Sunday, 29 May 2011

Rugby League Article - BARLA - A personal view

In 1983 I was persuaded by the then BARLA Secretary, Tom Keaveney, to stand for election to the BARLA Executive Committee, the group elected annually to manage the Association. At that time BARLA had been in existence for ten years and was still an organisation with a major role to play in the game. Amateur rugby league had been in a terrible state when BARLA was formed, but in the first few years of its existence there had been a big increase in participation in the sport and much more interest generally in the amateur code. Prior to 1983 I had been involved in amateur rugby league as a player, club, district and regional league secretary. When I first attended BARLA meetings in 1976 there was quite a ‘missionary’ zeal about the organisation, but I was also aware of several strong personalities involved with the Association. Personality clashes and arguments at the BARLA Council meetings indicated that as early as 1976, there was a significant power struggle going on.

When elected to the Executive in June 1983, I began to attend the monthly Executive meetings. They were held on Sundays at the George Hotel, in Huddersfield, often in one of the smaller conference rooms and starting at 11.00am. It was a good job that sandwiches were provided at lunchtime as the meetings lasted for seven or eight hours at a time. I thought initially that the purpose of the meetings was for the Executive to manage the Association. The reality, as I soon found out, was very different. There was little or no delegation of powers within the Executive and a lot of suspicion of any newcomers. Some of the Executive members thought that, because I was a school teacher, I couldn’t possibly know very much about rugby league at grassroots level. I am fairly sure that initially I was perceived by some people as a potential threat to the status quo. I was also much younger than most of the other members, in some cases by 30 years, another negative point.

At the first few meetings I struggled to get my point across. People either didn’t appear to listen to my views, or interrupted and took the discussion in a different direction. The reality, as I soon realised, was that these six and seven hour meetings were mainly a ‘talking shop’. People were not really interested in ideas to improve and promote the amateur game, but more in ‘scoring points’. At these meetings there seemed to be a personality clash and massive friction between Tom Keaveney and Maurice Oldroyd, who was the National Administrator. Tom and Maurice had been involved with BARLA from its formation in 1973. In 1983 Maurice was the only full-time paid officer of the Association. Tom had a full time job along with his role as National Secretary. He worked long hours for BARLA, often beginning his rugby work early in the morning, before going to his ‘day job’, continuing through the evening, and often finishing well after midnight. During the normal working day Maurice was in a uniquely powerful position.

After a few meetings people on the Executive were starting to take seriously some of my ideas on the development and expansion of amateur rugby league. However, despite being endorsed by the elected members many of my ideas didn’t seem to be implemented a situation that I soon found very frustrating. I believed that BARLA should be encouraging the development of amateur rugby league in new areas, adding to the work the Doncaster Amateur League had done in establishing new clubs in South Yorkshire and the North Midlands. The situation I found myself in seemed to reflect the inertia that gripped BARLA.

I first visited the BARLA offices in 1976, soon after being elected as a district league secretary, and I was very impressed by what I found. Maurice seemed in complete control, the secretaries always referred to him as Mr Oldroyd, he had a large office and an even larger desk! In 1976 he appeared to be managing a very efficient and pro-active organisation. He told me that he wouldn’t let any document leave the office that had not been checked thoroughly for errors and I got the impression that he ran a very ‘tight ship’. Over the next seven years Maurice strengthened his grip over BARLA so that by 1983 he was the man who really held the power.

After a few months as a member of the Executive, I started to question the point of spending most of Sunday, once a month, sitting in the George Hotel discussing plans that never seemed to be implemented. The meetings had very little to do with rugby league and more to do with politics and power struggles.

During my time on the BARLA Executive I was elected to the International Selection Committee that picked the Great Britain under19 team to play against France. This was another committee where politics and power were more important than rugby league. I had been a Yorkshire County selector for a number of years and previous selection meetings I had attended had been pleasant affairs. Players were selected for Yorkshire following reports from county selectors and the whole process was very thorough and fair. International selection was very different. I drove to my first International selection meeting with Arthur Higgins, who was a seasoned International selector. On the journey to a hotel near Oldham, where the meeting was to be held, Arthur warned me that we needed to be clear on which players we wanted to be selected or we would not get anyone from Yorkshire in the team. This was a shock to me, as Yorkshire had just won the County Championship! The selection meeting was a real eye opener. The Lancashire and Cumbria representatives had obviously met earlier and decided who they wanted to be selected. Therefore, when it came to the voting the Yorkshire representatives were beaten by Lancashire and Cumbria voting together. We did manage to get a few players in the squad, but only because we became very angry and threatened to walk out of the meeting. I was fairly shocked by the way in which men who were supposed to have young players’ interests at heart could be so ruthless because it suited their purpose. I also realised during the meeting that when the prestigious Managers jobs were discussed that the Lancashire and Cumbria representatives appeared to have agreed who to vote for. There were people on the selection committee who seemed to be more interested in the ‘perks’ that came with the Managers job than with the players, who seemed to be of secondary importance.

My experiences at BARLA Executive and International Selection meetings had convinced me that at this level of the game politics had become far more important than rugby league itself. In March 1984, following yet another seven hour Executive meeting, I decided that I could find better things to do in my spare time and resigned from the Association.

When I reflect upon my involvement with BARLA in the 1980s I wonder how much impact the power struggles and ‘infighting’ had on the Association’s ability to build upon the initial enthusiasm created by its formation in 1973 The resulting inertia I witnessed in 1983 and early 1984 probably did not greatly impact on events in the 1980s. In that decade there was still a great deal of goodwill towards BARLA by people involved at ‘grassroots’ level. The 1990s were when, in my opinion, people began to question the role of BARLA. During this decade, the power struggles continued to plague the Association and block real progress. I believe it was then that BARLA began to lose the ‘hearts and minds’ of many amateur enthusiasts and volunteers.

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