John Kear is recalling his early memories of the Challenge Cup; tales that go towards explaining the origin of his love for a competition he holds as dear to him as anything else in his life.
“My uncle Harry took me down to the first final I watched,” Kear recalls, as he places his coffee cup on the floor while remaining in full flow.
“It was Featherstone against Barrow in 1967. I went there, walked up the steps at Wembley, and we were behind the posts with the Featherstone fans. I came out at the top, I was only a small kid, and when I saw this expansive stadium with a sea of people I thought, ‘Wow, this is special’.
“I always wanted to play in a cup final after that, although I sadly didn’t make it there. I made semi-finals, but Hull kept beating us at Cas in the 80s. So as soon as I became a coach, my first feeling was that I was going to make sure I coached at Cas. I was fortunate to do that in ’98.
My life has been a total love affair with the Cup, from being a fan to becoming a player and then a coach.” He quickly picks up his cup from the floor. But before taking another sip it’s placed quickly back on the floor and he is offering another anecdote.
“We’ve still got a Whatsapp group for the ’98 team. It’s all the lads from Sheffield. Our Whatsapp was buzzing like nothing on May 2nd because we were all reminding ourselves what a great day we had, recounting stories and wishing each other well.
“That’s what is so special. You go out there with a group of people, you look them in the eye and you know full well you’ve got a shared memory that nobody else can have. That’s what’s special about the Cup, making those memories and revisiting them as the years go by. I’m hoping there’s going to be another memory made on Saturday.”
Kear is speaking as he looks out on Odsal, Bradford’s decaying stadium that you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking had been abandoned with its faded seats, peeling paint and battered portable bar that sits in one corner of the ground.
But on Saturday it will host the Bulls’ biggest fixture since their reformation in 2017 as they reignite their rivalry with Leeds Rhinos in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup.
Bradford have dwindled in a decade of despair. Relegation, various administrations and liquidation only begin to tell the tale of their decline.
But victory on Saturday would go a long way to making those painful memories seem like a thing of the past, a healing mechanism for the dark days that left the Bulls a diminished, unrecognisable entity of their once proud existence as world champions.
Kear’s ultimate goal is to lead the Bulls back to those glory days from the start of the millennium, and games like this have always been a part of his revival strategy.
“Last year we sat down as a playing group when I was first appointed and we said we can’t go any lower.
“But we also said we can re-write history, be the phoenix team that has risen from the ashes. This is a great opportunity for us to say that we can attempt to get into Super League, and when we get there look at the crowds we can attract and the performances we can put on the field.
“I see this not only as an opportunity to make the last eight of the Challenge Cup, but to signal the rebirth of Bradford Bulls.”
It’s not difficult to see why Kear is widely regarded as one of the best motivators rugby league has ever seen. His passion and spirit transmit through his words.
It’s fitting that he was the mastermind behind what is regarded as the greatest shock in Challenge Cup history, Sheffield’s 1998 triumph over Wigan at Wembley. His team talks have also inspired another Challenge Cup triumph, with Hull in 2005 and an unfathomable escape job with Wakefield in Super League a year later.
Kear thrives in the underdog role, he’s almost made for it. But there’s more substance to his coaching repertoire than that. Underlining all of that is a desire to create legacies and achieve success that will immortalise him within his sport.
That was why he decided to join Bradford while they were at their lowest ebb.
“You take jobs and you look at the context of it,” he said.
“Looking at this job, they couldn’t go any lower. There was only one way to go and that’s up, and that’s what happened last year. My dream has always been to get Bradford back into Super League under my guidance. That’s always been a driving factor, the re-emergence of this club but also, selfishly, to get this club back into Super League and perhaps win something as well.”
If Kear were to do that it would go down as the finest achievement of his career and attain him legendary status. But he isn’t too concerned about that just now. See, this game is just part of the process, one step towards his grand vision.
“One of our strap-lines has been sustainable progression. I think previous regimes, administrations, they have gone for the boom or bust. You can’t just put everything on red and a black comes up because you’re bust.
“We’ve got to grow slowly and in a sustainable manner. One of the great benchmarks for us won’t be so much on the field this Saturday, but off the field. If we end up with a ten to 12 thousand crowd, I think everyone will think this is a Super League club in waiting. I think it’s important who comes along and how we handle the eyes of the nation being on us. Over one million people will be watching us, we’re on terrestrial television, so we’ve to make sure there aren’t any hitches within the organisation of it.”
Bradford will line-up with several talents all nurtured and developed from within the club’s own setup. Kear thinks that will give them an advantage against a Leeds side whose biggest threats are largely overseas talents, albeit some who have reached levels most of Bradford’s young, hungry group of players can only wish to match one day.
“The re-writing history is the goal, but using locals is part of that process. We feel like that goal is achievable but they are how we can achieve it.
“Bradford has a great academy and it produces great players. Ask Canberra, Castleford or Huddersfield. But we want to keep our best ones and grow with them. We’re not going to keep everybody, but with the number we produce, I’m certain that this club is going to be very much a Bradford club with Bradford players and Bradford people.
“I was born and bred down Wheldon Road and there was only one team I wanted to play for, and that was Castleford. It meant so much to me to play for them because I was from there. I want it to mean that much to the Bradford kids to play for this club. You add more to the mix.”
But that won’t stop Kear from dreaming of what could be this weekend. He wiggles his fingers when he’s nervous, it’s an unconscious motion. However, they are also uncontrollable when asked just what victory in this game, in this competition, would mean.
“Victory on Saturday would be the best thing I’ve achieved here, there’s no doubt about that.
“I’ve been a head coach of two different clubs who have won a Challenge Cup, but there isn’t one in history that has done it with three different clubs. I’d like to re-write the history with that. If you said to me there’s one more final before I put my coaching hat on the peg, it would have to be the Challenge Cup. I love the Grand Final, I see that as the innovation and the modern, I see the Challenge Cup as the tradition, and I’m a traditionalist. I pay my respects to the history of the game, the heritage and how it was born. That’s why it means so much to me.
“But the most important thing is that this could be the thing that kickstarts the motorbike engine up of this club and we can really rev the accelerator then.”