News Blog

Millennium Square

July 18th 2018

In theory, I could claim to have been twice thwarted this season in my plans to watch Yorkshire CCC in action. First, persistent rain prevented any play in the Royal London One-Day 50-over match against Nottinghamshire at Headingley (as reported in “Below Average”, 28th May 2018). Then, it was decided that last Wednesday’s scheduled fixture against Derbyshire in the Vitality Blast T20 on the same ground should be postponed until the end of the month in order to accommodate the desire of many (perhaps most) spectators (and players) to watch the England footballers contest the World Cup semi-final against Croatia.

I cannot tell a lie, however. I must confess that I was also in this category and would have taken my place in Wednesday’s fanzone in the Millennium Square in Leeds even if the cricket had taken place. England’s tally of three World Cup semi-finals in nearly 70 years of trying suggests that – in comparison with T20 cricket matches – these occasions do not come around very often.

And now the final has been played. The euphoria and disappointment will last for a while and then dissipate, perhaps slowly. The World Cup caravan will move on to Qatar in 2022.

The newspaper and television headlines about this year’s World Cup “fever” seem to have been reporting on a readily observable phenomenon. It has taken many forms, one example of which was no doubt replicated throughout England. On the bus journey from Carlisle to Workington that I took to watch a rugby match recently (“Oystercatchers and Blue Plaques”, 9th July 2018), I lost count of the displays of bunting and the flag of St George that were displayed from houses and pubs and other buildings. One flag draped from an upstairs bedroom window of a two-storey house stretched down to block the sunlight from entering the living room below; another dwelling’s garage doors had obviously been newly painted in the red and white; in one street, the decorations had been applied to several houses in a row, as if it were some sort of competition between neighbours. And this was suburban and semi-rural Cumbria – not a known hotbed of soccer passions – rather than the environs of Old Trafford or White Hart Lane.

Not everyone was caught up, of course. A few miles before Workington, two men – both in their 60s, I would guess – got on the bus and sat in the rows in front of me. One, wearing the slightly improbable combination of a WorkingtonTown rugby shirt and a golden earring, had a conversation with the back of his friend’s head as the latter looked forward from the seat in front. The conversation briefly strayed on to England’s quarter-final win over Sweden the day before.

Did you watch the soccer?”

First half. Then I switched off”.

£200,000 a week… Not £200,000 a month, mind… £200,000 a week”.

That was it. The rest of the conversation was on rugby league matters: Wigan’s recent narrow victory over Warrington; the acquisition by Hunslet (Workington’s opponents that day) of two players from Keighley; the dismissal by the Leeds Rhinos of their head coach, Brian McDermott, who had overseen the winning of eight major trophies in eight years… “It counts for nowt…

Even allowing for this minority – perhaps sizeable minority – view, I am left to wonder why it is that the World Cup gripped the nation’s imagination, even more so than usual.

Part of the explanation must obviously lie in England’s performance in reaching the semi-final, having defeated the might of Tunisia, Panama, Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden, even if the Second XI did lose to Belgium’s reserves in the final group match. In itself, the victory in a penalty shoot-out – the first by England at a World Cup – must have helped to release the pressure gauge. The identification with the national team tapped in to the basic urge towards tribalism and the seeking of meaning through association, which we see every week during the club season.

It is clear, also, that football enthusiasts and non-football followers alike have been more willing to identify with this England team, in contrast with some of its predecessors, because of the more acceptable qualities they demonstrated off the pitch. The manager came across as a decent and honourable man; the squad appeared to lack the egotistical non-performers of previous campaigns; the recent entrants to the team (John Stones, Kieron Trippier, Jesse Lingard) played with some skill.

However, more general factors were also surely at play. With the exception of the story of the heroic rescue of the young Thai football team and their coach from their refuge in the flooded cave complex, the current news agenda, typically, has not been one to raise the spirits: blundering and self-centred British politicians floundering about Brexit; societal divisions exposed by a visit to this country of an (elected) US President; death from the Novichok nerve agent in Wiltshire. There was an urgent requirement for something to bring the country together and the exploits of the footballers – plus the heatwave – somehow managed to do this.

And so to the Millennium Square in Leeds on Wednesday evening.

The first thing to report is that the City Council had designated the fanzone as alcohol-free. We were therefore spared the beer showers that characterised some of the other zones across the country – to the apparent amusement of the television news presenters and soccer pundits watching from the comfort of their distant studios, though not necessarily much fun for all those caught directly underneath. The Leeds zone had a proper cross-section of England support: chanting youths, families of all ages, office parties, groups of young men of Asian descent draped under the St George’s flag, Japanese tourists (?)… Leaning on the crash barrier next to me was a young woman of about 20: “Come on, England”, she yelled enthusiastically. I was the one – possibly, the only one – wearing an England rugby shirt.

The minutes counted down to the kick-off. The screen relayed the pre-match views from the ITV studio: Ian Wright was his customary bundle of patriotic nerves, Lee Dixon worried about the space that Croatia might exploit down the flanks, Roy Keane looked as if he were slightly bored by the whole proceedings. Then, the first roar as the scene shifted to the players waiting in the tunnel and the camera focused on Harry Kane. For the national anthem, everyone seated on the wooden benches or the concrete floor stood up to join the rest of us in a full-throated rendition. (The Croatian anthem was greeted by the chanting youths with a flurry of gesticulation and half-hearted booing. They can’t see or hear you, I thought, recognising as I did so that – of course – that would apply to all the sounds we were to make during the course of the evening).

Trippier converted his wonderful free-kick after five minutes. The huge roar engulfed the Square, the sound echoing back from the Leeds Civic Hall and the CityMuseum. We collectively raised our arms in triumph, then cheered again as the goal was replayed, this time admiring the skilful technique as well as the happy outcome.

We can reflect on the ifs and buts, but that doesn’t change the match result. If Kane and Lingard had taken their clear-cut chances in the first quarter, England would have been 3-0 up at half time. As it was, I sensed that I was not the only one to detect that, from about the half-hour mark, Croatia were gaining the upper hand. In the second half, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic controlled the midfield, creating the space on the wings from which the Croatian full-backs could launch their attacks – Lee Dixon had been right – whilst England increasingly resorted to the traditional route of long hopeful punts downfield.

The occupants of the fanzone kicked every ball and made every challenge of this compelling match. Croatia equalised and then, almost immediately, hit the post. Ashley Young was replaced by Danny Rose. “That’s four Yorkshiremen on the pitch now”, I helpfully informed my young neighbour, who smiled politely. In extra time, Stones had a header cleared off the line before, at the other end, Jordan Pickford made a point-blank save. The substitutions of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson were greeted with appreciative applause for their efforts.

Croatia scored their winning goal. The match ended. The England support dispersed quietly into the Leeds night.

Somewhere between the Millennium Square and the front of the ArtGallery on the nearby Headrow, I managed to misplace the Stade de France baseball cap that I had acquired during a family holiday in 1999. Two losses in one evening.

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.

Oystercatchers and Blue Plaques

9th July

Not surprisingly, the World Cup is dominating the current sports news agenda, prompted by England’s unexpected progress to Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia.

In the meantime, other sports continue on their season’s journeys – and not just the headline events such as Wimbledon and international cricket. Yesterday – by way of the return train between Glasgow and Carlisle and the Stagecoach No 301 bus between Carlisle and Workington – I attended the Betfred League 1 rugby league match between Workington Town and Hunslet at Derwent Park.

Some background. Workington Town RLFC holds the distinction of being the club which has succeeded in winning both the Rugby League Championship (in 1951) and the Challenge Cup (1952) in the shortest time following its formation (1944). Their player-coach and captain was Gus Risman – one of the “greats” of the sport – who led them out at Wembley at the age of 41, 14 years after captaining Salford to victory at the same venue. In Workington’s Challenge Cup victory, the Lance Todd Trophy winner was their loose forward, Billy Ivison, who played 385 matches for his sole club over 15 seasons.

The 1950s were boom years for rugby league in Cumberland. Workington also reached the Challenge Cup finals in 1955 and 1958 and the Championship final in 1958, whilst local rivals Whitehaven (formed three years later) defeated the Australian tourists in 1956 and were within five minutes of reaching Wembley the following year before succumbing to Leeds in a one-point Challenge Cup semi-final defeat.

The recent years have not been so kind. At the time of the formation of the Super League in 1995, considerable pressure was exerted by the league authorities to form a single Cumbrian “super club” (involving Workington, Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle), but this was resisted by the local interests (as were proposals for similar mergers elsewhere in the rugby league heartlands) and it was the unmerged Workington that took part in Super League’s first season. Only two league matches were won, however, and, with demotion following, this was the last time that a Cumbrian side was placed at the sport’s top table.

In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, following a visit to Barrow’s Craven Park in March 2016, Derwent Park remained one of only two that I had yet to visit – of those that were still in use – from the venues of the professional clubs (30 in total) that were in the Northern Rugby League when my father me took me to my first game in the early 1960s. (My attainment of the items on this particular bucket list is not quite as impressive as it sounds; as the caveat implies, many of those grounds were sold off or otherwise vacated before I had taken the opportunity to see a match at them). The Derwent Park box has now been ticked, however.

I am always interested in the history of the localities in which sports grounds are located and, as usual, Trevor Delaney’s excellent (though obviously somewhat dated) The Grounds of Rugby League (1991) did not let me down. The Workington Town ground is at:

The Cloffocks- the historic site of the Easter folk game of ‘Uppies and Downies’ and near to where a Viking sword has since been unearthed… Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, [it] is one rugby league ground where you are likely to find herons and cormorants within yards of the main gates… The present grandstand… stands on what was once a tidal estuary (The Saltings). Fishing boats are known to have tied up there before the First World War. The ground is built on eleven feet of ash and sundry rubble, the site being the former Council rubbish tip”.

Since 1970, Derwent Park has also been used for speedway; the Workington Comets compete in the Speedway Great Britain Championship. My expectation, therefore, was of a venue not dissimilar to that of Shielfield Park in Berwick, which I visited earlier this year (“700-plus years after Edward I – a two-all draw”, 26th February 2018) and where there is a corresponding marriage between speedway and soccer.

And this was what I found. Derwent Park has two long stands stretching down the touchlines, the main one of which has seating. The ends of the ground are open and, on this bright and sunny day, there were clear views from the stands into the middle distance and beyond: on one side, the wheeling towers of a wind farm that stretched away down the estuary; on the other, the solid presence of Workington’s parish church, St Michael’s, standing out against the blue sky.

In League 1, the side finishing at the top of the tree at the end of the regular season – the Bradford Bulls are currently most people’s favourites – will gain automatic promotion to the Championship. The second promotion spot will be determined by play-offs involving the sides finishing between second and fifth. However, the competitive nature of the upper half of the division is such that Newcastle Thunder (currently ninth) no doubt still harbour hopes of a top five finish. Every match counts. The Workington-Hunslet game was, therefore, a good one to choose. At the start of the weekend, with 11 matches to play, the sides were respectively placed fifth and third in the league table, the visitors having won seven games in succession.

The announcement of the Workington team revealed two players whom I expected to be key participants in the afternoon’s events. I recalled that the prop forward Oliver Wilkes had played a powerful game for the Barrow Raiders in the Craven Park match a couple of years ago; more recently, I had also noted at first hand the cult-hero status that the experienced (and formidable) Tongan Fuifui Moi Moi had acquired during his period with the newly formed Toronto club (“The Wolfpack and the Cheesy Dog”, 27th August 2017).

Hunslet had the better of the first half, prompted by the darting runs of Cain Southernwood and Jack Lee, and they led 14-4 at half-time. However, with both Wilkes and Moi Moi prominent, the greater strength of the Workington pack seemed to wear down their opponents and their dominant second half performance produced a 28-18 win. It was Wilkes’s skilful offload in the tackle near the Hunslet line that led to an important try for the home side when the match was in the balance. By the end of the day’s play, when all the scores had been settled across the league, Workington had moved up to fourth place in the table, whilst Hunslet had slipped to fifth.

After the match, I had a little time to spare before catching the bus back to Carlisle. I took the footbridge over the railway line and walked a short way along the path to a peaceful spot by the river. I couldn’t see Trevor Delaney’s herons or cormorants, but there was a flotilla of about a dozen swans on patrol, whilst overhead were four oystercatchers (I think, not being an expert) with their bright orange-red beaks and black and white plumage and incessant urgent chatter.

I also called in at St Michael’s Church. The outer door was open and I was greeted in the porch by a member of the vestry, who was there for a meeting which was due to start a few minutes later. Without any prompting, he ushered me inside and gave me a short guided tour, proudly explaining how the church had been rebuilt following a serious fire in 1994. My host pointed out the figures of the “Northern Saints” high up on the walls and talked me through the narratives of the impressive stained glass windows. I mentioned that I had been at the rugby and had seen the church from my seat in the stand; when I told him the score, he said his son would have been pleased as he had gone along too. We shook hands at the end of a really pleasant exchange.

There was just time for me to stroll through the centre of Workington. The town was nearly deserted in the early Sunday evening sunshine and so I had no distractions when I took the photographs of the blue plaques commemorating Billy Ivison and Gus Risman. It is good to see that they are given due prominence not only for their contributions to Workington Town, but also as significant figures in the history of Workington the town.

Geoff Gunney MBE

28th June 2018

The entry in my Lett’s Schoolboys Diary for Monday 28th March 1966 was typically succinct:

School. Went to see Hunslet 25 Batley 2. Got the autographs of Brian Gabbitas, Bernard Prior, Geoff Gunney and Ken Eyre. Bed 9.20”.

The diary will probably not be a hugely significant source for future historians, notwithstanding such entries as “Went to town. Bought Five Go Down To The Sea” (5th April) or “The number of threepenny bits that I have saved is now 67” (15th April). However, it does reveal what my 11-year old self thought were the important events of each day and there could have been no doubt that the rich haul of the autographs of four members of the Hunslet RLFC 1965 Challenge Cup final team fell into that category.

By this time, I was in my fifth season of supporting the team that my father had followed since he had been a boy. I was familiar with the career histories of all the players – not least Geoff Gunney, arguably Hunslet’s greatest-ever. In An Ordinary Spectator, I recalled my initial impression of him after seeing my first games in the autumn of 1961:

“…Hunslet’s best known player… had toured Australasia with the Great Britain team in 1954 and had played in the 1957 Rugby League World Cup in Australia. Although he had been sought by bigger and wealthier clubs – notably Wigan – he had stayed loyal to Hunslet… At the time of my first visits to Parkside, he stood out as a big powerful man, equally adept at tackling and running, with a sledgehammer hand-off. When Hunslet were awarded a penalty, and if it was outside [Billy] Langton’s range to the goalposts, Gunney took the punts into touch: big booming kicks, delivered with a slow run up and a graceful swing of the leg”.

Geoff Gunney made his debut for Hunslet in September 1951 and played in a total of 579 games for the club over 23 seasons, including the Championship Final against St Helens in 1959 and the Challenge Cup Final against Wigan at Wembley in 1965. He represented Great Britain on 11 occasions and also played 9 times for Yorkshire.

By the early 1970s, the Hunslet club was in disarray. The 1965 Wembley side had quickly broken up – through transfers, injuries and retirements – and the club finished bottom of the 30-team league in 1971 and 1972. The board of directors sold the Parkside ground – the home since 1888 – to a property development company and the club was wound up. The final home match, in April 1973, was poignantly described in Les Hoole and Mike Green’s The Parksiders: A Brief History of Hunslet RLFC, 1883-1973:

“Geoff Gunney led his team on to the pitch for the last time. Despite a special effort, the young Hunslet side lost to York. Gunney was the last man to leave the field”.

Geoff Gunney’s efforts for rugby league in Hunslet did not end there, however. He was a key figure in the reformation of the club as New Hunslet for the start of the 1973-74 season, being involved with coaching, fund-raising and securing the Elland Road Greyhound Stadium as a temporary home ground. (Indeed, he also played in a couple of the new club’s matches in October 1973 – away to Workington Town and home to Doncaster – shortly before his 40th birthday).

The new club took root and, within four years, had been promoted to the league’s First Division. The legacy has been carried through to the present Hunslet RLFC club at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton.

Geoff Gunney was renowned as a gentleman on and off the pitch. In October 2014, I met him at the opening of the “Hunslet Rugby League Remembered” Heritage Room at the Garden Gate public house in South Leeds, to which I had been invited by Peter Todd, the then General Manager of the Hunslet Hawks RLFC. He was sitting at a table in one of the small bars when I made my nervous approach: “Hello. My name is John Rigg. My dad brought me to watch Hunslet play at Parkside when I was a small boy”. “Hello, John” he replied, with a firm handshake and a warm smile. We chatted for a few precious minutes. It is a fond memory.

Both An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator contain several references to Geoff Gunney, including his powerful displays in matches against Wakefield Trinity in the Challenge Cup semi-final of 1965 and Castleford in that year’s Yorkshire Cup, his shock dismissal in another encounter with Wakefield and our rather improbable joint membership of the Leeds Sports Council in 1973 (at a meeting of which I took the opportunity to discuss a Hunslet-Leeds match that had taken place a few days earlier).

There is one other Hunslet match to mention here. The last game of the 1970-71 season was an away fixture against Rochdale Hornets at the Athletic Grounds. The side, having floundered badly in the league and certain of finishing bottom of the table, was further depleted through injury and suspension. The lone survivor of the 1965 side, Gunney was easing towards retirement, having only played in four matches towards the tail-end of the season. However, at the age of 37 and following a 20 year career as a rampaging second-row forward, he offered to turn out at full-back. My father and I tuned into the early Saturday evening sports results fearing the worst.

The scores duly came on the screen. Hunslet had won 16-8. This was not a cup semi-final or final; it was a low-key league match played at the end of a traumatic season. I don’t know why it was so difficult to hold back the emotions when I saw the result. (Later, I learned that a neat circle had been completed: Gunney had turned out with some distinction as a makeshift full-back for Great Britain on the Australasian tour of 1954).

Geoff Gunney died earlier this month at the age of 84. Another link with my youth and adolescence has been broken, prompting the now familiar response of pause and reflection. The poet AE Housman – a lad of Shropshire, rather than Yorkshire – captured it best, I think, when referring to his Land of Lost Content: “The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again”.

As noted, Geoff Gunney’s penultimate match was for Hunslet away at WorkingtonTown. As it happens, that same fixture is in the schedule for next weekend. I had been vaguely wondering about going to the match, as I have not previously visited DerwentPark. Somehow, there now seems to be no excuse at all not to go.

Geoff Gunney MBE, 1933-2018. RIP

Below Average

28th May 2018

Since the introduction of the Gillette Cup in 1963, English cricket’s abbreviated form has been contested by the First Class counties in various formats: 65 overs per side, 60 overs, 55 overs, 40 overs…

Under the present arrangements, there are two competitions: the T20 tournament (currently also known as the Vitality Blast), which has been running since 2003 and the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup, which dates from 2014. In both cases, the 18 counties are divided into two groups (North and South) in order to decide which teams (8 in the T20 and 6 in the One-Day Cup) qualify for the knock-out stages.

Yorkshire CCC’s record over the 55 years of one-day competitions can charitably be described as “below average”. Of the 142 tournaments played to 2017, they have won just five: the 60-over Gillette Cup in 1965 and 1969, the 40-over John Player League in 1983 (when they were captained by the 51-year old Ray Illingworth), the 55-over Benson and Hedges Trophy in 1987 and the 50-over C&G Trophy in 2002. Of the other counties, only Derbyshire, Durham and Glamorgan have a lower haul, whilst, most painfully, the honours board at Lancashire registers no fewer than 17 one-day successes.

In many seasons, Yorkshire have promised much to start with, only to falter at a later stage, including the quarter- or semi-final. Last year, there was some controversy when, after success in the initial fixtures, it was announced that Yorkshire would not be able to host a home quarter-final in the NatWest T20 competition because Headingley was being prepared for a test match and Scarborough could not accommodate the required television cameras. In the event, Yorkshire solved the problem by winning only two of the last seven group matches and failing to qualify for the knock-out stage.

And so to another season, with hopes raised and optimism afresh. Last Friday, with a friend from Strathblane – George Farrow – I went along to Yorkshire’s One-Day Cup group match with Nottinghamshire at Headingley. Prior to the game, Yorkshire had won one match out of three in this year’s competition.

It was the first time that George – a life-long Essex supporter – had been to Headingley. We took up our position in the East Stand Long Room with its honours board and second-hand bookstall and cricketing memorabilia and enticing bacon rolls. From our perspective out on to the ground, George will have got a sense of the vastness of the arena and – I hope – of its history: Don Bradman’s two test match triple centuries, Hedley Verity’s 10 for 10 against Nottinghamshire in 1932, Geoff Boycott’s hundredth 100 in the 1977 test against Australia… We both got a good impression of the progress being made on the construction of the new Football Stand and the excellent views that will eventually be available behind the bowler’s arm.

What we didn’t get was any cricket. The drizzle intensified as we entered the ground and then came and went with unfortunate regularity until the umpires admitted defeat just after half past three and abandoned play for the day. As we left the ground, we bade our farewell to the wet and bedraggled lady in the hi-viz jacket who was supervising the exits from the car park. “You do look rather cold”, suggested George, sympathetically. “Yes”, she agreed ruefully, before taking a more optimistic line, “But I’ll be warm soon”.

Later, after a rather good fish and chip supper in one of the local restaurants, the route to our hotel took us past the extensive – and impressive – University of Leeds playing fields on Otley Road. A cricket match was under way behind the trees – a University 2nd XI match, we surmised – and so, just after nine o’clock, we sauntered up to the boundary edge to watch its conclusion.

Literally so, as it turned out. The first delivery we saw was swept behind square for four runs, at which point the players began shaking hands and walking off the ground towards the pavilion. The side batting second had successfully chased down their target of 164 with nearly 7 of their 20 overs to spare. All in all, therefore, it can be said that George and I did not see a great deal of cricketing action during this particular visit to Leeds. On the other hand, every delivery that we did see was struck to the boundary.

Friday’s wash-out was not helpful to Yorkshire’s bid to be placed in the top 3 of the North Group of this year’s Royal London One-Day Cup and thereby qualify for the knock-out stages. However, their cause has been aided by yesterday’s emphatic nine wicket win over Leicestershire in the same competition. There are only three more group matches left. Yorkshire will probably need to win all of them in order to reach the quarter-final.

Even if Yorkshire were to win both the T20 and 50-over competitions in 2018, their long-term mark would still be “below average”, such has been the general paucity of their one-day results over half a century. It would make for an interesting season though and for most supporters – who somehow sustain an unlikely combination of optimism and fatalism – that would be good enough.

The Conductor of the Orchestra

19th May 2018

Time flies. I am amazed to see that it is nearly 2½ years since I went to see the Glasgow Warriors play the Scarlets at Scotstoun Stadium in the group stage of the 2015-16 European Rugby Champions Cup.

On that occasion, my subsequent blog- “What’s in a Name?” 14th December 2015 (reproduced in Still An Ordinary Spectator) – did not go into detail aboutthe Warriors’ comfortable 43-6 win. Rather, its focus was on the name of the visitors, who had dropped the original Llanelli component several seasons earlier, notwithstanding its resonance across the rugby world. I was relieved to report that the team had been popularly known as the Scarlets long before the professional era started, when the modern branding managers were mere twinkles in their mothers’ eyes.

Over the last 18 months, the Scarlets have prospered. They won last year’s Guinness PRO12 competition by thrillingly defeating Munster in the final in Dublin. This season, they reached the semi-final of the European Cup before succumbing to Leinster.

For their part, Glasgow, whilst continuing to falter in the European arena, topped their half of this year’s Guinness PRO14, which, bolstered by two South African sides, was split into two Conferences for the regular season. This gave the Warriors the twin benefits of home advantage for yesterday’s semi-final (against the Scarlets) as well as a week off, when their opponents, who had come second in their Conference, had to defeat the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in a qualifying play-off.

Although there were sizeable pockets of Scarlets support, notably in Scotstoun’s expanded temporary West Stand, the bulk of the 10,000 crowd was biased in favour of the home side. Not surprisingly, of course – biased and colourful and noisy. The middle-aged lady next to me, with husband and two children in tow, was to contribute significantly to the volume with some sustained shrieking throughout the match.

After the Scarlets had taken the field, they were kept waiting for almost two minutes before Ryan Wilson sprinted through the long corridor of flag-waving camp followers to lead his side on to the pitch. The crowd, prompted by the mc and with the knowledge of Glasgow’s unbeaten PRO14 record at Scotstoun this season, roared with a combination of anticipation and intimidation as Finn Russell started the match with a high, hanging drop-kick.

The first minute provided a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole. Wilson made an illegal contact with the Scarlets winger, Tom Prydie, as the latter sought to take the kick-off. The penalty kick, close to the touch line, was then drilled 40 metres downfield by the visitors’ fly-half, Rhys Patchell. At the ensuing lineout, the experienced Scarlets captain, Ken Owens, nailed the throw-in expertly to the athletic Tadhg Beirne and the Scarlets retained possession of the ball. They had kept their composure and weathered the initial storm.

Later, when I watched the recording of the match on television, I noted what the respected Sky Sports analyst, Ieuan Evans, had said in commentary about the Wilson infringement: “Well actually, it’s not a bad penalty to give away. It shows an intent from Ryan Wilson… Very physical… Not prepared to allow any sort of space for the Scarlets and time to clear their decks”.

With due respect to the expert, I wasn’t so sure about this. In fact, I thought that it was a very poor penalty to give away. It meant that, rather than contesting for the ball on the opponents’ 22 line, Glasgow were immediately forced back to a defensive position deep in their own half, the penalty award – by definition – having given the Scarlets “time to clear the decks”. Three minutes later, after sustained Scarlets pressure, Patchell darted over from short range for the opening try. I suspect that, even at that point, some in the crowd had already begun to realise that the evening might not turn out as they had wished.

The Scarlets played the match at their tempo. On their line-out throw, the forwards would walk slowly to the mark, often keeping the Glasgow pack waiting in their turn, before there was a sudden flurry of activity and Owens unerringly hit his mark. In open play, it often seemed to be the opposite – unstructured, almost chaotic, and therefore risky – as the ball was kept alive and each player took responsibility for assessing the opportunities that might be available. Allied to this, however, was the consistent threat of the ball-handler being given two or three options by support runners taking different lines – an approach that Glasgow found difficult to contain. Their right-hand side defence was opened up twice more before the interval to produce tries for Gareth Davies and Rob Evans.

Patchell was the conductor of the orchestra. His initial kick for touch was only the first of a series of long pin-point punts from penalty awards, which gained huge amounts of ground without jeopardising the retention of possession for the Scarlets at the subsequent line-out. Benefiting from a swift and accurate service from Davies at scrum-half, Patchell was also dangerous in open play with his choice of running and passing options and his tactical kicking. It was no surprise when, a couple of minutes from the end of the game – by which time he had been replaced – he appeared on the large screen in the far corner of the ground: a deserved man-of-the-match.

Glasgow have been vulnerable all season to opponents deploying the driving maul from close-range line-outs: both the Exeter Chiefs and Leinster had success with this tactic during the European Champions Cup. The Scarlets, having done their homework, followed suit. Aided by Glasgow having a player in the sin-bin, the visiting forwards drove Owens over the line after 10 minutes of the second half to give their side, with Patchell’s fourth conversion, a 28-3 lead.

Perhaps inevitably, some of the crowd began to look for scapegoats. A dropped pass by one of the Glasgow centres brought a heavy groan and then a wayward chip from Russell was scathingly reviewed by my neighbour – “Take him off”, she yelled. However, the chief contender was the Irish referee, John Lacey, who, with one or two decisions – including (correctly) not allowing Glasgow tries claimed by George Horne and Jonny Gray – probably did not make himself the most popular man in the G14 postal district. I thought he had a good match, keeping a firm control and letting the play flow – and, not always the case with current referees, backing his own judgment with important decisions, rather than falling back on the comfort of a TMO referral.

Overall, however, the crowd stayed with their team and they were rewarded by two legitimate Glasgow tries in the last 20 minutes, when the usual army of replacements took the field and the Scarlets went off the boil. By this stage, the result was not in doubt and the Scarlets management team was probably already thinking ahead to the significant challenges that will be posed in next Saturday’s final – another encounter with Leinster, we now know – in Dublin.

One final observation on the Scotstoun crowd. After 10 minutes, the Scarlets captain, John Barclay, was helped from the field with a leg injury to take no further part in the match. If he does not recover in time for the final, this will have been his last Scarlets appearance, as he has joined Edinburgh Rugby for next season.

Barclay’s approach to the Main Stand was marked by a sustained round of loud applause, as the spectators paid proper tribute to a former Glasgow player, whose consistent excellence during five years in Llanelli had helped to restore him to the Scotland team (with its captaincy) after several seasons (perplexing to me) in the international wilderness. This season, Barclay has led his country to victories over Australia, France and England. It was sad to see him depart this particular stage in this manner, but also uplifting to see the crowd (literally) rise to the occasion.