I was sad, but not entirely surprised, to learn of Neil Hudgell’s decision to step down as owner and Chairman of Hull Kingston Rovers.
Sad because he will be a big loss, not just to a grand old club, who are now in the unenviable position of seeking new investment and new owners against a pretty bleak economic backdrop, but also to the game of Rugby League, because he is steeped in it.
But I’m not entirely surprised, because there have been signs of his fatigue, especially during the ongoing battle with the extremely tough challenges posed by the pandemic, and frustration at the way the sport is being run.
Rovers coach Tony Smith said as much when he leaked the news of Toronto Wolfpack’s likely return to Super League next year, a totally ridiculous decision given the Canadian club’s damaging withdrawal midway through this season and their well-documented failure to pay wages to players.
“I could see him (Hudgell) getting disillusioned with some stuff throughout some challenging times,” said Tony.
“Some of the things have been out of our control, such as the pandemic, and some are things you could never have imagined would test us.
“But some of the things are within our control, such as the way the sport is being administered and run, and some of the things going on are very, very puzzling.”
I can see exactly where Neil is coming from, and I have also seen the effect that the loss of two Rovers stalwarts, ex-player and coach Roger Millward, who died in 2016, and former coach, Chairman and president Colin Hutton, who died in 2017, has had on him.
As well as being a successful businessman, Neil is a lifelong Rovers supporter who knows and understands the club and knows what it means to its supporters and the city of Hull.
He was very close to Roger and Colin, who were both part of the club’s DNA, and he did them proud in the way Rovers responded to their deaths.
While Neil will remain a staunch supporter, he can cut his formal and financial ties with his head held high.
Rovers have come on in leaps and bounds during his 16-year involvement, with the club still recovering from a financial crisis in the nineties when he became involved at Craven Park.
Neil helped them get into Super League by beating Widnes in the 2006 National League One Grand Final, and after their devastating loss to Salford in the Million Pound Game ten years later, he stuck around to help engineer a return to the top flight at the first opportunity.
There was also that Wembley appearance in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, and while the 50-0 defeat by Leeds was clearly not the desired result, getting there was a great achievement.
Unfortunately, unlike in days gone by, there are only two trophies to play for at the top level, and while Salford sprung a surprise to make last year’s Grand Final, you really can’t see that kind of thing happening very often.
That means the likes of Rovers, Wakefield, Huddersfield and, realistically, Salford, aren’t likely to get any silverware in the cabinet, which makes attracting decent crowds and generating crucial income tougher than ever.
Clubs end up relying on the deep pockets of one or a few people – Neil at Rovers and Ken Davy at Huddersfield, for example.
Perhaps, with his thoughts crystallised during the coronavirus lockdown, Neil had decided he had taken Rovers as far as he could, and with the additional pressure of trying to keep his own law firm as well as his club afloat during the pandemic, he decided something had to give, and that would be totally understandable.
So what of the future?
I’ve visited Rovers often over the years. And I have to say that despite being a former Hull FC player, I get treated better in the red-and-white than black-and-white part of the city, so I know what a good club it is.
As with Hull FC, there’s a decent base of knowledgeable and passionate fans to build on, Neil has built up an excellent network of loyal sponsors, it’s a good ground and in Tony Smith, there’s a very good, experienced coach already installed.
The obvious worry is that in the current economic climate, are there any potential new owners out there, especially in or around a city in which the football club has been up for sale for quite some time, without a taker?
Time will tell, and I wish Rovers well.
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.