Painting the town red
First published in League Express, Monday 9th Sept 2013
I’ve never been to a Rugby League media conference quite like the one that was held by Dr Marwan Koukash at Salford last Thursday.
The event was superbly presented, with great professionalism, and, with Koukash himself taking us through his plans for the club, and introducing us to his new signings. It almost felt as though we were attending an evangelical gathering.
It would be very difficult for anyone who was there as a supporter not to put their hands in their pocket to buy season tickets, not just for themselves, but for their friends as well.
And that’s before they take into account the Doctor’s offer to give them a chance to name one of his horses and collect the winnings if they buy a season ticket.
The Rugby League media tends to be fairly sceptical, but it was hard not to pick up on the sense of optimism and excitement that pervaded the room, with the Doctor frequently drawing bursts of applause from the Salford supporters, with ‘Salford, Salford’ chants also growing increasingly loud.
Since he bought the club, some people have been a little cynical about whether Dr Koukash can really be successful with a club that currently falls far short of its greatest days, and which this weekend has ended up with the Super League wooden spoon.
And yet even that looks almost to have been scripted.
What a story it will be when the club that finished at the bottom of the pile this year rises from the ashes in 2014, as it surely will.
For me, the decision to re-brand the club the Salford Red Devils is a marketing masterstroke.
That description was given to Salford by French supporters in the 1930s, when the club toured France under Gus Risman and introduced Rugby League to that country.
In recent years, Manchester United have tended to use it to describe themselves. But now Salford have taken possession, and I’m sure they will find it much easier to appeal to at least one half of the city of Manchester after doing so.
Many years ago, when I lived in Manchester, I was a regular at The Willows.
It would be good to think that Rugby League will now claim its rightful place again as a major sport in the heart of the Manchester conurbation, and within a stone’s throw from the new BBC headquarters at Media City.
It would be great to think that the Beeboids would be among those buying season tickets next year.
A fair comparison?
On Friday night the England football team played Moldova at Wembley, and they triumphed 4-0 in a World Cup qualifying game.
Nothing too odd about that, you may think, and of course you’d be quite right.
But one figure that caught my attention was the size of the crowd, which was 61,607.
That was significantly lower than the 78,137 figure that represented the official attendance for the Challenge Cup Final two weeks earlier.
Given that London is the heartland of association football in this country, with Wembley its spiritual home, I don’t think it’s a bad effort for Wigan and Hull to draw a significantly bigger crowd than turned out to watch the national football side.
Maybe things are not quite as bad as we think for Rugby League.
Can we stop thinking that they are?
The Welshman who got away
The great former Welsh rugby union player Cliff Morgan died recently, and there have been several tribute programmes to him broadcast recently, mainly by the BBC.
Morgan was at the height of his powers in the mid-1950s. Given his humble background, you might have thought that he would have been a natural target for Rugby League scouts.
And indeed he was. He often told the story of the Wigan Chairman who came to his house one day, to be rejected by Morgan himself, but whose mother insisted on treating with respect and hospitality.
And long after his playing career ended, Morgan would often say that one of his greatest regrets was not having played Rugby League.
Even so, I still have mixed feelings about him.
He was a great commentator – one of the best in my view. He will forever be associated with the Barbarians game against New Zealand in 1973, and his description of Gareth Edwards’ famous try.
I used to sometimes watch rugby union internationals in those days and lament the fact that we didn’t have commentators like Morgan and Bill McLaren for Rugby League. Morgan’s commentaries suggested a love of the game, an eloquence that was magnified by his Welsh accent, and an incisive understanding of the game. He contributed enormously, along with McLaren, to the way in which the reputation of international rugby union was enhanced.
I was less impressed by him in his role as the Head of Sport at the BBC.
He was the person who got rid of the Floodlit Trophy competition, but didn’t get rid of Eddie Waring, even when Eddie was clearly showing signs of he onset of dementia.
And I remember one radio discussion in which he reflected on his career, and on the process of negotiating contracts to televise various sports.
He admitted that the best organisation to deal with was the RFL. The RFL people would come to his office, he would make them an offer, they would accept it without question, and he and they would then retire to the pub and get sloshed swapping rugby stories from the two codes. He said the Rugby League people were great blokes.
On the other hand, he hated negotiating with the RFU, amongst others, because they argued about every point in the contract, and they were never happy with what the BBC was doing for their sport.
The contrast was painful to listen to.
New clubs in the play-off
If I weren’t chained to the office on a Sunday, the place I would have been at the weekend would have been Hemel Hempstead, to see the Stags earn a narrow victory against Oxford in the opening week of the play-offs.
Two new clubs in the play-offs!
What could be better than that?
The Stags won narrowly, and this week they will face London Skolars, who narrowly lost at Rochdale Hornets in the other Championship One play-off.
The other play-off game in that division this Sunday will see Oldham hosting the Hornets.
What a wonderful contrast between the old and the new!
Just read about the London youngsters who earned a victory for the Broncos at Hull KR on Sunday.
And then turn to Hector McNeil’s article about the importance of London on page 14 of this issue.
It gives plenty of food for thought.
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