First published in Rugby League World, Issue 373 (May 2012)
Ground: Headingley Carnegie
Game: v Warrington Wolves
Date: Friday 9 March 2012
Three hours before kick-off in the clash of Super League’s biggest and best (so far) and I am in experiencing the delights of Leeds city centre by car: driving around its teeming, byzantine maze of streets is an horrific challenge for the uninitiated, and parking an excruciating nightmare to be inflicted only on your very worst enemy. Then a student walks past me dressed as a banana. I need a drink.
If Lord Hawke was building Leeds a sports complex now and not in 1889, he wouldn’t have bought a plot in Headingley, a leafy and attractive suburb north-west of the city centre. But thank heavens he did: I can’t think of any other English rugby (or football) stadium in such a pleasant residential area. But it has its drawbacks: Headingley Lane is a snarl-up, possibly caused by a crash, but not helped by the Friday night rush hour exit towards the Dales. I walk down past the pin-badge and scarf seller: you know it’s Big Time when there’s one of those fellas plying his trade outside.
There is official parking behind the South Stand but for the vast majority you have to arrive early and hope you get a place on the streets around Headingley. It’s not a major problem if you are prepared to walk – I get a spot ten minutes away off Headingley Lane. But a lot of the crowd head back to the buses and train stations (two local stops – Burley Park and Headingley on the Harrogate and York line) instead. There are buses to Otley, Ilkley and Skipton from the top of St Michael’s Lane. It’s comforting to know you could have a couple of post-match pints in the Skyrack or Original Oak and still be in bed in your farmhouse before midnight.
The Rhinos have introduced Meeters & Greeters as you come through the turnstiles, smiley young people who are there to help. It’s a bit ‘Have a Nice Day’ and they could do with being further into the ground as most people walk straight past them before they could possibly need help. But the thought was there. They even have a Lost Children’s point: that’s how big Headingley is. Families can also have their picture taken as they come in and it goes in the next programme. In contrast, in the Carnegie Cafe, I put my pint down on the only available surface to take a photo and was promptly told to move it by an officious woman serving as it was in the way of the coffee machine. Not that anyone was coming anywhere near the coffee machine and I was standing all of a foot away if they did. Two marks deducted.
Last time I was here I watched from the dug-outs. The view from halfway back in the South Stand is more challenging. You have to be on tip toes or uncomfortably close to the person in front to get a decent view. There are pillars but you can see around them: it is just so full. Unless you are carried along by the buzz, it’s just a bit annoying. Oh dear, I must be getting old. I go down the front later in the half and stand behind the kids. The view there is terrific but I was forever concerned of blocking out some young soul’s view behind me. I give up and use my media pass to get out of the South Stand and head for the Carnegie Stand terrace behind the east end. It is just as full there but unobstructed – mind you, we also got wet as the constant thin drizzle eventually drifted in. Before it was announced, I assumed the crowd would be 20,000. There are hundreds in the open corners standing at an awkward angle to the pitch, where only the desperate go when it’s a full house. Incredibly, the crowd is just 17,120 – where on earth they fit 4,000 more for the WCC is beyond me.
Everywere is busy. On the cricket side of the ground, the queue at Wilson’s Pie Van is 30-folk long an hour before kick-off: they must be magnificent. It is a surreal sight though, of several fans sitting in the cricket stand seats eating their tea while looking out over the outfield in the gloom of dusk, as if the lights have gone out at the end of an abysmally attended T20 game and the heavens are about to open. It hasn’t, but they do. Richie Mathers, unusually neutral tonight, wanders past, soon followed by the BBC’s Dave Woods. They both seem unsurprised by the scene but then they have seen it all before. I seem to be the only person not wearing Rhinos gear and the popularity of the cerise and navy shirt makes me reconsider the modern Yorkshireman. It is less progressive in the South Stand. Phil Clarke gets abuse en route to the commentary box and Lee Briers is also a target. After the Rhinos are roared on to the pitch, we get ‘Marching On Together’, a minute’s silence for six troops killed in Afghanistan, followed by an impromptu rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ and waving of the union flag.
There is less fuss made about the return of the World Club Champions than I expected but then again, it has happened several times before. The excellent programme does remind fans that life has not always been so good here: features on the emergence of the Rhinos brand in 1997 and ‘the forgotten’ 1972 championship are fascinating in the current context. Leeds don’t thrust their history in your face, it’s more subtle than that. Headingley itself is the key and they realise that. There is a place for everyone here: sit in comfort in a beautiful modern stand, be among the Leeds walking history in the Football Stand, or the seething, heaving mass of the people in the South Stand as your forefathers did.
The ability to maintain a mainly-ancient ground and provide a world-class team is not only down to superb management throughout the club and the biggest crowds in Super League, but is financed by the corporate hospitality unrivalled in the game. Walk in past the Headingley Experience and you can feel it. There are hundreds or even thousands of men in suits coming straight from work to the see the Rhinos – and on work’s time and money! Hence the club’s Friday night obsession. The word ‘Leeds’ is all around you, usually in blue or amber. It is blanket marketing. To be a sports fan from Leeds and not support the Rhinos would be strange – and that is surely the aim of all our clubs.
In the next home game after the World Club Challenge, the richest club in Super League put on a show without going mad. An agile and effervescent Ronnie the Rhino plays to the packed gallery and the dance troupe are suitably excited. The girl with bright scarlet hair does not stand out as much as the stocky lad at the front with red highlights (it’s for Sport Relief, apparently) who looks like he’s doing it for a dare or as a forfeit after missing too many tackles in the front row. Star of the show is crooner Tony Christie, arguably the biggest-name act to open a regular SL game. Fully clad in maroon, from patent winkle-pickers to pinstriped jacket, he stalks the centre-circle knocking out ‘Amarillo’ like it’s a normal gig. His face flashing up on the big screen between close-ups of Hall and Sinfield warming-up remind us it is not. He returns at half-time but the highlight of that is Challenge Ronnie, who makes a mug of a fan in a star-jumps and duck walk contest which should have been commentated on by Stuart Hall in the enforced absence of Sir Edward Waring.
PLAYER INTERACTION 7/10
There seems to be less obvious contact with the players at Leeds than other, smaller, clubs, but the club interact with the fans in other ways. The work with the young generation is evident through the Leeds Rugby Foundation and there are simple but effective touches: eg a page of local kids team group photos in the programme, and a new Fans Forum. The Rhinos is a big beast though: the players are not isolated from the fans but the size of the place means fewer fans will have direct contact with the players. On the terraces there is occasional wit. After the Briers-baiting, the South Stand band start up the theme from ‘Steptoe’. Warrington’s Catweazel impersonator Tyrone McCarthy warms up for an hour and is told “You’ve been doing that so long you’ve grown a beard.” Then, during a lull as an injury is seen to, someone near me shouts at the adjacent shaggy-haired Wolves maestro, “Hey Briers, get some shears!” There is much hilarity, even from Briers himself.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Headingley is not cheap but then again you are watching the best the sport has to offer. It was £20 cash on the turnstiles with a transfer kiosk inside to transfer to the seats (ranging from £3 in the Football Stand Paddock to £10 in the central seats in the upper tier of the Carnegie). Beer was £3 a pint on the ground but £3.20 for a Tetleys Smoothflow in the Carnegie Cafe, where you could also enjoy a Match Meal (from £3.70 for a jacket spud to £6 for lasagne, chips and garlic bread for those of us carbo-loading). Like Cas, each food stall appears independent but they all charge the same so I am sure Leeds Rugby control the food and drink. ‘Headingley Pies’ are on sale for £3. I ask the lad serving what it is. “Just a meat ‘n potato pie – nowt special” he says with impressive honesty. I settle for a delicious Holland’s Chicken Balti at £2.50 instead. In the South Stand the locals seem shockingly small at first, or else they have minute hands. Must be a Leeds thing. Then I realise most of them are carrying giant two-pint glasses of beer. Bizarre, but very useful for halving the number of times you have to fight your way in and out of the terrace every time you want a pint.
Thanks to Rob Burrow’s hyperactive ferret impression and a horror mistake by Richie Myler, the Rhinos bring home the bacon against a strangely incoherent Wolves, 26-18. There is no mistaking Leeds as one of our sport’s trend-setters and leading lights. And Headingley suits them perfectly, combining tradition and modernity, grit and glitz. In a word: class.
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