Widnes win ticket to the promised land and pledge to back local youth
At Widnes railway station, there is a plaque that reveals the unlikely nugget that it was there that Paul Simon wrote his ode to exile and estrangement, "Homeward Bound". That is where Widnes feel they will be next season – home.
They were celebrating the news at the Stobart Stadium yesterday that, after a gap of six years, the club that used to be known as the Chemics and more recently as the Vikings will be back in Super League next season.
The bars were more packed than on a match day for the televised announcement from Leeds that the Rugby League, having weighed the rival claims of Halifax and Barrow, had given Widnes a licence for the next three years. After failing in a similar bid three years ago, the relief was palpable.
"I was quite confident until about 48 hours ago," said Steve O'Connor, the chairman who bought the club out of administration in 2008. "Then I started to get a bit spooked that it might not go our way."
Realistically, there was little chance of that happening, so solidly had one of the game's great historic clubs set out its stall. "It's really refreshing that the Rugby League have seen sense," said O'Connor. "For three years, they missed having Widnes in the competition. I think we'll revitalise it."
As a hard-headed businessman, however, he cautioned against expecting too much, too soon. "We aren't going to smash the league in the first season," he said, admitting there would have to be some team-strengthening. "We're not going out to play fantasy football. We're going to be very, very selective."
Likewise the club's coach, the former Wigan and Great Britain international second-rower, Denis Betts."It's a question of bringing in the right people at the right time," he said. "We have to ask ourselves whether we want to be good for one year or 10 years."
Strictly speaking, Widnes cannot approach contracted players until September, but inevitably agents have already been in touch about who might be available. "We are very aware of who is coming out of contract, both here and in the southern hemisphere," O'Connor said.
Betts remains wedded to the ideal of bringing through young local players. "If they are good enough, they will get the chance," he said. "We will provide them with the opportunity."
In the short term, winning the licence may see Widnes targeted by Championship rivals eager to expose any insecure pretensions. "Everyone is going to raise their game against us now," Betts said.
That will certainly apply to Halifax and Barrow, the two disappointed runners-up in yesterday's beauty pageant. For Halifax, there is at least the consolation prize of a second bite at the cherry. They were acknowledged as meeting Super League's criteria and will now go into the mix with its existing clubs – who had to submit their own applications yesterday – when the competition's shape is finalised in July. One current club – with Wakefield the obvious favourite – will have to go to accommodate Widnes, plus another if Halifax are to join them.
"This is a very disappointing day, but all is not lost," said a statement from Halifax's board, urging supporters to "keep faith in the bid and continue to back it".
For Barrow, the disappointment is one degree keener. They have been told that their stadium, their support and their turnover fail to meet the criteria, so the dream of a Cumbrian Super League presence is dead in the water, at least for now.
"I know how both of them feel and I sympathise with them," said O'Connor, but that was only a brief interruption in the mood of celebration at a club that has been waiting for this day, like a man on a platform waiting for a train home that may never come.
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