Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Rovers Return

Hull KR are planning for life back in Super League. And thanks to my youngest, I’m not celebrating that fact alone…

As the dust settles on another domestic rugby league season (and yet another Leeds Grand Final win!) it does so with supporters of Hull Kingston Rovers knowing that dreams of one day seeing their own team in such a showpiece occasion have taken a (small) step closer, following promotion back to the game’s top-flight. And The Robins’ return to Super League has been accompanied by a new regular supporter, in the shape of Katie - the younger of my two Slushettes.
She has achieved this by seeing all-but-three home games this season, as well as clocking up her first “proper” away trips (we don’t include the away derby, of which she has experienced several). The only home games missed were Bradford (she’s still mad that I opted to go with my mate in the East Stand with my justification for leaving her at home being: “you won’t see anything from there…and it’s really cold”), Batley (she was at a party) and Halifax in the Middle 8’s (it was her dance troupe performance at the Withernsea Festival). In addition to actually watching a winning team, Katie has been a mascot (against Swinton) and has also managed to be pictured with a sizeable number of the first team squad (along with ex-Robin Kieran Dixon and local boxing celeb Tommy Coyle, the latter a guest for the promotion-clinching Widnes game). In short, she’s become hooked on her Hull KR matchday experience; just as I was, some thirty years or so ago... 
I never experienced the rite of passage that was being taken by my dad to my first match. Neither did I get to look forward to that regular trip with him to any sporting occasion. Dad didn’t do live football or rugby league. His only involvement with the round ball game was a weekly Littlewoods pools collection round, while his “egg chasing” experience amounted to taking my brother and me to the 1980 Challenge Cup Final (but that’s another story). No, Dad’s sporting love was cricket, in particular Yorkshire cricket. Hence my childhood dad-and-son(s) sporting trips were on an annual basis and involved The Tykes’ one Sunday League game per season at The Circle on Anlaby Road (site of the present KCom Stadium). 
Therefore, despite having two daughters, I was determined that from an early age I would open up both to the “pleasures” of watching their local teams, whatever the sport. Then, in the fullness of time, should they continue to want to watch Hull City, Hull Kingston Rovers and/or even the local ice hockey side, they could then look back on those early trips with pleasure and not have the regrets of having missed out. Well that’s how I thought things would pan out anyway.
Sadly, despite seeing City playing top-flight football for the first time and Rovers back among the country’s rugby league elite post-2006, it didn’t take long for Emma (my eldest) to decide that her free time was better spent anywhere else but inside a sports ground with her dad. And so, for the past few years the Younger Slushette has been my regular companion.  With my self-imposed exile from City home games now into a second full season, these trips have been almost exclusively restricted to the oval ball game. Thankfully, the signs are that she’s developing a real liking for them. She’s even improved her understanding of the game and – more importantly – why supporting the team on this side of the River Hull is the right thing to do regardless of peer pressure from supporters of a team slightly more accustomed to success of late! There was genuine delight from her as promotion was sealed against Widnes. Perhaps she was as relieved as me at not having to watch Championship rugby again next year.
While many Rovers fans have enjoyed the chance to revisit some of those traditional heartlands grounds that are never realistically likely to feature on the Super League fixture list, those restricted to home matches have had to suffer some fairly drab afternoons in the game’s second-tier. Many teams arrived at Craven Park with the simple aim of stifling, spoiling and generally doing whatever else necessary to prevent being rolled over. More often than not it proved fruitless – Rovers usually finding a twenty-minute spell somewhere in the game in which they could quite simply blow their opponents away. And so we usually saw a home win, with lots of tries. The Younger Slushette loved it. And so, by extension, did I.
Although I lived through a golden period for both Hull teams, I didn't share in their success. Indeed I was late to the sport's attractions (if you ignore that “last one out” Wembley trip). “Rrrragby leeeeague” remained a game I struggled to take to. For me – and I suspect many other non-believers - its main use was to fill the late afternoon slot on Grandstand just before the Final Score teleprinter clicked into action. Although I do admit to having been entertained by commentator Eddie Waring’s attempt to identify the players in some god-forsaken mud-bath over Salford way; a task made even harder for me watching in black & white!
Taking up regular attendance at Boothferry Park during the early 1980s, I lustily joined in with the choruses of "We all agree football is better than rugby" being belted out from the Kempton every Saturday afternoon. How we laughed when one of the two rugby teams lost unexpectedly and how we seethed when Boothferry Park filled up for a rugby league international or a Hull derby in some cup or other, in contrast to the three or four thousand on City match days. I’ll admit it; we were jealous.
Perhaps we had good reason to feel this way. At the same time as The Tigers were sliding into football’s basement and close to extinction, the city’s rugby clubs were collecting silverware in abundance. In addition to the Challenge Cup, Rovers were crowned champions in 1984 and 1985, the first of these being combined with the Premiership Trophy in a historic ‘double’. The Premiership had also been won in 1981, with other successes coming in the John Player Trophy, Yorkshire Cup and the BBC Floodlit Trophy. FC soon joined their east Hull counterparts in dominating the game. They had beaten Rovers in the last Floodlit Trophy final in 1980 before completing a double of the Challenge Cup (after a replay against Widnes at Elland Road) and the John Player Trophy in 1982. Three successive Yorkshire Cup wins, between 1983 and 1985, added to an impressive haul at the Boulevard.
But it wasn’t just the success of their oval-ball cousins that riled City fans; it was the arrogance of some the rugby clubs’ followers. Hull FC fans in particular (and indeed those inside the club itself) soon came to be regarded by many as having become “too big for their boots”. Gary Clark, author of a couple of books on City, is one who remembers the bitterness that existed at that time:
“I think it was before the 1980 RL Challenge Cup Final at Wembley when they (Hull FC) chose to humiliate us, in a game against Brentford. Hull were invited as part of a Wembley send-off. I was there and remember possibly a couple of hundred scruffs turning up in gang, all dressed in an assortment of hand knitted black and white garb. It was like the cast from The League of Gentlemen. They gathered together in the vast emptiness of the North Stand (still there in those days) and supported the other team. City won 2-1 and the crowd was a little over 3,000. Of course several bouts of fisticuffs broke out, mainly from the City fans who objected to this little troop of misfits chanting for a team that none of them probably knew anything about. It was an important match for City too because we were in danger of relegation; our eventual saviour being Keith Edwards who scored in this game and then the famous 1-0 win over Southend a week later on 3rd May 1980, the day that “all of Hull” - except the 3,700 who turned up at Boothferry Park - went ‘Down That London’. I think that one incident was the start of the animosity between supporters of the two clubs. Not helped a couple of years later when City were in real danger of folding and Hull FC somehow got hold of the Tigers’ sponsors list, contacted them all and offered them a better deal for ‘Hull's Premier Sporting Club’".
My antipathy to rugby league changed in 1988. It was then that I decided to add watching Rovers to my weekend sporting itinerary. Admittedly, the first time – another Hull derby fixture - was purely by chance. The main reason for attending the “One True Derby” in rugby league that Sunday at New Year was simply in order to reciprocate my mate Darren’s rare excursion to Boothferry to support City against Leeds earlier that same day. It was an agreement that had probably been hatched over a pint or two and was one that I was particularly looking forward to. The continued snipes from those of a black and white persuasion, coupled with my increased time spent in the company of Rovers fans had had the desired effect; as such I could genuinely celebrate Garry Clark’s match-winning try in the far corner from where we stood. Mike Fletcher converted and added another two goals, with Wayne Parker dropping a one-pointer. Gary Pearce’s penalty constituted Hull’s sole reply to leave the majority of the 8,186 crowd disappointed and the home side in the relegation zone. For those like us travelling back eastwards across the river, the 11-2 win and Rovers’ elevation to 7th capped an excellent day (City had earlier beaten Leeds 3-1). It marked the beginning, albeit tentatively, of another sporting love affair, although little did I realise that I’d already witnessed the high point of the next two years!

Over the next decade I followed Hull Kingston Rovers along the length and breadth of the M62 (and ‘down that London’). I visited some of the game's proper heartlands and historic grounds, along with some of those that would hardly provide a footnote in the game’s history (Altrincham FC, home to Trafford Borough anybody?). I tasted a few highs and a few more lows, as well as witnessing first-hand one of the most infamous implosions in the history of the game, courtesy of defeat by Oldham at the 1990 Second Division Premiership Final. I made plenty of new friends, including Sean and Darren from Rovers fanzine ‘Flag Edge Touch’ (at a time when both City and Rovers were facing the abyss), and others who shared their love of rugby league with a fondness for Saturday nights at Spiders. Weekends also became known for player spotting, with the Rovers lads a regular sight in Murphy’s (or Schnapps?) on Posterngate. Within no time, Sundays had become an integral part of my sporting weekend. The sport I’d once mocked had gripped me in the same way as watching City had. I could now suffer sporting woes all weekend!
Marriage and kids brought an end to my regular sporting attendance in the same way such domestic responsibilities often curtail many a social activity. My timing wasn’t bad though, given that the early Noughties saw The Robins’ fortunes at their lowest ebb. 2006 ended all that with promotion to Super League and the attempts to get one or both my daughters to share in my sporting passion(s) meant I had new reason to return. Both girls have witnessed the joy and despair of derby games at both Craven Park and The KCom, while thankfully both were spared the despondency of Wembley 2015 and the ‘Million Pound Game’ the following year.
Little did I know that Rovers’ relegation would actually strengthen my hand in trying to shape The Younger Slushette’s sporting allegiances. The fact that virtually every home game would be played on a Sunday afternoon helped. For Katie, Sunday now meant a whole host of delights: like sitting in the front seat of the car (a rare privilege for the youngest member of the family); getting her dad to sing along to some god-forsaken chart “choon” on Capital FM on the car stereo; enjoying the pre-match delight of a jumbo hot dog (or new favourite, the Chicken Balti pie); laughing at her dad being the only person to actually applaud the live acts on the Mercure Hull Talent Stage under the Colin Hutton Stand (they have all been very good by the way); watching the Rovers Dancers (who then doubled up as cheerleaders) strut their stuff in front of us; laughing as Rufus gets up to his usual tricks with players and supporters alike; and eventually taking the chance to get a snap with some of her new-found heroes. And with Radio Humberside no longer carrying in-depth post-match analysis, she's also had the bonus of a Capital sing-along again on the drive home.

My youngest daughter’s enjoyment of a season’s rugby league has made me a very happy man. I smile when remembering how she chuckled at the small band of Oldham fans doing their best to be heard over seven thousand locals in her first game this season. Or how she’d reprimanded me for my over-exuberant celebrations of the winning try against Featherstone (it was relief). And her face when Kellie, our visiting Australian “delegate” student from Aussie Rules country said how much she’d enjoyed her first ever rugby league match (against Rochdale) only for me to tell her it was perhaps the worst game I’d seen all season! Cruelly perhaps, her favourite moment of the season came when godfather Gary had got cramp during the tense closing stages of the memorable Middle 8’s win at Leigh.
That trip to Leigh was one of two away games Katie and I travelled to during the season, both with the aforementioned Gary and sons Mathew and William. The other was at the ground Oldham Roughyeds shared with non-league football side Stalybridge Celtic. Both that trip and the Leigh game were enjoyed by train, something we will hopefully repeat next year. Certainly, the events of the past year would suggest that Katie has bitten the bug in the same way I first did; and unlike me she at least knows that when she pesters me to go to a game the response is more likely than not going to be positive.
But of course promotion to Super League comes at a cost. Now back in the Sky Sports firing line, how many games will there be available to us on a Sunday afternoon in 2018? Could the Younger Slushette’s first full season of attendance prove her last? Thursday night games with school the next day? Or a Friday night clash with her much-loved Dance Class means the selfies may have to be put on a hold for a while? If so, hopefully it will prove a mere separation and not a divorce. I do hope so for when that final hooter sounded against Widnes, to have one of my daughters there to share the joy was something I’ll cherish forever. I’d even go so far as to say it was a moment to rival the final whistle at Wembley on ‘Dean Windass Day’...perhaps. 
NOTE: Parts of the above piece first appeared in my post 'It's rough, it's tough, it's Rugby League' on my now discontinued 'A Game In four Quarters' blog.

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