The Dentist’s Diary – 529th

It was the best of times it was the worst of times! But thankfully at the end we were all celebrating, we were all ‘breathing again’ and we were all just so relieved!

It had been a year (bar one day), since our last 22-20 victory which came in equally dramatic circumstances at The Lightstream Stadium on Good Friday. This time we got home again by that score, but the boot this time was on the other foot and it was Hull FC that were hanging on for dear life at the end. But, then again, as far as the really good teams go, how many times have we seen Saints, Leeds and Wigan do just that early in the season and scrape home with the points?

If you weren’t emotionally involved then as for drama, well you’d have certainly got your money’s worth at a cold DW Stadium on Friday night. However, despite the fact that the game was a real gripping affair, in the end I would much rather be reporting on an easy win gained after a fabulous start, than an almost tragic capitulation in the final quarter, when we simply couldn’t keep hold of the ball. I know all about the claims of Wigan beforehand concerning the number of players they had out injured and their coaches whinging afterwards that they would have won had they been on Sky, but that’s the game and that sort of rhetoric doesn’t wash much with me at all. But, I will concede that you have to admire the Lancastrians strength in depth and the way that despite trailing 22–0, in the end, had the game gone on any longer, they would most certainly have won.

That alone could be very worrying indeed, but there were some mitigating circumstances on our side too. There was the team arriving late (like most of the other travellers from the East Coast) which caused a truncated warm up, the loss of Danny Houghton and the disruption that brought and the response from a Wigan crowd that finally woke up and apparently for the first time this season came to life. On the plus side we are, after just 6 games, half way to our first target, the accepted safety point for the top eights split, we scored some amazing tries, we scrapped and scrapped when the tide of the game had turned against us and on Saturday morning we sat top of the league after over a quarter of the regular season had passed.

Points are all that matters these days and we got both to go 5 wins from 6 games and who wouldn’t have taken that a couple of months ago in the pre-season. Once the tide of a game has turned against you in the sort of circumstances we saw the other night you have the devil’s own job to turn it back again, but if we didn’t exactly do that, we at least found a way to stem that tide and there were some real heroes out there at the end.

Last weekend I said that I would take anything from the next two games and we got two precious points in a crazy game that left the players out on their feet and us lot on the terraces out of our minds!

Boasting the best defence in Super League and our best start to a season since 2012, we certainly put our three-match winning run on the line when we went over to Lancashire last Friday evening. We were in fact playing Super League’s only unbeaten side this season and while Wigan were missing several senior players through injury, they had grown used to playing short-handed and we should have realised that! It was a big task, but one that we were confident of overcoming, we had won four of our opening five matches this season and so we should have been heading to the DW Stadium full of confidence. But then the traffic, the tide of the game and the occasion took over.

It all started really badly with absolute and utter mayhem on the M62. It was probably the worst journey over to Lancashire I can ever remember and having left Cottingham with Joe from blackandwhites at around 3-10 it was 7-00pm by we finally arrived at the DW Stadium. It would be fine if I could blame such a horrendous journey on a major traffic incident or some dire levels of road works, but the cross country artery was just rammed almost from end to end. There were a couple of broken down cars on the hard shoulder but in general it was just the volume of traffic that caused the problem.

If the level of vehicles was unusually heavy even before we left the A63, by we got to the Castleford turn off, we were stop/start, stop/start from then on and it just continued like that right over the top and didn’t clear at all until we were onto the M61. That’s about 70 miles of jams!!

The Road to Hell and gridlock all the way. Joe took this picture from our car as miles from anywhere on a section that is usually one of the better ones, we and 1200 other FC fans battled over the Pennines.

We saw an unfortunate pedestrian hit on a crossing at the other side of a duel carriageway as we entered Wigan and even the car parking arrangements were chaotic when we got there.

Once we had parked up and got inside the ground, there was an announcement at 7-20 that the kick off had been put back 10 minutes. As our team Coach hadn’t even arrived and by 7-30 there were still only about 50 people at the away end, that was certainly a welcome delay.

A picture timed at 7.44pm shows a pretty sparsely populated concourse with some fans still miles away from the ground.

We decided to take solace and a deal of sustenance from a burger that was full of nutrition and without doubt 95% sawdust and then sat down in our seats to await the start of the game. As we watched our warm up it looked disjointed and hurried and one has to wonder if that had anything to do with Danny Houghton’s early injury, which occurred as he chased the initial kick off; he soldiered on made several tackles and then hobbled off down the tunnel. It was all a real mess really and even though the kick off had been delayed by 10 minutes people were still coming into the seats with 20 minutes of the game gone. It was bloody chaos!

It was as a match, a tale of the first and last quarters really. The first twenty or so minutes were quite amazing as Danny Washbrook brilliantly stepped into the acting half back role and we played some amazing rugby to take an 18-0 lead. With Sneyd and Kelly pulling the strings we scored three great tries. Michaels had acres of room to catch and touch down a brilliant Sneyd kick, while Kelly showed a real touch of class and a deal of resilience and tenacity as he kept going, stepped out of tackles and scored what is fast becoming a real trade mark try. The other score by Connor was probably the best, as it involved some great running, off-loading and handling and boy in that first period we looked good.

The final quarter was however a different story altogether. After Shaul had pushed us further ahead with a great long range effort just after the start of the second half, those final minutes of the game were brutal for the FC players and heart-stopping for the fans, whilst they must have been totally exasperating for the coaching staff. It seemed that any moment Wigan were going to steal victory, but as we squirmed and shuffled in our seats, at worst looked away and at best watched through our fingers, the cover tackling from our lads was pretty outstanding. With Wigan flying into the attack and spreading the ball from side to side of the pitch, our tired defence, for probably the first time this season, looking shaky, but after just conceding four consecutive 4 tries in under 20 minutes, in that last four gripping minutes, we somehow just managed to hold firm.

He’ll take some shifting from that wing spot; Steve Michael attacked well and displayed some never say die defence all night.

Lesser teams would have come out of that one with an L in the fixtures column after that comeback, but we showed fantastic resilience to hold on and the relief on the pitch and the terraces at the end was palpable. But the petrol was gone and it had obviously dissipated because we had handed the ball back to the opposition on so many occasions throughout the game, yet our resolve was fabulous and we did just enough. Never more so than when a massive last gasp crunching tackle on George Williams dislodged the ball as he headed for the line with a minute to go and in that key moment for us the game was won…..just! Yes we gave away too much ball and we played some dumb rugby at times but we made up for it with heart and tenacity and our attack in the first quarter and our defence for much of the game was certainly something to behold and beating Wigan away from home at any time will do for me!

The officials, for all Clubs, seem to be crap this season, but on this occasion Bentham was certainly a ‘homer’ and at one point in the second half someone in front of me shouted, “What did they bloody give that for Bentham” and someone retorted from behind, “Wigan being at home!”. He even managed to give them a penalty after the final hooter had gone! It wasn’t pretty, but the Black and Whites did just enough. At the end of the game the relief on the players’ faces was there for all to see, as they came away from the huddle to celebrated their fourth win in a row.

However, if it was tough for the players then it was a game that spanned every emotion for those attending. We are not clicking all the time, we lost a lot of possession and we certainly let Wigan get back on the front foot when they should have been dead and buried. But boy, we fought hard and several players still managed to come out of it with flying colours. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Hull FC in the next few months is trying to find anyone who can step into Miniciello’s and Ellis’s boots. They are both without doubt absolute freaks and were probably the two biggest reasons for us holding on for that win.

I have also to give special mention to Josh Griffin who with 149 meters was my personal man of the match. He had his best game for us by a mile. We certainly presented him with good early ball and he took advantage of that to great effect. He was devastating in attack and Wigan had no answer to his speed and strength. At times he ran all over his opposite number and it was one of his breaks that really got us rolling downfield before offloads from Mark Minichiello (with 40 tackles) and Sika Manu, put Jake Connor over. Another set up a fine long-range score from a more elusive Jamie Shaul and out wide at that side of the field, we certainly looked very strong indeed.

Sika Manu is proving to be a great asset in such close games.

When Fetuli Talanoa comes back in, Steve Michaels is going to be hard to shift too, because he had a fine game. He gives his absolute all every time he is involved and as well as scoring a great try he carried the ball well and came up with an amazing try-saving tackle on Tom Davies in the first half. There should also be a special mention for Chris Green who had another wow of a game making on average 10 yards for every carry he made and once again quite amazingly he never made a mistake. With Green, Bowden, who was good as I’ve seen him on Friday and Watts and Taylor rotating, we will have a hell of a front row next week to be sure.

In a game that some felt was nothing short of a disaster, I found it hard to criticise many players really because although the mistakes and brain farts came thick and fast, everyone absolutely gave their all, there were no slackers and as well as Ellis and Mini players like Taylor, Manu, Washbrook and Bowden were at times real heroes too.

You’ll notice that I haven’t had a go in here about our late collapse at all, although some who went might take me to task for that, but you know, it amazes me sometimes when you read social media, because anyone would have thought that we lost the way some folks were going on! The thing was that Wigan really fought back and for various reasons, we were not at the top of our game for a couple of periods, but it made for an amazingly exciting game and a great spectacle with some great entertainment and absorbing, ‘look away’ drama. Some were already writing us off with 8 minutes to go but whatever the circumstances and however crap we appear to be, we should never write this lot off at all, well not before the hooter has gone anyway.

At this time of year there will be freak results and even freak happenings during games, but believe me the signs are there that if we can keep our half backs fit we will see some amazing rugby down the track, we just have to ensure that games where we make so many mistakes are kept to a minimum, because they drain our energy and that could see us burn out well before the end of the season. Against Widnes our completion rates were great and around 90% but against Wigan they were just below 50%; what’s all that about? Ask Mr. Radford because I have no idea, but then again who’d be a Coach eh?

Last week I said that two points from these next two games would have been fine, so we have them and we move on to Warrington, where now for me anything is a bonus!

I met a couple of interesting people at the game on Friday and it was down to the power of the internet, that I came across the first. Trevor Gibbins spotted the rather heavily bandaged finger my pal Joe was sporting and although he had never met him he remembered seeing it on Facebook, so he came over to say hello. Trevor is in fact a sports writer for BBC on-line and lives over that side of the country, but he reads the Diary every week, so we had a chat and it was certainly great to meet a reader and discuss this weekly rubbish with him. Then when I got sat in my seat next to Carl Fitzgerald and his family, I was introduced to reader Andy Goodson, a big FC fan who lives in the States and who was over from California and taking in the game, so it was also great to meet up with him too. You never quite know who you’ll be bumping into when you go to see the FC do you?

Finally, on Friday we made good progress on the return journey until we got to Oldham were the motorway was closed altogether for road works and so we had a trip through East Lancashire and the back streets of Oldham and Rochdale before we got back on track and then at Goole the fog came down! So it was home for 1-30am and the end of a perfect drive….not!

Now to the rest of the news and Sky Sports made a lot of fuss over their latest innovation, the Player Cam, which was worn by Warrington stand-off Kurt Gidley during their loss at Leigh a week last Thursday. It disappeared at half time, with Sky commentators telling us it was due to technical difficulties. But it seems that Tony Smith ordered its removal after a dismal first half by Gidley which sent them on their way to a fifth successive defeat and left them rooted to the bottom of the Super League table. Personally I wasn’t that impressed myself with what the camera did anyway, but let’s face it if there’s a gimmick going rugby league will try it!

Well this week the Club announced the details of its Hull and Proud week which is returning for its fourth year. It will conclude at the BIG Day Out on Good Friday, after a week of events starting with the annual fun day on Saturday 9th April at YPI, followed by the Hull FC Big Fat Quiz of the Year, the Frankie & Benny’s FC Takeover and several other events. There is also an opportunity to watch the 2016 Challenge Cup final again and do in the company of Wembley hero and Man of Steel 2016 Danny Houghton. It’s a great effort from the Club and should make for a great build up to the big game on Good Friday afternoon. I just hope it doesn’t offer too much of a distraction for the players because it’s a really big weekend for us.

The discussions on the structure of the game continue unabated behind the scenes at Redhall, as the senior clubs meet together on a monthly basis, whilst discussing and at time haggling over the finer details amongst themselves, between those meetings. Although the decision that comes out of these discussions is set to be announced during the summer, there is little doubt that changes are a foot. However even if the Eights format hasn’t really worked very well at the top and bottom levels of the professional game, some would argue perhaps it has in the middle.

The system was introduced for the 2015 season and the feeling in the game is the Super-8s will become yet another in a long list of much-hyped, but short-lived rugby league innovations. The end of season competition play-off league of seven games, culminating in a semi and Grand final is too big and already it’s become apparent that some lower ranked teams will always be cut adrift with nothing to play for immediately after round 23.

However, that said, I honestly think that promotion is likely to stay on the table in some form or another, particularly if Leigh Centurions continue to compete the way they have been doing thus far. What the Lancashire Club have done must not only be good for the game, but be really heartening for Halifax, Featherstone, Batley and London all of whom have stepped up their Super League ambitions on and off the field, since the new system was introduced.

If the middle bit seems to be working OK, then the bottom-eights, the Championship Shield, is an even more pointless and unwanted competition than the eight at the top of Super League. Attendances often struggle to better the amateur game and gates of 200 are a regular occurrence. Teams are cut adrift trying to make a go of it in areas of the country where the public seem to not want them and some of the results last season and the fact certain clubs at times struggled to raise a 17-man squad, underlined the malaise down there.

Many would argue that the closed shop of licensing probably stagnated the game and didn’t have a positive impact on the game on the field, although it could be argued that the system probably saved our sport. Back then, with the policing of turnover, quotas and a rigorous control of the salary cap etc. some Clubs that were in a parlous state, were scrutinized, monitored and forced to get their houses in order. That perhaps saved several clubs from going under. In fact, it’s quite ironic that since licensing disappeared we have seen Salford, Wakefield and of course Bradford at times in trouble. So although relegation should stay, minimum standards do need to be enforced.

The way forward is probably a system of promotion and relegation based on on-field performance, but with clubs only being allowed up if they meet some minimum, written criteria, that is policed vigorously. We have to educate the lower clubs and help then tackle the issues they face, not just cut them adrift to get on with it. We certainly need a change, because much of what is happening at present isn’t working at all.

However, when change comes then it has to be sustainable with some sort of ‘shelf life’, because we can’t continue to chop and change the structure of the game, whilst the fans get more and more fed up and drift away from it in even bigger numbers.

Just my view of course but for me the best sporting spectacle in the world is probably at the cross roads, or even now in the last chance saloon as far as remaining as a sustainable spectator sport is concerned. I’ll be watching closely what happens next and I suggest that all fans of the game do the same, because what the clubs decide has to be the final solution to a conundrum that has haunted the game for years.

Well I promise this will be the last time I mention it, but the new book ‘2016 The Year of the Airliebird’, has been accepted by the publishers and has a provisional release date of 4th July. I have decided to give all the profits to Danny Houghton’s Testimonial and the release date is timed to coincide with the start of his year. It’s ended up being bigger than I expected when I just set out to record what took place in the year in which I eventually experienced the greatest moment of my life, in fact, I guess that in the end it finished up a pretty personal journal.

I’m certainly no author, so I found writing about a period of just 10 months was a lot different and more difficult to writing up 25 years of my life, as I had done in the Roamin’ books. I found that as well as chronicling the games, intrigue, injuries, controversies and emotion of the season, it has ended up exploring all the heartache, passion, humour and camaraderie that made up a pretty phenomenal year for both our club, its fans and me personally. Don’t worry though, it will probably still be full of the usual bad grammar, spelling mistakes, bogus information and duff statistics but I have done my best. I do hope that at least we’ll all end up with something that can sit on the shelf as a memorial to a very extraordinary year for us all and most of all that we’ll between us raise a bit of cash for Danny!

Henry Winterman (not the cigar man!!) exiled as he is in Malaga Spain reads the Diary regularly, and often gets in touch. Last week he E Mailed to say that there was a particular game he wanted me to feature this week. Aged 84 Henry was a ‘practising’ Hull fan for decades and so it was hardly surprising that his request was for me to feature a game from all the way back on September 27th September 1969. So here for Henry is that particular game, as I saw it and wrote about it in Book One of the ‘Roamin the Range’ saga!

….Back then the Yorkshire Cup still featured as an early season competition and that year we had beaten York and Castleford at home in the early rounds and then beaten Leeds 20-17 in the semi-final under the lights at Headingley, which meant for the second time in three years we had got through to the Yorkshire Cup final.

So it was that on a drizzly September morning I made my way from home in Sutton to Paragon Station to catch the 9-00 o’clock train to Leeds for our appearance in that Final where we were to play Featherstone Rovers. Two years previously we had come up short in the same fixture against Rovers but this time with new signing Terry Kirchin on board we had high hopes of getting our first final win in the competition since 1924. It’s hard to believe that with all our success in the second half of the 1950’s this trophy that was probably (because of the competition format) the ‘easiest’ to win had alluded us and although we had been in the final eight times in recent years we had still fallen short on each occasion and lost out when it mattered most.

The train was packed with Hull FC fans starved of success and once we got off at Leeds City we all went for a few beers in the Scarborough Hotel which was just round the corner from the station where the juke box blasted out the Beatles ‘Come Together’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ by the Kinks. At about 1-00pm, a little the worse for wear I got some fish and chips and then boarded the bus for Headingley where we alighted right outside the Cricket Ground turnstiles in Kirkstall Lane. Once inside we took up our position in the South Stand amongst another 6000 high spirited Hull fans. Rugby League was going through a torrid time back then and that was reflected in a gate of 11,089 which was the smallest to ever watch Hull FC in a Cup Final.

The day before the match coach Johnny Whiteley had announced that club captain Arthur Keegan would miss out through injury. There were few times in his thirteen-year reign as club full back that Arthur missed a game and so it was to be ironic that ‘Mr Reliable’ was missing when we won the only piece of silverware we got during his entire career at the club. His place was to be taken by youngster Malcolm Owbridge who was playing in only his seventh first team game. The other big pre match worry was the fitness of Centre Dick Gemmell who had taken no part in the cup run having been out for the past eight games. He had suffered with a bad ankle injury, but with Keegan out it was decided that Hull would risk him with his ankle strapped up.

He took over the captaincy for the day and said afterwards that the large wad of white strapping was actually on his good ankle to fool ‘would be’ tacklers in the Featherstone ranks. He had two pain killing injections in the bad ankle before the game which by the end of the game appeared to be wearing off a bit. Just how brave Dick was that day can I think be gauged by the fact that after the game, so badly had he aggravated his injury, he couldn’t walk to the bus and because of this injury he was then out of the game for 12 weeks. Still cometh the hour cometh the man and Dick led us brilliantly that day.

The game was played under the four tackles and a scrum rule that was introduced three years earlier and the number of scrums this generated (39 in all) saw us given a big advantage throughout the game by hooker Alan McGlone who won 29 of them. Sadly, at times poor handling and ‘option taking’ meant that we wasted that advantage somewhat.

We kicked off playing towards the current score board end, although back then it was on the opposite terracing which these days accommodates the new Carnegie Stand. In our first set of four plays ‘Mr Magic’ Terry Kirchin managed to release a ball from a five man tackle to the supporting John Maloney. His play eventually saw a 50 yard flowing move thwarted on the line by the ‘Colliers’ full back Cyril Kellett. Next it was the turn of Alf Macklin who took a great inside ball from Dick Gemmell to again be held just short. Featherstone then threatened through Newlove and Nash but Hull’s defence with particularly Harrison and Forster repeatedly stamping on any power thrusts by the Featherstone stars Thompson and Mick Morgan stood firm. One player that was literally sparkling though was our loose forward Joe Brown, who was by far the most creative player on the field having the Featherstone defence mesmerised at times. The rest of the half was really a stop start affair with Hull taking the lead through a Maloney penalty and Kellett kicking two more for the opposition leaving us trailing 4-2 at half time.

The second half started with a nice little punch up when Smailes went for Gemmell and three or four FC players piled in. From the resultant tap penalty Hartley the ‘Colliers’ scrum half ‘scored’ only to be brought back for a forward pass. Then we took the lead. A flowing move started with some great sleight of hand by Kirchin saw Brown carry the ball down field before releasing it to Dick Gemmell. Now I don’t know if you ever saw Dick play but if you did you would remember the way that he took the ball into the tackle and being such a tall guy he was able to somehow pass over the top of the opposition player to release the ball with a bullet like wide pass. That is just what happened that day and Sullivan gleefully took the ball and cantered in for a try which went unconverted.

At 7-4 up we had a golden opportunity to put the game to bed but we then witnessed the one piece of action that anyone who was there back in 1969 will remember to this day. Alan McGlone broke free from a tackle and fed Gemmell who was by this time limping badly. Three would be tacklers saw his distress and decided to pounce but once again out came that wonderful, powerful pass over the opponent, and Sully was away and heading for his second touchdown. We all cheered with great relief as he crossed the whitewash but stood open mouthed as he just kept going. He then sort of turned to go to a position closer to the posts but before he could get the ball to ground his feet slipped from under him and he shot over the dead ball line. We just could not believe what we had seen, and neither could Clive who said after the game, ‘My feet just shot from under me, I felt like crying’. So did the crowd who were momentarily reduced to a stunned silence.

Still we only had to wait a few more minutes before Joe Brown set up the winning score. Once again, vindicating Whiteley’s decision to risk his dodgy ankle, it was Gemmell making the initial break before he passed onto Joe. Brown ran straight at the heart of the Featherstone forwards dummied once and then twice before slipping a wonderful inside pass to Prop Jim Macklin who ran in to score unchallenged. This time Maloney kicked the goal and despite a Steve Nash try in the dying minutes causing a few hearts flutter, the whistle went and we were home and dry, we had at last won the Yorkshire Cup.

We all ran onto the field to congratulate the lads and then we congregated around the central section of the best stand to watch the trophy presentation. Joe Brown got the ‘Man of the Match’ award that day but the whole team, resplendent in their white shirts with the black V, looked so pleased with the victory. The fans went mad singing and chanting as it took Dick Gemmell all his time to crawl up the steps to lift the trophy. But for me personally it was a defining moment because we had won a Cup, the first since I saw the light and became hooked on Hull FC and it was a brilliant feeling. A few more beers with the players and a round or two of ‘Old Faithful’ in the bar under the Stand, made for a pleasant journey home although it was a good job that the trains from Leeds terminated in Hull back then, because by the time we reached Paragon Station the guard had to wake me up as I was fast asleep clutching my programme and no doubt dreaming of more silverware, but my wait was to be a long one.

So another win and another big scare and although in the past both those variables have often not been associated together, of late we do have an amazing ability to overcome the greatest of adversities and that is certainly heartening for us all and must be down to the spirit that there is in our Club at present. I enjoyed the game, but not the journey and I think that the knackered state I was in on Saturday was partly down to the emotion of the match itself, but mostly to the stress of the trip over the Pennines. Quite frankly it has made me wonder if I can be arsed to do the Lancashire thing all over again on Saturday, but we’ll see!

One thing is for sure, with rumours rife in Cheshire that should Warrington lose against us at home on Saturday then they could find themselves looking for a new coach, so it will be as hard a game as we have seen this season. It will be interesting too to see who has come through that battling and bruising encounter at Wigan unscathed and who is fit to play for us.

So that’s it, thank you so much for reading the Diary and thanks as well to everyone who came up for a chat at Wigan, it was great to see you all. It really was an extra-ordinary evening. Good luck to my partner in crime that night Joe, who had an operation on his bad finger on Saturday and well done to everyone who made the journey last week. See you all next week and…

Come on You Hulllaaaarrrr!!!!

Faithfully Yours