Small-time club relishes place in the big time
No matter how hard their coach tries to make it a normal match-day, today is a huge occasion for the ultimate small-town club.
Success has been well-spaced throughout the long history of Batley. The Gallant Youths, as they are traditionally known, won the Challenge Cup three times around the turn of the 19th century, the Yorkshire Cup in 1912-13 and the short-lived Trans Pennine Cup in 1998.
Otherwise, a town of 40,000 that could, uncharitably, be said to live in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbour, Dewsbury, has had little to celebrate.
Certainly, honours were the last thing on the mind of Karl Harrison when his brother, the club's chief executive, Paul, talked him out of retirement to be their coach midway through last season.
Survival in the Cooperative Championship was the priority and Batley achieved it on points difference after Harrison turned around their form in the last few weeks. Relegation remains a danger in a division where most clubs have considerably more in the way of resources, but this season he has guided them into today's Northern Rail Cup final against Widnes at Blackpool.
It is the sort of record that should alert Super League clubs to the fact that Harrison could still have much to offer at that level, despite being sacked by Salford three years ago.
However, he is a larger-than-life figure who values a degree of freedom. He works part-time, still has a kitchen-fitting business and, even as he was steering Batley to safety last season, he took time out to ride his Harley-Davidson across America. He was also close to signing up for I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
He will undoubtedly be a celebrity in Batley if they beat Widnes today. Although the Bulldogs – as the Gallant Youths are now rebranded – do not aspire to the Super League place for which victory would qualify them to apply, carrying off the trophy would be their best moment for almost a century.
There were only 800 spectators at their last home game, but supporters from as far afield as Colombia and Switzerland are coming out of the woodwork for this one.
The conventional view on whether their trip will be worthwhile would be that much depends on the fitness of their half-backs, Paul Handforth and Gareth Moore. Both missed the Championship match against the reigning title-holders, Barrow, last Sunday.
But the versatile Tommy Gallagher, who is more often used in the front row these days, came in at stand-off and scored five tries. That alone could serve as a symbol for the over-achievement that has been going on at Mount Pleasant over the last 12 months.
Widnes cannot really be accused of over-achieving in that same period. After winning the Northern Rail Cup in a rugged affair against Barrow last July, they finished a modest fourth in the league and were knocked out of the play-offs by Featherstone.
This year, their league form has been even more erratic and they cannot even be sure of a play-off place. However, as a club with more Cup pedigree than any outside Super League – and most inside – they have retained enough of their knock-out expertise to get them to Blackpool again.
They are the hot tip for a Super League licence for 2012 and have already ticked the relevant box by winning the Northern Rail Cup last year. Retaining the trophy will not do their credentials any damage.
On paper, they should have the players to do so. They have a creative pair of half-backs in Anthony Thackeray and Thomas Coyle and an aggressive pack led by Jim Gannon and Mark Smith.
Their coach, Paul Cullen, has been on compassionate leave because of his wife's illness, so the former Wigan and Great Britain forwards Mick Cassidy and Terry O'Connor have been preparing the side for what could be a tricky assignment. At the very least, Batley will make it a battle.
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