Worrying times, No Rugby and a Bleak Future for our Game!
So, the day arrived that perhaps all rugby league fans had dreaded but yet expected, when last Monday all fixtures were suspended, as this crazy situation we find ourselves in, moves from worrying to serious. Of course, the weekly rounds had to be scrapped, because these are dangerous times and we have to do everything we can to protect the staff, players and supporters of our great game.
However, it was still almost surreal to see all national sport on hold and financially there are certainly some big implications for the Clubs, their owners and their players. It’s hard really in here to know just what to talk about this week, but I’ve had a go below and I hope that you find something of interest!
First things first and I know a lot of you reading this enjoy this weekly dollop of rubbish and I have over the years really appreciated your support, however, although there is no easy way to say it, for now at least, there is, I believe, sadly little point in keeping the Diary going. I say that simply because it’s hard to write and no doubt hard to read at such times and anyway FC wise, there’ll be bugger all to talk about for the next few months.
I also realise that one of the biggest hurdles to over-come for many diary readers, (shut up at home, as I am), is going to be boredom, so I’ve come up with an idea that will at least I hope, keep us in touch and keep you amused in the coming weeks, but more about that later. That said, of course, I hope to ensure that the Diary is back just as soon as the rugby is.
Now, to a bit of the usual stuff and there were a few folks having a polite go last week about my comments regarding the pandemic possibly causing a few Clubs to go to the wall. Apparently I was over reacting, but come the Super League Clubs meeting last Monday there was certainly a lot of apprehension and indeed fear for the future amongst the owners, as they met to try to plot the future path of the game.
This virus is going to change our lives forever and in our small corner of it, Clubs including ours are on the edge, there is no doubt about that at all. Despite Ralph Rimmer’s statements to the contrary, with so many different business models across the game and some clubs already on the bread-line, I really can’t see there being anything but casualties in future weeks, with I’m afraid, some clubs going to the wall. Adam is worried, who wouldn’t be in his shoes and that was reflected by what he said last Tuesday, in the Yorkshire Post, when he commented, “I know we have 10,000 loyal supporters and 50 sponsors who we wouldn’t swap and if we all rally around and stick together and dig in, I think we’ll be fine but by god, we will have to fight for our future now”.
So, after that impassioned plea to everyone to come together to help the Club, it’s obviously likely to be a difficult few months. I say that, because I honestly believe it could well be the hardest time our Club has ever faced. Let’s hope the FC can survive and I’m sure like me, you’ll be looking to see if there is anything you can do as fans, to get them through it.
So, considering all that, it’s hardly surprising that over the past 7 days at Hull FC, it’s been really quiet, however, there has been a bit of news filtering out, particularly surrounding the person who will eventually take over from Lee Radford. You know my view, because I made it quite clear last week that in our current parlous financial situation I still wouldn’t be appointing anyone, because I would be saving all the cash I could. I’m sure Clarky and Adam will be considering that too and so if any sort of move is made, which I doubt it will be, I would expect it to be on the basis of ‘appointment subject to being given a starting date and having a club to manage’. Craig Fitzgibbon is apparently the favourite at present and quite frankly having got to know him pretty well when he was here, I can certainly say he’s a pretty dedicated and focussed guy. There are some good names in the frame although I think it’s all speculation myself, but at least it keeps the Hull Daily Mail amused!!
At times like this you get to reminiscing, don’t you? And you know, I was thinking last week what I miss the most from the old days and although I came up with a list populated by Players. Old grounds, characters, fans etc. etc. something I thought about quite a bit was the continuous transfer merry-go-round that went on all season and that included some surprises, some disappointments and even some real under handed dealings. Players were signed up throughout the year, unlike more recent times, when most of the significant transfer and contract business is done well before the season starts and mid-season changes are a pretty rare occurrence.
Back in the sixties there was always a vast amount of movement of players between clubs during the season. Players were even “tapped up” after games, or visited at home, by grey men in long coats with turned up collars, for clandestine meetings, to offer an extra few bob to move clubs. This of course led to a healthy level of interest in the game here in Hull, not only on the field at a weekend, but also between games, because local speculation was always rife about who we, or Rovers, were about to sign.
In part, our geographic isolation was a problem when trying to bring new team members in, because it was difficult to get players to relocate to Hull. In fact, in hindsight I suppose that Johnny Whiteley did really well to attract players like Eric Broom from Huddersfield and Jim Neale and Terry Kirchin from Cumbria. If our position as a bit of an outpost of the Rugby League heartland meant it was hard to get new recruits, it also worked in our favour as it was also hard for other clubs to poach our home-grown stars and get them to leave the city as their employment was usually here. Back then with no motorways, travelling was a time-consuming experience. It’s amazing that our Dewsbury based captain Arthur Keegan never ever learned to drive and if he couldn’t beg a lift from Ken Huxley, who lived just down his street, but who worked away, he used to travel three times a week to training and home games on the train. When you consider he played for Hull for 13 years that was certainly a feat.
The lack of expensive full-time contracts and the parlous financial situations of many clubs also meant that players could get released more easily and transfer fees were commonplace. Players like Chris Davidson, Joe Brown and Alan McGlone all, from time to time, asked to be put on the transfer list, usually when they had a grievance with the club or had been dropped for reasons of form or bad discipline, but in the end they stayed at Hull because they could not afford to move to the West Riding or further afield.
This all got us wider exposure in the country wide newspapers than the game ever gets today, because everyone likes a bit of intrigue and a bit of sensationalism. For instance, there was always a great buzz around the national media when a ‘world record’ fee was placed on a rugby league player’s head. I well remember back in the early 80’s, just before we signed Steve Evans from Featherstone at a then world record fee of £165,000, for days before the deal was announced, the national media were ablaze with speculation, as to where he would go. We of course were ecstatic when he signed for the FC.
Sadly, these days, all players at Super League clubs are under contract until at least the ends of the current season, and no movement is allowed, officially, (unless the players current club gives permission, needs the space on the cap or just want rid) until a date when clubs agree that out of contract players can be contacted. That, for me, is a shame, and I feel not only contributes to the lack of exciting speculation and fervent gossip in the media, but it also helps start some of the to ridiculous rumours that circulate at all clubs during the season about players being unsettled etc.. A glance at any of the independent club message boards will soon show that some of the stories and speculation would often be better attributed to Hans Christian Anderson, than the clubs or players themselves! But if there is nothing happening on the transfer market why not make something up eh?
The almost complete demise of transfer fees in general, is I feel a little sad too, if not (bearing in mind the large salaries clubs have to pay out these days and of course the salary cap) very understandable. Back in 1901 there was, I am sure, great excitement when Bramley’s Jim Lomas was transferred to Salford for £100! And the media profile for the game was further enhanced when Mick Sullivan was transferred from Wigan to St. Helens in 1916 for a world record £11,000. Not to be outdone, more media frenzy followed when Oldham signed Ike Southwood for £11,002 and ten shillings two weeks later. The steadily rising tide of transfer fees finally came to a head in 1991 when Martin Offiah left Widnes for Wigan for a fee of £400,000, but with clubs struggling to make ends meet anyway, unless you were the money machine that was Wigan back then, things really had started to get a bit out of hand and many clubs just couldn’t compete.
Back in the sixties, you always got a morning paper to read in your break at work and there was always a bit about rugby league that we all used to comb through for news of our club and possible signings. Most of the national morning newspapers, particularly those printed in Manchester, contained speculation about these imminent moves and players would often even contact the media themselves to generating their own rumours to help improve their contracts or get a move away.
There is nothing like an odd rumour or two to get clubs a bit twitchy about losing their best players! In fact, the Sunday tabloids such as The Mirror, The People and The News of the World had gossip columns by Messrs. Huxley and Co. about Rugby League every Sunday. We used to pour over them every week, but more importantly this exposure meant that the uninitiated fan, or the casual observer, could get interested in what was going on in the world of Rugby League. Just try and find any coverage at all in these Sunday papers in modern times and you’ll see that rugby is usually confined to three pages of Union, followed, if you are lucky, by a single match report from a Saturday game on the previous evening.
As the spectacle and excitement of our great game increases, it is important that we make the most of it in the media, but I think it is about time the national papers had a good critical look at their football dominated sports pages and thought about the supporters of other sports. Perhaps the Rugby League should also look at their rules on contracts etc and see if there is a way by which there could be more movement during the year, as the inclusion of a bit of transfer speculation and news, throughout the years, would I think probably help the game no end as it did back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They were certainly good times back then and it struck me that there was a lot more to talk about between games as well.
This week in Codgers Corner, as a final hurrah for now, there is only one game I can feature, for it is the one that we all remember and the game that changed so many people’s lives forever. So, here is my own personal take on that wonderful day in London in August 2016. I hope it brings back some memories.
“…..as the Teams came out it was all ‘happening’. Adam Pearson, with his two daughters by his side, led the Hull FC Team out of the tunnel, the noise was simply unparalleled and you couldn’t hear yourself think! I looked at my pals and they looked at me and none of us could speak! We shook hands muttered, ‘Good luck’ and slumped back into our seats. However, once the game was under way I fell silent and indeed for the next 80 minutes I said very little at all, it was all so tense and pressurised, as my heart beat out of my shirt, the sweat formed on my brow and I prepared once again in that god forsaken stadium, to make every tackle and pass every ball.
The Warrington team lined up there on the big screen seemed to have so much experience, whilst our 17 included Mark Minichiello, Fetuli Talanoa, Josh Bowden, Mahe Fonua, Chris Green and Steve Michaels who were all playing in their first Final. Then, with the formalities out of the way, the pitch was cleared, the intensity of the chanting on the terraces grew to a crescendo and the referee blew the whistle.
I just sat crumpled in my seat watching through my fingers and straining as every tackle came in. As I say in games of such significance you feel every impact and catch every pass. The Wolves’ pivotal players were influential early on, with Chris Sandow forcing a drop-out and kicking a clever 40-20, but for the large part Hull’s defence, which had served us so well all year, held firm. We had the first real opportunity when Steve Michaels collected a high kick from Stefan Ratchford and broke downfield. This fine piece of play was capitalised on by ‘workaholic’ Danny Houghton who scooted out of dummy half to make some good yards up the middle. However, it all came to nothing when Marc Sneyd’s kick was plucked out of the air by a scrambling and relieved Warrington defence. Then as I found it harder and harder to even watch, the Wolves had an opportunity of their own as Ryan Atkins forced his way over the line, managing to get the ball away to the wing but some great pressure from our defence on the right forced the ball into touch.
However, after just over half an hour disaster struck, as Warrington registered the first try of the game when Chris Sandow intercepted a pass from inside his own half to race towards Hull’s try line, where amazingly, he was pulled down by Jamie Shaul inches from the whitewash. In an amazing piece of rugby our young full back started yards behind his more experienced opponent but somehow caught the half back just short of the line. It was a piece of play from which we deserved better reward, but Warrington went over on the next play when Matty Russell scored because our defence just couldn’t get back quickly enough. Kurt Gidley adding the extra and it was 6-0 to the Wolves.
As Russell crossed the line I remember muttering “Bollocks” but I felt no real discomfort, because at that point in such a seminal game its rather like when you stub your toe and there is awful hiatus between the stub and the pain striking home. Then it hit me and became reality, because we were behind and all our stoic work in defence had been for nothing, as we trailed to a try on the back of a fortuitous interception. After that valiant chase and tackle Jamie Shaul looked distraught.
Just before the break Liam Watts knocked on and that handed Warrington a chance to go for the drop goal to stretch their lead at a critical time, but instead they decided to chance their arm and go for what could have been a killer try and thankfully, somehow, we kept them out. At half time few said much at all. Looking back, if we were honest, we had been at times outplayed by Warrington and our players had done really well to ‘hang in’ a game in which we could have already been a couple of tries behind.
I couldn’t wait for it all to start again, but when it did we desperately needed something to break the momentum that the opposition had built in the first 40 minutes. We’d been methodical, brave, structured and valiant but we couldn’t seem to break the opposition down and it was going to take something special to overcome a team that had looked extremely well organised. However, it was not to be, as Warrington were immediately on the front foot, after Ryan Atkins stole the ball one-on-one with Steve Michaels. So, when Gidley lined up a penalty from 20 meters out, only for the usual reliable kicker to see his effort float tantalizingly wide, you could almost taste the relief in the crowd around me. We all knew that it was yet another let off, but then, just as all seemed lost, Warrington’s Chris Hill spilled possession off the next play and we started somehow to claw our way back into the game.
Great work by Carlos Tuimavave saw our half back weaving his way through the Warrington defence before a hack forward by Sneyd was almost grounded by Michaels, however Ratchford came across to just cover it and knock the ball dead. We thought that we were in, but once video scrutiny had confirmed the referee’s decision as correct, we all slumped back into our seats frustrated and annoyed, because try as we may we simply couldn’t seem to turn pressure into points. Then Mahe Fonua kicked early in the tackle count for no apparent reason, whilst my pal Joe, sinking further into the seat next to me, said, “We’re starting to panic here” and it certainly looked as if we were as Sika Manu spilt possession, while we were enjoying more good field position in the Warrington 20-meter area. It just wasn’t happening for us at all and what was more worrying was the way that Warrington were starting to wrestle back the initiative as they turned the screw to force a drop-out after Ben Currie had kicked brilliantly down field.
Somehow we held the line, but Daryl Clark ensured that the pendulum continued to swing in the direction of the Wire when he broke through our defence and supplied Currie, who spotted the gap and raced away on the left to touch down and score. Afterwards I found out that at that point some FC fans who were ‘compos mentis’ enough to use social media at such a frenetic time tweeted, “That’s it we’ve had it, nilled again”, while I just looked at Joe, he rolled his eyes and we both went back to staring at the floor. All around me were sad and despondent faces and in years past this was where we would all have just given up. But this Team never surrendered, this Team never gave in and we took heart from the fact that we had come back from worse situations in past weeks, although this was Wembley and a place that never did us any favours at all! So, as the players returned to the centre spot to restart the game, we braced ourselves for the last quarter of the Final and one last massive onslaught that we hoped would be coming from the FC players and not the Warrington team.
Luckily for us Gidley had missed the conversion, to leave us 10-0 down with 25 minutes’ left, but then our prayers were answered, the Gods were listening and for some inexplicable reason the game turned. Anyone who has ever watched a lot of sport or indeed a lot of Rugby League will know that there is a tide in matches, a sort of momentum which is hard to turn back on itself, but which if you can reverse it, gives you a real chance to ride that tide yourself and battle back.
Firstly, Gidley was helped off with concussion after a clash of heads with his own player and then as the game ebbed and flowed and we applied some real pressure, a piece of real virtuosity from Marc Sneyd produced a moment of pure genius as he delivered an immaculately flighted 40-20 to give us great field position.
At that point, more in hope than expectation, I remember saying, “On such small things games turn”. Afterwards Joe Westerman playing loose forward for Warrington that afternoon said, at that point as the ball bounced into touch, the spirits of a tiring Wolves team who had given their all, visibly sank. However, from the restart it looked like the next set was again going to come to nothing as we huffed and puffed and made little real progress. Then Sneyd hoisted a brilliant kick to the line and as everything seemed to go into slow motion, Fonua climbed up above the Warrington defence, plucked the kick out of the sky and in one movement crashed over to score.
Mahe sprung back to his feet, punched the air in our direction and the whole Hull end went bananas! Joe looked at me and said, “We’re back!” and indeed we were, as smiles broke out across the crowd and the chanting began again. Sneyd converted and the scoreboard opposite us showed 10-6 and just a four-point difference between the teams. After all their effort and tenacity in defence Warrington must have ‘wondered’ a bit at that point!
The opposing fans certainly did and as the Hull End became animated with singing and shouting, the far end, occupied by the Warrington supporters, suddenly fell silent. Next, with 15 minutes left, as we started to smell blood and the opposition visibly flagged, Fonua broke free inside the Wolves half, but Shaul couldn’t take his offload and the chance was lost.
Still we kept up the pressure as Sneyd’s kick over the top forced a restart under the posts, but our momentum ended when a catalogue of almost schoolboy like errors out on the wing, saw Stefan Ratchford’s drop out find touch to give possession back to Warrington. But, before they could celebrate the Wolves’ hero of the moment became a villain, when, with ten minutes left, Ratchford spilled possession on his own 30-metre line.
Hull took advantage of the field position and as the ‘FC Army’ cranked up the noise, in what was now developing into an atmosphere akin to that generated inside a pressure cooker, Sneyd kicked high again. Fonua, right on the touchline, rose like a salmon and tapped the ball back inside to the advancing scrum half who had kept on running after the kick. Sneyd immediately found the onrushing Shaul screaming for the ball inside him and in one continuous movement our full back took the pass ran through the line and dived over under the posts. I was out of my seat and dancing in the aisle for the first time that afternoon as all around me the FC Faithful screamed their approval. It was mayhem and it hardly subsided as Sneyd stroked over the conversion to take us into the lead 12-10. All this, while a stunned silence settled across the other end of the ground.
But then, there was almost another twist in the tale, as despite their apparent fatigue, from somewhere, with only minutes to go, Warrington found their second wind and in a whirlwind finale pressed and pressed for the winning try. It wouldn’t be Hull FC if as fans we weren’t destined to be put ‘under the cosh’ one more time and as the opposition worked the ball down field our hearts were in our mouths.
I was now standing in the aisle right next to a tubular steel handrail which I found myself draped over a time or two when I simply couldn’t watch the Hull tackles coming in, as we somehow managed to repel wave after wave of Warrington pressure. At that moment I looked around me, I knew that as the game clock seemed to be going backwards those last five minutes would be almost impossible to watch and when on a couple of occasions Warrington looked almost certain to score, heads were in hands and hearts, (fingers and thumbs) were in mouths.
The Wolves streamed downfield one last time as they bombed their way towards our line and when Ben Currie stepped between Marc Sneyd and Mark Minichiello it looked as if the game was finally up. Currie just seemed to glide in low to the ground to cross the line and score the ‘heartbreaker’. But, probably for the first time in nine visits, the Wembley Gods smiled down and the fetes were with us, as with the hour came the hero. As Currie slid towards the line and on his 52nd tackle of the game Danny Houghton made his move. As the Warrington fans danced and sang and indeed made their loudest contribution of the afternoon, Danny performed arguably the most important individual piece of brilliance in the entire history of Hull FC.
From where we were viewing the play, high up and 100 yards away from the action, the ball just came loose, but when you watched it again on the TV afterwards, what an amazing piece of skill it was to tackle and apply just the right pressure at the right time to ‘loosen’ the ball. Nine times out of ten it wouldn’t have come free but an almost subconscious reaction by Danny produced the ultimate moment of magic and as quickly as an eerie silence had fallen over the FC Faithful as Currie slid in, an enormous wave of emotion and I guess disbelief rolled across the Hull end of the Stadium as the ball came away from the Warrington second rower’s grasp.
Then we were all on our feet and celebrating, I simply couldn’t watch any more of it, the next few final plays made for absolutely excruciating viewing, as immortality beckoned and the greatest day in our Challenge Cup history was just a handful of tackles away. Somehow from somewhere we found the fortitude to hang on and as the hooter went the place erupted. Men flew down the seats with children in their arms, others ran manically around in circles, aged individuals peeled off their shirts and swung them around their heads and everywhere laughing people were crying their eyes out.
As the players of both sides, totally wrung out and dehydrated sank to their knees, I stood there totally gobsmacked as all around me the place was exploding. I was quite simply in bits, I just cried and cried, hugged my wife and cried some more. I once said that as a sports fan, if you could bottle that moment to uncork it as you lie on your death bed then it would be all you needed to remember of your life, it would be the best fillip you could ever have, because as always it was gone too soon. However, for just 30 or 40 seconds it was like a dream, beyond our understanding and totally incomprehensible and while that feeling was there all around us, it was simply magical.
Talk about we didn’t know what we were doing!! Women danced, old men stood wide mouthed and the ‘hardest and toughest’ sang and cried, often at the same time, it was just amazing; I have never been hugged by so many guys or kissed by so many stubbly faces in my life. The emotion was simply palpable and something that you could never do justice to in any medium, be it the spoken or written word, film or video. You just couldn’t ever do justice to that relief, joy and retrubution, as decades of hurt and being at the end of all those taunts and ridicule. rolled from our shoulders and were dispelled forever.
Some laughed some cried and some, rather like the dog that spends its life chasing the bus, not quite knowing what to do when he catches it, just stood open mouthed and wondered.
It was probably the greatest moment of my life!
So, there we are, what a fitting game to bow out for now on eh?? Even reading back what I wrote back then still gets the old excitement going. As for the future, well I have every intention of the Diary returning just as soon as there is some light at the end of what appears to be a pretty long tunnel.
However, I know (I think) that loads of you who read this diatribe regularly, look forward to seeing what hair brained ideas and misinformed rubbish I can manage to come up with each week. I said earlier, I have made so many friends and had such fun over the past 15 years and so it’s a real wrench to come to this decision, but I’m sure you’ll agree there ain’t gonna be much to talk about at all and rather than regurgitating the same old rubbish week in week out, we’ll have what I can best describe as a bit of a break!
That said I know some of you look forward to your weekly fix of this stuff and so at a time when we will all be pretty anxious and even bored I have tried my best to come up with a solution.
My books still make a bit of money, but that’s pretty immaterial these days and so what I intend to do is serialise them all (if necessary) week by week in the Diary. It’s not ideal but it will at least give everyone something to read and I hope you understand, that I do it because I don’t want to let anyone down.
When I started to consider a plan of action I actually read the first few chapters of book One for the first time in 9 years and I couldn’t remember much of it at all and I bloody wrote it!!! So, I’ll serialise everything I’ve written about Hull FC in the books, over the coming weeks here in the Diary. It’s not ideal, there’s a bit about me and a bit of social history in there as well, which may or may not interest you and I know some of you have read it all before anyway. However, there’s also all the most memorable matches, players and personalities that span the 55 years between 1950-2005. It’s not the final proof stage because the publisher has that, but it’s as close as it can be. I might be a bit bored myself so `I’ll also drop any bits of current news in there from time to time, at the beginning as well, and I hope at least some of you will find something to enjoy. All being well, that’ll start next week.
I also hope that in the coming weeks and months everyone reading this will, if given the opportunity, will rally around our great club and do everything they can to help.
In the mean-time all I can do is thank the amazing Joe Bennett at Blackandwhite.com for all his support, friendship and help, for without him, all this would never have been possible. After 15 years, 4 million words and 600 odd editions, I’ll wish you all well, and hope that you stay safe, try to keep smiling and keep in touch! We have to believe that things can and will get better. I’m sure they will and we’ll all be fine and back on the terraces grumbling about the referee’s before you know it!! We all just have to have lots of optimism, loads of belief and tons of hope and, let’s face it, as fans of Hull FC, we have got pretty good at that over the years haven’t we!!
Thanks for all your encouragement, support and friendship.
Keep Believing, Keep safe and Come on You Hullllaaarrrrr!!!!