South Yorkshire's clubs can learn from the trials of their rugby league neighbours. Dick Roebuck reports
Somewhere along the A61 connecting Barnsley with Wakefield there is a disruption in the sports-time continuum. Things are similar but not the same. This is the frontier between football and rugby league, a Checkpoint Charlie dividing the sporting affections of Yorkshire’s working classes.
Mixed in with the ubiquitous Manchester United shirts are exotic tops, looking like the worst excesses of London Fashion Week. The talk is of “Wildcats” and “Tigers” stalking a slag-heap dotted terrain. A glance at the map just north of Barnsley reveals a footballing black hole. In a population of 200,000 people there is not one professional football team to be found – a round-ball famine unique in England.
Fortunately, little of the crass repackaging of RL clubs in recent years has transferred back over into South Yorkshire. Both sports may be under the dubious benefaction of Rupert Murdoch, but football has seen little of the warping of tradition afflicting its RL counterparts.
Leafing through the history books reveals that Barnsley, too, could have been an RL outpost like Wakefield, Dewsbury, Featherstone and Castleford. It fell to a Sunday school side to convert locals from the oval to the round ball game and lay the foundations for the present tenants of Oakwell. Effectively, they also set the southern limit for the popularity of RL.
Today, South Yorkshire is being slowly cleansed of the few pockets of rugby league which have sprouted since the war. Doncaster Dragons, set up as late as the 1950s, are clinging on to existence, despite expiring as a professional outfit in 1995. After quitting the wonderfully named Tattersfield ground (named after a person, rather the vegetable patch it resembled) they were banished to a greyhound stadium in the troubled ex-mining village of Stainforth. Now they share Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue ground, presumably making the footballers feel relatively prosperous and loved.
“Clinging on” is also a fair description for Sheffield’s RL side, the Eagles. Set up in a bid to expand the game’s appeal outside its heartland, they enjoyed a modicum of success before being tempted by the Murdoch penny. As part of a bid to rationalise the league they then shared £1.25 million for merging to form the Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants. Nothing links these two Yorkshire towns other than a one-hour train ride over the Pennines, but that was deemed irrelevant by rugby league’s “modernisers”.
If anything sums up the problems facing RL and the inherent warnings to football it is this tacky tale. Huddersfield itself is a reincarnation of a once financially blighted club. In the early 1980s their new owners were the first to experiment with repackaging to sway locals away from football. The crumbling stadium, Fartown, became “Arena 84” and the haplessly landlocked players were condemned to be known as the Huddersfield Barracudas.
Huddersfield-Sheffield now share the McAlpine Stadium with Steve Bruce’s Terriers, with the Sheffield end of the operation limited to a couple of games a year at Bramall Lane. If that’s not complicated enough, a side called Sheffield Eagles still plays in the city, after local fans picked over the wreckage and refused to let them die. They play in the Northern Ford Premiership, effectively a second division below the superleague, but with no automatic promotion and relegation. Got that?
The disintegration of RL has come about despite clubs enjoying deep roots in local communities. In terms of socio-economic background, little distinguishes the hard-core support of Wakefield “Wildcats” from the fans who flock to Oakwell, a mere nine miles away. Both clubs can boast a heritage of over 100 years and the potential audience was deemed similar enough for Barnsley to play host to a rugby superleague game recently.
But RL fans must wait in trepidation for the next Murdoch inspired shake-up to make the sport sexier for the global TV audience. Just as Oxford and Reading fans staved off the prospect of the “Thames Valley Royals”, so the faithful of Wakefield, Castleford and Featherstone had to fight against amalgamation when Murdoch first took over the game in the mid-Nineties.
Despite their efforts, a de facto franchise system is now being born in RL more akin to US sports. Dewsbury are about to take the league to court over its refusal to sanction their prospective elevation into the superleague. They have offered to decamp to Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium to meet ground regulations, effectively hitting the road in the same way as Boston’s “other” baseball side flew south to become the Atlanta Braves.
One wonders how much of this may affect football. Already the same MPs who demanded Danny Wilson’s removal at Sheffield Wednesday have suggested a merger of South Yorkshire’s four (football) league clubs. You would have thought they might have glanced a short distance up the M1 to see the turmoil rugby league has undergone before making such pronouncements.
From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month