Super League in debt to Cougars' crazy originality

Success of today's competition rests on radical blueprint provided by a club excluded at the game's highest level. As new season kicks off, Dave Hadfield reflects on a decade of revolution
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The Independent Online

As Super League enters its 10th season tonight, the events of a decade ago begin to acquire a sepia-tinged, mythic quality.

Is it really just less than 10 years ago that the merger of century-old clubs was supposed to be the key step in producing a revolutionary new competition? For the record, that first Super League was meant to read like this: Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, St Helens, Wigan, Calder, Cheshire, Cumbria, Humberside, Manchester, South Yorkshire, London, Paris, Toulouse.

Clubs voted unanimously for this fanciful structure and then went out into the car park at Central Park to discuss how they could avoid merging and still get their hands on the £77m on offer from News Ltd. What they ended up with was £87m and a 12-team division that still looks pretty wacky a decade later, if only because it included Oldham, Sheffield, Workington and Paris St-Germain.

One name conspicuous by its absence from either list is that of the Keighley Cougars, but that club, now languishing in National League 2, could claim, in many respects, to be the inventors of Super League. The small-town club on the outskirts of Bradford drove up their crowds in the early Nineties from a few hundred to 5,000 with a brand of razzmatazz that seemed completely alien at the time but which has become the norm since.

"What we had is what Super League is now," says Mike Smith, who, as a director of Keighley, presided over what became known as Cougarmania.

"I remember Bradford coming to Keighley and their chairman, Chris Caisley, complaining about how disgraceful it all was - and look at them now."

Smith was also closely involved in drawing up the report "Framing the Future," which proposed a wholesale rebranding of the game, much of which was absorbed into the Super League restructuring.

"Summer rugby was part of that," Smith recalls. "I remember saying to Maurice Lindsay [then chief executive of the Rugby Football League] that television pictures of muddy men playing on muddy fields did nothing for the image of the game."

Much of what Smith proposed - and for which Keighley had acted as the test laboratory - was incorporated into Super League. Love it or hate it, the hype, the branding, the match-day glitz all started at Cougar Park on dank, chill Sunday afternoons.

The irony was that Keighley were not destined to be part of it, which is a little like John Logie Baird being refused a television licence. The Cougars, who would have been promoted to the top division for the 1995-6 season if Super League had never happened, were completely excluded from the blueprint for the future.

"It would have been bad enough if we had been told to merge with Bradford, but we weren't even included as a merger," Smith says. "We were just kicked out."

Keighley took out an injunction to try to stop the new competition kicking off and only withdrew their legal threat when the offer from News Ltd was revamped to include more money for the lower division clubs and the prospect of promotion and relegation.

But, for the Cougars, the moment had passed. The disappointment of being denied the promotion they had earned cost them fans and sponsors and Super League went its way without them.

"It has proved to be a fantastic success and the spectacle is magnificent," says Smith, without a hint of bitterness. "But every revolution has its casualties and we were the first casualties of Super League."

As it kicks off its 10th season, not everything is unrecognisable. Four of the five clubs designated as stand-alone entities in the original blueprint - Leeds, Bradford, Wigan and St Helens - still constitute the code's Big Four. With all due respect to aspirants like Hull and Warrington, the 10th winners will surely come from that quartet.

The fifth member of that élite has fallen on hard times, with Halifax now looking as far from Super League as Keighley.

Workington and Oldham have also shown that the descent from Super League can be a painful one, which is why issues at the foot of the table - where two teams will be relegated to make way for the restored French presence of Perpignan in 2006 - will be as compelling as at the top.

So, if Leeds' start to their defence of their title at Hull tonight is one highly significant fixture this first weekend, so is Leigh's Super League debut at home to Huddersfield tomorrow.

There and elsewhere, the standard of play, presentation and public enthusiasm is likely to be a vindication of the bold, if confused vision of 10 years ago.

And Keighley? They will be pursuing a slightly muted form of Cougarmania in their first group stage game in the National Rail Cup against Hull KR.

ENGAGE SUPER LEAGUE: Today (8.0): Hull v Leeds; St Helens v Widnes; Wigan v Salford. Tomorrow: Leigh v Huddersfield (6.05). Sunday (3.0) Bradford v Wakefield; London v Warrington.