Rugby League: Rekindling of the Northern lights: Ian Ridley visits a famous stadium where dreams of glory are being revived

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'ODSAL - Theatre of Dreams', insists Bradford Northern's programme of its grand old bowl of a rugby league ground. After a rocky recent run, they may be getting the wake-up call, but to the relief, even gratitude, of a game fretting over one club's domination of its league, Northern have sustained the season with a championship challenge that carries echoes of the race to win football's Premiership.

Northern have been playing Blackburn Rovers to the Manchester United of Wigan, latterly the game's power, fiscally and physically. Having invested heavily, they have been seeing some dividends as they chipped away at Wigan's domination of the game, and have threatened for much of the season to wrest the title from the champions of the past five years.

In the high winds of late they have been blown a little off course. They lost to the bottom club, Leigh, which nobody does, then at Halifax; then they lost at home to Hull, which hardly anybody does. However, a hard-fought victory over Castleford in the mud, rain and sleet on Friday night put them firmly back in the hunt, one of three clubs locked at the top on the same points total.

'Progress, industry, humanity,' the club's motto says, and while the third quality may be in short supply in a sport described memorably, if patronisingly, as formation mugging, Bradford have shown plenty of the first two this season, and will know by the end of this week if their efforts are to be rewarded with the championship. On Tuesday, Wigan come to Odsal; three days later Northern go to Central Park for the return. The problem for the team seems to be convincing themselves that they can rise above the gloom that appears to have descended on the city; they would do well to remember that, for all the recent defeats, they have done the double over Warrington, the third team in the championship picture.

But pessimism does seem to have become a way of sporting life in Bradford. It is symbolic, perhaps, that the great British horizontal heavyweight Richard Dunn has a sports centre named after him opposite the faded grandeur of Odsal, which once housed 102,569 for a rugby league match. One football team, Park Avenue, has gone, along with county cricket; the other, City, remain anonymous though they have rebuilt their ground since the Valley Parade fire. 'I think generally the city has lost its empathy with professional sport,' the Northern chairman, Chris Caisley, says.

His self-imposed task when he took over five years ago was to try and restore some pride to club and city. 'I thought I could change things in a short space of time,' he says. 'But I may have been a bit nave. People say that we have done well over the past couple of years but I thought we might have done even better.' A little Australianisation of the atmosphere has helped; pom-pom girls and rock music over the Tannoy, which also issues forth the recorded crowd noise that echoes round vast expanses of terracing. A turning point for the under- supported under-achievers - whose average crowd this year has been some 6,500, about 60 per cent up on last season but well short of the halcyon days when they were champions twice in the first two seasons of the Eighties - came two seasons ago. And as so often, hitting rock bottom prompted a recovery. They were heading for relegation, it seemed, when they were embarrassingly beaten 71-10 on national television by Wigan in a Challenge Cup semi-final.

'It crystallised our minds, I suppose,' Caisley says. 'You begin to think whether you want to play at this, or are you going to be serious about it?' The club got serious. The wily Peter Fox, previously in charge during the glory days, arrived as manager, headed off relegation and a programme of investment began.

At first it was fairly modest, although pounds 140,000 was spent on bringing the Great Britain scrum- half Deryck Fox from Featherstone Rovers, but intent was sounded and third place in the league reflected the new approach. Then they surprised the game last summer by signing the prolific centre Paul Newlove, also from Featherstone, for pounds 250,000, a sum that only Wigan and Leeds could previously have laid their hands on.

The directors, though without a Jack Walker among them, dug deep and an increased sponsorship deal of pounds 100,000 with Vaux Breweries also enabled them to pay for the Great Britain forward Paul Dixon and the New Zealander Carl Hall. 'It has been a gamble,' Caisley admits.

Consequently, expectations have been high, and consequently the mood after recent defeats low. Last Monday's match against lowly Hull spoke eloquently of their present state of play. In attack, they always looked likely to score; in defence, always likely to concede a try. The difference in the end was one of bad fortune as they lost 32-30, Deryck Fox twice hitting the upright with kicks at goal. The DJ played 'Holding Out For A Hero' at half-time.

'We have got so close to it but it's a long shot now. We've been talking about ourselves as championship favourites and putting undue pressure on ourselves,' Deryck Fox said afterwards. 'Instead of getting things right for each match, people have been looking long term.'

His manager disagreed. 'I don't think we have talked about the championship. Being up there has been a privilege for us. I don't think many of the lads thought we could win the championship.'

That may have been the problem and Caisley, his patience wearing thin, like the supporters who jeered Northern off at half-time against Hull - and even jeered them back on - says he has even detected it.

'I just hope the desire is there among the players,' he says.

'That's what has disappointed me when you are looking from the sidelines at players who have got vast international experience.

Sometimes they have let themselves down. You wonder whether they have got the right mental ability to cope with it. Peter is a great motivator but there is only so much he can do. Unfortunately, in some games recently, players you expect to do it for you haven't'

It may be that Bradford are where Blackburn were a year ago, acquiring resilience through experience and knowledge of what is needed to sustain a title challenge. Caisley believes they need someone to ease the burden on Newlove. Peter Fox says: 'We are short of another creative player to help Deryck organise the side, and a forward destroyer. We also need another middle back of quality. The progress has been tremendous but I can still see the areas where we are lacking. The last time I was with Bradford, I could tell you when they would win trophies. I'm not sure with this one yet.'

All agree they need the spirit of Wigan, who, for all the talk of dissatisfaction among senior players at changes implemented by the new coach John Dorahy, remain formidable competitors who peak where others fall away. 'They have an in-built sense of pride,' Caisley says. 'Every player that plays for Wigan has his head right in the big games whereas we haven't fulfilled our potential.'

Peter Fox added: 'I said at the beginning of the season that Wigan would not be the force they have been in the past few seasons and that has proved to be true. Different people, different coach, different ideas. They are still a strong side because they have good players in a good system but you don't fear them like you did.'

Caisley's primary, parochial, concern is to raise the spirits of Bradford. 'We need to win something to put bums on seats,' the 42-year-old Leeds solicitor says. 'I walk around Leeds and Bradford and it's chalk and cheese. There seems to be a lot more affluence around Leeds. If we could win the championship, it would be a lift for the city in the same way that winning the football League championship was for Leeds.'

He is aware, too, though, of the wider implications for the game. Wigan and Leeds will receive around pounds 250,000 each for their appearance in the Challenge Cup final and a similar sum awaits the champions for a match in Australia against Brisbane Broncos for the World Club title. Should it be Bradford, the money will help develop the stadium - a new stand with hospitality facilities is needed with the wait for a mooted pounds 100m 'superdome' on the site likely to be a long one - and the challenge to Wigan. Should it be Wigan, it will be a case of to them that hath . . .

All it needs this week is for Northern to heed the words on the cover of their own programme: 'Don't Stop Believ'in.' The spelling may be questionable but it is the sentiment that counts.

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