Another week goes by and I’ve had a go at another Diary as the League season draws closer and by next weekend when the full fixture list comes out, we will be just 5 weeks away from at least seeing some action again. The first-round fixtures are out and we get our first hit up against Huddersfield in a game in which both sets of fans will be looking to assess the effect of a new Coach.
After another quiet few days, we have at least learned that the reign of our first Super League Chief Executive is over and although, as I’ll discuss later, there were issues on both sides of the argument, the decision signifies more in-fighting and dirty washing being aired in public, which doesn’t really show our great sport in a very good light at all does it?.
Once more British Rugby League looks in disarray and the sooner we get playing again and put ‘back office politics’, back where they belong the better.
It comes at a time that can best be described as being one of ‘Choppy waters’ for the game, with no sign of crowds returning, TV negotiations going slowly (and if you believe the media badly), uncertainty about the fixtures and the Magic event and the start of any sort of action on the field still a month and a half away. Many armchair pundits are now left to ponder what is worse between the current situation with Super League Europe haemorrhaging money through debts to merchant bankers and top-heavy administration costs and going back in with the RFL, whose past record of running the game stands for itself! Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea eh? Perhaps we have to look for some middle ground, but more about that later.
Still hope springs eternal and I’m really starting to look forward to seeing how our lads do out there on the field again under new management, and it will be so good to simply get away from the politics and back to playing rugby again.
Well, as I say, the 2021 first week fixtures are out and so we start at Headingley against Huddersfield in a game against the nearly man Ian Watson, which will simply be for FC fans a case of, ‘I think we picked the right Coach’ or ‘This is what you could have had!!!’
It’s a tough one, but there could have been a lot harder draws and it will do for me. There are certainly some interesting hit ups, with the big boys kept apart and two games a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday 26th 27th 28th March with our game at 12-30 on Sunday.
The Super League fixture committee has certainly ‘sorted out’ the first round, with our own opener pitting Giants Coach Ian Watson against ex Huddersfield hero Brett Hodgson and giving us a chance to have an early go at ‘the nowhere man’ Josh Jones (providing he isn’t suffering from travel sickness). It’s not the most glamourous of ties, but personally, I think that we have done well to avoid a first weekend clash with the likes of reigning champions St Helens, Grand Final favourites Wigan Warriors and even a Warrington Wolves side who have a lot to prove.
That said the Giants fans and indeed a lot of the pundits certainly fancy Huddersfield’s chances of a top four finish this year and are pretty confident that’s where they will end up, so it will be a hard game, but one that will help us gauge perfectly where we are as a team, under new management. After so long without any rugby and this damn virus still bugging us all, any opposition would have done for me, but I think this one is winnable and whatever happen come that Sunday by the time Johnny Walker Sounds of the 70’s is on Radio 2, we will have a good idea exactly where we are.
That first round is ‘fixed’ and not drawn, of course it is, and I understand completely that the game wishes to try and keep the bigger and most attractive fixtures for a time when fans can return to grounds, but as someone said on RL fans, Wigan v Leigh is hardly the big bang start we needed for the second game on the first night of the return of League on TV is it. Still, I expect by then most fans and many ‘lookers in’ will be so fed up of living week to week without any rugby, that the figures for viewers will be good, but if the quality isn’t there I think that the interest will soon wane. The game simply can’t win at present and we just have to ride this catastrophic situation out and hope for better times. But it will be great for us all to be talking about watching some matches again and not scratching around for news as we are at present.
That said it’s hard to judge what the rest of the crowd-less part of the season will bring and we will have to wait until next Friday for the full list of fixtures to be published to analyse that. However, we already know that Super League has confirmed the season has been reduced from 27 to 25 rounds, cutting out two of the loop fixtures, with Magic Weekend pushed back from May to September 4-5. Personally, I see that as possibly only a stay of execution for the event because quite frankly I would have got rid of the Magic Weekend altogether myself. Let’s face it even in September I’m not sure we will be allowed to cram fans into St James’s Park and Newcastle City Centre as we would have like to for the annual jamboree.
Incidentally the first-round fixture against Huddersfield is designated as a home game for us and one of just three loop fixtures and as such the Club has stated that they will sort out a pro-rata refund for the game for us passholders at the end of the campaign. That said, most of you no doubt like me, aren’t that bothered about that I guess, because we just want to see the Club keep going and anyway, it’s unlikely that it will be the last game designated as a home fixture that will be played behind closed doors, for I can see that arrangement going on at least until early summer myself, can’t you?
News from Hull FC’s camp has been sparce to say the least, but it was good to see Josh Reynolds loving training in the snow and to read how well Ben McNamara is progressing with some great mentoring from the senior players. It seems that a lot of emphasis is being placed on team spirit and reading between the lines and hearing from some players it seems that a lot of effort is being put into getting rid of any cliques that previously existed and developing a ‘We’re all in it together’ culture in the group. With a completely new defensive plan in place and a new attacking formation now being introduced I think we will need a couple of pre-season friendlies though. I think Hodgson is waiting to see how things develop, but I expect at least one before the serious stuff starts. With so much changing tactics wise we just can’t go into 2021 cold can we?
Now, you know in this sort of crisis, that has touched all our lives and that seems to be never ending, it’s tough for us all. In fact, even though we try to say that we are fully occupied and put on a brave face, it’s just all so mundane particularly for those who are stuck at home. We all need some rugby and although at one time in my life I could never imagine saying it, just watching my club on TV would be enough at present and it is now something to really look forward to. The memory of sitting at the KCom or standing at Warrington is now almost just that, a memory, and almost a surreal experience. Attending games and being in the heart of those great FC supporters singing and chanting, is now just a misty memorial of better timers and although one day normality in Rugby League will return, for me it has become a far distant hope that always seems to be just over the horizon.
In addition, I worry about the club and how they are managing. That’s not unreasonable in such different times, because we as supporters are the major stakeholders and yet the Club have little to tell us at present. That’s understandable because Adam and Clarky will probably say there’s nothing to say, but all us subscribers paying for our passes want in return for our stake in the club, is not promises of games in the future, but rather to know that our club will just survive intact.
As a fan who absolutely loves Hull FC, a team that has these days been around me longer than any of my loved ones, I just want to know how my club is going to come out of the other end of this mess. I want to know how we will do it without crowds in the KCom, what the club will do if furlough ends before the gates are open again and, so I can start geeing folks up if I need to, how many season tickets we have secured so far. A quick chat from Adam could allay all the concerns for us all and either put our minds at rest or tell us what we have to do to keep the dream alive. I expect we’ll hear something soon, but I also suppose that the old adage of no news is good news appertains in all this as well!
However, looking at what clubs are laying out for players wages and their staff that ain’t furloughed, for medical supplies, daily testing kits, training facilities, all weather pitches and training equipment and what they are getting from Sky and in Government loans (which have to be paid back), this situation can’t go on forever. Well, it can’t without the income that club shops being open and fans back in grounds brings. I guess what I’m saying here is that, as we clock up a full year of turmoil in the game, I just want some reassurance as to how we are doing in surviving this awful pandemic. After such a torrid time when we have lost friends and loved ones and been through something that most have never experienced before, to lose our Club as well would, for many, just be the last straw. One consolation we have above most other clubs is the fact that we have Adam at the helm and I’m sure if he need help, he’ll ask us!
Now to other things and although we have made only one new signing, it was interesting to see that in a cross-game supporter’s poll for the best new signing in the British game, according to the voters, Australian half-back Josh Reynolds won. Our new recruit claimed 34 per cent of the votes, ahead of John Bateman (25 per cent) following his return to Wigan Warriors. So, despite all the so called ‘marquee’ signings across the game, we have heard about in the press, we seem to have the best one in the eyes of the game’s fans at least!
As I said earlier we are all I’m sure sick and fed up with all the internal politicking in our game and just want to get back to watching some rugby again. But as we all, (desperately trying to get some information and hope), stand with our noses pressed to the window of pre-season at our club, you have to say that Brett Hodgson’s approach to things is at least coming across as being very structured.
The fitness and defensive stuff has now morphed into the attacking and fitness phase. He has obviously got his priorities right, because in general we didn’t seem to have much of a problem scoring last season, but it was the number of points that we conceded that was so worrying. The players say that they are buying into the new regime and that the changes in the format have reignited their appetite for the game again. There is a good mood in camp and the coach’s reluctance to name a 2021 Club Captain, shows his resistance to do anything that might rock the boat. So, let’s all hope for a great season ahead eh?
Now, to what I’ve been thinking about this week and you know when you step back from sport in general and look in at the dynamic of it all, usually there is nothing that fans enjoy more than a sacrificial lamb. Supporters like someone to blame and like to see that someone, with his head on the chopping block. So, it was this week as we saw Robert Elstone resign as Chief Executive of Super League. Yet, although there is little doubt it was probably time for him to go, and there was an almost unanimous consensus across the game when he did, there are I think two sides to that particular argument, as there usually is in such situations.
Things are not looking good for sport in general at present and I think that I’m not on my own in having a massive concern for, in particular, the future of British Rugby League. I said a couple of weeks ago that having turned down the risky offer of equity funding to save the sport, the Super League clubs have now to find £750,000 to pay off the merchant bankers who facilitated the potential deal. That’s around £62,500 from each club in the premier competition which in effect will be a reduction from their Sky money this year. We have already borrowed from it for last season and that, just when at present, central funding as almost a sole income stream, is a blow indeed.
With no sign of supporters returning to Stadiums, all clubs have few income streams to tap into and that has to be a massive blow for cash flow across the game. Furthermore, with Championship and Division One clubs facing a massive cut in their support from 2022 onwards, (as the reduction of the Sky money will mean, because of the policy of Super league, they get little from then on), the game is in a right mess. Those lower division clubs have now to decide exactly what they are going to do moving forward, but the future for many looks bleak indeed.
The whole game has to explore every means by which it can cut expenditure and save cash. Many say that we should be looking at combining the administrations and getting rid of the separate entity that is Super League Europe. However, having the whole game back under the RFL, with the Sky money pooled and the top clubs struggling for central funding and those near the bottom swinging along on hand outs, hardly inspires much confidence. Particularly for those of us who have been around the game ‘for eons’ and have seen what has happened in the past. The levelling out principle adopted by the RFL over decades hardly raised the game much at all did it?
On the other hand, the autonomy that Super League Clubs have created for themselves has been expensive, but none the less it has kept the RFL on their toes and I’m sure that after some of the cock-ups that have occurred in the past at Redhall, many elite club owners certainly won’t want a combined administration again. Although believe me, one or two certainly will!!!
In addition, although it’s tough on the lower division Clubs, we have to remember when it comes to TV money, broadcasters aren’t interested in taking lower division rugby into their schedules, so the whole future of the games funding at present is firmly in the hands of the Super League Clubs. Without a thriving televised Super League our game will collapse.
So, the elite clubs have to maintain a level of spectacle that keeps Sky happy and that of course is why they have made a stand which dictates that if the Sky money falls below a certain level, then what is left has to be concentrated on maintaining the quality of the product in the top division. In other words, with a reduced offer it’s very possible that the clubs outside Super League won’t get a cut of it. That’s a self-perpetuating down ward spiral of less and less financial support meaning few and fewer clubs getting it. Despite the Wigan Chairman saying this week that we haven’t necessarily received a reduced offer, numerous rumours and leaks to the RL press say otherwise.
Those leaks are not particularly helpful and what we really need is the regional, national and particularly the RL press to hype things up, big up our great sport and build a sense of excitement again around a game that has become a ‘bi-line’ in most of the none specialist publications.
As you know, along with a lot of you out there, I don’t have much faith in the press, RL or otherwise (as you have over the years probably guessed) and I suppose that belief is born out of the fact that they usually want to firstly emphasise the bad stuff, stifle the good, scare people and indeed at times make the news, rather than report it. Let me give you a quick example!
Whilst writing this I am watching Mondays 10-00pm ITN news on a day when the major message is to get everyone over 70 who hadn’t yet been contacted about a jab, to ring their GP’s, or the NHS to get one. Instead, the headlines on that programme featured tons of hypothesising and scaring folks to death, about a variant that doesn’t appear likely to be a threat for months, plus, the decimation of the high street and the fact that television licenses were going up for the old and infirm, before then there was a short mention of the injection announcement. Bad news and hyping it up seems to be an attitude that is endemic across the British press!
It was therefore hardly surprising to read last week, that the reports suggesting Lenagan’s long reign at the helm of Wigan could be coming to an end, (with billionaire Mike Danson lined up to replace him), were just sensationalising and headline grabbing and yes, some people in the RL press wanting to make the news instead of reporting it.
On Monday Lenagan confirmed the rumours were false in a statement on the club’s official website that read, “This report is false. I am surprised that the editor of League Express, who has my personal mobile number and has phoned me many times previously for comments, did not check with me the accuracy of it before publishing. It is well known that Mike Danson and Darryl Eales are shareholders in Lenagan Investments, the company which controls ownership of Wigan. This is a very strong position for Wigan Rugby League Club Ltd and its supporters. There are no current plans for the Lenagan family to relinquish control of Lenagan Investments and, hence, Wigan Warriors.” Why should he ring you Mr L, I mean let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story eh?
It makes you wonder just what you can believe these days, even in the Rugby league trade papers, doesn’t it? Indeed, the same League Express has published information about the Sky TV settlement being poor, and details of the negotiations for private equity investment, when the Super League Clubs would have preferred, for business reasons and the good of the game, for it not to enter the public domain. You’d might say that was just good investigative reporting, and we all like a good bit of scandal, but it’s said that the figures involved that were published, could now jeopardise the negotiations and that’s not good for the game at all, because it weakens our negotiating position.
Someone on the Super League Board has been leaking stuff to damage the position of the organisation!! There is now, apparently, a hunt to find who leaked the story from the closed SL meetings and it is believed that there is a proposal to request Super League directors to hand over their mobile phones to check on who the individual directors are speaking to. That’s not on at all I know, but it just shows how destructive a mischief maker on the board and a couple of journalists trying to grab some headlines can be.
Of course, following on from all that, came Chief Executive Elstone’s resignation last Tuesday, which came as no surprise to me at all. One way or another he had to go because his impact on the game after such a trumpeted arrival has been pretty negligible. But is that all his fault? He was severely criticised for the increased spend he has overseen as far as staffing is concerned and for instigating that ridiculous Pizza sponsorship deal where we gave away massive product profiling in exchange for some free Pizza’s!!
However, the structure of the set up where all 12 clubs have an equal say makes ‘light on your feet’ decision making almost impossible. That’s what the EU have found out many times and particularly recently over vaccines, because making strong swift decisions by gaining the agreement of many equal members, all of whom have their own agendas, is impossible and in the end makes for a long and tortuous process. By trying to make progress to push things along he has got himself into a bad place with several of the Chairmen and so Mr E has been hung out to dry on several occasions and has been made a bit of a scapegoat for some poor corporate decisions by the Clubs.
Adam Pearson recently told the Yorkshire Post that, “Robert was having to spend more time than he should have been doing on the political side of keeping 12 pretty opinionated individuals together on a unified course. And, in the end, I think it just proved too much. It is a structure that perhaps doesn’t lend itself to the implementation of policy quickly enough.”
I get that completely as I spent 37 years as a local government officer trying my best to always do the right thing for the public whilst all the while spending hours negotiating the agendas and politics of elected members, who all had their own angle on things.
As I said above, for Super League Equity Funding was never a good idea, but the clubs instructed Robert to pursue it, which he did through the accepted channels (a merchant bank) after having made it clear to the Clubs, that it was going to cost them. Then, when he secured a deal, the same clubs turned it down and then I’m told complained about the fact they had to shell out a facilitation fee that they’d been made aware of, from the off!
The Toronto fiasco was another example of everyone wanting something different. Elstone did as he was instructed by the majority of the clubs (although he unwisely made it clear that he was with one side of the argument), and then got pilloried, for what has turned out afterwards to be probably the right decision on their none inclusion. For, how could a club three and a half thousand miles away function in this current dog’s breakfast of a British sporting scene?
Next up he finds that some of his board members are as I say, leaking confidential financial information, mid negotiation, to League Express and doing it during zoom meetings and quite frankly, I don’t blame him for walking at all. Robert Elstone hasn’t worked out for the game and the game hasn’t worked out for Mr E, has it?
So, for me his leaving is without doubt the right outcome, because I think his position became untenable and he just got fed up with it all.
Now, I’m sure Hetherington and a couple of his cohorts will be pushing to go back into the RFL fold, which we all know after years of disasters from that direction, would be just that; another disaster.
However, with money tight a couple of the other voting clubs will see a saving on the Chief Executive’s post and so go along with that amalgamation. Adam Pearson obviously thinks that a hybrid set up with the Super League keeping its autonomy but being more closely linked with the RFL is the best bet and he is probably right. But, Ian Lenegan at Wigan on the other hand is all for holding steady with the current structure and indeed was full of praise for what the departing Chief Executive had done over the last 3 years. So, the game is still split at the top and for me, the whole thing is just a mess.
The current set up is costly, so on balance perhaps a hybrid sort of set up could be best. We can’t go back to 40 odd clubs making the decisions, for that would be even worse. What’s more, if we are all in the same pot again then some lower division clubs will be even less inclined to work at it if they have more TV money coming in because the RFL are dividing the money up differently, or as they would claim, more equitably.
In the end, Adam as usual got the whole situation in prospective when he stated, “There have been times in the past, prior to three years ago, where the Super League clubs did feel marginalised and in the dark about what was going on. It was a desire about having a say in their own future that brought this structure about. It’s not been accepted by everybody right from the start (NB we know who he’s on about there I think!-wilf) and that didn’t help. But, in the end, 12 opinions is too much for a CEO to probably handle and put into a plan going forward. Perhaps a streamlined number of clubs – say three or four – and some RFL input might be the way to go.”
However, Adam still maintains that the elite competition needs to retain some control, whichever way the sport heads and I couldn’t agree more! Our owner concluded, “Super League is the driving force of rugby league, no matter what everybody says about the Championship and the community game. Super League possesses the owners who are putting the money into the clubs. I’m not saying they don’t do that at Championship level but it is quite a big responsibility at Super League level. To have that responsibility you want some kind of say into what is going on. Before, the RFL really had Super League under control and didn’t have to worry about what individual Super League clubs felt. It was very different. Perhaps it has just swung too far the other way as 12 is unwieldy”. Wise words indeed!!
So, perhaps that is the way forward, with say 4 Super league Chairmen and a representative from the RFL forming a board with delegate responsibilities to run the elite Division rather than just one Chief Executive beholden to 12 equal partners. I’d want to see Ken Davy on there because in the game and outside it, everyone trusts and respects him, but I’d also like to see Adam on there too. He is a level headed operator without too many agendas, besides looking after his investment and furthering the game. Realistically, that aint gonna happen happen, as no doubt over in West Yorkshire and in Lancashire the power games have started already with a couple of individuals. With the Wigan Chairman immediately coming out with a stance to replace Elstone and others who have been protagonists against the Chief Executive position from the off, getting a whiff of past power and sharpening their knives, it ain’t over yet by a long chalk!!! Difficult times ahead I think and some big decisions to make!!!
Now I noticed last week that League Express ranked all the shirts that have been produced by Super League clubs this year and our great traditional Johnny Whitely based home strip came out top of the lot with a vote of 10 out of 10. I do think both our strips this year are good but, I agree with LEx that the home one is exceptional and I can’t wait to see us playing in it.
You know in finishing I feel that I have to apologise for the lack of content in the Diary these days, but it’s really hard to find Hull FC related articles and therefore my thought have become more and more centred on the state of the game and where my beloved Rugby League is actually heading. I have thought of suspending the Diary until the season starts, but I still hear from so many readers who have been isolating and locked down who still sort of look forward to finding out just how little I can write about each week and indeed what ‘soapbox I can get on next!! So, I just keep going and hope for better days.
Thanks as always for reading the Diary and for getting in touch in such numbers this week, it was good to hear from Brian over in Lancashire, Harry Pitman in Thailand, Steven Stanley in Australia and Stuart Harman in Spain, plus Dick Ollett, Alec and Alan Smalley to name but a few of you who have also got in touch. The article last week about Boulevard High school and that winning season certainly caused a stir. I really appreciate everyone support and for sticking with another diatribe and let’s hope we have something new to talk about next week!!
Stay safe, Keep believing, Get Jabbed when you can and …..
Come on You Hulllarrr!!!