First published in Rugby League World, Issue 379 (Nov 2012)
Ground: John Smith’s Stadium
Game: Huddersfield Giants v Leeds Rhinos
Date: Sunday 9 September 2012
As an iconic Rugby League destination, I decided to make a day of my field trip to Huddersfield. On a glorious late summer Sunday, Kirklees’ yellow ochre stone is bathing in golden sunshine as my sidekick and I enjoy a picnic in St George’s Square: the heart of Huddersfield. It feels like the Super League season should be anything but ending. We grab a pint from Stevo’s Bar at The George and head down to the Rugby League Heritage Centre, where we get a surprise personal guide from Dewsbury’s finest himself. I knew it was his collection but didn’t expect to find him with hand, literally, on the till-er.
It was no accident that the Northern Union was born in Huddersfield. It is slap bang in the middle of the north, almost the last stop in Yorkshire along the M62 before it heads up and over the Pennines to Lancashire. The train line makes a similar journey: you can even get direct trains from various stops in the south-east that drop you in the magnificent Victorian square. You can drive there cross-country too: despite being deep into the Pennines, it’s more accessible than I expected. The stadium is well sign-posted all the way into town and lies just below the ring road.
One of the better grounds for parking, there are official car parks to the north, east and west. It’s a fiver a car in the St Andrews car park, reached by heading across a bridge over the River Colne towards the golf range. We can exclusively reveal that the best parking deal in town is £1 for four hours in the station forecourt: seconds away from The George or the legendary Head of Steam real ale emporium, and a 15 minute stroll downhill to the ground. There is some street parking off Leeds Road and the ring road but you could be wasting valuable sightseeing/drinking time. After the game, I notice stewards holding the cars back as a few dozen pedestrian fans left the area: bizarre and ridiculous given there are ample pavements and roads for both.
We walked past the Gas Works Club, a drinking den which I once visited before an international here. That day, a rather strange chap informed us that he’d come “all the way from Pudsey”. When my mate told him he’d come from Hatfield – in Hertfordshire, not South Yorkshire – he was lost for words.
On a day like this, the approach to the stadium is a delight: we arrive via neatly-landscaped approaches complete with floral hedges and the huge white roof arcs beneath the tree-covered hill. With the last throes of summer creating a hot and humid atmosphere, we could easily be in the Med, except the stands there are unlikely to be named after Britannia Rescue or Fantastic Media.
The stadium operators have made an effort to make fans of both codes feel welcome: Town and Giants branding seems pretty even outside, and inside the, ahem, Direct Golf UK Stand, one wall is white, another gold, the floor is blue and the pillars maroon!
Being an all-seater football stadium it is no surprise to find clear views all round but the leg room is decent too and the ground is weathering well given its 17 years.
A couple of hundred Giants fans opt to sit in the sunshine behind the posts while I notice a similar number of seats are actually behind the dead-ball line, with no offer of a free appointment from a Giants-endorsed chiropractor provided for anyone stuck there. Funnily enough, they are empty.
I spot a couple of helpful touches: a drinks trolley supplies the kids down the front and there’s a row of seats in the concourse for the elderly or infirm to rest on at half-time while the rest of us stretch our legs.
Having won just three of their last 14 games, the Giants fans could be forgiven for giving today a miss. Instead, about 7,000 are here, the average for Huddersfield in recent seasons, with around 2,000 making the short trip from Leeds occupying the sprawling south-western end. The visitors are severely muted once Huddersfield take control with two early tries. It is visually startling, as large men in maroon and cerise clash: every ruck is a psychedelic blur.
Despite being down to 12 men for about an hour after a curious incident involving Luke O’Donnell, a wild charge, Ian Kirke, a substitution, a lot of medics, a long wait and, eventually, a red card, Huddersfield continue to attack, spray it around and score seemingly at will. The air of delighted disbelief turns into hilarity. There is great amusement when RLW’s very own JJB cops a strop and hurls a water bottle to the ground. He is lucky referee Monsieur Alibert is looking the other way. One chap near us gets so excited he hands out wine gums, another throws maroon and gold confetti.
Outside the north-west corner of the ground, behind a fence, is the turnstile block from the old Leeds Road ground, complete with a plaque paying tribute to the fans who watched Huddersfield Town there for a century, the Rugby League team only a couple of seasons. Much merchandise in the shop acknowledges Huddersfield’s role in the game but sadly I see nothing in the ground to commemorate the post-war boom years or the glorious early 60s and 70s, a common issue in shared stadia. It is left to the fans themselves to pay tribute. As the Giants rub their flashy neighbours noses in it, chants of ‘Fartown’ echo from down the far end of the stand where the older fans congregated.
Huddersfield doubled their attendances in the mid-2000s to over 7,000 but crowds here have plateaued since 2007 despite having a successful team. Have the Giants hit a glass ceiling? They will struggle to reach into the north or east because of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, so maybe they will target the border lands of the Pennines instead.
Having Robbie Paul on board will help: pre-match he’s busy signing copies of his autobiography in the shop, which packs a decent range of merchandise into a small space as the Giants shop evolves into the Terriers’ store.
The slightly disappointing programme is filled with community and commercial initiatives, most involving the players: Crabtree promoting fostering, Robbie Paul playing masters soccer, and, amazingly, free room hire at the ground for season ticket holders.
Over a hundred primary school kids in Sports Relief T-shirts line the touchline to welcome the teams and return at half-time in their club kits for a lap of honour, having played in the curtain-raiser.
As they head out of the ground, buoyant Giants fans have a 12-page 2013 Season Ticket newspaper thrust in their hand. The timing is perfect.
Our arrival is accompanied by the slightly incongruous sound of a bongo drum ensemble on the forecourt, while several kids take advantage of a face-painting stall outside.
Pre-match the enthusiastic PA announcer remains on the right side of irritating. But someone needs to explain that ear-assaulting house music that rises to a crescendo every minute for several false climaxes as the teams show no sign of entering the fray is not entertainment.
Local Olympic track cycling hero Ed Clancy strolls on with the match ball wearing a Giants jersey and gets a heartfelt ovation, while the teenage cheerleaders wear hot pants and wave gold pompoms but seem lacking in ideas or energy. ‘Big G’, the freakish mascot with a head inspired by Frank Sidebottom (RIP) is somewhat frightening albeit hard to distinguish from Eorl Crabtree until you realise Crabtree is bigger. The next day I find myself behind Big Eorl on the motorway. He’s on the back of a Stobart lorry, not driving. Looking closely, I’m sure the picture is life-sized.
PLAYER INTERACTION 7/10
Outside the ground I’m handed a leaflet by the Giants Supporters Association promoting their interesting series of events over the close season, while the Huddersfield RL Heritage Project hopes to provide ‘A Lasting Legacy’.
After such a shocking romp, the Giants players do a brief lap of honour a safe distance from the fans: most stride past rapidly, as if they know one win doesn’t make a season. Danny Brough and Eorl Crabtree come right over to sign autographs and pose for photos. It’s easy to see why both were winners at the previous week’s Awards Dinner , attended by over 250 fans and sponsors.
There are noticeably more black fans – most in Huddersfield gear – than at all the other grounds Secret Speccie has visited so far put together. Perhaps that community is one which can take the Giants to their hearts: it helps having four splendid local young black players in then team.
VALUE FOR MONEY 6/10
Due to the financial pressures of tenancy deals, like other shared grounds, a few hours at Huddersfield’s stadium does not necessarily come cheap. It’s £21 cash on turnstiles (£15 for seniors and students, £8 for juniors), but tickets were available in advance for £18/£12/£5 – Under-12s go free! 2013 season tickets are superb value: from £99 for adults – the cost of just four match tickets - £50 for students, £35 for Under-16s and free for kids! Beer is £3.50 for a pint of, yep, you’ve guessed it, John Smith’s – which was insipid following the delicious real ale at The George – with Rose, Red and White Wine available at £3.70. A pie and pint combo was £6, double it for £11.80. I was tempted by the giant pack of Seabrooks crisps for £1.10 but they only had ready salted. I’m a Worcester Sauce man myself.
Tricks from Grix and Brough’s magic take Huddersfield’s lead up to 48-10 – Leeds’ three late tries were no consolation and even drew ironic cheers from the Rhinos army – and the regular season finishes on a high for Huddersfield. We head home via a visit to Fartown for another dip into the ghostly world of crumbling terraces and dreams. A generation ago Huddersfield Barracudas were playing in front of 500 wounded souls at ‘Arena 84’. They last won a trophy – albeit the championship title – 50 years ago. They have come far. A day out at The Birthplace of Rugby League is a high quality experience. It didn’t thrill me but I would go again.
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 6