Locations of League: Batley

Our journey around the villages, towns and cities that have rugby league running through their veins reaches the home of the Bulldogs.

SUCCESS can be measured in different ways.

Batley Bulldogs fans can only dream of a repeat of the glory days in the earliest years of the Northern Union.

But it could be argued that the side’s most memorable moments in the sport’s summer era – such as winning the Trans-Pennine Cup in 1998 and the Northern Rail Cup in 2010, reaching the Super 8s in 2016, getting to the Championship Grand Finals of 2013 and 2022 and finally playing at Wembley in last year’s 1895 Cup showpiece – are as big, and certainly as admirable, achievements as winning three of the first five Challenge Cups, between 1896-97 and 1900-01.

If ever a rugby league club reflected its location, it’s Batley, who are at the heart of one of Yorkshire’s string of textile towns and cities.

While the bigger Bradford and Huddersfield achieved worldwide fame by producing the finest-quality worsteds, and Leeds became a thriving marketplace and centre for the export of woollen products, Batley, along with neighbouring Dewsbury, specialised in shoddy.

That’s basically the recycling and reweaving of the wool and cloth which was left over, not considered of a sufficiently high grade or had already been used, usually into blankets, carpets, cleaning materials, coats and uniforms.

While it was an important part of the West Riding’s once-thriving industry which employed thousands, many of whom sought a release from the daily grind of work, hence the existence of so many rugby and other sporting clubs in the region, it wasn’t nearly as prestigious as other processes.

And it’s fair to say the Bulldogs, as they have been known since 1996 – shortly after they and Keighley were controversially left out of the inaugural Super League line-up despite a better final second-tier position than London Broncos, who did make the cut – are viewed as being somewhat less glamorous than many of their 13-a-side neighbours.

But “little old Batley”, as they have sometimes labelled themselves, have still become a byword for sustainability during a period in which they have redeveloped their ground and remained competitive on one of the Championship’s lower budgets.

They have always played at Mount Pleasant, with its well-noted slope and which is now known as the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium after the firm who are headquartered in the town and can trace their roots back to 1853, when a local baker started producing “eatables” to sell at feasts and fairs held throughout the North of England.

Partnered with the existing Batley Cricket Club, who are still playing in the Bradford League on their adjacent pitch, the rugby team first kicked a ball in 1880.

The club, who had won the Yorkshire Cup in 1884-85, were founding Northern Union members in 1895, and after a mediocre inaugural campaign, in which they won only 12 of their 42 matches and finished 18th of 22, blossomed following an inspirational signing from South Wales.

Wharton ‘Wattie’ Davies came North from Cardiff, and proved an effective – and entertaining – driving force from the threequarters as the Gallant Youths, as they were nicknamed, became the first Challenge Cup winners in 1896-97, beating St Helens 10-3 in the final.

Batley followed up that triumph be retaining the trophy back at Headingley with a 7-0 final win over the original Bradford (within a few years to switch to football as Park Avenue), winning the Yorkshire Senior Competition in 1898-99 (early on, the league was split into two county sections for a spell) and lifting the Challenge Cup for the third time with a 6-0 win over Warrington, once again in Leeds, in 1900-01.

Davies remained a popular performer in the trademark cerise and fawn colours until 1911-12, and still holds the club record for appearances, with 421, goals (463) and points (1,297).

The season after Davies retired, Batley won rugby league’s Yorkshire Cup for the only time, defeating Hull 17-3 at Headingley (they were runners-up on four occasions).

And in 1923-24, having finished second to Wigan in the regular season, they beat them 13-7 in the Championship Final at Broughton Rangers’ ground The Cliff, in Salford, to claim the league title under the captaincy of another Welsh wizard, club-stalwart halfback Ike Fowler.

Fast forward to 1980, and Batley celebrated their centenary able to boast three players who had represented Great Britain – another of their championship-winning squad Frank Gallagher, who was adept in both the halves and the back row, fullback or centre Joe Oliver, who played in the later 1920s, and in the 1960s, winger Norman Field.

Carl Gibson, who was to make a high-profile move to Leeds, followed that trio when he came off the bench to face France at Headingley in 1985.

And another threequarter who is most often associated with other clubs but learned his craft at Mount Pleasant was John Etty, who topped 340 Batley appearances before starring for Oldham and Wakefield.

Batley broke a long trophy drought with their 1998 success in the Trans-Pennine Cup, for teams in the third tier (Oldham were beaten 28-12), and in 2010, lifted the Northern Rail Cup, for sides outside Super League, via a 25-24 victory over Widnes.

Three years later, during the game’s licensing period they reached the Championship Grand Final, going down 19-12 to Sheffield, and made another appearance in that big match in 2022, when Leigh powered their way to Super League with a 44-12 win.

Meanwhile last season’s appearance at Wembley, where Halifax edged their way to the 1895 Cup with a 12-10 win, rewarded both Batley’s long-serving chairman Kevin Nicholas and Castleford-bound coach Craig Lingard, whose entire playing career was spent as a Bulldogs fullback and brought a club-record 142 tries.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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