Losing the Changing Room

24th May 2020

The English language has many examples of phrases taken from the sporting arena and used in a more general context. In the game of cricket “showing a straight bat” is a good technique to be employed when playing “on a sticky wicket”; in common usage, it refers to dealing with tricky matters in a manner that is determined and correct. If someone “bowls us a googly” (a leg-spinner’s delivery that turns in from the off side), we need to be on our guard against something that is unexpected.

Likewise, on the green baize table, we are “snookered” when we do not have a direct shot with the cue ball to any of the reds or colours we are allowed to hit without hitting one of the other balls and incurring a penalty; in everyday life, it means being faced with a range of choices, none of which are welcomed. “Par for the course” and “the ball’s in their court” – exported from golf and tennis, respectively – have similarly generalised interpretations. And so on.

Sometimes, the direction of causality goes the other way: a term that apparently has everyday usage (though it might not make much sense when taken literally) is applied in the sporting environment. Hence, in soccer, when teams “park the bus”, it means that they form a heavily manned defensive shield in front of their goal at the expense of undertaking any attacking play.

In the same sport, one often hears of managers or coaches “losing the changing room”. Of course, this does not mean that they have physically mislaid the changing area! Rather, it refers to the occasions when the players – usually a cabal of the most senior – have lost confidence in some aspect of the manager’s leadership (perhaps his tactics or his motivational skills or his team selection) with this subsequently being reflected in the displays and results on the pitch.

Which brings us to the Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson.

For the last two days, the lead story across the media has related to Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, who, with his family – his wife and 4 year-old son – drove 260 miles from London to Durham in the early period of lockdown at the end of March. Mr Cummings’s wife is reported to have been showing symptoms of having the coronavirus at the time of the journey.

Mr Johnson has recently received some criticism for the alleged vagueness in his presentation of the guidance on the 1st Stage of the relaxation of lockdown. However, in his first tv address to the nation on 24th March and in his letter to all UK households, his statement was unequivocal: “We are giving one simple instruction – you must [his emphasis] stay at home”. The accompanying guidance leaflet from the UK Government stated that: “Anyone who has… symptoms must stay at home until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days. Everyone else in the household must stay at home for at least 14 days after the first person’s symptoms appear, even if they themselves do not have symptoms”.

Mr Cummings’ defence has been that he was looking to provide childcare for his son and that he had he done nothing unlawful. Of course, one can understand his desire to do the best for his family and, I suspect, very few people are in a position to know whether Mr Cummings had any access to childcare arrangements nearer to his London home. But we all wish to do the best for our families and I do wonder what the implications would have been if 27½ million other households across the UK had decided in March that making a 260 mile journey was the most appropriate way of doing this.

This is a fast-moving story and, at the time of posting (8.30pm on Sunday evening), Mr Cummings had not resigned from his post. However, we can let those events take their course. My interest is more in the implications for Mr Johnson.

To date, the Prime Minister has stood by his chief adviser and not dismissed him. Whatever happens to Mr Cummings in the next few days or weeks, the Prime Minister’s clear preferences in this matter have been revealed. The key question now – as I see it – is this: what will be the impact on Mr Johnson’s standing in the country?

To date, the UK public has kept to the guidance on the coronavirus lockdown remarkably well. I suspect that a key factor here was the news reporting of the Prime Minister’s own serious exposure to the virus. However, it is clear that patience with respect to the economic impact of the lockdown is now running thin, with more questions being asked about the apparent (though over-simplified) trade-off between the damage to the economy and the increased mortality rate. As we have noted, the shift from full lockdown to the minor relaxation of Stage 1 has not been straightforward to deliver or understand; this will probably also be the case in the further sets of transitional arrangements that we are promised in order to move into Stages 2, 3 and 4.

It is highly unfortunate, therefore – to say the least – that, for many people, the lesson from this weekend will have been very straightforward: there has been one rule for the inner circle of No. 10 Downing Street and one rule for this rest. Against this background, it will be inevitable that the Prime Minister’s desired route through the next Stages (which is already expected to be difficult) will now be even trickier to deliver than otherwise might have been the case.

I wonder, when future historians look back on this episode, they might consider the past couple of days as the time when, in attempting to deal with the coronavirus, the Prime Minister lost the country.

The time when the manager lost the changing room.

The Coronavirus Provides a Reminder

2nd May 2020

For those of us who take an interest in watching sport, it is always worthwhile to recognise that there are others for whom the whole concept is ridiculous – or, indeed, abhorrent. The standard comments of disdain are familiar: “grown men hitting a ball into a hole with a stick…”, “overpaid prima donnas kicking a pig’s bladder…”, and so on.

I was conscious of all this when, in the final chapter of An Ordinary Spectator, I attempted to summarise the reasons why I had been continually drawn to watching live sport, in the flesh, over a period of half a century.

My conclusions were perhaps not that surprising: admiration at seeing elite performers at the top of their game; recognition of personal qualities such as leadership and courage; the scope for drama, in which the arena is the stage for the performing players; the sense of tradition and continuity attached to much sporting activity; the signals that sport sends as a barometer for society as a whole; and, not least, the role of sport in contributing to my self-identity and my sense of place in the world.

At this time, when the coronavirus is taking such a heavy toll on human life (as of yesterday, almost a quarter of a million deaths reported across the world, including more than 28,000 in the UK), it might seem irrelevant – if not insensitive – to concern oneself with matters sporting. But the effects of the virus are not only in terms of premature mortality rates; they are also be found in virtually every aspect of our lives that, until only two short months ago, we had been taking for granted. Like most people, I suspect, I have found it extremely difficult to make sense of it all: to think clearly about what it means for us now and what it will mean in the future.

It is in this context – and to persuade myself that I remain capable of some sort of detached and rational analysis – that I have been reflecting on the huge disruption that the coronavirus has brought to the holding of all sports events, large and small. In effect, I have been encouraged to revisit the question of what it is that watching sport brings to our everyday lives. In doing so, I now recognise that the answer is to be found in themes that are far wider than the mainly sport-related ones that I had previously identified.

As before, I must also acknowledge that any consideration of this issue is bound to be heavily influenced by one’s particular circumstances – age, upbringing, location, and so on. However, I shall attempt to complement the personal perspective with a more general assessment of what it is that watching sport provides for us as a whole. What, indeed, is it that the coronavirus has reminded us that we are missing?

The subject matter is hugely wide-ranging, of course, and, over time, I am sure that the area will generate a rich seam of research for sociologists and psychologists and that many learned academic papers and books will result. For the present, at this stage of sport’s shutdown – it is now 7 weeks since the postponement of all professional football in the UK – let me offer some initial views by identifying half a dozen key points.

The obvious place at which to start is to recognise that watching sport takes up some of our time: it occupies some of the precious minutes (or hours) between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. When this use of time is suddenly (and completely) taken away, we struggle (at least at first) to find a replacement. (In the current circumstances, this point also clearly applies to other leisure activities – going to the theatre, watching a concert, going to the pub et al – and the effect is magnified a thousand-fold when all these activities are removed at the same time).

The media picked up on this very quickly. Perhaps unreasonably quickly. One of the football correspondents of The Scotsman – under the heading “We’re kicking our heels without football” – stated that “it feels like we have woken up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. And this was on March 16th, the first Monday after the country’s soccer programme (including the previous day’s Rangers-Celtic match) had been postponed.

Of course, watching sport is more than simply a time-filler. There are occasions when we persuade ourselves – perhaps erroneously – that it is a worthwhile activity in its own right. We consider that it has a merit of its own so that, when we take our place in the stand or on the terrace, we are with the virtuous. It is part of our response when we seek to address Rudyard Kipling’s query whether we “can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.

In the present circumstances, given the lack of sports-spectating options, the logical follow-up has been to consider how else we might spend our time. It was no accident that the impressively quirky White Rose Forum – an online discussion group for followers of Yorkshire cricket – quickly developed a thread listing the activities that its members were intending to pursue in the absence of watching any matches: cooking with exotic sauces, learning the guitar, completing the novel (writing, not reading), improving basic German language skills… (The last two were mine incidentally). An interesting question for a later date will be the extent to which, in turn, the eventual resumption of sports watching will replace these activities as we revert back to “normal”: largely, but not wholly, I expect.

A related point is that watching sport helps to provide a structure to our lives. Much of sports spectating has a rhythm or a cycle to it: the fortnightly home soccer match, the first day of the County Championship season, the Boxing Day rugby match, and so on. Allied to the events that we turn up to watch at first hand are those that we might not see in the flesh (or even on television), but which we register as having a place at a certain time in the calendar: the Boat Race, the London Marathon, the Grand National…

I suspect that the planning of our schedules – daily/weekly/monthly/annual – around these regular events is done largely subconsciously. They constitute an unseen sketchpad on which we can place our own specific entries. In my case, earlier this year, I had some enjoyment in planning the contents of a spectating timetable that lasted from the spring into the autumn: a women’s football match in Glasgow, some cricket at Old Trafford, a Euro2020 match at Hampden Park, an Ashes rugby league test in Leeds. These events were staging-posts for the year, around which I could fit in the important (non-sporting) occasions with family and friends: the holiday in Spain, the West End theatre trip, the annual visit to the parents’ grave. Without these irregular markers, the future stretches ahead, shapeless and empty.

A further feature of sport spectating – again obvious – is that it provides us with social contact. For many, this takes the form of membership of an identifiable group – for example, as a football club’s supporter in a replica shirt or as part of the “Barmy Army” of England cricket fans bewildering the locals in Bridgetown or Colombo.

However, even when we are watching an event by ourselves, we are also part of a communal audience – perhaps in a crowd of 60,000, perhaps with the other man and his dog – simultaneously observing the activity in front of us (though not necessarily seeing the same thing). This provides the opportunity for the type of interaction – in a conversation or a debate or a stadium’s roar – which we (occasionally at least) seek as social animals.

In both An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator and in the subsequent blogs, I have regularly reported on the fleeting connections that I have made with strangers during the course of my sports spectating: the elderly man at a Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire cricket match at Headingley who told me that his father had been killed in the Second World War; the season-ticket holder at Tyneside worried about the Hearts team’s defensive frailties; the young lady named Stephanie in San Antonio, Texas, who came to my rescue after I had been to a high school American Football match and missed the last bus into town… How else but through watching sport would we have entered each other’s lives at those particular places at those particular times and, for a brief period at least, mutually enriched them?

And if not with strangers, then with family and friends. In An Ordinary Spectator, I refer to some of the friends – from adolescence and college and work – with whom I have shared the spectating experience over these many years. Post-working life, there have been additional and welcome members of the cast list. Perhaps most poignantly, the feedback to that book confirmed the hugely significant role that watching sport had provided in the bonding of family members – fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, older siblings and younger upstarts – on the terrace or in the stand. My story is no different: the book begins with me (as a 6 year-old boy) sitting on my father’s shoulders at a rugby match in south Leeds and his presence is a regular feature in the narrative right through to the final page.

The contact is with places as well as people. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I noted HG Bissinger’s brilliant line in Friday Night Lights, when he describes the outcome of a visit to a high school football game in Marshall, Texas, by a delegation of Russians who had been visiting a nearby US Air Force base: “[T]hey don’t understand a lick of [American] football, but… their understanding of America by the end of the game will be absolute whether they realise it or not”.

I like to think that I do understand more than a lick about football but, even so, there can be no doubt that my understanding of America (and Texas in particular) was enhanced after my evenings watching the high school football at the Alamo Stadium and the college football in the Alamodome (which are different venues) in San Antonio. Just as my understanding of local communities was enhanced after watching the FC Union Berlin (association) football team at the wonderfully named Stadion an der Alten Forsterei (Stadium Near the Old Forester’s House)in east Berlin or the Westport St Patrick’s Gaelic Football team in County Mayo. Prior to the lockdown, as I have continued my occasional tour of the soccer grounds of Scotland, I would have been remiss not to have spent some time walking the streets of the relevant towns and getting a sense of place. How else would I have seen the buildings and sites that capture the history of Alloa or Annan or Dumfries?

Finally, I refer back to a conclusion in An Ordinary Spectator: that I (we?) watch sport because it provides drama.

“Sport is drama and conflict. Sport is the battle for honour and honours. And an important part of the enjoyment in watching sport is to see the resolution of that battle and its effects on the winners and losers”.

I noted that the duration of the drama can take many forms: the long build-up to the event, perhaps weeks or months; the length of the contest itself, whether over 80 minutes or 4 days, or – as illustrated by the dozen “nano-dramas” that I identified in that volume – a mere split-second of action.

I now think that there is another dimension to this. The drama of sport is not only performed in front of us. It takes place within us. It generates a set of questions about ourselves that we may or may not choose to answer. How would we have responded in that given situation? Would we have taken that steepling catch? Would we have scored that penalty kick? Could we have made that try-saving tackle? From the safety of beyond the touchline or the boundary rope, we can ask ourselves these questions and – after we have invariably answered positively – we can take pleasure in the success that we have vicariously achieved.

Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC – whom I have quoted with admiration relatively recently (“The Coronavirus: Economics, Questions and Priorities”, 14th March 2020) – has stated that the halting of sports events is “a reminder that sport is the most important of the least important things”. It is an impressive line, I think: one which assists in cutting the ground from under the “hitting a ball with a stick” and “pig’s bladder” advocates.

And so, following Mr Klopp’s lead – and addressing the question with which I began – of what do I think that the coronavirus has provided a reminder? In summary: that watching sports enables us to use up some of the time at our disposal; that it contributes to providing a structure to our lives; that it facilitates individual and communal contacts; that it encourages respect for local places and cultures; that it satisfies the need for drama; that it allows us to role-play, if only in our own minds.

It strikes me that, as we sit in our respective domains of self-isolation – perhaps worrying about our future physical and mental wellbeing – that is a fairly formidable catalogue: “the most important of the least important”, indeed.

A final, final thought. We will select from that catalogue again. At some stage in the future, we will watch the white-coated figures walk out to the middle of the ground and place the bails on top of the stumps. The batsman will take his guard and the bowler will mark out his run-up. And the umpire will shout: “Play”…

The Coronavirus: Economics, Questions and Priorities

14th March 2020

The reports on the spread of the coronavirus – and the various measures being taken to contain it – are dominating the news agendas across the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate amount of the media coverage has related to the impact on spectator sports. Of course, it is the case that the scale of the disruption to major events – which yesterday alone included announcements on the postponements of the Masters’ golf tournament and the first four races in the Grand Prix season, the abandonment of England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka and a temporary halt to the Premier League and other soccer schedules in England and Scotland – is unprecedented in the post-Second World War period. Whilst most societal activity takes place outside the sporting arena, the presentation of the virus’s impact on sport does assist – if we needed assisting – in emphasising the overall magnitude of the challenges currently faced by all governments and civic societies.

When watching the news coverage, I was reminded of some research with which I was involved – in my former role as an economic consultant – over 30 years ago. In 1985, my colleague Richard Lewney and I were commissioned by the Sports Council to estimate “The Economic Impact and Importance of Sport in the UK”. Our independent report [1] was generally well received in both academic and policy-making circles and led to further investigations of the economic impact of sport in two local areas (Bracknell and the Wirral, as it happens) as well as in Northern Ireland and Wales. We also collaborated with the Sports Council in being the lead partner in a Council of Europe-funded programme of research across several countries. (There is a curious satisfaction in seeing the publication of a journal article in Finnish).

Our analytical framework was based on the system of National Income Accounting, which enabled us to examine not only the first-round effects of sport-related spending (for example, by consumers on admission charges, clothing and footwear, equipment, and so on), but also the backward linkages and “multiplier” effects of this expenditure throughout the economy. Our findings included that, at that time, over 370,000 jobs were sport-related in the UK and the value-added exceeded that created in a number of traditionally important sectors of industry, including motor vehicles/parts and drink/tobacco.

Three decades on, I would expect that the economic impact of sport in the UK is now proportionately greater than the estimate that Richard and I made in the 1980s. This reflects a range of social and economic factors. The former includes significant changes in lifestyle patterns, such as the increased popularity of running and cycling, the growth in spending on sport-related casual clothing and the huge expansion of sport’s media coverage in the satellite age.

More generally, even allowing for a couple of recessionary periods, 30 years of more or less uninterrupted economic growth has meant that, on average, people have more disposable income on which to spend on service-based activities. Moreover, it is the case that – for much sport-related spectating activity, in particular – the real price of attendance has increased: that is, the cost has risen faster than the general rise in the price level. (I noted an illustration of this in An Ordinary Spectator, when I reported that, between 1994 and 2012, the nominal price of a balcony ticket in the Football Stand for the Headingley test match rose from £27 to £65 i.e. by 141%. As the increase in the All Items Consumer Price Index – the CPI – over the same period was 48%, the real price increase was 63%).

And so we know that sport’s role in overall economic activity is significant. What, then, about the impact of the coronavirus on sport’s finances?

This can be considered in the same way as examining the effect of the virus on other areas of economic activity, including those such as travel and tourism which are being severely affected. The reduction – in some cases, collapse – of demand for sports spectating and/or participation will obviously adversely affect the income of sport-related businesses (whether Premier League football club or local gym) and they, in turn, will reduce their own spending to the suppliers of the goods and services that they would normally purchase. Such are the multiplier effects down through the supply chain. The employees of those businesses are also likely to cut their expenditures, either because their personal incomes have fallen or, even if not, due to the enhanced “precautionary” motive for saving for an uncertain future.

From this, a number of key questions emerge. For how long will the halt to sports events continue? Will sports businesses (and their suppliers) be able to survive through this period of low or non-existent cash-flow? And what will the post-virus sporting landscape look like? The last of these questions relates to the issue of whether the lost sports events have been postponed (as, for example, in the case of the London Marathon from April to October) – in which case the finances of sport will make a quicker recovery – or cancelled altogether.

It is the prospect of outright cancellation that is focusing (some) minds on the political jockeying-for-position that this will generate. Yesterday, when interviewed, the Celtic FC manager Neil Lennon wasted no time in stating that, under these circumstances, his club – with their 13-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership – should be awarded the championship.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC (which is leading the Premier League by 19 points) released his message to the club’s supporters on social media. It did not refer to the league table at all and ended with the following appeal:

“It would be entirely wrong to speak about anything other than advising people to follow expert advice and look after themselves and each other.

The message from the team to our supporters is only about your well-being. Put your health first. Don’t take any risk. Think about the vulnerable in our society and act where possible with compassion for them.

Please look after yourselves and look out for each other”.

It is clear that, in the current circumstances, the social fabric is being tested, the death rate is higher than it otherwise would have been and the future is uncertain. To his great credit, Mr Klopp recognises that some of the interests of those engaged in the sporting environment need to be placed in their proper perspective.

Some things are more important than others.

[1]  Published in November 1986 (ISBN 0-906577-74-8).

The Return of Sonny Bill

7th February 2020

The upward trajectory of the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league club – which has hitherto involved three seasons in the lower leagues – has now taken it into the Betfred Super League, the premier division of the game in Britain. I sense that views on this within the sport are divided: some welcome the broadening of rugby league’s horizons and the other opportunities that might be presented in North America; others would prefer to consolidate within the traditional heartlands of the north of England and – I suspect, at the extreme – would be quite content for Wigan to play St Helens or Warrington every other week. I am firmly in the former camp.

The Toronto climate being what it is, the club is obliged to play the first few matches of the new season away from their base at the Lamport Stadium. Their first match in Toronto will not be until the visit of Hull FC in the middle of April. The opening fixture – last Sunday – was against the Castleford Tigers at Headingley as part of a double-header that also saw the Leeds Rhinos take on Hull (afterwards, not at the same time!).

As if the entry of a Canada-based team into a British sporting competition were not newsworthy enough, the Toronto Wolfpack club has raised the promotional stakes several further notches through the high-profile signing of the former All Blacks rugby union player, Sonny Bill Williams.

SBW started – in rugby league – in 2004 at the age of 18 with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia’s National Rugby League. Four years later, he moved on France to play rugby union for Toulon. Since 2010, he has played for various union sides, mainly in New Zealand though also in Japan, interspersed with two seasons back in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters. His international appearances for New Zealand have been at both league (World Cup runner-up) and union (twice a World Cup winner). In addition, he has fought in (and won) 7 bouts of professional boxing (including for the New Zealand heavyweight title).

At the age of 34, it is reasonable to assume that SBW is approaching the end of his distinguished career: 16 years in professional rugby will have taken its toll and he has been far from injury-free during that time. Nonetheless, his acquisition by Toronto is a major coup – albeit an expensive one – which is generally recognised to have given a major shot in the arm not only to the Super League entrants, but to the sport as a whole. It is certainly one of the reasons I turned up at Headingley on Sunday.

Toronto took the field to polite applause from the near-capacity crowd. In their match-day squad, they fielded 5 players who had featured in the corresponding group for the League 1 encounter against Newcastle Thunder that I had seen at the Lamport Stadium in August 2017 and it was one of these – the winger, Liam Kay – who registered their first Super League points with an early try following a neat kick through by Hakim Miloudi. Miloudi – along with his fellow centre three-quarter Ricky Leutele – had a strong game and was rewarded with a long-range interception try late in the match. Another of the survivors from the Newcastle game – the Australian Blake Wallace – played soundly at full-back.

However, Toronto were generally second-best to Castleford, whose strong-running forwards provided the creative platform for the half-backs Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson to exploit. Castleford were also sharper around the play-the-ball, where the experienced Paul McShane ensured a strong momentum to the play. Toronto relied heavily on the distributional skills of the former St Helens veteran Jon Wilkin, but he was closely targeted by the Castleford defenders and several of his passes were rushed and misdirected. It was one of these, during another promising Toronto attack following Kay’s try, that was picked off by the Castleford winger, Greg Eden, for an 80 metre run to the try-line.

Sonny Bill Williams made his keenly anticipated entrance from the replacements bench after 25 minutes. His first contribution to the match was to drop a pass. Thereafter, he had a generally quiet game, attempting without success to create something from his characteristic overloads in the tackle. He moved into midfield to play a more central role after Wilkin had been substituted but, by then, Castleford were coasting on their 22-4 half-time lead and the result of the match was not in doubt. The final score of 28-10 was a fair reflection of the play. One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level.

In the second game, the Leeds Rhinos were overwhelmed by Hull FC by 30 points to 4. The visitors have invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and, on the evidence of this first game, it looks to have been money well spent. Leeds found it difficult to contain the powerful surges of Manu Ma’u and Andre Savelio, in particular; the home side’s creative efforts, by contrast, tended to be far too lateral. Hull also have some firepower in their three-quarters, as shown by the winger Ratu Naulago who, after collecting a high kick on his own 22 line, displayed a potent combination of dexterity, power and speed in making the break for the opening score by Carlos Tuimavave. I suspect that, in due course, that try will come to be seen as one of the best of the season on this ground.

In the second half, Ash Handley’s neatly taken try on Leeds’s left-wing was little more than consolation, as his side was trailing by 24 points at the time. The latter stages were played in a heavy downpour, which seemed to serve as an appropriate metaphor for Leeds’s disappointing start to the league season. By contrast, the Hull players – prompted by Marc Sneyd’s accurate kicking game – revelled in the conditions and offered much promise for their new Super League campaign.

“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”

6th February 2020

In the hierarchy of English club rugby, the division below the Premiership and the Championship – i.e. the third tier – is now called the National League 1. Below that, logically enough, is the National League 2, which is divided into North and South sections. On Saturday, the day after the Yorkshire Carnegie/Nottingham Rugby match in the Championship (“Arresting Decline”, 5th February 2020), I went to watch the lower league’s northern encounter between Otley RUFC and Caldy RFC.

The Otley club was founded in 1865 and – I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia – actually played rugby league for 6 seasons from 1900. It reverted back to rugby union in 1907 and moved to its current Cross Green ground in 1921. There are plans afoot for a new stadium a little way along the main road to Pool.

It had been over half a century since I had watched a rugby match on this ground: the Yorkshire Cup final between Roundhay and Wakefield on a Monday evening in April 1969. I recall that that had been – as with all matches between the leading Yorkshire clubs – an intensely ferocious affair. However, what set the match apart – not only as a rugby union game, but for any sporting contest at that time – was that it was settled in sudden-death extra time. The Wakefield full-back, a large bearded player called Chris Parkes, kicked a long-range penalty goal to give his side the trophy.

Since then, my only other visit to the sports fields at Cross Green had been to the adjacent Otley CC in 1974, when I played for a season in the First XI of the North Leeds CC in the Airedale and Wharfedale Cricket League. Our hosts had a strong side and they won the title that year. However, if my memory is correct, the record books will show that Richard Belverstone and I opened the North Leeds innings with a (rather slow) half-century stand. (I appreciate that this is something of a minor aside but, for me, this was a rare success in a season of generally low scores).

Such are my rather tenuous connections with the sports teams of Otley.

There are 16 teams in the National League 2 North, of which three will be relegated at the end of the season. This is promising to be a close-run affair. Prior to Saturday’s round of matches – when most clubs had 10 fixtures remaining – the bottom club Scunthorpe were well adrift (with 6 league points) and the next bottom (Preston Grasshoppers, 29 points) nearly so. However, there were only 9 points separating the 14th placed team (Luctonians with 43) from the side in 6th place (Sheffield Tigers with 52). Otley also had 43 points, narrowly above Luctonians on points difference. There are 4 points for a win, plus the scope for bonus points.

For Caldy, the season is shaping up in a different way. Having won all 19 of their league matches to date and with a 12-point lead at the top of the table – and a game in hand on their nearest rivals, Fylde – the Wirral-based side have their sights firmly set on securing the single automatic promotion place back to the National League 1 following their relegation last season. It looked a tall order for Otley, therefore, not least because Caldy had notched up a half century of points in the reverse fixture in October.

Otley had much of the early possession and the centre, Gavin Stead, made good progress with a couple of threatening runs. The Caldy defence was well organised, however, and when their turn came to attack, some swift and accurate passing enabled the left-wing, Ben Jones, to score in the corner. (It was turning into a good weekend for wearers of the number 11 shirt; his counterpart, Jack Spittle, had scored five tries for Nottingham Rugby against Yorkshire Carnegie the evening before).

Unlike the facilities at Headingley, those at Cross Green have a more “traditional” feel; the seating in the stand comprises wooden benches painted black and white (in contrast with the padded seats of the former’s North Stand). However, they constituted a perfectly serviceable vantage point, not least in giving some respite from a cold, blustery wind. The Otley club also offered an impressive match programme and an informative – though not exactly unbiased – MC to keep us up to date with the game’s progress. When – after Caldy had run up a 17-0 lead – the home side scored their first try, it was confirmed that it had been “after a superb bit of play”. “Let’s keep it up, Otley” was the immediate follow-up.

The half-time score of 17-7 remained unchanged until mid-way through the second half when back-to-back Caldy tries stretched out the score-line to one that was somewhat unfair to the home side. When both sides made the customary changes from their respective replacement benches, two of the Otley entrants wore the same number shirt. We were informed that the departing players had been “replaced by two Number 18s. I don’t think anyone spotted that”. “Oh, yes, we did” came the murmured chorus in reply. Otley’s persistent efforts as the final whistle approached were rewarded with their second try, through Owen Dudman, which left the final tally at 31-12 in Caldy’s favour.

The MC was magnanimous in his post-match announcement and, whilst his assessment of the season’s likely outcome is slightly premature, I would be surprised if it is not also accurate: “Well played, Caldy. We wish you all the best next season after your promotion”. He followed this, nicely, with “Well played, Otley”.

The Otley clubhouse is somewhat less grand than the previous one I had been in – at the Heriot’s Rugby ground at Goldenacre in Edinburgh the week before (“From RM Kinnear to the Super 6”, 27th January 2020) – but it serves the same functions: a communal meeting place, a place of refreshment, the location for the memorabilia of the club’s proud history. (It was on this ground, in 1979, that a Northern Division team led by Bill Beaumont registered a famous win over the All Blacks). On one of the shelves – alongside the collection of jerseys and match programmes and photographs – was an England cap that Arthur Gray of Otley RUFC had won in 1947, when he played three times for his country.

As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator, the first rugby (league) match in which I ever played was in Leeds for the Chapel Allerton Primary School against Alwoodley Primary School “B” team in 1965. I played at centre three-quarter and got punched on the nose for my trouble. In the review of the school matches for the Green Post edition of the Yorkshire Evening Post, I was reported as having provided “sound support” for our full-back and captain, Martin Gray. Martin – a good lad and a fine all-round games player in his own right – came from a distinguished rugby heritage: his father was Arthur Gray.

Did I mention that my connections with the sports teams of Otley were rather tenuous?

Arresting Decline

5th February 2020

The Yorkshire Carnegie rugby side are en route to being relegated from the Greene King IPA Championship – the second tier of the club hierarchy in England – at the end of this season. Prior to last Friday’s home match with Nottingham Rugby, they had registered only one point in the league table, having played 10 of their 22 scheduled fixtures. As the bottom side will go down – and the next-placed sides, Nottingham and the Bedford Bears, had 17 points – it is clear that their fate is close to being sealed.

The club’s difficulties began before the season started, with budget cut-backs, the move to part-time contracts, player and coaching departures and the resignation from the Board of the Executive President, Sir Ian McGeechan. As the mid-season approached, the union and league representatives of the parent club – Yorkshire Carnegie are based at Headingley, the home of the Leeds Rhinos RLFC – made public their various accusations and counter-accusations, providing further evidence that all was not well (if not in the state of Denmark, then at least in the LS6 postcode). Last month Joe Ford, who had taken on the player-coach role in August, became the latest to leave the club. Phil Davies, the former Wales international, has returned as Director of Rugby, having previously held the post for the 10 years to 2006.

Friday’s game followed the expected pattern. Nottingham had already made one clean break through the middle of the Yorkshire Carnegie defence before their next effort led to a try for the left-wing Jack Spittle after five minutes. Shortly afterwards, a set-play move from an attacking line-out – involving the swift movement of the ball from left to right and then a change in the point of attack with an inside pass – produced another huge gap in the Yorkshire Carnegie defence from which Spittle again profited. Worse was to follow for the home side a few minutes later, when the identical set-play generated an identical outcome. It has to be said that succumbing twice to the same (fairly routine) attacking move reflected poorly on the home side’s on-field organisation.

Yorkshire Carnegie did have some possession in the first half, but they found it much more difficult to generate any forward momentum; the Nottingham defence was accurate and aggressive. After the interval, Yorkshire Carnegie had the further disadvantage of being overwhelmed in the set scrum which, allied to Nottingham’s 100% return from their own line-out throws, made for a consistent flow of one-way traffic. The final score in the visitors’ favour was 62-10.

I’m not sure if there was a formal man-of-the-match award but, had there been, I assume it would have gone to Spittle, who ended the match with five tries. The most spectacular was his fourth, which began with a Yorkshire Carnegie penalty kick to touch which was tapped back into play by a Nottingham player. Spittle retrieved the ball behind his own try line and set off down his wing in front of the South Stand outmanoeuvring and then outpacing the Yorkshire Carnegie tacklers before touching down at the far end.

Over the years, I have seen some fine tries scored by some wonderful wing three-quarters sprinting down that touchline, beginning with Alan Smith and John Atkinson in the great Leeds rugby league team of the 1960s. The efforts of those two players were always accompanied by roars of encouragement from their (hugely biased) supporters crammed together on the adjacent terracing. By contrast, on this occasion, the backdrop to Spittle’s effort was an empty stand, as the spectating areas – catering for a few hundred, at most – were restricted to the comfortable padded seats in the North Stand or the lower terracing behind the posts at what used to be called the St Michael’s Lane end.

For those involved with the Yorkshire Carnegie club, there might seem to be little in the way of immediate consolation. However, one vignette did suggest otherwise. In the dying minutes of the match, when Nottingham were again pummelling at the home side’s try line, it looked as if one of their sturdy replacement forwards was about to barrel his way over for a score under the posts. He was halted by a brave last-ditch tackle by a couple of the young Yorkshire Carnegie defenders – I did not catch which ones – and the attack was repulsed. Their side may have conceded 10 tries, but they were doing their level best to prevent number 11. Their side might effectively be in the wrong league, but they were keeping going.

As with most sporting league structures, the rugby union club hierarchy is a flawed meritocracy. Whilst the differences in resources mean that it is not a “level playing field” – even within any given tier – there are rewards for success and penalties for failure. For Yorkshire Carnegie in its current state, it is the latter which is of potential concern – and not only for this season. Evidence suggests that there is the risk that a season of chronically poor results can lead to a process of decline that is cumulative and long-lasting.

To give one example, Manchester Rugby Club was in the Championship (then called the National Division 1) as recently as the 2008-09 season. It won only two of its 30 league fixtures in that campaign and none at all in the next two years, as it underwent a total of 5 consecutive relegations to the South Lancs/Cheshire league, the 7th tier in the system. At that point (in 2013-14) things were stabilised and, following a subsequent promotion and relegation, the club remains at the same level (in what is now the Lancashire/Cheshire 1 Division).

In the circumstances faced by clubs in such precipitate decline, there is no respect for tradition. Manchester is the oldest club in continual existence in England (having been established in 1860) and the provider of 60 international players in its history (including 9 in the post-war period).

The Yorkshire Carnegie club effectively dates from 1992 when the Headingley and Roundhay clubs were merged to form Leeds RUFC. (Its most recent re-branding dates from 2014). It has had some modest success, including Premiership status in 8 of the seasons between 2002 and 2011 and winning the RFU’s national knock-out trophy (the PowerGen Cup) in 2005. However, as I mentioned in Still An Ordinary Spectator, it is a cliched truism that, when one medium-sized rugby club merges with another medium-sized rugby club, the end result is a medium-sized rugby club.

I remember the Headingley and Roundhay clubs – formed in 1878 and 1924, respectively – as vibrant entities with close community links and established relationships with local schools and, especially, a fierce rivalry. But they are long gone. Let us hope that Phil Davies and his staff manage to arrest the decline of Yorkshire Carnegie by avoiding a Manchester-type free-fall and, in the years ahead, continuing to provide the city of Leeds with – at least – a medium-sized rugby union club.

From RM Kinnear to the Super 6

27th January 2020

This season the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) has introduced a new competition – the Super 6 – for elite clubs. As the name suggests, franchises have been given (for 5 years) to half a dozen clubs to play in their own league at a semi-professional level. The principal aim is to create a “pathway” for players to progress from the highest level of amateur club rugby in Scotland (the Premiership) to the two full-time professional teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the end of the regular season, when the sides will have played each other twice, a play-off phase will decide the competition’s overall winners.

It is probably reasonable to state that the administration of club rugby in Scotland has traditionally tended towards the conservative. Accordingly, the new structure has not been without its critics, not least because three of the six selected clubs are in Edinburgh and none in Glasgow. On Saturday, I watched two of them in action, when Heriot’s Rugby played the Boroughmuir Bears.

The scrutiny of my collection of match programmes revealed that the last occasions on which I had seen these teams in action (in their previous guises) had been as long ago as November 2009 (Boroughmuir RFC) and October 2010 (Heriot’s FP) on their respective visits to the Burnbrae ground in Milngavie to play West of Scotland. Unfortunately, since then, the West club’s star has been on the wane; it now competes in National League Division 3, the fourth tier in the Scottish hierarchy (excluding the Super 6 level).

My contact with Heriot’s had been more recent, however. In 2018, when preparing a couple of articles for the Rugby League Journal on players who had played for both the British Lions (rugby union) and Great Britain (rugby league) – “Double Lions”, of whom there have only ever been 16 in total – I contacted the Administration and Events Manager, Shona Whyte, to enquire about the club’s perspective on RM (Roy Muir) Kinnear, who won 3 caps for Scotland nearly a century ago.

Roy Kinnear had an extraordinary rugby career. After playing for the British Lions in South Africa (as a 20 year-old in 1924) and Scotland (in 1926), he turned professional with the Wigan rugby league club. He subsequently played in the first Challenge Cup final to be held at Wembley (against Dewsbury in 1929, when he scored a try) and for Great Britain in a test match against Australia at Hull in the same year. He was the first “Double Lion”.

Ms Whyte had pointed me in the direction of the official history of the Heriot’s Rugby Club, published to commemorate the 125th anniversary in 2017, which noted of Kinnear that: “[H]is loss was a severe blow… [T]he rugby club committee felt obliged to seek his resignation as a member of Heriot’s, which was duly received”. Thankfully, the rift does not appear to have been permanent, as the official history also states that Kinnear “re-enters the Heriot’s story some years later”.

Roy Kinnear died at the age of 38 in 1942 when he collapsed during a Services rugby match. He is commemorated on the War Memorial at Murrayfield, alongside other Scottish international rugby players (including Eric Liddell). His son, also Roy Kinnear, was a distinguished actor, as is his grandson, Rory Kinnear.

Heriot’s and Boroughmuir entered Saturday’s contest having had mixed fortunes in the Super 6 to date. The former had won 5 of their 7 matches to stand in third place (behind the Ayrshire Bulls on points difference) with the third Edinburgh side, Watsonians, leading the table. By contrast, the visitors had won only one of their games – at home to Heriot’s, as it happened, last November.

The walk from Waverley Station to the Heriot’s sports fields at Goldenacre took me through Edinburgh’s New Town, the first part of which was set out by James Craig in the 1760s. The names of the streets echo with the confirmation of Hanoverian hegemony in the post-Culloden era: George Street, Queen Street, Cumberland Street, Great King Street… At the ground, from the concrete terrace behind the posts at one end, there is a fine view of the city skyline in the middle distance: Arthur’s Seat, the tower of the Balmoral Hotel, the Scott Monument… On this side of town are the playing fields of the famous public schools including, just down the road, the Edinburgh Academicals ground at Raeburn Place, where the first rugby international – Scotland versus England – was played in March 1871.

On this particular playing field, Heriot’s were too strong for Boroughmuir. The opening try was scored after only a couple of minutes and quickly followed by two more. The visitors’ most threatening period of play, when the score was 3-15 against them, saw Boroughmuir mount a prolonged attack on the Heriot’s line, but a loose pass was intercepted and the hosts were able to break quickly downfield. Their fourth try was scored shortly afterwards. The final score was 53-10.

I am not able to judge whether this Super 6 contest satisfied the SRU’s objective of providing a stepping stone on the pathway from amateur to professional rugby. It was clear, however, that both sides had an open style of play that made for an entertaining contest. The Heriot’s half backs – Andrew Simmers and Ross Jones – were particularly adept at providing the swift transfer of the ball to their outside backs, whilst the Number 8 forward, Jason Hill, was at the forefront of securing a steady stream of possession.

During the second half, as Heriot’s racked up the points and the earlier accuracy of the teams’ play was disrupted by the wholesale introduction of new players from the respective replacement benches, I took a walk down the far touchline. On the adjacent pitch, another Heriot’s team was engaged in a match that seemed to be more closely contested. I fell into conversation with a gentleman from Biggar, who informed me that this was the Heriot’s Blues 2nd XV – effectively the third team – who were playing Hawick’s 2nd XV. Meanwhile, he said, the Heriot’s Blues 1st XV was playing in a Scottish Cup tie away at Gala RFC.

During the course of our chat, I mentioned that I was intending to visit Leeds next weekend to take in a couple of games at the start of the new Super League season, noting that the Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos were two of the sides on my watch list. More or less spontaneously, the man offered his views on the coaching abilities of Gary Mercer – the New Zealander who was a former player and/or coach with both those clubs – who had also held the reins at the Biggar rugby union club for three seasons. Such are the interweaving strands of the rugby spectating network.

My other conversation at Heriot’s was with Shona Whyte. I introduced myself to her at half-time, in the ground floor room of the impressive two-storey clubhouse, when the final tidying up after a clearly well-patronised pre-match luncheon was taking place. She mentioned that perhaps three or four players in the Heriot’s team had attended the school, but that it was generally difficult to retain playing contacts with ex-pupils once they had left the area for university or other reasons. I thanked her again for the assistance she had given me on the RLJ article.

On display in both the sizeable rooms in the clubhouse is a plethora of items commemorating the history of the Heriot’s rugby club: trophies, jerseys, programmes, and so on. It is an impressive collection. The team photographs of the George Heriot’s School First XV date back to before the First World War, whilst those of each year’s Heriot’s FP team are all meticulously named and dated. Each of the club’s former international players has his individual picture on the wall. RM Kinnear duly takes his place in this proud line-up.

For those charged with managing the current entity that is Heriot’s Rugby, there is a double-edged challenge: to respect the traditions of the club that have evolved over a century and a quarter; and to deal with the requirements of the next phase of the professional era, with its sponsorship and social media and pathways. Tradition and professionalism: a tension that Roy Kinnear would have fully appreciated.