Rugby League: Unhappy Hull in high water

Dave Hadfield charts a fall in fortunes for the once great rugby league city
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The Independent Online
It was lonely last Christmas on Humberside. For one of the few times in living memory, there was no derby between the city's two famous rugby league clubs, Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers, to inflame local loyalties. The reason was that Rovers, who were such a dominant force in the game until the mid- Eighties, are now a humble Second Division club. And it is in that division that the next derby is likely to take place, so great is the danger of Hull following their neighbours into relative obscurity at the end of this season.

The reduced circumstances of the two teams are barely credible considering that not 15 years ago Humberside was the centre of the code's universe. Hull FC, who were briefly the best-supported rugby league club in the world in the early Eighties, now struggle along on an increasingly disillusioned hardcore of 4,000.

Where almost every season they were in contention for the major prizes, they are now two points adrift at the foot of the table. They go to Oldham today desperately needing a win (although few would back them to get it) to stop the gap between them and safety becoming wider than the Humber.

Apart from the older and more vocal inhabitants of what remains of the Threepenny Stand, the one link between the great days and these days that grate is Roy Waudby.

The chairman of Hull during that glory era and still the club's largest share-holder, Waudby no longer sits on the board. But it is doubtful that the present state of affairs hurts anyone more. Waudby traces the start of the decline to one match, the 1983 Challenge Cup final, which Hull were expected to win, but lost to Featherstone.

"Our supporters had become so used to success that they couldn't accept defeat," he says. "We went to Wembley again, losing that marvellous final to Wigan in 1985, but we never won people back." So where have they all gone? Not to Rovers, who would envy even Hull's modest gates; nor to Hull City, although a really successful football club could have been a threat even in the days when league dominated Humberside.

"They go shopping on Sunday afternoons," Waudby says sadly. Meanwhile, Hull have had to stop shopping for players, engaging instead in a long struggle to reduce their overheads. Things could get worse. Although there are plans for redeveloping their ground at The Boulevard, relegation would render the present set-up more than adequate for Hull's needs.

One solution might be to amalgamate the two clubs in a new stadium, but that idea receives short shrift. "Nobody who knows Hull would agree with that," Waudby insists. "You are either born black and white or red and white. A merged club wouldn't attract either set of fans; I wouldn't want to watch them myself."

Hull do not even have the conventional option of sacking their coach. They have already done that, dismissing the former New Zealand coach, Tony Gordon, after little more than three months.They have followed the equally well-trodden path of installing two senior players, Russ Walker and Phil Windley, in his place.

For a while, it seemed that the spirit of the side had improved, but that was hardly apparent in last week's home defeat by Workington. "That was a very important game for us," Waudby says, "and you didn't get the feeling that the players were fighting for their lives. That's what upsets all of us."

Hull still have their fate largely in their own hands. Following that defeat by Workington, they still have all the other struggling sides to play at home. At one time, that would have been enough to ensure survival, but a trip to The Boulevard is no longer the daunting experience it once was. Hull need to pick up points away from home and they must start today.