Rugby League: Deakin's Warrington challenge

Chief executive with an impressive track record knows that his new rugby league club requires a special touch
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DON'T EXPECT too many stilt-walkers, fire-eaters or other signs Peter Deakin is in town at Warrington on Sunday. The new chief executive of the local rugby league club is only visiting, his time shared with Saracens until May, but the fact that he will be at Wilderspool for the Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie against Halifax rather than with the fez-wearers at Newcastle signifies a new era.

Having turned around two rugby clubs - Bradford Bulls and Saracens - Deakin is looking for a hat-trick. "The similarity is there is a lot of work to be done," he says. "The difference is that, from a marketing perspective, it's a different sort of challenge. At Bradford, all the dour things rugby league was associated with were encapsulated at Odsal and that was what we had to change. Saracens had a tremendous heritage, but were still offering an image of elitism."

Say what you like about Peter Deakin, but he buried dour old Bradford and stiff-upper-lipped Sarries in a deep hole and brought different brands of brashness to the forefront of their codes of rugby.

"Warrington are coming off the back of a bad time financially. The old board also had a chauvinistic approach. They didn't allow women in the boardroom, but the first thing we're going to do is to create a family type atmosphere."

But, to do that, you have to attract families to Wilderspool, with its restricted capacity and its historic inability to convert the town's many newcomers. Deakin's first problem is that the ground only has a safety certificate for a mere 7,300 spectators - he hopes to reach that limit against opposition like Halifax on Sunday - and it will take a lot of doing to raise it to the supposed Super League minimum of 10,000.

Further along the line, the club plans to move to a new site, with two possibilities well advanced. But you still have to pull in the punters and too many of those on the doorstep retain their sporting affiliations with Liverpool and Manchester.

"That doesn't bother me," says Deakin. "The first law of marketing is you don't change people's minds. We don't want to change what they've always done, but just show them this is an alternative product We did that with Saracens. We took the season ticket base there to twice what it is here and that all happened in two years."

Equally to the point for Warrington, they did it in a constricted stadium at Vicarage Road that is much more like Wilderspool than Odsal's empty acres.

"We're not going to be able to put on the shows that we did at Odsal, but I learned at Watford what you can do in a confined space. Simplicity is the key; by the time of our first Super League match on 21 March you'll see a difference."

Although Deakin has always argued a successful operation must be marketing- led rather than rugby-led, a team successful and charismatic enough for the new fans to focus on remains essential.

At Bradford, he made Robbie Paul a pivotal figure in promoting the club. "And we have people at Warrington who we can use in the same way," he says.

Intriguingly, one of them is Super League's oldest player, the 34-year- old winger, Mark Forster. "He's been around for ever, but he's never been stretched in terms of his personality. He's brilliant with kids. We have great overseas personalities like Danny Farrar and Simon Gillies and we will be using Alan Hunte as a cutting edge for the whole club."

All four will be on duty against Halifax and it is already apparent the signings of Gillies, the experienced former Canterbury captain, and Hunte, a Great Britain centre still in his prime, will strengthen last season's side.

"But he's the best signing we've made this year," says the Warrington coach, Darryl Van de Velde, nodding towards Deakin. "For the long-term success of the club, he's our best signing."