A Blast from BARLA’s Past

BARLA Handbook

Our grassroots rugby league correspondent Phil Hodgson has been decluttering at home and unearthing an old BARLA Handbook prompted some thoughts on the state of the game today.

I STUMBLED across an old BARLA handbook the other day while tidying up what passes for my little study at the back of the house.

‘Stumbled’ isn’t far off being the operative word, actually. I’ve developed a habit over the years of not throwing anything away (not newspapers, books or programmes anyway) for the very real reason that I never know when I might need to look through any of them for reference purposes.

But enough has become enough – and not recently if truth be told, especially as so many people who are involved in rugby league seem to look to me as one of their first ports of call if they want to have a clear-out themselves.

Hardly able to move in my workplace, I’ve offloaded quite a lot of items – to good rugby league homes – to the point where I can breath again.

It’s not been a highly brisk process, though, as it’s easy to get diverted, which is what happened when I fetched upon the BARLA handbook for 1989-90.

Thumbing through it, the first thing I noticed was how young BARLA’s administrative officer Ian Cooper (a very able official, I wonder what happened to him?) looked, and the same could be said of the fine Wakefield MP, now long retired, David Hinchliffe.

The second thing that stood out was how many teams (or, to be more precise, men’s open age teams) there were a shade over three decades ago.

A quick count of the leagues in operation for 1989/90 revealed that there were 14 competitions in operation. Those who run leagues these days had better brace themselves ahead of reading the rest of this offering, or at least prepare themselves for a good lie down. Although I’m sure that those who were involved at the coalface as the last decade of the 20th century beckoned often reflect on how amateur rugby league has truncated since those heady days. Here we go, then, alphabetically.

The Barrow League had, according to the final tables, three divisions, comprising 20 teams.

The Carlisle League (which no longer exists) numbered five sides in its single section while the Cumberland League ran three divisions, which housed 33 clubs.

Looking at Hull, the Kingston Upon Hull & Humberside League also had 33 teams, which operated in four divisions; plus the Humberside Sunday League had two divisions, totalling 19 sides.
Saturday teams in Leeds played in the Yorkshire League back then, but the Leeds ARL ran a Sunday League which had twelve teams. That league had been launched as an 11-a-side competition because the RFL had initially declined to sanction Sunday play, the reduced numbers meaning that it wasn’t actually rugby league and was therefore outside the jurisdiction of those at Chapeltown Road..

London was in fine fettle, too, with 15 sides contesting a couple of divisions, while the Mansfeld & Nottinghamshire League ran a single section of nine teams.
The MASWARLA (Midlands and South West, I think) involved three divisions, with players gravitating to any one of 16 clubs. In the traditional heartlands, meanwhile, North West Counties boasted ten divisions, involving 99 sides.

The Pennine League wasn’t too far behind, it’s 92 teams jostling for position through eight divisions. And then there was the West Riding League, whose 49 teams were spread among six divisions.
The York & District League, like Hull and Leeds, operated a Sunday League, with two divisions housing twelve teams. And the Yorkshire League, with seven divisions, had 74 paid-up sides under its authority.

I make that nearly 500 teams in operation, and while I know from personal experience as a player (albeit a decade or more earlier) that in those days of more, shall we say, ‘relaxed’ jurisdiction there seemed to be quite a lot of ‘have boots will travel’ players around, it does make you yearn for those ‘glad, confident morning’ years. It does me, anyway.

Why are things currently so different? Well, one factor has to be simple demographics. There were more young men of playing age around during the era in question, largely as a result of the post-war ‘baby boom’.

There was, too, still the buoyancy linked to the launch of BARLA in 1973; a real feelgood factor that underpinned the whole sport for many, many years. And, in my opinion, there weren’t so many extremely young junior teams around back then. For my money we start them too young these days, certainly from the perspective of the open age game. Quite a lot of lads who have played since the age of four or even younger are happy enough to sign on for Open Age teams. But are they happy about turning out each and every week? That, sadly, is a very different matter.

Perhaps, also, given that rugby league has been speeded up no end (to make it, we’re told, more attractive to potential spectators) it’s not as good to play anymore, particularly in the heat of summer (the 1989-90 season was back in the winter era, of course). Speculation, perhaps, but I think there’s something in that.

Meanwhile, there were some very evocative names in that handbook. Those no longer around include Aspatria and Westfield in Cumbria, Norland, Fish Trades and Reckitts of Hull, and Leeds outfits Black Dog and Waterloo.

London had the likes of Fulham Travellers and Peckham, while in the Mansfield & Nottinghamshire League there were two clubs in Clowne, and one at Peterborough.

West Midlands Police, Plymouth Tamarside and Wolverhampton Borough were among the outfits that graced the MASWARLA competition. In the North West Men’s League, meanwhile, there were two teams in the Manchester suburb of Irlam (Hornets and Town). And it’s sad that Pendlebury, who were possibly the first side to field a black player – a team photograph from the early 1900s serving as evidence that they beat Hunslet, who signed the American Lucius Banks in 1912, by nearly a decade to the accolade – are no longer around.

We’ve lost BBA, Tameside, Barley Mow, Welcome Rangers and a team called ‘Museum’ from the Pennine League, with Jubilee of Featherstone, Askern and Idle gone from the West Riding League.

Punch Bowl, of the York RL, will revive many memories, and Hunslet Junction, BRK and Belle Isle, of the Yorkshire Leagues, were all leading sides at times.

It was a tremendous era, that’s for sure. I wonder whether we’ll see anything like it again.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from Pocketmags.com to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone