How the deal was done

REVOLUTION IN RUGBY LEAGUE: New age dawns as Murdoch's millions prove an irresistible lure Dave Hadfield charts the steps that led to a game being turned on its head
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Maurice Lindsay (below) takes a train from Leeds to London to meet BSkyB executives.


The Rugby League Board meets. Lindsay outlines



The Rugby League

Council meets.


Lindsay conducts negotiations by telephone, including a

conversation by satellite link with Rupert Murdoch (below).


Lindsay and Rodney

Walker, the Chairman of the Rugby League (right), present the £75m deal to the

chairmen of the First

Division clubs in a meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Huddersfield.


The meeting breaks up. Nothing is signed.

In a meeting at Central Park, Wigan, the

chairmen of the Second Division clubs are told of the deal. Jim Mills, of Widnes, is

angry that his club have been made "first reserve".

The clubs are asked if they agree to the deal. All sign contracts.

Lindsay, Walker and Vic Wakeling, BSkyB's Head of Sport, announce the five-year deal with News Ltd.

TUESDAY, 4 APRIL: The first sign that important developments are afoot is at 3.30pm, when Maurice Lindsay, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, fails to appear at an internal policy meeting at the League's headquarters in Chapeltown Road, Leeds.

He is, his secretary reveals, on a train to London, having had a phone call from BSkyB suggesting a meeting. Lindsay had been following events in Australia closely and was aware of the possible implications of Rupert Murdoch's attempted take-over of the sport there for the game in Britain. The first confirmed contact with News Ltd, Murdoch's Australian media group, on the specific subject of a European Super League, however, is the phone call that sends him hurrying to London.

WEDNESDAY, 5 APRIL: Lindsay returns in time for the meeting of the League's Board of Directors in the morning, and outlines the approach from News Ltd. It is agreed that a matter of such importance must be placed before the Rugby League Council, which comprises representatives of the game's professional clubs, that afternoon.

At 1pm, the members of the council, still the game's ultimate decision-making body although much reduced in its role, begin their scheduled meeting at Headingley, the home of the Leeds club. There is no mention of any Super League proposal on the agenda, only of the controversial issue of summer rugby. But some members, with an eye on events in Australia, are expecting the question to crop up. Twice, during routine business, Lindsay leaves the room; not, as some assume, to visit the lavatory, but to answer telephone calls. On his second return, he tells the council of the approach from News Ltd and that their representatives are standing by in Leeds to open talks. Geoff Fletcher, the chairman of the League's smallest and least successful club, Highfield, wants them brought into the meeting to state their case. Most of his colleagues, however, do not believe that is a good idea.

Instead, the meeting authorises Lindsay and members of the game's Board of Directors to talk to News Ltd and report back to a special meeting of club chairmen to be convened at Wigan that Saturday morning. Before the meeting breaks up, a straw poll is taken on the subject of summer rugby, the Council members by now understanding that running a Super League parallel to the one in Australia would necessitate this change. There is overwhelming support.

At 5.30pm, the League's press office is saying that nothing of note has come out of the meeting, even on the subject of summer rugby. By 6.30, with the most of the rugby league press at Central Park for the Wigan v Doncaster match, news begins to leak out. News Ltd executives are in Britain, it is admitted, and the League is keen to talk to them.

THURSDAY, 6 APRIL: On Wednesday night and during Thursday, Lindsay is engaged in negotiations with News Ltd, including a three-way phone link- up involving Murdoch himself in Washington DC. It is believed that the bidding started at £30m.

In Australia, Murdoch's number two, Ken Cowley, announces that a deal has been done, two days before chairmen are due to discuss it. Cowley has "jumped the gun", the Rugby League's press office says. A row follows between News Ltd and the press office, which is ordered to institute a news black-out on Super League negotiations.

FRIDAY, 7 APRIL: During the morning, First Division chairmen are contacted to check their availability for a meeting that night. With a couple of notable exceptions, they agree to go to Huddersfield for that meeting, but Jim Mills of Widnes is at the races and cannot be contacted and John Wilkinson of Salford is also away.

Tom Smith stands in for Mills and Albert White for Wilkinson, while Hull KR are the one Second Division club represented at the gathering, held at the Hilton Hotel on the outskirts of the town.

At 8pm, Lindsay and the Rugby League's chairman, Rodney Walker, put the deal on the table. There are gasps at the amount of money on offer - £75m over five years, which means more than £1m per season for each of the Super League clubs. The bad news follows. The assembled chairmen are told that there will only be 14 teams in the Super League and that places are set aside for two French clubs, one from Wales and one from London.

After discussion, the Welsh involvement is scaled down to a team, probably based in Cardiff, in a new British First Division, one level down from the Super League.

But that still only leaves 11 places. Lindsay and Walker tell the chairmen how they think those places should be allocated, together with the mergers that would be required: Hull with Hull KR; Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield; Sheffield and Doncaster; Salford and Oldham; Workington, Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle.

It is also suggested that Halifax, already merger-minded because of their ground problems, should amalgamate with either Bradford or Huddersfield, but both Bradford and Halifax are included separately in the Super League blueprint. The Warrington-Widnes amalgamation is also suggested, but both say they want to stand alone, so Warrington are included and Widnes are designated first reserve.

There is one sticking point. The chairmen want a sum of money specifically set aside for the clubs not to be included in the Super League. Lindsay and Walker leave the room and come back from talks with News Ltd's legal representative with another £2m, raising the total value of the deal to £77m. Most of the extra will go in one-off payments of £100,000 to the excluded clubs. Some cynics are already calling it the "Pay Off Your Debts and Die" clause.

It is almost 2am before the meeting breaks up. Nothing is signed by the prospective Super League clubs, as a photocopier has broken down.

SATURDAY, 8 APRIL: Early in the morning, Tom Smith contacts his chairman, Jim Mills, and tells him about the previous night's meeting - together with the fact that Widnes are only first reserves for the Super League. Mills is not impressed.

At 8.55am, a fax from the Super League media centre in Sydney arrives at the London office of the Australian Associated Press. It announces, 90 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin, that British clubs have voted unanimously for the Super League. It is later explained by Lindsay as referring to the previous night's meeting, which was never constitutionally capable of making such a decision.

The majority of Second Division chairmen arrive at Central Park, Wigan, unaware of the meeting in Huddersfield the previous evening. By 10.30, they and their First Division counterparts have taken their seats, not around a table but in rows, like pupils listening to a teacher.

The first to object to the shape of the proposed Super League are Keighley Cougars and Batley - the two clubs most likely to be promoted from the Second Division this year. They ask to be included in the plans, both for the Super League and the transitional Premier League which will play a shortened winter season this year. They receive no assurance.

The next to speak is Mills, and his contribution is an impassioned speech, stressing the tradition and playing record of his club. He is angry not to have been involved in the previous night's meeting and is making it clear that being first reserve is not good enough.

The Swinton chairman, Malcolm White, suggests that Widnes should amalgamate with Warrington to form a Cheshire club. Now it is the turn of Peter Higham, who had believed his Warrington club were to be included in their own right, to be unimpressed.

The chairman of Carlisle, Alan Tucker, speaks for a number of the reluctant merger candidates. What would happen if they preferred to retain their identity? They would get a one-off payment of £100,000 and be members of the new British First Division, he is told.

The three clubs excluded from the Rugby League two years ago, Blackpool Gladiators, Nottingham City and Chorley Borough, will not even get that. The Blackpool chairman, Allan Sherratt, asks: does the chairman of the Rugby League consider that fair? "In your case, yes," Walker says.

The meeting moves to a vote, despite a fax from Ken Arthurson, director general of the Australian Rugby League, appealing for a delay, soon after noon. It is not a vote as much as a declaration, with each club called upon, in alphabetical order, to state whether it agrees to the Super League deal.

All agree, with the exception of Chorley's chairman, Lindsay Hoyle, who abstains. Maurice Lindsay asks: does he want to go down in history as the one man who failed to support this? Hoyle has plans for a legal challenge already formulated.

Then, one by one, the clubs involved in the Super League are called up to sign contracts. All sign, despite the doubts and misgivings that are soon to emerge.

At 12.30pm, the chairmen take lunch. At 1.15, Lindsay, Walker and BSkyB's Head of Sport, Vic Wakeling, arrive at the press conference, held in another room at Central Park. No figures are revealed. But a five-year deal with News Ltd has been unanimously approved, Lindsay says. He lists the teams for the Super League, including the merger between Widnes and Warrington, the one amalgamation about which he admits there are problems.

But everything else is agreed, he says. "It is not a hijack or a take- over," he adds. "It is a glorious opportunity which we have decided to accept." Just four days after the phone rang in Chapeltown Road, the deal is done - and the real arguing can begin.