First published in Rugby League World, Issue 378 (Oct 2012)
Ground: Craven Park
Game: v Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
Date: Sunday 19 August 2012
Having dropped Mrs Speccie off for a spa day with her mother, your correspondent heads east, far east. It’s a beautifully warm day on Humberside, Hull Marina is looking wonderful and a mass family bike ride around the old city centre and dock is creating a feel-good factor. An hour before kick off, I can be found devouring scampi and chips on Victoria Pier looking across the Humber and admiring The Deep. Then it’s time to make my first ever visit to Craven Park to see two play-off chasers in a win-or-bust encounter.
It is easy to forget how far away Hull is… from pretty much anywhere. That isolation is both a help and a hindrance – but more of that later. As almost everyone enters the city along the A63 from the west, you are regularly signposted towards the KC Stadium. No wonder some Rovers fans have an inferiority complex. Once past the city centre, there is nothing to tell you where Craven Park is. The first sign for the ground is on the roundabout off Hedon Road, just in case passengers for the P&O Ferry to Zeebrugge take a wrong turn. If you relied on following the crowd you would never find it because the ground is deep within the housing estates of East Hull, on the very edge of the city: by the time you see fans walking to it, you can already see the towering old floodlights. It’s nearly five miles from Hull Station – via bus 10, 40, 41 or 43 from Albion Street.
There is a large car park behind the Main Stand, open to fans at £5 a car, worth it if there is more than one of you in the car and you are in no rush to get out afterwards. The bottleneck is chronic as there is only one access road on to Preston Road. There is street parking around the ground but you may have to walk the best part of a mile on a busy matchday.
There is little doubt this is a Rugby League city. When I stop to check out the housing development going up on Boothferry Park, one bloke emerges from his house in a South Sydney shirt and then another pushes a pram past wearing a BARLA GB playing jersey, almost certainly his own judging by his ‘lived-in’ face.
Craven Park is Rovers’ ninth home and it is hard to believe it has only been here since 1989. That was unfortunate timing, coming half a decade before Britain’s stadium revolution began. Its design is half a century old, and rather reminiscent of the old Springfield Park in Wigan. The stewards, staff and fans I speak to are friendly enough and the crowd reflects the locale. The only ethnic minority spectator I see – a young black woman in front of the West Stand – freely cheers Wakefield to victory, despite being surrounded mainly by white working class Hullensian men. Their ire is reserved for the referee and the Rovers’ defence. It is as it should be.
When Craven Park was built, Rovers had to share first with greyhound racing and then speedway, hence the unsuitable lay-out. With those two pursuits now gone, they can finally put up a new North Stand behind the tryline, but the South Stand is little more than a few steps of curving terrace at the Docks End, a good 30m behind the nearest posts. Strangely, the vast majority of Wakefield fans opt to congregate there, rather than along ‘The Well’ (the main stand paddock), which is still 20m from the action and only offers a decent view on the back steps and in the north-west corner. The view from up above in the lofty West Stand astride the halfway line is splendid and reveals acres of flatlands, the obligatory cooling towers and, to add a Dutch flavour near the Rotterdam ferry terminal, a wind turbine. Bizarrely, the East Stand opposite – a steep bank of covered terrace – stretches to within 15m of the southern tryline, leaving an obvious expansion opportunity.
With Rovers sliding down the table alarmingly and Wakefield hitting top form just when it matters, pre-match is lively. Most of the impressive turn-out of nearly 9000 chant ‘Bring on the Rovers’, and there’s a minute’s silence for a fallen hero, before they belt out an incongruously earthy version of ‘Red Red Robin’.
Ben Cockayne, one of five former Rovers in the visiting line-up, gets by far the biggest cheer from the home fans, but they are silenced when he opens the scoring just seven minutes in. Rovers respond well and the noise level booms: a screeching wail evolves into a North Sea roar as the home side go ahead. Wakefield take control after the break and the natives become restless. But when Rovers suddenly break to score twice and level at 26-all, the noise is tremendous. The energy in the East Stand must be awesome: they are a fearsome ally when things are going well. Both sides of Craven Park are rocking. To think there was no Hull club when Super League launched.
Most arriving fans are greeted by the massive Roger Millward Stand sign on the exterior western wall, and many left traipsing past a smashing photo of Roger the Dodger waving the Challenge Cup to the crowd in the city centre. Those were the days: Rovers won nine major trophies in nine seasons shortly before their shock relegation in 1989. Three of their five championship wins have come since 1979, more than all but the Big Four. That’s a reminder of how successful they were. That magnificent relatively-recent history is celebrated in the 706 706 Bar under the main stand, where displays of players past and present include a strange trail around the bar of the early 80s icons faces on slices of log. Surreal. You can also frequent Peter Flanagan’s Bar although the Harry Poole Bar is closed during the re-build. If you want a real-life legend, Scotsman George Fairbairn, is standing by the dugout.
Everything that could be painted, is: in red or white – often both. And most of the crowd seem to be wearing a replica shirt: blimey, they have shifted some here, mainly the current home shirt, a traditional white number with red chest band (other clubs please take note). Most advertisers are small local companies, such as neighbouring firm East Yorkshire Shutters. They have had a lot of business by the looks of the roads leading to Craven Park: everything was shuttered-up. Either they are expecting a hurricane or it’s a bit dodgy round here. The lack of big name sponsors epitomises the challenges the club face but they certainly seem to have got most of East Hull on board and have a fine website.
Timing is key. A few days after he triumphed in the bantamweight boxing at London 2012, Olympic champion Luke Campbell (and hammer thrower Olympian Alex Smith) get a suitable heroes reception as they parade the ground, followed by two Olympic torch-bearers, half a dozen amateur kids RL teams, and those other two great local athletes, Rufus The Robin and Lord Prescott. Injured Hull KR players stop Campbell by the bench to have their photos taken with him as the second-half is about to start. That is entertainment enough for me but we do get the obligatory local schoolgirls cheerleading briefly.
PLAYER INTERACTION 7/10
I get the feeling the Rovers fans and players are pretty close knit. It’s not the sort of place where anyone who got above their station would last too long. I can generally understand the unique Hull accent but not when it is shouted out at a referee by an irate and, quite possibly half-cut, Captain Birdseye lookalike. I couldn’t make out a word of this dockers’ tongue. Peter ‘Flash’ Flanagan, a real son of the Docks, would have done – there’s a lovely tribute to him in the excellent club programme, which also includes an impressive timetable of events by the Hull KR Education and Sport Trust, a stadium-based healthcheck initiative featuring Constantine Mika, and the players involvement in a local cancer charity.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
You could pay £22 to stand down the side, £25 for a seat up in the Main Stand, with the Wildcats fans slumming it on the South terrace at £18 each. Mind you, they could at least get burgers, chips and curry from the van in the south-east corner. None of that was on sale down the west side where a pie and a pint cost £4, a pie and a tea £3.50, with hot dogs available instead of pies. Keg beer is £3 in the paddock bars but £2.50 inside at the 706 706 Bar (It’s a sponsored by a local cab firm evidently.)
After a thrillingly topsy-turvy second-half, Paul Sykes’ late drop-goal seals Trinity’s fifth straight win and Rovers’ seventh defeat in eight.
I think Hull KR are doing a great job with the cards they’ve been dealt. They are competing with a bigger neighbour, have spent years outside Super League, and have a ground desperately needing modernisation. They are filling Craven Park to within a few hundred of capacity every game, and it is hard to see how they can grow much bigger in the near future. With water to the east and south, Hull FC and not much else to the west, they can only look north to Bridlington or across the Humber to increase their fanbase.
The new North Stand – which may be ready for the kick off next February – could transform the club’s image and corporate potential. I hope it does. Sitting in the car for 20 minutes waiting to leave the car park, I hear a cracking interview on Radio Humberside where a dogged Gwilym Lloyd prodded despondent chairman Neil Hudgell into saying the club had spent the salary cap but got “about £1.2m worth of performances” from a “divided” squad. He warned the fans to expect a budget rebuild next season: out with the expensive experienced names, in with the cheap youngsters. I hope the fans stick with them as this club deserves it.
Hot Dog: £2.50
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 7