Discord strikes Cougar country

. . . meanwhile the pioneers who are conducting the revival of a Yorkshire club have had their promotion dream denied
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THERE is a trail in Keighley, West Yorkshire, that is worth following. It is made of white paw marks, cougar paw marks, painted on the pavement. It leads out of town, a couple of hundred yards down the Skipton road, and then breaks right and through a set of turnstiles. It is the path to Cougar Park, home of the Keighley Cougars who, second to Wigan, are the most successful rugby league team in the country. Once a fortnight the town will empty, and an extraordinarily eclectic multitude of men, women and children will follow the white paws. The entertainment they seek, many maintain, is better than anything Wigan have to offer.

In four years, the crowds have swelled from 400 to 4,000. They have grown because Cougar Park offers more than just rugby league, it offers a unique sense of community, an experience which Mike Smith, the club's commercial director, compares to a spiritual enlightening. "They come for their dose of positive vibes," says Smith. Only Smith knows that after yesterday's vote in Wigan, the town that glimpsed a brilliant future has had its hopes snatched away.

If Keighley beat Swinton this afternoon, they will be one victory away from the First Division. They have just spent £100,000 to buy Darryl Powell, the England player, to ensure that they do not fail. However, yesterday, the rugby league chairmen voted that there would be no promotion. Some second division teams will be amalgamated into new Super League teams, but Keighley have been given no future at all.

At the Wigan meeting, Mick O'Neill, the Keighley chairman, stood up to make his feelings known. "I said that I was totally disgusted, that we would be totally strangled and that they had totally forgotten about the fans. But the First Division clubs had met in secret the previous day and it had all been decided then. I said that this was outrageous, but it was like talking to shadows, they didn't seem to be listening."

After the meeting, Smith was immediately despatched to seek legal advice on behalf of the club and O'Neill returned to Cougar Park, where a crowd of 600 were watching the Cougars' second team play Carlisle. "Everyone wanted to know what had happened, so I had to make an anouncement, didn't I?" he said. "The Carlisle players stopped still in shock, but the crowd were even worse. They are already planning demonstrations."

The same Tannoy was formerly the source of boundless joy to the fans. Seventy-five mnutes before each game, O'Neill goes onto the pitch and "Cougarmania" begins. "For all those new to Cougar Park," he says. "if you look up into those hills there at four o'clock, all the cougars come out and you can see their eyes gleaming. It's a wonderful sight, never seen before in rugby league."

Indeed, little in Keighley has previously been witnessed in rugby league. On matchdays, Cougar Park is something of a radio road-show: the crowd has its favourite song -"Lilly the Pink" - which they know so well because every time Nick Pinkney, the leading try-scorer, gets a try, O'Neill gives them a blast of it. In fact every player has their own signature tune on a soundtrack which ranges from "Simple Simon" (Simon Irving) to Lonnie Donegan's "My Dixie Darling" (Keith Dixon). Irving's wife was unhappy about "Simple Simon" and complained. Now, when Irving scores, O'Neill shouts "super" over the irksome "simple".

"It's daft, me and Mick are both half-wits," Smith says, laughing at the schemes with which they have sold the Cougars to the town. They have organised Cougar country and western nights, a Cougar opera, even "Cougarcopters" to fly fans to away games.

There is method in their madness, though, as you might expect from a pair who have seen crowds swell in their four years in charge while the team has risen from the Third Division to the brink of the First. They talk a lot about "Cougarising" - converting - the town, and the day they entertained 1,000 local women with wine, a fashion show and free tickets to a game, they see as their best piece of Cougarisation. "Once you've got the women, you've got the whole family," said Smith.

Other clubs have tried to emulate the Cougars, "but they've not had the courage to go for it," said Smith. When the chairman of Batley asked for some guidance, O'Neill told him to call the club the Batley Batmen and to play the Batman theme tune at games while the "Batmen" would enter dressed in masks and capes. "He thought I was bonkers," said O'Neill. "They still only get 700 to their games."

For the opposition, the soundtrack is not easy to handle. "It's very irritating," said Tony Barrow, Swinton's coach. "It's not in the spirit of the game, and most Second Division clubs think the same."

In Keighley, however, the benefits have been unmeasurable. The town is now so completely Cougarised that a whole community programme is in place. The players visit the sick, coach in the schools and help in the hospitals, and a classroom at Cougar Park takes 50 children every day in Cougar-related national curriculum studies. In art, for instance, they will be designing new Cougar shirts, while in maths, they work out the gradient of the Cougar Park slope. "The Cougars are doing a splendid job," said the town's crime prevention officer. "Juvenile delinquency fell by 11 per cent last year and the Cougars are certainly partly responsible."

Yesterday's decision at Wigan, however, flies in the face of everything that the Cougars have achieved. "And that is why I've got to be in there fighting for Keighley," said O'Neill.

At yesterday's meeting, O'Neill voted with the rest of the League and from inside, he says, he hopes to effect changes. Together with Stephen Ball, the chairman of Batley, who are in a similar position, O'Neill tabled an amendment to allow them to be promoted to next season's curtailed First Division. "That at least would give us a chance," he said. "Even then we wouldn't join the Super League when it starts, but who knows, we might get into the top four in the First Division, and then, well ... "

And when would the amendment be considered? "We asked that question three times, and every time they said they would get back to us."

So at least, at Cougar Park, there is a glimmer of hope. Huge crowds have resulted in improved playing staff, and for most of this season, the tries have been so plentiful that O'Neill's music system has been overheating. However, with the future so uncertain, it may prove impossible to tempt more players to the club of the calibre of Powell who makes his debut this afternoon. When Phil Larder, the coach, joined at the start of the season, he turned down a number of First Division offers because he thought that Keighley were going places. Could anyone match his judgement after yesterday's events?

The usual thousands will be following the the white paw trail to Cougar Park this afternoon. The sound they had hoped to hear was the new record that would play every time Powell scored a try. But, sadly, the overriding noise will one of discord and discontent.