Rugby League: Hull KR finances hit rock bottom

Dave Hadfield on the reasons why a great rugby league club has fallen on hard times
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The Independent Online
The red, red Robin will be sob, sob, sobbin' today at the news that the club that was rugby league's high-flyer has come tumbling to earth with a sickening thump.

The directors of Hull Kingston Rovers yesterday revealed that they will apply in the High Court in Leeds next Monday for the club to be put into the hands of the administrators.

If that application is successful, the financial consultants Coopers and Lybrand will take over the running of the club in an effort to reduce a debt nearing the pounds 1m mark. The Robins have been bobbin' deeper into the red for years.

This week's announcement is a grievous indignity for a club which, little more than a decade ago, was the most powerful in the land. During their great years between the late 70s and the mid-80s, Rovers won the First Division championship three times, the Premiership twice and the Regal Trophy, as well as going to Wembley three times, returning once with the Challenge Cup.

Humberside was the centre of the rugby league universe and if Hull KR, lacking some of the glamour of their neighbours, Hull, were less admired, they were - with players like Len Casey, Chris Burton and David Watkinson in their side - more feared.

Along with their local rivals, Rovers pioneered the recruitment of overseas players, with the likes of Gary Prohm and Mark Broadhurst from New Zealand and John Dorahy from Australia illuminating sides coached for an astonishing 14 years by Roger Millward.

Along with Hull, Rovers fuelled a steady rise in the support for the game and one demonstration of their fiscal muscle came when they shattered the world transfer record by signing George Fairbairn from Wigan for pounds 72,500 in 1980.

Hull KR's decline since those heady days has been along all fronts, with relegation in 1989 coinciding with the supposedly life-saving wrench of leaving their Craven Park ground.

Like several other clubs, Rovers have discovered that selling up the hereditary acres, for housing or supermarkets, rarely solves any underlying malaise, and their move to a new Craven Park has been a particular failure.

Hull KR have always been the club of the eastern half of the city, but those seeking out their current home have remarked that if it was any further east they would have a better chance of attracting support from the Netherlands.

The inaccessible and uninviting nature of their windswept new stadium has been a factor in Rovers' declining crowds. Even last season's promotion campaign from the depths of the Second Division saw average attendances still lagging below 1,700.

That upturn in their playing fortunes - spearheaded by an imported player recalling their old, adventurous policy, the Papua New Guinean Stanley Gene - has not restored them to any of their old prosperity or stability. The gap between expenditure and income has left them losing more than pounds 3,000 a week and has forced this week's course of action upon the board of directors.

While Rovers are merely the latest in a long list of clubs to admit to crippling financial problems, few have gone from a position of such strength to one of such weakness so quickly.

The writing on the wall has led some, like the club's former chairman and, along with Millward, its most distinguished ex-player, Phil Lowe, to propose a merger with bitter rivals Hull as the only way out. However, when Lowe actively urged that solution last year, he was virtually howled down by supporters who derided him as "a traitor".

The League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, faced with the embarrassing task of explaining how a game in receipt of pounds 89m from Rupert Murdoch has three clubs - Bramley and Keighley are the others - in administration, said that Rovers had been too deep in debt to be rescued by the modest pounds 135,000 they have so far received.

He too believes that a merger is the answer. "We have been saying for some time that two teams in that city chasing the same dream is not feasible," he said.

If the administrators cannot now achieve success in bringing the debts under control, the club faces the prospect of being wound up by its creditors.