The betrayal of a heritage
but the advent of a Super League could mean that the sun sets on many clubs in the game's heartland Simon Kelner, sports editor, says that a great game should be nourished at its roots
When Push Comes to Shove, 1993
THESE WORDS, spoken by a Featherstone man, have a prescient and eerie ring this weekend. It is now his game, born from economic necessity, that will die because of it when Rupert Murdoch does to many of these northern communities what Margaret Thatcher failed to do. She closed their pits; he will destroy the most potent badge of their identity.
It is no coincidence that Featherstone, a town of 11,000 people characterised as a set of traffic lights on the A645 but whose rugby team have won the Challenge Cup three times in the past 30 years, is in the frontline of the battle against the Super League and, specifically, the proposal that they should merge with their rivals Castleford and Wakefield Trinity to form one club. Featherstone folk want to see the representatives of their community engaged in what is still one of the purest, most honest and most thrilling of professional sports; what they do not crave is "top- class action beamed live and exclusive to your living-room". Whatever you may have been told, this is another example of packaging sport for viewers rather than spectators.
Sure, many of the grounds are ramshackle two-up, two downs beside the modern stadiums that football's Premiership has spawned. Anyone who has walked along the cobbled alley behind what Salford laughably call the main stand, or who has risked exposure on a visit to Watersheddings, the dilapidated home of Oldham, or who can still recognise Wakefield's ground as the backdrop for the 1963 film This Sporting Life is not left with a positive impression of the sport. Yet all these grounds, now under the threat of the wrecker's ball, have their own charm and history. As Geoffrey Moorhouse said in his book At the George: "For the most part, the grounds are not obviously the abode of super-stardom and glitzy success, big television deals and players strong-arming everyone in sight with their lawyers in tow; and some will see this as a deficiency in our game. But they are companionable places, where you can be easy with your neighbour, and this is a more precious thing." And how many people have stopped going to watch their local team because the seats aren't comfortable enough? Indeed, there is evidence to suggest the contrary. Clubs who have sold their ancestral home to move to a green-field site with tip-up seats and franchised hamburger bars have lost spectators. Whatever else, we Northerners are stubborn buggers who don't, in the normal course of events, react positively to change.
This, if only it were recognised and nourished, is one of the strengths of the game. Its resistance to market forces and sporting fashions (although the trend towards new, garish strips has, shamefully, been embraced) has meant that, among other qualities, discipline on and off the field is envied by many other sports. People watch and play rugby league because it is part of their birthright, and are bred to feel a fierce pride in the game, their game. For instance, when a spectator threw a coin at a linesman at St Helens recently, the television pictures clearly showed spectators pointing out the miscreant to the police. Or, during the miners' strike, players who were black-legs were jeered by their own supporters. Disputing a referee's decision is summarily punished; haranguing an official in the time-honoured fashion of football is unheard-of. This is not a game where phonies survive, where cheats prosper or where the gifted are encouraged to betray their roots. It is an intense, physical sport played these days for substantial reward, and with its share of head-bangers, but at its core is a respect shared by players and spectators, a respect which comes from the acknowledgement that they have a treasure worth preserving.
It may stick in the craw of Maurice Lindsay and the expansionists at league headquarters in Chapeltown Road, Leeds, but this is a parochial game and without its parochialism, it loses almost everything. For all the lobbying, for all the chip-on-the-shoulder complaints about the comparative treatment and status of rugby union, most league followers couldn't give a stuff if the game never achieves the international recognition that Lindsay lists as one of the benefits of jumping into bed with Murdoch.
Globalism runs contrary to the spirit and traditions of rugby league. Fev people want to see their men take on Castleford, their deadly enemies from a few miles down the road. They don't want the clubs to join forces under an artificial banner to take on the world. Could the fans of Warrington and Widnes really have united to roar on Cheshire (particularly when they were only dumped in that county in 1974)? On Radio 5 last week, Colin Welland came from his well-appointed home in Barnes, south-west London, to speak for the ordinary rugby league fan and said that he thought they would if it were all they were left with. Somehow I doubt it, and it is this disregard of what true supporters hold most dear that is the biggest arrogance of all. "Who do they think they're kidding with these new clubs?" asked the Hull-born playwright John Godber last week. "Names like Calder or Humber. They sound like characters from Gladiators."
I often drive 450 miles on a Sunday to watch Swinton, the club my father saddled me with. They are in the lower reaches of the Second Division and, four years ago, sold their famous old ground, the place that means more to me than any family home in which I have lived. Three-bedroom houses now stand where I used to, and the club are lodgers at Bury FC, six miles away from the town. It is a act of faith to continue to follow them - and anyone exposed to Second Division rugby on a regular basis knows what I mean - but they are still called Swinton and they still play in blue, and until that changes I will be helplessly drawn towards them. Identity matters in this post-modern age, whether you live in Barnes or Batley.
This is not to suggest that the game should stand still. The move towards a summer season is, for many reasons, to be welcomed. And, for all their quaint appeal, most grounds are in urgent need of serious renovation and the money has to come from somewhere. Yet in this helter-skelter ride of the past 10 days, and in the undignified rush to pocket the Murdoch shilling, the game has lost its moral authority and, importantly, its credibility with the people who matter most. In selling off the family silver to a man whose motivating force is surely not the long-term prosperity of rugby league, and by voting away supporters' inalienable rights to follow their team, and that of their forefathers, Lindsay and the club chairmen have betrayed what The Late Show might call our cultural heritage, but what we call roots. The game belongs in St Helens not St Albans, and it must be a source of regret that the money and effort spent in the attempt to plant seeds in Maidstone, or Nottingham, or Southend, or Cardiff, or even London (where fewer than 1,000 regular spectators have been rewarded with a Super League club) was not used to sustain clubs that had withered in the heartland.
Geoffrey Moorhouse, for one, could see all this coming. At The George was written six years ago and, in it, he said: "Even when, if, I am in Another Place, I shall not wish to contemplate a bastard game played by men wearing padded knickerbockers, broken up by time-outs and garnished with goose-pimpled cheerleaders on the touchline, between the likes of Wigan Wildcats and Batley Braves. I shall not be happy. I shall haunt Chapeltown Road through all eternity." And so shall I.
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