the action – as a 9-year old boy of below average height – I stood near the touchline behind a fence or railing, with my father and uncle some distance behind me up the crowded banking. I also recall that the playing surface was raised slightly, compared with where I was standing, so that, when the action was in front of me, I was looking up at the players. (For completeness, Hunslet won the match 14-6).

In the last two decades, the Batley Bulldogs have been a solid presence in the Championship – the professional game’s second tier – and this consistency has been maintained this season, as they began Sunday’s match in fourth place in the league table. With Barrow occupying sixth position, the game – as with the Super League encounter two days earlier – was of some significance for the end-of-season play-offs (which apply to the top 5 in the Championship).

By the close of play, Batley were still fourth in the league table, but Barrow had moved up into fifth – only one point behind – thanks to a convincing 30-12 win. The visitors made an impressive start and were 14-0 up after 20 minutes, thanks to two tries by full-back Luke Cresswell. At half-time, the visitors’ lead was 18-6 and the key question was whether, with the ground’s noticeable slope now in their favour, Batley could turn round the deficit in the hot, draining conditions. The answer was given emphatically in the first ten minutes of the second half, when two sweeping tries ensured that the lead of the impressive Barrow side became unassailable.

It was a good game, keenly contested – but also fairly, as far as I could see – and well refereed by Robert Hicks. Even though the game was beyond them, the Batley players kept going to the end, defending their line resolutely in the closing minutes. It was also a tribute to the fitness of both sets of players that there was no real diminution in the tempo on an afternoon when the reading on the thermometer breached 30 degrees.

After the match, I engaged an elderly man in conversation at the corner of the ground. I asked him if he had been coming to watch Batley for a long time and he replied that he had, as he was now aged 78. His recollection was that there had been banking along one touchline before the construction of what is now called the Glen Tomlinson Stand (in which I had spent most of the afternoon before watching the closing stages from the terraces behind the posts near the entrance to the ground). His memory might be faulty – as might mine – but I was content that his testimony meant that I could mentally re-visit my vantage point of 58-plus years ago.

I walked back down the hill to the bus station. There, also waiting for the Leeds bus, was the Batley supporter who had given me the instructions for reaching the ground. He said that he had been disappointed with his team’s performance, but – as had the elderly man at the ground – he paid due tribute to the Barrow side’s all-round excellence.

We enjoyed a pleasant conversation on the return journey. I suggested that Batley seemed to be a well-run club and he agreed. I learned that the club owned the ground and did not have any debt. There was also a longstanding tradition of the board not to dismiss the coach when results did not go well: a contract might not be renewed, but there was no dismissal. We shook hands when he departed from the bus in Hunslet. Not for the first time, I reflected on the innate capacity of the casual sports watcher – the Ordinary Spectator, whether at the cricket at Headingley, soccer at Tynecastle, rugby league in Batley, high school American Football in San Antonio et al – to compare notes in a (temporary) connection with a like-minded enthusiast.

And so, 58-plus years. I am bound to ask myself: does re-visiting a venue after all this time actually mean anything? Or does it simply represent the passage of a very long period in which my attention has been elsewhere? Or again, to present these questions in a slightly different way, what would I say to the friend I had at age 9 if we were next to meet aged 67?

My sense – for what it’s worth – is that there is something there. That there is a sense of closing a circle – of tidying up a loose end that my father and uncle had unwittingly, but lovingly, created all those years ago.

If that’s the case, another question arises. Can the record for the longest unbroken gap between my visits to a sports ground – now held by Mount Pleasant/the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium in Batley – be beaten?

The answer is yes. On the rugby league circuit, Wakefield Trinity offers a possibility. Assuming that the club does not move from what is now called the Belle Vue Stadium (where, as with Batley, it has been since before the establishment of the Northern Union) – and given that my previous visit to the venue was in October 1966 – I would need to attend a match there some time after 24th March 2025 (though not before).

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Other sports venues might also provide possibilities. The next cab in the rank is the Welford Road Stadium of the Leicester Tigers rugby union club (which was the Leicester Football Club when it hosted the England/France Schools rugby international that I went to see on a school trip in April 1967). This would require a trip to Leicester sometime after 19th September 2025.

As far as football or cricket are concerned, the contenders are some considerable time after that – Bramall Lane (courtesy of my detour to watch Sheffield United play West Ham United in March 1975 when visiting friends at the university) and Old Trafford (Lancashire versus Yorkshire in August 1976) – for which the relevant future dates would be 6th September 2033 and 14th February 2035, respectively. (I realise that this is all somewhat anorakian and, moreover, that I am encroaching into territory usually occupied by the astronomer. For example, the path of Halley’s Comet will next take it closest to Earth on 29th July 2062).

The Bramall Lane and Old Trafford outcomes assume, of course, that I hadn’t visited either the Belle Vue Stadium in Wakefield nor the Welford Road Stadium in Leicester in the meantime (after their relevant dates) and set the bar even higher. This would be taking me into my 10th decade.

Even more unlikely, therefore, even allowing for the quirky madness of the Ordinary Spectator. Though still more likely than seeing Halley’s Comet pass by.

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