Up the Rovers, down with Rupert

Featherstone's rugby league is too important to lose, says Ian Clayton
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The Independent Online
I live in Station Lane in Featherstone, a little town in West Yorkshire. You may have heard of our team, Featherstone Rovers.

Featherstone Rovers play rugby league, a game that is known best for its strong links with community and genuine values of pride in local identity, celebrating local heroes and working together as a team. Rugby league fans feel part of their club, whether it be through baking buns for the players to eat after training, or selling raffle tickets to keep a locally born lad at the club. Rugby league fans are not passive onlookers.

The link between club and community is no better symbolised than in Featherstone, where washing lines stretch out from the backs of the houses on Post Office Road to the boundary wall of Rovers' stadium. Last weekend a decision was made by the rugby league club chairman that may have severed the links rugby league clubs have with their communities for ever. A sharp knife has been taken to those lines and plunged deep into the fabric of the rugby jerseys hanging from them.

From next March, rugby league will jump into bed with Rupert Murdoch's News International and will broadcast globally on satellite television as "Super League". The league will consist of 14 clubs - only five of the current 32 teams have been invited to join, the others will be regional teams made up of a variety of amalgamations and mergers of current clubs - plus two clubs from France which don't yet exist.

Featherstone Rovers have not been invited. My team has been told to merge with Castleford and Wakefield, two nearby towns with little in common, to form a team called "Calder", the name of a medium-sized Yorkshire river.

Many people in my town think that it's all a nightmare brought on by the Government and that we'll soon wake up. You see, in Featherstone we've had to put up with a lot in recent years. Ten years ago when I looked out of my living room window I could see three pit-head gears. Almost overnight they disappeared in the pit closure plan. I've watched a succession of banks, building societies and well-established businesses boarded-up and broken into. Crime is on the increase here. For the first time to my knowledge I've known Featherstone folk pinching off one another and earlier this year there was a murder, the first since soldiers were sent here in 1893 to break a strike and shot and killed two colliers.

The one thing that remained constant during these times was our rugby team. We've still been able to go up and cheer our heroes, the lads that represent our town. We haven't won too many trophies in that time but all clubs and their fans will tell you that the team they fear visiting is Featherstone and the fortress that is Post Office Road stadium. That makes us proud.

We were proud when we stood up against first Thatcher and then Heseltine over the pit closures. And we're proud to say that rugby league is a sport that belongs to our people, not a product to be sold off, especially to people who will never understand what it means to invest in community.

Perhaps you might be thinking: "This is progress and here's a flat- capped, whippet-racing Northerner, standing slap bang in the way of it." Nothing of the sort. I'm all for progress in our game, but I want it watering at the root, not cherry-picked from the top branches. Murdoch only wants the stars, the rich clubs and the sponsored jerseys.

My only contact with rugby league will be watching two brightly coloured sets of men representing no one in particular taking part in a media circus. While outside my window, shops are boarded up, redundant miners loiter and a new supermarket goes up on what used to be the half-way line at Post Office Road.

The writer works with the award-winning community publisher Yorkshire Art Circus.

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