This article, written by Nigel Wiskar, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
It’s just after 7pm and it’s safe to say there’s no crush on the long pathway that leads from a main road past manicured football training pitches to The Hive.
London Broncos are at home but the only souls walking alongside me from Canons Park Tube station on the Jubilee Line towards the ground are a couple of fans in Leeds Rhinos tops.
It’s an hour before the capital side take on Catalans Dragons in a game which will draw the lowest ever English Super League crowd of just 1,002 – a figure which draws laughter and head shakes when it is announced. Funny how it just crept over that thousand mark.
This is Rugby League of the extraordinary but not in the way that clever marketing campaign intended.
Broncos are defeated 28-22 with a late, thrilling flurry of tries giving the scoreline respectability.
And then the strangest thing happens. A knot of fans start a celebratory conga. It’s an all-too-brief moment of gallows humour joy in a thoroughly miserable season.
So what’s it like to be the fall guys of Super League, the team everyone pencilled in at the bottom when all the pre-season predictions started?
Rugby League World asked fans about life in the basement, where next for the club and how can they ever hope to rise from this predicament.
Paul Campbell, 43, caught the Rugby League bug when he was among the 16,000 watching Australia beat New Zealand at QPR’s Loftus Road 10 years ago in the Tri Nations.
He’s from Gravesend, Kent, and tells me he lives just 20 minutes from where Tony Clubb is from – before the England forward became the latest star to move north.
Paul said: “I’ve resigned myself to relegation and that’s the general consensus among the fans now. And it’s difficult to get excited about next season when we’re hearing certain players are only on a one-year contract. Why would they hang around in the Championship?
“Players like Mason Caton-Brown and James Woodburn-Hall are ones for the future but won’t be here for long. They’ve great potential and we won’t keep hold of them.
“My bigger fears though are for the club as a whole. I don’t want to be too downbeat and knock my club but I’d be surprised if we’re here as a club next season.”
So far, so bad. I speak to two fans in the bar at The Hive before the Catalans game. It’s a place that proves a welcome respite from some of the horrors on the pitch. The hand-pumped real ale and fresh, hot food is as good as anywhere in any sport and there’s a warm atmosphere as mascots Buck and Dusty hand out Creme Eggs.
The lads are both supping a pint and wearing Broncos merchandise, a small miracle given the lack of it on sale in the adjoining club shop which is dominated by bright orange kit from their Conference hosts Barnet FC.
Aaron Lomax is 23 and is clearly very driven in his efforts to promote a club he follows home and away.
“We’ve just formed a supporters’ association,” he says. “I’m on the committee and recently we went on the Underground with Buck and Dusty, talking to people. That’s going to be a regular thing.
“I like it here at the Hive. It’s a lovely pitch and easy to get to and if they can do things right here it will work and they’ve a better chance than at the Stoop.
“We need to get out there and make it clear we are here. Then people will turn up – although at the moment who wants to come and watch a losing side?
“If we were to get relegated it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We’d still come and if the team was winning maybe that would encourage more people to come along.”
His mate Mike Smith, 24, is still holding out faint hope Broncos could survive.
He says: “It’s all very depressing but better than it was in December when we didn’t know if there was a future at all.
“We can still stay up, it can be done, but we’ve lost key games to Bradford and Wakefield. It’s a different problem every season here, whether it’s been the coaches’ fault, the management’s fault or the players. There’s always been something.
“I honestly think once we’ve got a winning team, people will come regardless but at the moment it just stinks and we’re down to the bare minimum.”
Ian Gatland, 50, from Northolt, Middlesex, has supported London in all their incarnations from the very first game as Fulham.
He was first hooked watching floodlit league on BBC2, another disciple from the ‘build it on terrestrial TV and they will come’ mantra.
He says: “It’s been an incredible journey and we’ve been in some low, low places but this is not the lowest point.
“As Fulham we played at Crystal Palace sports ground in front of 500 people. And I remember a cold January afternoon against Bradford Northern at Chiswick Polytechnic Ground.
“Coaches like John Monie and Darryl van de Velde always said this was the toughest job in Rugby League and they’ve been proven right.”
Ian, 50, is resigned to the inevitable and believes they will lose their most exciting player.
“I’ve heard Keiran Dixon is going to Salford,” he says. “He was sussed out a bit last season but he’s still brilliant. His leg needs to get better of course but why not Salford – they’ve taken everybody else!
“But we can take some hope. There’s Iliess Macani. He’s one player who has stood out since we got him from Skolars.”
Macani was born in Tottenham and was at Arsenal academy for three years. He’s another latecomer to League, like so many in the south, but one for the future – whatever that may hold.