`If you're in some boardroom in Australia it might seem a good idea. But not around here'
Murdoch/ the Rugby takeover
She had just bought a big bag of boiled sweets for the game. She was unwrapping the first one when I asked what she thought of the proposed new Super League and the Murdoch millions, and the suggestion that smaller clubs like Featherstone Rovers, with names with a resonance from the Twenties or Thirties, would have to combine with others to be viable. It had been specifically proposed that Featherstone Rovers should merge with Castleford and Wakefield to become "Calder". For an instant, I thought that she was going to choke on that big, green boiled sweet. "It's a bloody stupid idea. Perhaps if you're in some boardroom in Australia, or Leeds, it might seem like a good idea. But not around here."
Leeds was enunciated with almost a hissing sound. Hard chips of the boiled sweet came shooting past me. She took a few seconds to regain her composure. "After all, Castleford is just a couple of miles down the road. On the map that is. But it's not close, if you know this place. Castleford is the enemy. We call them the scum."
I followed her down towards the ground, past the boarded up shops, and the Iceberg frozen food shop with 10 per cent off everything in its closing down sale. The town once had three proud pit heads, but that all seems like a long time ago. The main pit never opened again after the miners' strike. Lin Pac is now the biggest employer in the town. It produces polystyrene cartons, but not the same sense of identity or pride that the pits once did. Some of the miners have moved to Selby, many have stayed in their home town without work.
But the men still carry themselves with a certain pride. Many are products of the club. They've played for the Under Nines, or the Under Thirteens, with members of the current first team. Or their fathers did with the big names from the Sixties. They keep themselves in shape, even if the Bodyshop - the body building specialists with its weight training equipment and vitamin supplements - has also gone bust. Samba sunbeds, however, was still going strong. Many of the men were broad and bronzed, in a studied sort of way.
At the ground, there was a rumour circulating that there was going to be a pitch invasion. The Featherstone and Castleford supporters wanted to make their message heard. I was told that sheer frustration was driving them to it.
Behind the club shop is the club secretary, Terry Jones, a member since 1945. He has been the secretary for the past 18 years, taking early retirement from teaching to become the full-time secretary.
"People don't even know where the proposed new club will be situated," he said. "One suggestion is Normanton, which is sort of midway between Wakefield, Castleford and Featherstone. Another suggestion is Glasshoughton Colliery, one of the mines that has been closed down. This is a big disused site: but it may be dangerous because there may be tar pockets in it.
"Glasshoughton is only three miles from Featherstone, but the problem is that Glasshoughton is really an outlying village of Castleford. If you said to the Featherstone supporters that the new club was going to be situated in Glasshoughton, they would think that it was going to Castleford. Five miles can be an awfully big distance around here. It's only five miles from here to Castleford after all, and only five miles from here to Wakefield. But the fans hate the idea that the name Featherstone Rovers would simply disappear. It's a great club with a great history.
"You see, there has been a rugby club in Featherstone since 1889. Featherstone Trinity played their first game on the New Inn fields against Castleford Mill Lane Rovers. Castleford have been our arch enemies right from the start. The following season in 1890, Featherstone had 19 games without defeat, beating Barnsley Congregationalists, Horbury Zingari and Bowers Rangers. We became a Rugby League Club in 1907, and we went professional in 1921. Any child from this village knows this history. They could recite it to you. They are proud to be part of it."
Families began to arrive at the ground. The rival fans were not segregated. Men and women, Castleford and Featherstone fans all mixed together. Terry explained that Featherstone Rovers was very much a family club. "The whole family has been involved throughout its history. We've even had women playing rugby in Featherstone during pit-strikes to raise money for the distress fund for the families.
"In 1921, the women of Featherstone, `Bill Batten's XIII' as they were called, took on allcomers in aid of striking miners. Their star performer was a one-eyed woman from Pontefract. They finished playing when the strike ended, but they started up again in the General Strike of 1926. There's an unbroken link with the past, and the great struggles of the past.
"And now somebody comes along with his cheque book and says that all this has to cease. Give up your name and your history. Join up with your biggest rival. Do you know that some of our fans would settle for losing all their other matches, as long as they could beat Castleford in the local derby?
"Some of our fans wouldn't shop at Castleford, the feeling runs that deep. Imagine becoming `Calder'. What does it mean? I don't like the name `Calder' anyway. Who the heck is Calder? There's a river Calder, but it doesn't run through Featherstone, it runs through Castleford and Wakefield."
Outside, a voice was booming out, selling raffle tickets. "Don't forget the Golden Gamble. One pound a ticket." Murdoch's millions are a giant gamble, even for those who welcome a cash injection into the game. What happens if all this history is sold for cash, which runs out in a few years time? Bill Higgins, who is 74, and his wife, had stopped to buy a ticket.
I asked him what he felt about the proposed changes to the game. He gave me his own history, which was intertwined with that of the club. "I've been a fan for 65 years. I was born in Station Lane, Featherstone. My father was the first secretary of Featherstone Rovers in 1921. I've lived in Leeds for the last 30-odd years, but I've always been a Rovers fan. That's what I am. I live in Leeds, but we travel to every match." His voice started to break. He couldn't continue for several seconds.
"We travel to every match. I've had the privilege of going to Wembley five times with the Rovers. I am very proud of that. I think it is abominable that a mercenary like Rupert Murdoch should try to take over our club. These men are trying to rip out the heart of our game. I would never watch the Super League. I would have no interest in it. I would only ever watch Featherstone Rovers."
I watched the younger fans take their regular places in the stands, and unfurl their banners. Terry Jones had explained to me that only 12,000 people might live in Featherstone, but 4,000 of them would be out on a Friday night cheering the team on. He also told me proudly that Featherstone is the smallest town in Britain to have a professional rugby league club. The crowd was growing, and there was a refrain starting from the terraces. It took a while to work out the words. After the fourth repetition the sentiment was getting clearer. The words went something like this:
"When I was just a little boy
Here's what mother, she said to me
Will you be Cas? Will you be Rovers?
Here's what she said to me
Wash your mouth out son
Go, get your father's gun
And shoot the Castleford scum . . . "
It was one way of demonstrating, I suppose, that the rationalisation of two smaller clubs five miles apart may not after all be the most logical of actions, if you know anything about human beings and their search for identity. Or human emotion.
The tune to the refrain was Que Sera Sera, which I thought was ominous in the extreme given the circumstances, because it seemed that whatever the fans might do, decisions had already been made in smoke-filled rooms elsewhere.
The fans were still praying, however, that things might not be quite so cut and dried. I scanned the banners. Most had a similar message - "Fev is Fev/ Cas is Cas/Stick your money/Up your . . ."
The pitch invasion came at half time, as most predicted. The stewards were ready at one stand, the fans erupted on to the pitch from the other three sides. Fathers lifted children over the fence. Couples helped each other over, and walked hand-in- hand across the pitch. The television crews rushed to join them. The grandfather, on my other side, said that he would have gone as well, if he could have been confident of scaling the fence.
Castleford and Featherstone supporters had watched the match together and now they protested together, chanting "No sell out" at the two chairmen, who had promised a joint statement which seemed not to be forthcoming.
The protest, however, finished in as orderly a fashion as it had started. The fans went back to the terraces in good time to allow the match to restart. Nobody wanted to miss the real action of the night.
That night Featherstone were trounced 27 points to 6 by Castleford, but that wasn't why the Featherstone fans looked so glum as they trudged home.
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