Hull's dark side casts a long shadow

Sunday's pitch invasion at Huddersfield has damaged a sport with a reputation for civilised supporters
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It must seem a strange, not to say savage, twist to the people running Hull rugby league club that one of the reasons they were so eager to move from Gateshead and set up shop there was the guarantee of an enthusiastic following. Now the most enthusiastic of that support face life bans from the club and the club itself is likely to be expelled from the Challenge Cup for one or more seasons.

It must seem a strange, not to say savage, twist to the people running Hull rugby league club that one of the reasons they were so eager to move from Gateshead and set up shop there was the guarantee of an enthusiastic following. Now the most enthusiastic of that support face life bans from the club and the club itself is likely to be expelled from the Challenge Cup for one or more seasons.

Shocking as Sunday's scenes at Huddersfield were in the context of a sport that prides itself on civilised crowd behaviour, there has always been a streak of raw aggression among Hull supporters. The last time they were consistently successful, in the early 1980s, they caused more than there fair share of trouble across the north of England, but nothing remotely like the events at the McAlpine Stadium, where hundreds of fans ran amok on the pitch.

Neil Tunnicliffe, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, who, as much as anybody, carries the can for the game's image, was like most of us - watching with horror as the whole sorry business unfolded. "Shell-shocked and appalled," is how he describes his reaction. "There were people there who have been watching the game longer than I have, but I've been watching it for 30 years and I've seen nothing remotely like it."

But, although neither Tunnicliffe nor the rest of the sport's followers expected anything like the scenes at the McAlpine, if you had forced us into a prediction of the club whose supporters might just perpetrate something like that, we would probably have said Hull. "There has been comment, rumour and hearsay that there has long been an element within Hull's support that is unsavoury," Tunnicliffe said. "But we all hope fervently that this is a one-off occasion, both for them and for the game as a whole."

Although their disgrace took place well away from their home ground, the Threepenny Stand at The Boulevard is regarded as the most intimidating place in rugby league. Players - especially black players - say that the abuse that comes out of that section of the stadium is the worst in the game and there are regular complaints in the rugby league press about foul language.

Generally, however, their bark has been far worse than their bite; and there is even an endearing aspect to their fervour, with the renditions of "Old Faithful" ringing around the terraces.

But that was before Sunday. Attitudes to what might previously have seemed merely a boisterous interpretation of what constitutes support changed forever when the Hull hordes ripped down the goal-posts and spoiled for a fight with the commendably restrained Leeds end of the ground.

"Over the year, Hull fans have come in for a lot of stick from some quarters of the game and, in the main, I have stuck up for them," wrote Richard Tingle, who has covered the club for 29 years for the Hull Daily Mail. "But not on this occasion, because they tarnished the name of Hull FC and the city of Hull. They are a disgrace to society and I believe it is the duty of every decent Hull FC supporter to weed them out."

The club is saying the same, a joint statement with the City Council and the supporters' association urging fans to "name and shame" the culprits. "They will be banned for life," said the club's chairman, Kath Hetherington. "We are not prepared to accept it and we are taking action to make sure that it can never happen again."

There are those at the RFL who argue, with some justification, that these events have to be kept in perspective. Huddersfield was not a Heysel or a Hillsborough. Nobody was killed and those who were slightly injured were hurt because they were somewhere they should not have been - on the pitch. The 14 people who will appear in court will do so on minor public order offences.

But these things are relative. These were indisputably the worst scenes of their kind to be witnessed at a rugby league match. Back in the 1970s, when football was still ravaged by hooliganism, rugby league revelled in the slogan "The man's game for all the family", contrasting the relentlessly hard but uncomplaining action on the field with the generally low level of nastiness off it. The difference now is that the football seen on television - Premiership football - is so heavily policed and stewarded that crowd trouble is virtually impossible. Compared to that, Sunday's scenes looked like Scotland at Wembley in 1977.

It was an extra wound for the game that those scenes should have gone out live on the BBC. Rugby league people have complained for years that big games are treated with a lack of respect when the Beeb goes straight over to the world conkers championships as soon as the final hooter sounds.

This time, they had to allow for the possibility of extra time and had nothing to pan away to. So the antics of those few hundred Hull fans - organised in advance by some of the ringleaders, Hetherington believes - garnered the sort of coverage the code otherwise craves.

The club and the League, which will conclude its investigation in time to hand out its punishment by next Thursday at the latest, will do their best to repair the damage, but the image of the game has changed for the worse. Among the calls coming into the League's headquarters on Monday morning were several from Edinburgh, where they had been looking forward to hosting the Challenge Cup final. The gist of them was this: thank heavens Hull lost at Huddersfield rather than Murrayfield.

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