Locations of League: Blackpool

Our journey around the villages, towns and cities that have rugby league running through their veins reaches the north-west coast.

THERE’S no denying rugby league has had a real Bash at establishing itself among the amusement rides and rock shops of that well-known seaside resort Blackpool.

But the departure of the Championship’s version of Magic Weekend from the town, leaving amateur clubs Blackpool Scorpions and Blackpool Stanley as the only remaining signs of the 13-a-side code, was the latest example of the professional game failing to stick in the shadow of the tower and pleasure beach.

The Summer Bash was played at Bloomfield Road, the home of Blackpool Football Club, between 2015 and 2019.

It appeared to have proved a popular venue for the annual event, which was scheduled to take place there in both 2020 and 2021, only for the effects of the pandemic to force a cancellation in both years.

With Bloomfield Road unavailable in 2022 and 2023, the Bash took place at Leeds and York respectively, and has this year disappeared from the second-tier schedule altogether.

Between 2005 and 2012, Blackpool FC hosted the Northern Rail Cup final, and the town also staged a succession of amateur showpieces when BARLA ruled the roost in running that side of the sport.

Those matches took place at Borough Park, then Bloomfield Road, two of the six grounds in the town to have staged senior club rugby league.

The first was Raikes Hall Gardens, an entertainment complex which as well as a rudimentary stadium, also included a theatre and boating lake and sprung up as the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th Century helped turn Blackpool into a hugely-popular destination for holiday makers and day-trippers.

It was the first venue used by Blackpool FC, founded in 1887 and first elected to the Football League in 1896, two years before the directors of the gardens backed the establishment of a rugby league team to play in the second division of the Lancashire Senior Competition in 1898-99.

However Blackpool struggled both on the pitch and to attract spectators, and as Raikes Hall withdrew financial support, the fledgeling club finished the season at the town’s early athletics arena before folding.

Bloomfield Road, used by Blackpool FC since 1900, staged exhibition rugby league matches in aid of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society in the 1920s.

Decades later, as fans flocked to sporting events in the immediate post-War years, interest in forming another club in the town gathered momentum.

A project, launched in 1950, to build a stadium on the site of a former aerodrome near Blackpool’s Stanley Park to house such a club as well as a speedway team might have fallen through. But the local council remained supportive, and in the Summer of 1952, staged a tournament involving four professional clubs at the athletics ground within Stanley Park, with Salford the winners.

And for 1954-55, Blackpool Borough, having raised £5,900 in share capital, were given the green light by the Rugby Football League, following in the footsteps of Workington Town, who had entered in 1945-46, Whitehaven (1948-49) and Doncaster (1951-52).

The ‘Golden Milers’ were based at Blackpool Greyhound Stadium, which had been in business since 1927 and ahead of the new club’s inaugural season, held an exhibition match between Swinton and Rochdale Hornets in a bid to spark increased local interest in the 13-a-side game.

But the venue was far from ideal, because the pitch was the minimum size permitted, with only around 4,000 able to view in comfort (that said, twice that many saw the second home league match, which St Helens won 34-2).

For bigger games, Borough had to use Bloomfield Road, and 12,015 watched the meeting with the New Zealand tourists, drawn 24-24, in September 1955, while a club-record 20,946 witnessed the 24-13 Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat by Leigh in March 1957.

In general however, gates were disappointing, and as the club struggled to make ends meet and their better players were transferred.

Borough’s future was seriously threatened when the greyhound stadium was sold for housing and they were given notice to leave the ground by the end of the 1962-63 season.

But again the council helped out, granting a 21-year lease for a former gasworks site not far from Bloomfield Road on which Borough Park was built at a cost of £110,000, which was £40,000 above the original estimate, in time for the start of 1963-64.

That season’s 25-4 Challenge Cup third-round defeat by Castleford attracted 7,614, but it remained a record for the ground, with scant attendances and the loans which had been taken out to help finance construction weighing heavily on the club, who continued to mainly struggle on the pitch.

The only real exceptions were in 1976-77, when Borough reached the Player’s No6 (later Regal) Trophy final, losing 25-15 to Castleford at The Willows, Salford, and then 1978-79, when promotion to the First Division was won.

But the top-flight stay was for just one season, and was followed by monetary issues and problems meeting the new ground-safety regulations which followed the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985.

The club ended up leaving Borough Park midway through 1986-87, finishing the season at Bloomfield Road before relocating to Wigan as Springfield Borough for 1987-88, then becoming Chorley Borough for 1988-89.

A boardroom split over a move to Altrincham as Trafford Borough ahead of 1989-90 followed – leading to the formation of a fresh club, still in Chorley.

Trafford returned to the coast as Blackpool Gladiators in 1992-93, playing at the Common Edge Road home of non-league football club Blackpool Mechanics (now AFC Blackpool).

But a return to two divisions from three for the following season meant a trio of clubs would be relegated from the senior ranks – and the Gladiators fell through the trapdoor along with Chorley (by now renamed Borough, although not to be confused with the original club of that name) and Nottingham City.

While the Gladiators struggled on in the amateur ranks before going defunct in 1997, Chorley returned to the RFL – now back to three divisions! – as the Chieftans in 1995-96.

That club, who had a spell at Preston as Lancashire Lynx before returning to Chorley, folded after the 2004 season.

Their place in National League Two (aka the third division) was taken by newly-formed Blackpool Panthers, based at Bloomfield Road.

Attracting fans remained difficult, and for the 2007 season, the Panthers moved to Fylde Rugby Union Club’s Woodlands Memorial Ground in Lytham St Annes, five miles down the coast, where they played for four campaigns, reaching the play-offs twice, before sinking.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

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