Book Review: Hope & Glory – Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain

Hope & Glory – Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain
Author: Anthony Broxton
Publisher: Pitch Publishing
RRP: £25.00
PP: 351 (hardback)
ISBN: 978 1 80150 455 3

Anthony Broxton is a prolific writer on politics and sport – or more specifically in the latter case, the sport of Rugby League.

His political focus, broadly speaking, is Labour Party politics, but he often writes articles that combine politics and Rugby League. For example, he wrote an article earlier this year entitled ‘The people’s captain – What our politics can learn from Kevin Sinfield’.

Lindsay and Thatcher

He has a fluid style of writing that is easy to follow and he clearly writes about Rugby League not as an outsider looking in, but as someone whose love for Rugby League was instilled in him by a grandfather who was an avid supporter and left him a treasure trove of old newspaper cuttings, programmes and other memorabilia that fuelled some of his research for this book.

Indeed, he dedicates the book to his Grandad, “who taught me how to document the greatest game.”

The book broadly covers the period of Margaret Thatcher’s rise in British politics from the 1970s to the 1990s – she was the Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 – and it ends with the revolution that took place in Rugby League in the mid-nineties.

Most of that period coincided with Maurice Lindsay’s rise in Rugby League, as he moved from being the Chairman of Wigan, the game’s biggest club, to become the Chief Executive of the RFL and then of Super League (Europe).

Broxton draws parallels between what happened under Thatcher governments, particularly to northern communities and the loss of their coal mining and other industrial roots, and the fortunes of Rugby League, given that Rugby League clubs were often right at the heart of those communities that were doing it tough.

A time of change

He characterises Rugby League in the 1970s as: “A rebellious sport chained to its geography in the north, where clubs were the physical embodiment of industries that had grown up around it. A place where women were seen on the terraces but not heard in boardrooms or changing rooms. A game misunderstood by outsiders. A sport which seemed unprepared for the competition and demands of the new decade that Thatcherism promised to bring.”

You might therefore think you are going to read a story of Rugby League’s decline in the Thatcher years, but in fact the story as Broxton tells it is far more nuanced than that.

“‘Hope and Glory’ is the story of the profound change that came over Rugby League in the 1980s and early 90s that was as wide-ranging and disorienting as any in the game’s history,” he writes.

And the key thing, as he acknowledges, was that Rugby League refused to die, like some of the industries that surrounded it, but instead “the 1980s was the decade that Rugby League fought back.”

Battle of ideas

Broxton presents the unfolding of that era as a battle of ideas in the wider society that was mirrored in Rugby League boardrooms and among the game’s supporters.

“This book does not detail the matches, the statistics and he league tables that made up Rugby League in the 80s and 90s. Instead, this is the story about the idea of Rugby League in hearts and minds of the people that loved it and those that never watched a game in their life,” he writes.

“It is the story of the people who challenged the traditional hierarchies to create a new game that was more open and more accessible to all.”

Soon after Thatcher won the general election in 1979, Lindsay would arrive to take up his new position in the Wigan boardroom just as the club’s fortunes had reached their lowest ebb, when it suffered relegation to the second division.

It was Lindsay’s entrepreneurial spirit that led the recovery in Rugby League’s fortunes in the 1980s, alongside the RFL’s secretary-general David Oxley, and the book focuses on how the turnaround was achieved.

Image problems

Along the way, Broxton also turns his attention to the debate in the 1970s about the portrayal of Rugby League on the BBC and the controversial role of ‘Mr Rugby League’, Eddie Waring, and the accusations that he trivialised the game.

Rugby League’s image is constantly referred to throughout the book, but the author also turns his attention to societal issues, such as the Windrush generation and the tremendous impact on Rugby League of the growing number of black players who distinguished themselves by becoming some of the game’s greatest players of all time.

And he looks at the efforts to popularise the game to new audiences, giving us some interesting reminders of the efforts, for example, to launch Kent Invicta in the 1980s to an unsuspecting public in the county sometimes known as the Garden of England. Sadly, the money ran out for that venture, as it has tended to do for most expansion projects.

The story outlined in the book culminates in the arrival of Rupert Murdoch and the £87 million deal negotiated by Lindsay that saw Rugby League switch to summer and gain lots of national media attention, with various pundits claiming that Rugby League could take over from Association Football as the major football code in England.

Optimism and expansion plans

Broxton does a very good job in reminding us of how much coverage the game was getting in those days and how much optimism there was about its future.

It’s tempting to ask what happened to all that coverage by the national media and what happened to all that optimism that surrounded the game at that time, but which seems absent today.

On the other hand, he also takes us in some detail through the controversy of proposed mergers, which Lindsay had put forward but had the good sense to pull back on when he fully appreciated the angry reaction of so many supporters.

At the time, there were fancy ideas of Rugby League becoming an established spectator sport in many of the major cities of Europe.

Broxton quotes the former Guardian journalist Paul Fitzpatrick: “Now the sport which professionally is played along the M62 corridor is suddenly being linked to Paris, Rome, Cardiff and Glasgow, not to mention North America and South Africa. The game could not have gone on much longer as it was doing, a thrilling, ceaselessly rewarding product on the field but in many instances played in dumps and against a background of stark poverty.”

Of course one club was left out of all the calculations for Rugby League’s supposedly exciting future. That was Keighley Cougars, the club that had been the first to create a new experience for its supporters. The Cougars Chairman Mick O’Neill was one of the most vocal objectors to what was being proposed and there is surely a sense of déjà vu when we see his son Ryan now in charge and objecting equally strongly to IMG’s proposals for the future of the game.

What might have been

The history told by Broxton ends in the mid-nineties, some five years after Thatcher had been ousted from Downing Street.

Perhaps his next book will seek to explain why all those promises of a golden age for Rugby League didn’t come to fruition.

If I have a complaint about the book, it is that no mention is made of BARLA and the Student Rugby League, both of which had major roles to play, particularly in fighting against rugby union discrimination.

And I would have liked to see some current interviews to look back at the Thatcher period. For example, her press secretary Bernard Ingham, who died earlier this year, played Rugby League for Hebden Bridge and began his journalism career as a Rugby League writer for the Yorkshire Post. No doubt he might have given some useful insights into the Thatcher government’s view of Rugby League.

Finally, there are some inaccuracies in the book. For example, the author has Doncaster Rovers down as the town’s Rugby League club, while he thinks Keith Fielding, the great Salford winger, was a “Welsh rugby union convert”. Tighter editing might have eliminated these and other errors.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read as a whole, although it will leave you thinking of what might have been for Rugby League, while asking why our sport seems incapable of reaching its undoubted potential as a major spectator sport.