First published in Rugby League World, Issue 369 (Jan 2012)
Ground: Rapid Solicitors Stadium (Belle Vue)
Game: v Bradford Bulls
Date: Friday 9 Sept 2011
After a tumultuous five years, it is time for Wakefield to bid thank you and goodnight to John Kear and praise be that the Wildcats live to fight another day in Super League. During the afternoon it was announced that Richard Agar will be Kear’s replacement, a decision greeted with underwhelming enthusiasm by the Wakefield fans around me.
The fixture is like a Chinese standoff (check with RLIF, is there one, yet?): who can save face in the last chance saloon? Wakefield must win to avoid the wooden spoon, while Bradford’s large following – sufficient numbers clad in purple away shirts for it to resemble a 1986 Prince gig – are desperate for the victory which will prevent the humiliation of single figure wins in a season.
I approach from the south up the A1 and north-west along the Doncaster Road (A638), past the Redbeck Motel, infamous for its role in David Peace’s magnificently chilling Red Riding novels, and spot a large roadside advert for the Wildcats at the junction with the Castleford road (A655). Suddenly the spindly floodlight pylons of the Rapid Solicitors Stadium appear on your left. It’s very easy. Coming from the M1 and through town is more complex. The highly informative club website claims there are 21 buses to Belle Vue and is walkable from both of the city’s train stations.
A classic example of what happens when a stadium site is chosen in the 19th century and hardly developed in 50 years. It’s VIPs-only in the car park, but their website is at least honest about the problem. They recommend Sugar Lane but I found a space an hour before kick-off on Denmark Street, a couple of minutes walk north of the ground. Most neighbouring streets are tight with parking restrictions: arrive early or prepare for a decent length walk.
It’s busy and sociable as fans sidestep some freakish escapees from Yorkshire Scaregrounds Scream Park and head inside early – some via the thoughtfully useful toilets on the outside of the East Stand – as there is little to detain you close to the ground. I sneak into the Neil Fox Suite – supposedly members only but somehow half-filled with Bradford fans – above the giant roaring cat tunnel that always amuses me. A glitter ball hangs above the tiny dance floor: a small reminder that in Rugby League you are never far from Phoenix Nights. An old man sidles up to me, sighs and says: “So here we are – the end is nigh.” I remind him that it’s not the ending anyone expected: not of Wakefield in the top flight, not even of Belle Vue. He agrees, reveals that he has been coming here since before the war (Second World, not Super League), and tells me he’s just got himself a new passport because his daughter has promised to take him to Catalans away next year. That got my evening off to a feel-good start.
Belle Vue is a strange place. If Alice in Wonderland designed a Rugby League ground it would look something like this. There are hatches, doorways and steps everywhere. Every hatch is serving a different food and/or beer, every doorway leads to a toilet, and look through any window and its likely to be a very busy bar with no obvious entrance. Curiouser and curiouser. Apart from the dramatic wall of executive boxes at the south end, nearly everyone else is out in the open and struggling to find somewhere from where they can see the whole game. The view down both sides is pretty terrible. The East Stand paddock is surprisingly popular given that the pitch is at knee height. But this is as much a playground or after-school club as a sporting arena. With the wingers spectacularly close to the kids standing by the hooped fence, this is Rugby League by osmosis. The West paddock is even more unfathomably busy: I couldn’t see when Bradford scored a try in the nearest corner. I settle for the shallow and uneven concrete steps of the Kop, reminisce about This Sporting Life and admire the dramatic chameleonic sky.
For once, Wakefield is as hot as anywhere in the UK: it is 24 degrees and muggy in early September . As a fine sunset turns the sky pink, a night game at Belle Vue feels like a pagan gathering to mark the end of summer. The party is over, but only for the long winter months. It will return. Tonight sums up the Wildcats’ situation: the result is not vital, it’s more important everyone has a good time. There is a general hubbub among a quite ethnically and socio-economically diverse crowd. And there is something for everyone, to eat anyway: a confectionary stand, a Cadbury’s chocolate stall, a spuds and chilli van, even a Bratwurst trolley and usherettes walking round selling crisps and chocolate from trays like its 1953 at the Palladium. I sample the pork pie and mushy peas. If this was Perpignan or Toulouse it would be considered a delicacy. Instead, it is like a £3 enema in a polystyrene tray.
Belle Vue is one of only four grounds that have survived since the 1895 breakaway: sadly it is the only one of those four that may still be recognisable to any ghosts from Reverend Marshall’s past. There is little tribute paid to the club’s glorious past though, other than some framed shirts and fabulous Great Britain ‘Melba’ team photographs at the SCG in the Neil Fox Suite. Jonty’s pub opposite the ground is derelict and a cruel scribe would say visiting Belle Vue would be like preparing for an archaeological dig. The South Stand was flattened in the late 70s, the beautifully ornate 1930s West Stand followed in the mid-80s. The Doncaster Road Kop remains an iconic location from ‘This Sporting Life’, while the East Stand is not what it was. I look over the back of the Kop and wonder what I might find if I ventured down there.
As he declared when he took over, the Wildcats’ new owner Andrew Glover clearly understands they have to get the city onside fast. Someone has done a fine selling job here: the executive boxes are impressively rammed tonight and the programme is packed with ads for local businesses. The list of player sponsors is like a script from Ripping Yarns or The League of Gentlemen, a surreal take on provincial life; Michael Korkidas sponsored by Sandal Post Office, Josh Veivers by Lockwood and Thistlethwaite. The club shop is an old portacabin but its range of merchandise matches anything I’ve seen so far on the Secret Speccie tour. And the Wildcats have teamed up with Ossett Brewery to produce a special Trinity ale – Spirit of 1873 ‘Together We Are Stronger’ – bottles available in bars across the ground.
Pre-match, an athletic local lass, bravely clad in a black catsuit, takes to a centre circle podium and warbles through an opening number which suggests the Wakefield’s Got Talent contest she recently won was not of the highest standard. But she gets going through ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and by the time she nails ‘It’s A New Day’ the crowd are on her side. As mascot Daddy Cool prances around in the dark in his giant shades, the suitably energetic Wildcat Dolls cheerleaders wave huge flags and silver pompoms. The junior version – the Wildcat Minis – also look the part. One teenage Bulls fan on the Kop refuses to engage in such frivolity, defiantly sitting by her parents’ feet reading a novel throughout the first half! At half-time, for the first time all season there is a winner in the 1873 Club draw. Asked how he feels to be receiving a rollover £2,750 the winner responds with lashings of pathos: “I don’t know. I’m gobsmacked.”
PLAYER INTERACTION 8/10
At half-time retiring player Matt Blaymire gets a guard of honour, an on-pitch interview and a touching reception from the fans. At the final whistle, as the Wildcats complete the necessary win to avoid rock bottom, the crowd are invited to mount a mild-mannered and well-managed pitch invasion. I take the opportunity to amble over the picket fence to appreciate what an immaculate surface Belle Vue is, as the passionate Wildcats fans create a mass reception for Kear and skipper Glenn Morrison, while ground staff are still taking the posts down. This is one big family tonight and I’m a contented onlooker.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Like many struggling clubs, Wakefield have marketed season tickets for 2012 at remarkably low prices: outside the ground they were promoting £100 offers, £20 for kids: that’s less than £8 a game, about £1.50 for children. But on the day, it’s not as cheap as it should be, given the facilities. It costs me £20 to stand in the open, an extra pound or two to sit in the East Stand, but tonight’s a night for soaking up the last whines of summer. Drinks are uniformly priced throughout the myriad sales points - I’m delighted to pay an extra 20p for a pint of the delicious Yorkshire Blonde – and the range of food provides plenty of options.
I was pleasantly surprised by my visit to Wakefield Trinity. At the end of a traumatic season for both clubs, with so many shirt numbers in the high 20s and 30s, some on the backs of players I’d never even heard of (although Ryan Tongia was an exciting new-comer), the game was a shambolic irrelevance. Instead I found a club happy to be alive but tied to its past: Andrew Glover has promised to upgrade Belle Vue and it certainly needs it. But on warm nights like this, it feels as if Super League will lose somewhere with real character when they either move on or down.
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