A city divided by devotion

Plans to merge Hull's two rugby league clubs have been tackled by the opposition.
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The Independent Online
IN Hull, even those who are in favour of merging the city's two rugby league clubs seem to have reservations: "I'm black and white through and through. I won't even have robins in my garden. I've got two cats to kill 'em."

The speaker is Roy Waudby, who as president and largest shareholder of Hull FC as well as a member of the Rugby League's board of directors, occupies a powerful but uncomfortable position in a place that is famously split not just by the river of that name but by allegiance to either Hull FC or the Robins of Hull Kingston Rovers.

"I'm convinced that a Super League club in Hull, supported by both sides of the city, would attract five figure crowds against Wigan and St Helens," Waudby said. "In 10 years' time, the spectators would not even know about Hull FC and Hull KR."

Hull is a singular place, stuck out at the end of a 50-mile cul-de-sac, with its white telephone boxes, a curious 20-yard street named Land of Green Ginger, and its focus on the sea beyond rather than the Yorkshire hinterland that surrounds it.

It is also a city divided, with the west - home to Hull FC - still mourning the decline of the fishing industry and the east - home to the Rovers - dependent on the freight docks and the broad agricultural acres sliding away to the North Sea.

Dialect experts used to be able to distinguish an east Hull from a west Hull voice, although the lines of demarcation have been blurred by relocating westerners in council estates on the wrong side of the river. Even more confusingly, both rugby clubs began life on the opposite bank from that which they now occupy, but the psychological divide remains sharp and crisp.

"It's like Queensland and New South Wales," said Phil Sigsworth, Hull's Australian coach, who knows about such things. Rivalry between the two clubs has always been fierce, although, as with Liverpool and Everton, it has generally been good humoured. Not too long ago, they dominated British rugby league between them.

When the two sides contested the Challenge Cup final in 1980, a notice on the road from the city asked the last one out to turn off the lights. Briefly, Hull were the best-supported league team in the world, but Rovers, with their smaller base of support, were arguably the more formidable.

Now both are outside the elite, Hull near the top of the first division and Rovers leading the second, but Waudby believes that the only way of recapturing the old glories is by combining. In this, he has influential allies such as Phil Lowe, the former Hull KR and Great Britain forward and ex-chairman of the club.

The Super League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, makes no secret of his desire to have a top-class side on Humberside once more. Burnt once when the Super League was first mooted, he is wary of being seen to push clubs to merge, but it is doubtless his preferred solution.

Until a few days ago, it seemed the two parties were edging coyly towards that outcome, with the promise of a place in Super League the come-on. But then Hull, much to Waudby's chagrin, issued a statement that said: "No thank you. We will get there on our own."

On the face of it, Hull's chief executive, Stephen Ball, is ideally placed to preside over a marriage, be it shotgun or otherwise. Brought up as a rock-solid Rovers fan, he scattered his father's ashes on the old Craven Park off the Holderness Road, before it was sold to be the site of a new supermarket and the club moved further into the wilderness. "If I want to see him now, I have to go and buy a pound of streaky bacon," he mused.

Despite those roots, Ball believes Hull can and should go it alone. Amid the rumour and counter-rumour about the shape of Super League next season, it seems to him that, by promotion or invitation, they could be in it for 1997. "And if it doesn't happen this year, it will definitely happen next year."

There are ambitious plans, already being put into effect, for re-developing the historic Boulevard ground and it is hard to argue with Ball when he points to Wigan and St Helens' 7,000 crowds last weekend and argues: "If we were in the same position, we would be getting 12-13,000."

Down on what was once the dockside but now faces a shiny, new shopping mall, at one of the three pubs that he owns, Lowe says that Ball is kidding himself. "He talks about going it alone. He knows in his heart of hearts that it can't be done that way."

For all the anti-merger rhetoric coming from the Boulevard, the idea will not go away, Lowe says. "Just wait until they've lost a couple of games and see what happens. All I ever wanted to do was play for Hull KR. I went to Australia for three years and when I came back all I wanted to do was play for them again. But I know that the future is for one club in the city. It's a glorious opportunity and if we waste it because of our own petty-mindedness it would be a tragedy."

Lowe says backing from the council and finance from the League would allow the clubs to merge and build a new ground in neutral north Hull - he draws the line at playing permanently at The Boulevard. But it is a vision of the future that has vociferous opponents among the supporters of both clubs. A joint meeting earlier this month rejected all ideas of merger and "fast-tracking" into Super League.

"I've supported Rovers for 35 years and if this comes off I wouldn't have a team to support. I'd turn my back on rugby league," said Fred Hinds, the chairman of the Hull KR Action Group. "Lindsay, Waudby and Lowe are trying to push it through, but we don't want anything to do with it. Phil Lowe is selling us out. He was a great player for Rovers, but when he went to Australia he should have stopped there."