First published in Rugby League World, Issue 368 (Dec 2011)
Ground: Probiz Coliseum
Game: v Hull FC
Date: Sat 3 Sept 2011
I have long held a soft spot for Castleford, probably because my Dad used to watch ‘High Speed Cas’ when he lived here in the mid-60s and he took me to see them at Wembley in one of my first games. But I had never seen them play at Wheldon Road. Yes, I know it’s called the Probiz Coliseum this year. Who are they trying to kid? I’ve been to Rome and LA and this ain’t no coliseum. It is a huge match, though, moved to a Saturday for Sky TV and with only one league game remaining, both sides could finish anywhere from sixth to ninth with the winners in the play-offs. It has been a week of upheaval for Cas: Ian Millward has been unveiled as Terry Matterson’s successor and the new stadium has been further delayed.
Thankfully signposted from just off Junction 32 of the M62, Wheldon Road is about a five minute drive from that hub of activity and it is little wonder Cas are desperate to be in a new stadium there for 2013. From there it is 10 minutes to the A1M, half an hour to Nottinghamshire (surely Cas need to market themselves down there as every other direction takes them into another club’s patch). There are buses right to the ground but I don’t see any come or go. It is a short walk from Castleford station in the town centre though, and you just have to follow the crowd flowing down Wheldon Road beside the River Aire.
There is some parking by the ground but limited to guests etc. Street parking is sparse although I found a spot a ten minute walk away off Bridge Street behind Fawcett Maltsters. The easiest option would be to park in the town centre and walk, soaking up the buzz en-route.
Everywhere is busy well before kick-off. The stewards are chirpy and friendly – there is a real sense of togetherness, staff and fans in it together. Even one or two officials look vaguely familiar, perhaps former players. Inside, there is a face-painting stall, a cake table and the world sport’s biggest sweet stall. It’s like strolling into a buzzing village fete or carnival. Rugby League clearly matters hugely to people here – it’s in the blood.
Despite having cover around much of the ground, the yellow and black Jungle (old skool name) still feels pretty exposed. That’s fine on a warm evening like this one but must be miserable in winter. You can stand anywhere you like so I try everywhere except the Princess Street side. You can stand just ten metres from the pitch in the north-east corner, where the ‘gerrumonsideganson’ brigade reside. The most elevated view is from the main stand but the atmosphere in there is muted. Everything is either tatty or almost derelict: that’s what happens when you spend several years expecting your home to be bulldozed. It’s essentially the house that Cas built in 1935 and improved in the late sixties, that has been held together by layers of black and gold paint. It’s a shambles but not without charm.
I know it’s their second closest game but I’m taken aback by how many Hull fans are here. They must outnumber the home fans, taking over two thirds of the covered Princess Street terrace and most of the open Railway End. There is loud, excitable chatter before kick-off, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasts out as the teams emerge and Cas fans bang the corrugated sheets at the back of the Wheldon Road end in encouragement. But there is also a sense of nervous apprehension. Recent defensive collapses have sapped momentum from the Tigers’ charge and when the thrilling Tom Briscoe and Willie Manu score two tries in the two minutes before half-time, the locals expect the worst. And they get it as Hull romp away to a half century win. But apart from the many excitable teenage girls in hooped shirts, the Cod Army seem underwhelmed – it’s just too easy – and the Cas fans are disconsolate. They could still make the play-offs if they win at Hull KR but the feeling is totally negative.
It’s not in the ground itself but the Early Bath pub on Wheldon Road is an amazing, sweaty shrine to Cas and Rugby League itself, with memorabilia from most clubs covering every inch of wall and even ceiling. The Boot Room, outside the gates, is also part of the club’s heritage. Visitors won’t see much inside the Probiz Coliseum to tell them of the club’s history – there is an honours board for players with 300 appearances in the Tigers Bar, but you only have to look around to know this place has seen some glorious days. They may have not won the Cup since 1986 and have never been champions but this is as traditional as Rugby League gets. It’s just in the air, not in a cabinet.
Apart from their bold colours and Tiger logo, Castleford lack a brand identity. Everything looks different. Each food outlet is individual (fancy a Baloo Burger anyone?) but at least they sell at the same prices. Not surprisingly, much marketing is based around Rangi Chase. We get two magic moments from the season’s eventual Man of Steel tonight: the first sees him stand sideways at dummy-half and snap the ball between his legs, American football-style. Unfortunately, it goes two yards forward, just when Cas need some possession and field position. The second thrill – a fabulous chip, chase, catch and push pass in the tackle – enables Danny Orr to reduced Hull’s lead to 4-10. There was also one particularly bizarre moment: a Cas kick-off landed right on top of the corner post and was judged out on the full. Never seen that before.
A gang of well-built, saucily-dressed, bleached-blonde girls wield gold pom-poms and put on a lively pre-match display. They are, apparently, The Claws and rather impressive they are too, although they are surprising sun-tanned given the West Riding climate. The bubbly PA man informs us that one of their number is off to university and she is given a round of applause, as if it comes as a surprise that a local dancing lass should head off to a higher seat of learning. At half-time, Brotherton Bulldogs Under-8s do a lap of honour and there are the usual end of season presentations. It’s cheap but undeniably cheerful.
PLAYER INTERACTION 9/10
Throughout the whole evening, fans and players are rarely more than a few metres from each other. That in itself forms a bond: it’s not us and them, just us. It doesn’t stop Cas men berating their team’s woeful efforts, but you get the feeling they would not take kindly to an outsider criticising them. The quirky programme promotes several events for fans and players to mix, as well as the post-match socialising. In the on-field interviews, Terry Matterson gets a subdued reaction, rather sad considering what he has achieved with the club. It’s much livelier for Aboriginal ace Dean Widders, who gets a warm send-off as teenagers in Widders wigs stand waiting for autographs and photos on the pitch. By the time Widders has joined the Bruvvas Blue in the Marquee, I am on the A1 heading back to the mother-in-law’s.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
An evening with the Tigers is decent VFM. It’s £20 if you pay cash on the gate but £18 tickets were available in the ticket office next to the rather humble club shop. It’s £12 for concessions but I would guess most of the Cas fans here have season tickets, given the amazing deals on offer. A pass for 2012 is just £175, £99 for concessions and only £26 for kids – two quid a game! No wonder there are hundreds of kids running around and thousands of women. It is a family outing and the Tigers’ future is already here. At £2.50, beer is the cheapest I’ve found so far but the queues in both the Jungle Bar marquee and Tigers Bar are stupidly long. At least bottles of Carlsberg Export were on sale from a makeshift stall at £2.50 each.
Summer rugby has been a godsend to teams such as Cas, Bradford and Wakefield. Their homes are far more viable places for a child on a warm, bright evening than in January. But it will be shame when Cas finally leave Wheldon Road. A lot of people will miss watching their rugby here, with the chimneys poking up behind the Wheldon Road terrace providing an evocatively nostalgic backdrop – not just the 6,000 Cas fans who come down the road every home game. It’s a rough, tatty and noisy place and I loved it.
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 8