News Blog

“Nos illuc in fine”

14th November 2022

If and when I am eventually raised to the House of Lords, I shall arrange for the motto of my coat of arms to read “Nos illuc in fine”. We get there in the end.

I suspect that there are many participants in the current Rugby League World Cup – players, coaches, administrators, spectators – who would recognise the sentiment. The tournament was originally scheduled for the Autumn of 2021, but was postponed midst much controversy and (between some) ill-feeling – see “Same Time Next Year (Perhaps)”, 19th November 2021. It has now completed the semi-final stage with Australia and Samoa scheduled to meet next Saturday at Old Trafford to decide the winners. (I shall focus here on the men’s tournament; there have been separate women’s and wheelchair events).

I wonder if, in retrospect, the tournament organisers might wonder if having 16 sides in the competition might have been too many. At the elite level, the sport’s talent is spread fairly thinly, notwithstanding the scope for “heritage” players in Australia and England opting to represent the countries of a parent or grandparent.

In the group stage of the tournament, there were a number of very one-sided matches. England racked up 94 points against Greece, whilst Tonga scored 92 against the Cook Islands and Australia 84 against Scotland. The sides at the bottom of the 4 groups played (and lost) a total of 12 games in the process of which they registered a total of 76 points, but conceded no fewer than 618: an average score-line of 6-51.

(I am prepared to acknowledge that there is a counter-argument suggesting that the countries in which the fledgling sport of rugby league has scope to grow and prosper might need to go through these painful rites of passage. In the group stage of the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup, played in South Africa, New Zealand defeated Japan by 145 points to 17. Whilst it is claimed by some that this result held back the development of the sport in Japan by many years, it was nonetheless the case that, by the time of the 2019 tournament (which Japan hosted), the home side had reached the standard at which it could defeat both Ireland and Scotland in the group stage and progress to the quarter-final).

As far as the current Rugby League World Cup is concerned, most pundits would have predicted Australia and New Zealand to take their places in the semi-final and this was indeed how it transpired. On Friday evening, I went to Elland Road in Leeds to watch these teams face off.

In advance of the match, I did wonder if Australia’s relatively trouble-free passage to this stage might act against them. In their four games (including the quarter-final against the Lebanon), they had registered 240 points – including 43 tries – and conceded only 18. By contrast, New Zealand had been battle-hardened in their compelling quarter-final match with Fiji, in which they only took the lead for the first time within the last 10 minutes.

I mentioned this when I fell into conversation with a middle-aged man wearing an Australian rugby shirt as we walked towards the ground before the match. “Do you fancy your chances?” I asked him. “I think Australia will win”, he replied in a broad Yorkshire accent. “New Zealand were a bit clunky in their last match”.

In the event, Australia were fully engaged from the opening kick-off and New Zealand were far from clunky. The tone was set in the latter’s haka, the amplified sound of which swept through the stands. Thereafter, from beginning to end, it was an absolutely pulsating encounter of unremitting action, high skill and physical confrontation. New Zealand took the lead after 10 minutes with Dylan Brown’s smartly judged cross-kick to the try-line, which Joseph Manu leapt to catch and pass back for Jahrome Hughes to gather and score.

We waited for the inevitable Kangaroo response. It came a few minutes later and was a try of absolute brilliance. The half-back-cum-hooker Ben Hunt sent a high 50 yard punt spiralling deep into New Zealand territory which Josh Addo-Carr, having sprinted down the left wing, caught on the full at full speed without breaking stride on his way to the try line. The kick was inch-perfect and Addo-Carr timed his arrival to meet it with absolute precision. As the winger walked back to take his place for the New Zealand re-start, I wondered how many long hours on the training field had been invested – by both kicker and recipient – in order to generate such a breath-taking outcome.

Both sides added tries before half-time, when New Zealand led 14-10. In the second half, the battle continued unabated with, on several occasions, the spectators around me gasping (or perhaps wincing) in astonishment – and admiration – at some of the physical challenges they were witnessing.

It was perhaps somewhat ironic, therefore, that Australia’s winning try was a relatively soft affair. Having been awarded what I thought was a contentious penalty 10 yards from the New Zealand line, the Australian captain, James Tedesco, instructed the playmaker Nathan Cleary to take a tap kick rather than an attempt at goal. Cleary duly did so and passed the ball to Cameron Murray, who charged through a couple of would-be tacklers to score under the posts. At the time, it seemed to have been an unexpected breach of the New Zealand defensive line; looking at the television replay later, it was clear that Tedesco, with a clinical assessment of the state of play, had sensed a vulnerability in his tiring opponents which his side could ruthlessly exploit. Cleary’s conversion made it 16-14 and, even though there were still over 25 minutes left to play, that turned out to be the final score.

In contrast with the ersatz Australian I had met earlier, the majority of the local supporters seemed to favour the New Zealanders. A chant of “Kiwi, Kiwi” rang round the ground in the closing minutes as the “neutral” locals realised that the players’ diminishing reserves of energy were approaching complete exhaustion. Australia held on, however, despite a couple of late scares, their status as tournament favourites vindicated.

It being 11th November, the traditional colours of the two sides’ shirts – green and gold, and black and white – were supplemented with the design of a poppy, in Australia’s case on one of the sleeves and for New Zealand on the chest. As it happened, earlier in the day, along with a couple of hundred other people – including the whole of the Kangaroos’ squad of players and staff – I had attended the short Remembrance Day service in Victoria Square, where the Leeds War Memorial is situated.

James Tedesco’s day had begun with him laying a wreath at the ceremony. By the end of the evening, he had led his side into the Rugby League World Cup final.

Welcome to Glasgow

21st October 2022

In 1992, I moved from London to take up a new job in Glasgow. Although I had a long-deceased grandmother who had been born in the city, any family connections had been lost in that part of the world. For me, it was a strange and unfamiliar place.

My new office colleagues had a range of soccer interests, which included, in one case, going down to Manchester every fortnight to watch United. When they learned that I hailed from Leeds, they revealed an impressive knowledge of the Elland Road sides of old. This was not surprising, given the number of Scots who had featured prominently in the Leeds teams of our formative soccer-watching years – Bremner, Lorimer, the Gray brothers, Harvey, McQueen, Jordan et al.

And then, in October, Glasgow Rangers met Leeds United in a two-legged tie in the European Cup.

In those days, it was only a country’s champion side that competed for European club football’s top prize. Rangers had lifted the Scottish title the previous year for the fourth consecutive time (in the unbroken run that would eventually end at nine). Leeds had taken the last of the (pre-Premier League) English First Division honours, heading off my colleague’s Old Trafford favourites by four points in the final league table of 1991-92.

Looking back from today’s perspective of the hugely bloated Champions League, it seems mildly incredible that one of these sides – both of which had lifted European silverware in their time – should face elimination in the season’s autumn. However, by this second round stage, there were only 16 teams left in the competition. (If I have understood the chronology correctly, it was at this season’s group stage that the rebranding to the UEFA Champions League took over).

The stage was set for the “Battle of Britain”. (Or perhaps another “BOB”, given that I recalled that the nomenclature had also been used for the epic Glasgow Celtic-Leeds United European Cup semi-final of 1970). And – after all this time, I’m still not at all sure how – someone in the office acquired the tickets for a group us all to go to the first leg, which was to be played at Ibrox Stadium.

Of course, in addition to having impressive European pedigrees, the two clubs had other – less savoury – reputational baggage, not least the presence of their hardcore hooligan elements. For this reason – plus the recognition that there would be an overwhelming demand for tickets for both games – it was decided that visiting supporters would not be allowed to attend either match.

We sat in the Govan Stand with its excellent view across the pitch. In the minutes leading up the kick-off, with the ground full – and no away support to disturb the proceedings – the intensity of the crowd’s expectations reached a fever pitch. This was no doubt partly due to the importance of the fixture. More pertinently, however, the fact was that over 43,000 Rangers supporters were gathered in the one place. The roar was absolutely deafening – one of the loudest I have ever heard at a sports stadium. The Sash and Billy Boys – the latter with reference to being “up to our knees in Fenian blood” – rang out around the ground.

I watched – and heard – all this with a bewildered astonishment. And I realised that my understanding of the city of Glasgow – or, at least, of one half of it – was increasing apace.

More drama followed immediately. Within a minute of the kick off, on their first attack, the visitors won a corner on their right. The ball came into the Rangers penalty area and was headed out to the Leeds captain, Gary McAllister. In a textbook demonstration of the skill – angling his body, taking his weight on his non-striking leg and keeping his head over the ball – McAllister volleyed the ball into the top corner of the Rangers net.

In its own right, it was undoubtedly one of the best goals I had ever seen. However, in the context of the occasion, it was – literally – breath-taking. (In An Ordinary Spectator, I listed the McAllister goal amongst my “First XI of Sporting Nano-dramas” that I had witnessed during half a century of sports spectating).

The Leeds players mobbed McAllister to the sound of the proverbial pin dropping somewhere in the ground. Or, at least, it would have been, had not the goal elicited a joyful response from a small knot of Leeds United supporters – probably no more than a dozen altogether – further down the stand on my right-hand side.

This only added to the home supporters’ grief. Not only had their side fallen behind before the opening skirmishes had been properly engaged – and conceded a precious away goal into the bargain – but the sanctity of the ground had been invaded by those who were not welcome. There was a rising chorus of vitriolic hostility towards the Leeds supporters, who, after obviously concealing their identity in order to gain entrance to the ground, were now completely open in their allegiance. I thought it wise to keep my counsel: not a hard decision, if I’m honest.

To their credit, Rangers kept their composure and recovered well. They had a fair sprinkling of big match players – Richard Gough, Ally McCoist, Mark Hateley – who, after the early setback, did not panic, but calmly and professionally set about trying to turn things around. They were aided by Ian Durrant – the best player on the pitch – who shaded his midfield duel with the aggressive David Batty and, most noticeably, consistently used the possession that came his way intelligently and efficiently. The action around him was frenetic, but he did not waste a pass.

Roared on by the home support, Rangers had taken the lead by half-time, courtesy of a John Lukic own-goal and a timely demonstration of McCoist’s close-range predatory instincts. As there were no further goals in the second half – a fiercely contested affair conducted against an unrelenting cacophony of sound, the noise seemingly amplified by the acoustics of the stadium – the tie was left tantalisingly poised (at 2-1 to Rangers) in advance of the Elland Road re-match two weeks later.

In the event, the Glasgow side progressed into the next stage of the competition with something to spare. Hateley scored an early goal from long range in the second leg and, on the hour mark, laid on another for McCoist, leaving Leeds well beaten. The Elland Road faithful had to settle for a late consolation goal by Eric Cantona (who, three weeks later, became a Manchester United player).

Following the completion of the tie, back in the office, I took it like a man. My half-hearted protestations – “I’m more a rugby follower, really” – cut no ice at all with the McCoist and Durrant supporters. Meanwhile, the Celtic contingent amongst my colleagues kept their own counsel whilst, I sensed, at the same time being seriously aggrieved that Leeds had not done them the obvious favour.

The 1992 “Battle of Britain” really did feature some of the best British players of the era. In addition to the names already checked, the contest involved Trevor Steven and Gordon Strachan, Andy Goram and Gary Speed, Stuart McColl and David Rocastle… Only Cantona and the Rangers substitute, Pieter Huistra, were foreign internationals. In this respect – as with the concurrent farewells to both the old-style European Cup and the English First Division – the match does now seem to represent the end of an era.

I am bound to fall back on a reference I have used before (most recently in “The Coronavirus provides a reminder”, 2nd May 2020) from H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. The author reflects on an incongruous visit made to a high school (American) 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 football, but… their understanding of America by the end of the game will be absolute whether they realise it or not”.

By the time I got home that evening, my understanding of Glasgow – and Scotland – had certainly been enhanced.

October 21st1992. Thirty years ago today.

Even Longer Times Between Visits – Part 2

18th August 2022

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

On Sunday afternoon, I beat the record again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlikely, but not impossible.

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

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

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

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

Even Longer Times Between Visits – Part 1

17th August 2022

“On my first (and only) visit to what was then called Wheldon Road, I was both mystified and disconcerted by what seemed to be a huge expanse of soap bubbles stretching out by the side of one of the neighbouring roads, the locals either ignoring it or walking through and around it. Looking back, I assume that it was something to do with the discharges from one of the local chemical or other industrial sites: at the time, it was something from another – and harsher – world than the boy from suburban north Leeds was used to”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, page
58].

In “A Long Time Between Visits” (15th July 2018), I reported on going to watch a Keighley Cougars home rugby league match with the Oldham Roughyeds. I noted that it was my first visit to that particular ground – named the Cougar Stadium since 1991, but known before that as Lawkholme Lane – since September 1965, a gap of 52 years and 10 months. 52 years and 298 days to be precise.

Last Friday evening, I beat that record, when I attended the Castleford Tigers versus Catalan Dragons Super League encounter at what is now called The Mend-a-Hose Jungle in Castleford. On the occasion of my only previous visit – in April 1965 for a Top 16 Championship play-off match between Castleford and Hunslet – the ground had again been known simply by its location: Wheldon Road. That was 57 years and 110 days ago. (For clarity, this is not just the period that has elapsed since my first visit to the ground; it is also the length of time since my last visit).

My excursions in the mid-1960s to watch Hunslet’s away fixtures took place within a relatively narrow window of a couple of years. In addition to the matches in Keighley and Castleford, there were trips to Belle Vue, Fartown and Craven Park – the home grounds of Wakefield Trinity, Huddersfield and Hull Kingston Rovers, respectively. In addition, there were the local fixtures at Bramley and Leeds and, not least, a Challenge Cup tie in February 1964 at the Mount Pleasant ground of Batley (of which more tomorrow).

This was a period in which my Uncle Bob – a keen motorist and a fearless navigator in foreign parts – shared my father’s support for the Hunslet team with some enthusiasm and adopted the role of more-than-willing chauffeur. (My father and I also saw a fixture at the Blackpool Borough ground in August 1967, when we happened – by coincidence, I’m sure – to be on the west coast for a family holiday). It was a relatively short-lived phase, however, though not from any diminution of interest on my uncle’s part. By the autumn of 1966, I had entered grammar school and selection for the Under 13s XV – rugby union, of course – limited my availability for sports spectating on Saturday afternoons.

As noted above, my principal recollection of the first trip to Castleford was the disconcerting sight of the “huge expanse of soap bubbles” that was evident in some of the streets in the town itself, about which the local inhabitants appeared to be totally indifferent. I was subsequently to learn that this was not an uncommon sight in the Castleford of that time and resulted from the volume of detergents that the local industrial processes had deposited into the town’s River Aire.

I do not recollect much about the 1965 match itself other than that the visitors gave a below-par performance and that Castleford won quite easily – by 18-7, as the records show. (It would have been understandable, perhaps, if the Hunslet team had had half an eye on their forthcoming Wembley appearance – two weeks later – in the Challenge Cup final against Wigan). However, I do recall that we were seated in the upper tier of the Main Stand and that my views of the pitch were hindered by the series of horizontal metal bars that were placed on the tier’s balcony at the foot of each of the rows of steps that led further back into the stand.

On Friday, my walk from the railway station to the ground took me through Henry Moore Square – named after the town’s most famous son. The square is dominated by the solid red-brick building of the former Castleford and Allerton Mutual Industrial Society – “Established 1871” – from which a series of large colourful flags proudly denoted both the modern town and its origins as a Roman army settlement, Lagentium. On the other side of the road are a couple of desperate box buildings from the 1960s or 1970s: sad intrusions in a public space named in honour of a creative genius.

It was a warm evening, following several days on which the temperature had hovered around the 30 degree mark, but this didn’t seem to dissuade the customers ordering their burgers and chips from one of the temporary retail outlets lined up in the busy area behind the Main Stand. At the end of the row, in the beer tent, an informal panel discussion featured three Castleford players from the 1980s and 1990s – Lee Crooks, Bob Beardmore and Graham Steadman – who, between them, represented the club on over 750 occasions. I listened for a while before returning to the burger van and ordering a tea.

You want a what?” responded the girl behind the counter with an undisguised – and apparently genuine – incredulity. “In this weather?”

I replied that drinking tea could help you to cool down. (I could have mentioned the afternoon rituals of the British in India, but didn’t). The girl was not persuaded.

The Castleford-Catalan match had promised to be a close affair, as the previous occasion on which the sides had met at the Jungle, earlier in the season, had only been decided in Castleford’s favour by a single-point drop-goal in sudden-death extra time. At the start of the evening, I judged that, at fourth place in the league table, Catalan were fairly safe in securing a top 6 play-off place in the quest for the Super League title. However, Castleford, although only one place behind the visitors, were six points adrift of them and in a scrap with four other sides for the two remaining play-off berths.

It was predictably hard-fought game. Both sides scored two tries, but the Castleford goal-kicker, Gareth O’Brien, added three penalties to his two conversions, whereas the Catalan touchdowns went unconverted. I thought that the home side’s victory owed much to the controlled aggression of their defensive effort: there were three occasions in the first half when the impact of the tackle legitimately dislodged the ball from the Catalan attacker’s grasp close to the Castleford try-line and, again, after the interval, their defensive systems remained resilient in the face of sustained pressure from the visitors. 18-8 was the final outcome.

I could be confident that my seat for the match on Friday was on the same side of the ground as it had been in 1965 as the Main Stand is the only one with seating. I had an old-fashioned solid wooden tip-up seat in the lower tier – about six rows from the front near the half-way line behind the visitors’ dug-out – and it gave an excellent view of proceedings, particularly after the setting sun had fallen below the junction of the roofs of the stands in the far corner. (I was aware that this lower tier had not been a seating area in 1965: Trevor Delaney’s The Grounds of Rugby League, published in 1991, notes that it had been a standing room paddock with the seats not being installed until 1970).

After the game, I went up into the upper tier, where the seating is now of the modern plastic tip-up variety. The horizontal metal bars – their supports embedded in a wooden base – are still there. For confirmation, I asked an elderly steward – who had earlier kindly escorted me all the way to my seat – how long he thought the bars might have been in place: “decades” was his reply. I cast my eye along the rows of seats three or four places back and, with a frisson of recognition, pictured my 10 year-old self looking out on to the pitch and watching Alan Hardisty and Geoff Gunney in action.

Trevor Delaney refers to the “comprehensive improvements” that were made at Wheldon Road in the period after my first visit. But his authoritative work was published over 30 years ago, of course, and time has moved on. An article in the August 2022 edition of the excellent Roar – the Castleford Tigers’ official monthly magazine – quotes Mark Grattan, the club’s Managing Director: “It has long been recognised that Wheldon Road needs a serious upgrade”.

Plans are in place. Currently, there is a formal consultation process on the proposals for a comprehensive overhaul of the stadium, the club’s planning application for which (to Wakefield Council) is – crucially – in partnership with a firm of real estate developers which also seeks permission for a separate “new employment development” at the Castleford junction of the M62.

I doubt that the wooden tip-ups seats or the metal bars will survive the overhaul. But, having enjoyed my visit to Wheldon Road on Friday, I hope that, in seeking to meet Mr Grattan’s wish “to significantly improve the experience for supporters”, the re-designed ground also maintains the intimate atmosphere of the current version.

I walked back through Henry Moore Square to the railway station in the knowledge that the Wheldon Road ground/The Mend-a-Hose Jungle of Castleford Tigers RLFC had attained a new (strictly personal) record: 57 years and 110 days.

And then, on Sunday, I went to Batley.

A More-than-useful Outfit

30th July 2022

New Zealand were too streetwise and professional and, quite clearly, more skilful. Scotland batted first and made a modest total and New Zealand easily reached the target by mid-afternoon. It was a pleasant half day in the sunshine in the company of a couple of friends from Milngavie, but the result was never in doubt and, by tea time, we were in one of the pubs near Haymarket station watching the soccer play-off match from Wembley between Watford and Bolton Wanderers, from which the former emerged to take that season’s final promotion place into the Premiership”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, page 272].

These are difficult times for Cricket Scotland, the sport’s governing body north of the border. Last Sunday, its Board resigned en masse in advance of the publication the following day of an independent report, commissioned by Sports Scotland, which concluded that the body was “institutionally racist”. This was an unfortunate prelude to my long-anticipated visit – with friends – to the attractive Grange cricket ground in Edinburgh yesterday for the second of two T20 games between Scotland and New Zealand. However, this is likely to be my only attendance at a cricket match this year and so I shall concentrate on the action on the field.

The two encounters are of some significance for both sides, given their participation in the T20 World Cup in Australia in October/November. New Zealand’s preparation for the tournament has already included the three matches played in Ireland last week (along with three 50-over One Day Internationals) with more to come in the Netherlands and the West Indies next month before they host a T20 Tri-Series involving Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For Scotland, the build-up to the World Cup has been somewhat different. The matches against New Zealand constitute this year’s only games in this format prior to meeting the West Indies in their opening Group B fixture of the tournament in Hobart. Instead, their efforts have been focused on the 7-team ICC Cricket World Cup League 2 – a long drawn-out competition played over 3½ years – from which the top three sides will go through to the (50 over) 2023 World Cup Qualifier tournament in Zimbabwe next summer. (Scotland are currently well-placed at second in the table behind Oman with a large number of games in hand).

I had seen Scotland play New Zealand at the Grange before. The extract from An Ordinary Spectator – given above – reported on the Group fixture in the 1999 World Cup. Given the sides’ current rankings in T20 cricket – New Zealand 5th, Scotland 16th – there was obviously some risk of a similar mismatch. (New Zealand had won the first fixture on Wednesday by 68 runs).

And, indeed, this is what transpired. New Zealand registered 103 in their first 10 overs and 151 in their second to post a total of 254 for 5, their record score in a T20 fixture. The core of the innings was an impressive 83 by Mark Chapman, which was supplemented by a series of belligerent innings from the middle-order, notably Michael Bracewell, whose 61 from 25 deliveries came after he had been dropped – a straightforward chance – before he had opened his account.

The Scotland captain, Richie Berrington, marshalled his troops with some imagination, changing the bowling after virtually every over, and Mark Watt took three fine catches in the outfield. However, the dominant features of the New Zealand innings were the cleanliness of the batsmen’s striking – there were a total of 18 sixes in the innings, most of which cleared the boundaries by some margin – allied to the skilful placement of the strokes along the ground.

Incidentally, the T20 format of the game does seem to have dispensed with the traditional concept of a batsman “playing himself in”. Finn Allen, the New Zealand opener who had scored a century in the previous fixture, deposited his first ball into the trees behind us at long-on (though he was dismissed four deliveries later).

The Scotland supporters’ spirits were raised when George Munsey struck three fine off-side boundaries in the first over of the reply. However, he was out shortly afterwards, one of two wickets in the over bowled by Jimmy Neesham, whom I had seen playing in my last cricket-spectating encounter – for the Welsh Fire in “The Hundred” at Headingley last summer (“Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 2”, 28th July 2021). When a run out then reduced Scotland to 37 for 4 in the fifth over, the game was effectively done and dusted. There was some resistance from Chris Greaves, who made 37, but the Scotland innings drifted to its conclusion at 152 for 9. A win for New Zealand by 102 runs.

I trust that Cricket Scotland will have judged that the occasion had been a success. An entertaining match had been watched by a capacity crowd – a diverse capacity crowd, note – that had fully respected the efforts of both sides. I sensed that, whilst most might have been disappointed at the margin of Scotland’s defeat, they would also have recognised that their opponents were a more-than-useful outfit (which will be strengthened even further for the World Cup by the likes of Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Trent Boult).

Afterwards, we walked along the path next to the Water of Leith and then up into the city centre. Our conversation drifted – the attractiveness of the housing in this formerly industrial part of town, the health of another of our friends, the short-listed candidates for the Conservative Party leadership… Normal life, really – in which an afternoon in the warm sunshine watching the cricket had been a very pleasant part.

Match Programmes

29th June 2022

“We might easily scoff at the naivety or crassness of some of the adverting lines and programme notes of half a century ago. That is not my intention… Rather, it is to make the serious point that the match programmes of the 1960s were products of their times. They reflected – and were influenced by – the cultural norms of the era”.

[The Rugby League Journal, Spring
2014, reproduced in Still An Ordinary Spectator, page 70].

It is now exactly one year since I resumed my sports-watching career – at the Ukraine versus Sweden Euro2020 match at Hampden Park in Glasgow – following the various lockdowns and cancellations necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, I have been to about a dozen different types of event. These have ranged from the relatively small scale (amateur rugby league and women’s football) through to national tournaments (cycling and badminton) and international competition (World Championship Boxing as well as Euro2020).

One noticeable feature of the spectator “experience” over this period has struck me: the reduced availability of printed match programmes.

The paper-based souvenir of the event has not been totally absent: a traditional scorecard at the Yorkshire/Surrey 50-over One Day Cup cricket match; the 1-page typed team sheets at the Hunslet/Keighley and Edinburgh Eagles/York Acorn rugby league games and the 4-page summary sheet of teams, fixtures and Club President’s welcome for the West of Scotland/Howe of Fife rugby union fixture. There was also a Euro2020 tournament brochure available at Hampden.

But that’s all. There were no printed match or tournament programmes available at the much-hyped Northern Superchargers/Welsh Fire cricket encounters (men’s and women’s) in “The Hundred” at Headingley, the Glasgow City/Servette match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League at the Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld, the Scottish Badminton tournament at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, the world title boxing bout between Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro or the Edinburgh Academical/Currie Chieftains rugby union match at Raeburn Place in the Scottish Premiership.

I can understand some of the reasons for this. In the period immediately following the relaxation of Covid-19 rules, there was an understandable reluctance amongst many to be exposed to the handling of materials with which they were not familiar. This was – and, to some extent, still is – the era of hand-sanitising and the reluctance to touch.

Another factor is that the technology has continued to move on apace: a growing proportion of us – though not everyone, it has to be said – satisfy our immediate information requirements by accessing the phone or the tablet or the watch. Interestingly, when I enquired about match programmes at both the Scottish Badminton tournament and the Edinburgh/Currie rugby match, I was referred to the screens on the walls inside the Emirates Arena and the clubhouse at Raeburn Place, respectively.

In addition, the absence of paper match programmes is consistent with the powerful zeitgeist of reducing the consumption of the earth’s resources, albeit that wood-based products are not finite as the raw material can be harvested. And, not least, not having to produce programmes represents a saving in the costs and time required in the preparation for the match or tournament by the hosts.

Of these reasons, the post-Covid rationale is obviously a new factor that was not present before the pandemic. The others represent the continuation of underlying trends that had been evident for some time. Still, I think the reduced availability of the match programme is a shame – again for several reasons.

First of all – notwithstanding the technical alternatives – it is a readily accessible source of information. When attending a sports fixture, I like to know the names of the individual participants in front of me – even the one-page team-sheet will suffice in that respect – and if this is supplemented by some background material (biographical details, a league table, a fixture list…) so much the better.

The provision of information is principally an immediate requirement: something I need on the day. The second benefit of the match programme is of a medium or longer-term nature: it provides (along with the paper match ticket, another disappearing feature) a souvenir for future reference.

It is here that I think the promotors of sports events are missing a trick, particularly for those events at which they are seeking to attract “new” audiences. Two of those listed above stand out: the Hundred cricket fixtures at Headingley (which, as noted, included a women’s match) and the UEFA Women’s Champions League game in Cumbernauld. These events will have been witnessed by a significant number of spectators who were attending such fixtures for the first time – and who, from my casual observation of both these occasions, will have enjoyed the experience – but who had nothing to show for it afterwards (unless they were persuaded to invest in a highly priced replica shirt, of course).

This second reason merges over time into a third, which is more specialised and about which I have written before (“Windows Into the Past” and “The Parksider” in the Spring 2014 and Summer 2019 editions, respectively, of the Rugby League Journal). It is the value of match programmes as social records in their own right: as reference points for future cultural historians.

In the former article, I noted the naïve request in the Bradford Northern Supporters Club Notes in a match programme for a fixture in 1966: “We are appealing once again for young ladies to put forward their names for Miss Bradford Northern. Last season the entries were very disappointing to say the least”. A year earlier, the Warrington programme welcomed the two Hull wingers: “Barry and Clive Sullivan are coloured boys from Cardiff’s Tiger Bay”. [It should actually have been “Brian and
Clive Sullivan…”]. There are other examples on which I could draw, but the key point – emphasised in the quote at the beginning of this essay – is that they reflected the cultural norms of the era and stand as part of the record of that time.

The final reason is a more personal one, indeed more selfish. It reflects the interest of the sports participant himself or herself by recognising that there is a pleasure to be gained by seeing one’s own name in the printed list of the players on show.

In my case, the modesty of my playing career(s) has produced a relatively small sample – a schools’ rugby fixture and a few club cricket games – but the relevant match programmes are dutifully (and proudly) stored with the remainder of my collection. Not that the details were always correct. One of the scorecards for a Saltaire CC match in the Bradford League in 1975 refers to one “Jack Rigg”. No-one had ever called me by that name up to that point – but “Jack” it was for my team-mates for the rest of the season.

I readily acknowledge – not for the first time – that I am heading against the general direction of travel. It’s partly a generational thing, I suspect: a realisation that that which was comfortable and familiar in the days (and years) past is now falling prey to the changes – technological, social, economic – that govern the world around us. Indeed, I have been here relatively recently on a related theme (“Batsmen and Batters”, October 2021).

In the case of match programmes, there is perhaps one consolation. The great writer Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore”. As far as I am aware, Twain was not a trained economist, but he was canny enough to recognise that, when the supply of a commodity is fixed or reduced, a rise in demand will lead to an increased price. Who knows what will happen to the demand for old match programmes – as investments or as historical records – as general wear and tear (and casual disposal) reduces the stock and the supply of replacements dries up? I would be wise to hang on to my collection, I think.

Five Steps to WG Grace 

13th April 2022

In my student summers of the mid-1970s, I played three half-seasons for Saltaire CC in the Bradford League. In the first of these, when we were in the First Division, I opened the batting in the away fixture at Bowling Old Lane CC.

The opposition’s opening bowler was Harold Rhodes – ex Derbyshire and England – by then in his late 30s, but still a formidable proposition. It was a seamer’s wicket. I battled for an hour and made 12; it is one of the innings of which I am most proud.

Although Rhodes had made his first-class debut in 1953, it was three years later that he took his maiden “five-for” in Yorkshire’s second innings at Chesterfield to snatch a 6-run victory for the home side. The Yorkshire captain that season was Mr WHH Sutcliffe – son of the great Herbert – the penultimate amateur skipper of the White Rose county.

Billy Sutcliffe averaged a modest 26 runs per innings in his 10 year first-class career, but he did make a big hundred – 181 – against Kent at Canterbury in 1952. His partner in a 201-run stand for the fourth wicket was someone whose career average turned out to be somewhat higher, aided by his own score of 120 in Yorkshire’s innings victory: Len Hutton.

Hutton made his debut for Yorkshire as a 17 year-old in 1934. In July of that year, against Gloucestershire at Bristol, he made 39 in the first innings and was run out for nought in the second (a fate he had also suffered in his very first match at Fenner’s against Cambridge University two months earlier). In the opposition’s ranks was the 51 year-old Charlie Parker, who retired the following year as Gloucestershire’s all-time wicket-taker – a record he still holds – his left-arm spin claiming 3,170 victims at under 20 apiece over 32 years. Parker took five of these wickets in Yorkshire’s second innings to set his side up for a nine-wicket win.

Over 30 years earlier – in 1903 – when Parker played for Gloucestershire in a first-class match against London County at the Crystal Palace Park, he was unable to prevent one of the opposition batsmen scoring 150 in the first innings, the same player having earlier taken six Gloucestershire wickets. This was WG Grace no less – then aged 54 – who, not surprisingly, was the central figure (secretary, manager and captain) in the London set-up during its short lifespan as a first-class entity (from 1900 to 1904).

Grace began his career with Gloucestershire in 1870. Six years later, he registered 318 not out against Yorkshire at Cheltenham College. Until 2004 (when it was overhauled by Craig Spearman), this stood as the highest individual score for the county. It remains the highest against their opponents.

The daisy chain reaches from the mid-1970s to the mid-1870s. My journey back to WG Grace has taken five steps. It has picked up a club cricketer, a county stalwart, amateur captain(s), test-match players, all-time greats…

It is a history of the game.

Shane Warne

8th March 2022

“We returned to our seats just as the Australians were taking the field for the afternoon session. They did so through a guard of honour made at the boundary edge by a group of disabled cricketers, dressed in their whites, who had given a demonstration of their skills on the outfield during the break. This was a courageous group – including some blind and some with missing limbs – and they formed two lines to welcome the Australians as Gilchrist led his team on to the ground. Most of the Australians jogged or walked straight through the disabled players’ tunnel, clearly focusing on their immediate tasks when play resumed, though Gilchrist held out a large wicketkeeping glove to the player at the end of one of the lines. The last player out was Shane Warne, who stopped and went slowly along one of the lines, shaking hands with everyone in it. I found this incredibly moving. Good on you, mate, I thought”.

[An Ordinary Spectator,
page 295]

Shane Warne died on Friday at the age of 52. I saw him play for Australia at Headingley in the Ashes Test matches of 1993, 1997 and 2001 and in a World Cup group match against South Africa in 1999.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, in the one-day match, South Africa’s sizeable total would have been even larger had it not been for Warne’s “impressively tight and controlled bowling” in the middle of the innings – he took 2 for 33 from 10 overs, by far the most economical bowling on the day. Australia had to win the match to stay in the competition, which they duly did thanks to a century by the captain Steve Waugh (and an infamous dropped catch by Herschelle Gibbs). Australia won the World Cup by defeating Pakistan at Lord’s a week later.

It’s probably true to say that Headingley was not Warne’s happiest Test match hunting ground. He took a total of 3 wickets there – which was 3 more than the runs he scored in his two innings. No matter. The 2001 Test is principally remembered for Mark Butcher’s match-winning innings of 173 not out for England on the final day. However, for me, the most striking memory from this match – noted above – is from the end of the lunch break on the Saturday.

145 Test Matches. 708 Test Match Wickets. 3,145 Test Match Runs. 125 Test Match Catches.

Shane Warne 1969-2022. RIP.

Plan B

7th March 2022

It had been some time since I had seen a match in the Scottish Professional Football League (Annan Athletic vs Elgin City in January 2020) and even longer since a game in the Scottish Premiership (Hearts vs St Mirren in November 2019), so on Saturday I travelled to Easter Road in Edinburgh for the encounter between two clubs – Hibernian and St Johnstone – that I had not previously viewed in the flesh.

The Scottish league season is three-quarters of the way through. At the start of play, Hibs were in 5th place in the league table and one of no fewer than six teams covered by only four points between 4th and 9th. With only 4 matches to play before the “split” into the top and bottom 6s (for the last 5 games), there was clearly an intense battle to secure a place in the upper tier and, possibly, a qualification for one of next season’s European competitions.

St Johnstone were not part of that group. Following last year’s success in securing both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup, this season has been a disappointment. The side began the day second from bottom in the table, some 7 points adrift of third-from-bottom Aberdeen. Their main objective for the remainder of the season would appear to be avoiding ending up right at the foot of the table (in the place occupied by Dundee, one point behind with a game in hand), which would bring automatic relegation. Second-from-bottom would secure a hazardous play-off tie against one of the Championship sides.

On the train journey across from Glasgow to Edinburgh, the other seats at my table and all four seats at the one across the aisle were taken by a group of St Johnstone supporters: young lads, perhaps aged 15 to 17 or 18. Their chosen beverages included alcoholic and energy drinks and they were loud and, at times, uncouth, but the aggression of the main protagonists was directed at others within the group, rather than outsiders such as me. Towards the end of the journey, when I engaged those seated at my table in conversation, we had a pleasant chat about football and sport in general. The lad opposite me said that he didn’t know much about cricket, but was aware that a famous cricketer (Shane Warne) had died the day before. He was also impressed that Hibernian had priced his ticket at just £5: good for the club, I agreed, if it were seeking to boost attendance by younger supporters.

My intention had been to secure my entrance to the match at a visit to the ticket office just outside the ground. To my surprise, it was locked when I tried the door. On enquiring with a nearby steward, I was told that the game had sold out. It was not just the Under 18s who were paying £5 for a ticket; apart from those in the hospitality boxes, everybody was. After walking to the other end of the ground, I asked another steward whether there were any returned tickets on sale. “You could try the ticket office”, she replied. I knew then that my anticipated afternoon of watching Hibernian vs St Johnstone would have to wait for another day.

Of course, I do have a track record for attempted sports-watching that has gone slightly awry. The washed-out days at cricket matches are understandable. Less so, perhaps, attempting to watch a rugby union fixture in Bristol at the wrong ground, with the game already having been postponed, and with the added bonus of risking life and limb to cross a busy highway in the process (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator).

Fortunately, on Saturday, there was still time for a Plan B. And a good one it was too. A £10 taxi ride took me across the city from Easter Road to Inverleith in plenty of time before the match between Edinburgh Academical and the Currie Chieftains in the Scottish Premiership – rugby union (sponsored by Tennent’s) rather than football (sponsored by Cinch).

I had been meaning to visit Raeburn Place for some time. As I have reported before – “The First Rugby International”, 27th March 2021 – the ground has a unique place in the history of the sport as it was the venue for the Scotland vs England encounter in 1871 that commenced the 150-plus years of international rugby. I had previously been informed that there was a stone monument in the grounds to commemorate the event. What better opportunity to seek it out.

I made enquiries about this in the clubhouse before the game when I button-holed one of the club’s members, who turned out to be Paul Arnold, the captain of the Third XV. He introduced me to the club secretary, John Wright. Like me, John is an exiled Yorkshireman – in his case, from Bradford – and we had a great discussion about the fierce club rugby that was played in that county in the 1970s. Paul told me that he wasn’t exactly sure where the monument was, but, from our vantage point on the balcony of the impressive clubhouse, he pointed out the general area on the far side of the grounds that he thought to be the most likely.

I have to say that, although both Paul and John were in demand from other club members in the remaining minutes before the kick-off, they were both hugely supportive in their responses to the slightly odd request made by a complete stranger. I was left with the strong impression of a welcoming and friendly rugby club.

For both sides, the match was the last one in the regular Premiership season prior to the Top-4 play-offs. As Currie had already emphatically secured the top spot and, likewise, the home side were already guaranteed of at least 4th position, it might have been supposed that this was something of a dead rubber.

That was certainly not the case. There was a full commitment from both teams with the visitors taking the early initiative, when a powerful forward surge brought a try for Gregor Nelson. The Accies responded when a long flat pass from fly-half Vincent Hart put the second-row forward Struan Whittaker on a try-scoring run, only for Currie to retake the lead and head into half-time up by 12-7. Thereafter, Currie were always in control of the match, taking leads of 19-7 and 24-10 before two late home tries narrowed the final score to 24-20. The forward battle was an interesting one: Currie had by far the better of the line-outs until late in the game, whereas the Accies’ ascendancy in the scrum became more pronounced as the second half progressed. I thought that the game’s most influential player was the Currie flank forward and captain Fergus Scott who, in addition to his tackling stint, provided regular examples of skilful link play in his handling of the ball.

I must admit to having missed Currie’s third try early in the second half. At that stage, I was some distance from the pitch on the far side of the Edinburgh Academical sports ground searching for a stone monument in the general area that Paul Arnold had suggested. I met with success. The writing – in upper case – on the stone is not easy to discern, but I can confirm that it reads:

1871 1971

TO COMMEMORATE THE FIRST

INTERNATIONAL MATCH IN THE

WORLD UNDER RUGBY RULES

PLAYED AT RAEBURN PLACE

EDINBURGH IN 1871 BETWEEN

SCOTLAND & ENGLAND

The monument is currently at the edge of a large pile of rubble on which, on this occasion, a group of small children were playing. I do hope that, at some stage, it might be recovered and given its proper prominence nearer to the clubhouse so that the Raeburn Place site can combine the modernity of its splendid clubhouse with this reference to its rich history.

The result of the Edinburgh Academical-Currie match means that the final placings of the (rugby union) Premiership’s Top-4 have been decided. One of the semi-finals in three weeks’ time will be hosted by Currie at their Malleny Park home ground in Balerno – when the visitors will be Edinburgh Academical FC.

Meanwhile, as the rugby match was coming to a close, Hibernian and St Johnstone were playing out a 0-0 draw at Easter Road. The lads from Perth would probably have been pleased with the outcome, although Dundee’s draw at Motherwell means that it is status quo at the foot of the (football) Premiership table.

Southpaws

28th February 2022

I had had some previous experience of being a sports spectator at boxing events – the Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Boxing Matches of 1977 and 1979 to be precise, as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – but that had been a long time ago and, of course, those contests featured amateur combatants. Last Saturday evening was somewhat different: Josh Taylor versus Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro in Glasgow.

This was a fight for the Super Lightweight World Championship with Taylor’s WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles – acquired at various times over the last three years – all on the line. In other words – cutting through the alphabet soup – the winner would be the undisputed world champion at the weight limit of 140 pounds (10 stones or 63.5 kg). It was the first time that all 4 versions of a championship title had been at stake at a fight in Britain.

Although Catterall was the more experienced professional boxer – and unbeaten in 26 fights over 10 years – Taylor was the clear pre-bout favourite. On the morning of the fight, the bookmakers’ odds on his win were 14 to 1 on, compared with the challenger’s price of 13 to 2 against: a marked difference for a two-horse race. Moreover, Taylor – also undefeated in an 18-bout professional career since winning a gold medal (in the Hydro) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – had the anticipated advantage of a vociferous home support, given his Prestonpans birthplace. Catterall, from Chorley in Lancashire, knew that he was entering hostile territory.

The Taylor-Catterall fight was one of no fewer than 11 on the card. The first bout was in the early evening, but the main protagonists were not scheduled to “ringwalk” until 10pm – as determined by the satellite television schedule, of course. Moreover, in what I gather is the normal way, the final details of the running order on the undercard were not announced until Saturday morning, apart from the Featherweight contest between Roseisy Ramirez of Cuba and the Irishman, Eric Donovan.

I took up my seat – an excellent view from the front row of the second tier – at about half past five, by which time the first fight had already taken place. Although there were perhaps only a couple of hundred spectators in the arena at that time – like me, no doubt, determined to get full value for money (in my case for a £60 ticket and £22.44 in other charges) – it was noticeable that the noise level was already high, principally in support of the Irish Super Welterweight, Keiron Molloy, who won his first professional fight in the second round. I asked myself what the volume would be like for the main contest, when the Hydro’s full 11,000+ capacity – many lubricated by a lengthy session of beer consumption – was in place.

The dramatis personae of the undercard performed in front of us: a combination of the inexperienced taking their first steps on the professional ladder and the occasional journeyman pugilist. This contrast was evident in the Cruiserweight contest between Scott Forest, also in his first professional fight, and Erik Nazaryan, a veteran from Georgia with a 49 per cent success rate from 57 previous contests: the former won when his opponent retired in the second round.

There was certainly a variety in the fights on offer. There were impressive wins for Bilal Fawaz and John Docherty, respectively a Middleweight and Super Middleweight, the latter with the only straight knock-out of the evening in overcoming Jordan Grant. In the only women’s contest, Ebonie Jones, in her second professional fight, and the 40 year-old Effy Kathopouli stood toe-to-toe and slogged it out for 6 rounds: the draw was a fair result, I thought.

Later, two Glaswegians, Nick Campbell and Jay McFarlane, disputed the Scottish Heavyweight title that had lain vacant for over 70 years. Campbell seemed to take control in the 6th round with a succession of head shots that, somehow, McFarlane – at just under 20 stones and attired in a kilt – managed to walk through. McFarlane then launched a spirited counter-attack to the accompanying support of the growing numbers in the crowd. However, when Campbell launched another fusillade in the next round – and McFarlane again remained upright – the referee stepped in to end the contest. The general consensus around me was that this had not been before time.

The main supporting bout was the Ramirez/Donovan contest. The Cuban is highly regarded as a candidate for further honours and, after an evenly fought start, the fight ended with a technical knock-out in the third round, when the Irishman was pinned on the ropes and succumbed to a crushing body punch. This was the second occasion on which a shot to the body – rather than the head – had ended the fight. The Czech boxer Jaroslav Hriadel suffered the same fate against the well-supported Kurt Walker from Northern Ireland and was clearly in some pain afterwards.

All major sporting occasions have their own rituals and, of course, Saturday evening’s events at the Hydro were no exception. The arena was in constant darkness – I couldn’t read my notes in front of me – but the ring was clearly illuminated by the overhead lighting with other beams of light flashing across the ringside seats. The boxers made their individual entrances down the walkway to the ring accompanied by the music of their choice. Not surprisingly, Eye of the Tiger (from Rocky III) featured a couple of times, though I was more impressed by Ebonie Jones’s choice of Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots are Made for Walking.

All the contestants on the undercard seemed to adhere to the sport’s acknowledged codes of conduct. There was a uniform touching of gloves at the start of each fight and, occasionally, at the end of a round. The defeated boxers congratulated their victorious opponents. Of course, the vanquished were then faced with the return journey back up the walkway to the changing room: a lonely walk with their own thoughts, I would guess, though each was chaperoned by a member of the security staff. Thankfully, on this occasion, all were able to walk back unaided, albeit with clouded heads (Grant and McFarlane) or aching ribs (Donovan and Hriadel).

I made an effort to focus on each of the undercard’s defeated fighters as they made their way back up the walkway. I wondered about the circumstances of the individual journeys that had brought Malam Varela from Portugal, Miroslav Serban from Kromeriz in the Czech Republic and Damian Esquisabel from Santander in Spain – amongst others – to this place at this time. All three of these particular fighters are now in their early 30s. In their preparation for their appearance at the Hydro – and their casual dismissal by a chattering crowd impatient for the main event – they had endured the training, the sacrifices and the pain of a brutal and unforgiving sport. With their stars apparently on the wane, what would their futures bring?

The arena was nearly full by the time of the Ramirez/Donovan contest. When this finished earlier than scheduled, there were about 25 minutes to fill before the Taylor/Catterall showdown. It was not wasted. This was party time in Saturday evening Glasgow and the house DJ knew his market: Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the 1970s Euro disco Yes Sir, I can Boogie (now appropriated by the Tartan Army of Scottish football supporters) and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga as well as a couple of club anthems with which, I must confess, I was not entirely familiar. Interestingly, he also played the Oasis track Don’t Look Back in Anger, which I thought might have been deemed provocative, given the band’s shared regional roots with Josh Taylor’s challenger. But that was looking for subtleties that didn’t exist. The singing and dancing revellers belted out the song with gusto.

The musical interlude ended with Amy Macdonald leading a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland. Again, I wondered about the subtext. I’m sure I was not the only one to register that to have “sent him homeward tae think again” might be applied more immediately to Jack Catterall and his supporters, rather than a long-dead English king. I have to say, though, that – aside from the occasional isolated exhortation for Taylor to smash the English bastard – there was no great sense of a Scotland/England conflict, and nor had there been in the week-long pre-match hype on the television sports news channel. One of my neighbours told me that Taylor has a sizeable support base in England.

And so to the main event. Catterall entered the arena to widespread – and predictable – booing, apart from the cheers of a group of supporters on the far side from me. Taylor was preceded by an entourage that proudly hoisted the four championship belts that he possessed. My earlier question was answered shortly afterwards. When the MC came to make the formal announcement of Taylor’s name to the crowd, his words were drowned out by the huge roar.

Here – as an aside – I must own up to another confession. When I was very young and occasionally watching the boxing highlights on television, I did wonder for some time why so many boxers came from Southport. Perhaps it was Harry Carpenter’s diction in presenting the action on the BBC’s Sportsview. The word is southpaw, of course, and it refers to the fighter leading with his right hand and with his right foot forward. I had a wry smile when I saw both Taylor and Catterall take up this stance.

It was evident from the first bell that, contrary to what was implied by the pre-match odds, these were two evenly matched fighters. Whatever his status as the underdog, Catterall was certainly not intimidated by either his opponent or his surroundings. Neither man gained control in the early rounds as the contest regressed into a scrappy affair with little fluid movement and a great deal of holding and grappling. I thought that Catterall decisively took the 6th round, the end of which marked the mid-point of the bout’s scheduled duration. I also sensed that Taylor’s supporters around me were becoming worried at his lack of clear dominance and the prospect of an adverse outcome. This concern was then amplified in the 7th when Taylor was cut below the right eye and the following round, when he was temporarily floored.

Both boxers incurred the wrath of the referee: Catterall was publicly warned for excessive holding in the 10th round and then, at the end of the 11th, Taylor was similarly penalised for striking his opponent after the bell. At the end of contest, both my immediate neighbours – a middle-aged man attending with his adult daughter and a younger man celebrating a mate’s birthday – were distinctly pessimistic about Taylor’s chances of getting the judges’ verdict.

It was a split decision – 2-1 – which, in his announcement of the result, the MC knew how to exploit for its full dramatic effect. The first scorecard was read out in Catterall’s favour and the second for Taylor. The marks of the third judge were announced, followed by “… and still undisputed…”. As at the beginning, so at the end: the crowd’s roar drowned out the rest of the MC’s proclamation.

It was a roar of triumph, but also – I suspect – an expression of relief. As it turned out, my neighbours’ assessments had been fully in tune with most independent analysts, including those who had maintained their running blogs throughout the contest. The Sky Sports blog stated that Taylor had been “outskilled and outmanoeuvred by Catterall, who has been relentlessly good” and that the judges’ verdict was “unbelievable” and “absolutely staggering” and the MainOnline called it “a truly shocking decision”, whilst the Irish Times diplomatically suggested that “not everyone will be happy with that result”.

The furore has continued since the end of the fight. Yesterday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle tweeted his opinion that “it was a disgraceful decision… the result is a travesty of justice”.

I was aware that Sir Lindsay is a keen follower of sport (notably rugby league), but I did wonder why the Speaker of the House of Commons – no less – should take such a public interest in the judges’ controversial decision. However, it did not take me long to determine why he should move away from his usual position of strict neutrality. Sir Lindsay Hoyle has been the Member of Parliament for Chorley since 1997.