Monday 25 July 2011

Stepping into the unknown - The birth of Sheffield Eagles

I was part of the small group of people involved with the launch of Sheffield Eagles. We all had high hopes for the first game and the future of the club. Tickets, posters and flyers had been distributed, meetings were held and a supporters club was created. We were optimistic that, because of our efforts, there would be four or five thousand curious South Yorkshire people turn up to see the first game of professional rugby league to be played in Sheffield. As I am sure is the case with all new clubs, the first game is like stepping into the unknown. We had no real idea how a game between Sheffield Eagles and Rochdale Hornets would be received in soccer - mad Sheffield.

Game day was very hectic. Very few people involved with the Eagles knew what to expect, and the Owlerton Stadium staff were more used to dealing with greyhound, speedway and stock car meetings, events that are very different to an 80 minute game of rugby league. Unfortunately, despite our hard work, the reality was that less than a thousand people paid to watch that first game. Giving an attendance figure to the media present caused me a dilemma. If I gave the actual attendance, the credibility of Sheffield Eagles would be damaged. Alternatively, if I gave a grossly inflated attendance figure, nobody present would believe it. In the end I decided to announce the attendance as 1,214, a figure that most people present seemed to find acceptable. Despite being told to do so, the security staff had not kept complimentary tickets and just waved people through the gate. I therefore had no real idea how many of the thousands of free tickets we distributed were actually used. The paying attendance certainly did not cover costs, but fortunately nobody questioned the attendance. In fact the Rugby Leaguer correspondent, who obviously did not hear the crowd figure announced, gave the attendance in their edition on 6th September 1984 as an impressive 2,000.

I remember very little about what happened on the field in that first game as, apart from ten minutes after half time, I was too busy in the office to watch any of the action. One of my main jobs was fielding complaints about the DJ who had been hired to comment on the game. Unfortunately, he had little idea about rugby league, talked while the game was taking place, and also made comments more in keeping with American football than rugby league. The people who complained about the DJ left the ground muttering that if that man was at future games they wouldn't be. The DJ did not appear again but I am not sure that the people who complained returned either.

Sheffield Eagles won that first League game by 29 points to 10 and during the rest of the season managed a further seven victories to give the club a final league position of fourth from bottom of the Second Division. Doncaster, Southend and Bridgend were the three clubs with fewer league points than the Eagles in the 1984/85 season.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Leeds Chirons 1973

Leeds Chirons 24th February 1973

This is another photograph I was unable to use in Leeds Who? The team is pictured before a home game against Moortown Stags. This is one of the few Chirons photographs I have managed to find that has all the players names listed on the back.
The team is:
Back Row Left to Right: Frank Cawood, Alan Flint, Andy Midgley, Geoff Harrold, Andrew Newton, Angus Ross, Stewart Collins, Mike Illingworth
Front Row Left to Right: Malcolm Gosling, Neil Ashton, Peter Birdsall, Ian Moore, Bill Oldroyd, Dave Illingworth, Roger Harris
The 1972/73 season was a successful one, Ian Moore captained a team that won the majority of its games in a fixture list that included clubs such as Bridlington, North Ribblesdale, Skipton and Ripon. Five of the players in the photograph are featured in Leeds Who? including Stewart Collins and Ian Moore whose memories of playing for Leeds Chirons are in Chapter 10 of the book.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Rugby League Characters - Mike Morrissey

Mike Morrissey

The late Mike Morrissey is a largely forgotten figure. This is despite the fact that only fourteen years have passed since his innovative ideas on Rugby League were introduced and now underpin some of the current policies and procedures in the sport.

Mike and I worked closely together for a number of months prior to our election to the senior positions in the British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA). In June 1997, at the Annual General Meeting of the Association, Mike was elected as Chairman and I was elected as Vice Chairman. During our months of planning in 1997 we agreed that if we were elected we would seek to radically change the way in which BARLA operated. We aimed to remove some of the obstacles that prevented Amateur Rugby League from building on its strength in the communities it served and from developing into a National sport that could be accessed by all. In our opinion there had been too much political infighting within BARLA and also with the Rugby Football League, the governing body of the professional section of the sport.

Mike was an ideas man who had a clear vision of the future of Rugby League and the force of personality to get things done. The creation of the Rugby League Service Areas, a fundamental part of the development structure of the sport, was an idea that came from Mike. He lived in Manchester, over fifty miles from my home town, so in those days it was telephone conversations and the fax machine that we used to develop our ideas. On the evening that Service Areas were invented Mike telephoned me to say that he had put a plan together and would I read the fax he was sending and ring him back. The fax arrived with detail on a very straightforward structure that Mike thought should be based on local areas delivering coach and player-centred development programmes, and that those areas could be called Service Areas. The plans were worked on by Mike and I and Tom O'Donovan, the Rugby Football League's Development Director. Over the next few years Service Areas became an integral part of the way in which Rugby League development was structured. As with any new initiative implementation has produced changes and many developments, Mike always saw this as the natural way for an idea to move forward.

Sadly Mike died in 2000, at the age of fifty. He did not live to see the impact that one of his ideas had on the way the sport is structured. The Service Area concept is only one example of the many creative ideas that Mike put forward during our turbulent term of office, beginning at that AGM in 1997 and ending in September 1998 with a vote of no confidence initiated by BARLA members who couldn't handle the pace of change. The vote of no confidence had a massive impact on Mike and for nearly two years he had no involvement with the sport, only returning to junior coaching shortly before his death. One of the most disappointing aspects of what happened following our time in office is that Mike's contribution to Rugby League has never been recognised. I read a short history of the development of BARLA written a year or so after Mike and I were removed from office and found that there was no mention of what happened in 1997 and 1998. Mike was 'airbrushed' from history, even though many of his ideas had started an irreversible process that has lead to the current structure of Rugby League governance and development. Had Mike been involved, one might speculate that the structure would have been more progressive and probably more effective.

Mike was a Rugby League man who believed passionately that sport could change people's lives. He was a larger than life character who was not afraid to challenge ideas and conventions. He made an outstanding contribution to Rugby League that should be recognised.

Monday 11 July 2011

Leeds Chirons - a unique club?

This article appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1980. I used the picture in Leeds Who? but didn't include the article and the names of the players. In many respects Leeds Chirons was a unique club in that all the players were teachers and many of them continued to play for Chirons right through the 1930s. I am sure there were some of the more senior Leeds clubs that would have been delighted to have players such as Bob Presswood and Arthur Mallinson in their ranks as both men had played for Yorkshire. However, it is obvious that cameraderie, team spirit and friendship were the most important factors for the men in the photograph when they chose which Rugby club to play for.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Rugby League Characters

This blog is the first in a series about people I have met through my involvement in Rugby.

In 1971 when I joined Bentley, the Doncaster based Amateur Rugby League Club, the coach was Roy Bell. Roy had played professional Rugby League for a number of clubs including Wakefield Trinity. He was a ball handling loose forward, who still played occasionally for Bentley, but only when his gout permitted. Roy was in his late 30s and had had suffered from gout for a number of years. His occasional appearances on the field usually resulted in a win for Bentley as Roy's skills were unique. He was a very good leader and his passes could creat massive gaps in the opposition's defensive line which, providing the right person caught the pass would more than likely result in one of the Bentley players scoring a try.

Bunty Stokes, a prop forward or hooker, was something of a Bentley legend because of his pre-match routine. He used to arrive at the ground before everyone else but would often be jogging onto the field just as the referee was about to start the game. Bunty spent all his time in the dressing room, pre-match, getting himself strapped. He had bandages on virtually every part of his body. The bandages he used were very rarely washed, they were a strange grey colour and went straight into his kitbag after every game. It usually took Bunty at least an hour to strap himself up and if we were late arriving, when we played away, we often had to start without him. Bunty would not take the field unless he had all his strapping on!

Another Bentley character was Trevor Neep. Trevor was quite a small guy but very strong. He was a farmer and rumour had it that he wrestled cows for fitness instead of coming to training. The incident I remember best involving Trevor happened in a game against Eastmoor, a Wakefield based club. The game was on a Sunday morning and because Eastmoor arrived short of players their coach Fred Lindop decided to play. Fred, one of the top referees in the game, hadn't played for many years but decided that his team needed him. Fred was very agressive on the field and ran with great enthusiasm whenever he had the ball. He was also very enthusiastic in defence making more than his fair share of tackles. In the middle of the first half he ran in to tackle Trevor Neep. Trevor, in his usual style, ran straight through Fred's tackle and left him lying on the ground with stud marks on his chest and the beginnings of a beautiful black eye. After a few minutes of treatment Fred was taken from the field, probably for his own safety, and didn't come back. After the game he rushed off in his car as he was refereeing a professional game at Oldham in the afternoon. I understand that he got a very interesting reception from the spectators at Oldham as he ran onto the field with a black eye that by 3.00 o'clock, when the game kicked off, had developed into a real 'shiner'.

Monday 4 July 2011

College Rugby Union in the 1960s

These are some of my memories from 1968/69, the first season of College rugby at Doncaster College of Education.

In one interesting game, just after Christmas 1968, we played a new club called Barton on Humber. In the Barton team were some experienced players who had obviously told their team mates that as they were going to play a team full of young students then they needed a very physical approach or we may be too quick for them. They certainly had a physical approach, but we had one or two players who could handle themselves and so we were not intimidated and gave as good as we got. Unfortunately the referee was intimidated most and so just after half time he said he had seen enough violence and was going to abandon the game. This was a disappointment as we hadn't won on a Saturday for a while and we were leading at the time.

Most of the college games were enjoyable because we did try to play open rugby. The twelve games we won were mostly on a Wednesday when we played other student teams. We usually managed to get a stronger team out on a Wednesday, probably because of the night out that followed the game. We had some good players at college but the occasions when we managed to field our best team were few and far between.
Ian Cooke, who was a good non-league footballer, played for us when his football commitments allowed. Ian hadn't played much rugby, but he was a very good ball player as well as being quick and he could be relied on to kick well either from hand or at goal.

A second year mature student called Les Clarkson always made an impact when he played. He was a massive man who had played amateur rugby league at a good standard and his presence on the field often struck fear into the opposition.In one particular game against Scawsby College we were winning by over sixty points at half time, quite a feat in those days when tries were only worth three points. there was some talk of abandoning the game as we seemed to score every time we got the ball. However, Scawsby were keen to play the second half so Les Clarkson suggested that we swopped the backs and the forwards around. I played as a flanker in a very small pack with the rest of the backs and Les played stand-off with prop forwards in the centre and second rows on the wings. It did keep the score down a little but we still got over a hundred points. Scawsby was a local college but because of that heavy defeat they were not very keen to play us again.

I recall a student in our year called Robert Gate, who later became a well known author on rugby league history, making an appearance in a Wednesday afternoon game at Bishop Lonsdale College in Derby. Robert had been very keen to play, but was very skinny, probably weighing in at under nine stones. He played on the wing and took some heavy punishment. After one particular tackle he struggled to get up and I am not sure that he finished the game. Robert didn't play again!

The College continued to play regular fixtures until the late 1970s when the Minister of Education decided that the national arrangements for the training of teachers should be revised, and one consequence of this was the termination of teacher-training courses at Doncaster College of Education.