Rugby League’s lost opportunity

The Rugby Football League is moving its HQ from Leeds to Manchester in time for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
So you may think it might have been a good time to establish a semi-professional club in the city to carry the Manchester name. If so, think again. MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, speaks to PHIL FITTON of Manchester Rangers about why the dream has now been shattered.

Just over six years ago a group of people came together to create a blueprint for a new professional Rugby League club in the City of Manchester.

A combination of business people and Rugby League enthusiasts, they were gathered together by Phil Fitton, who at the time was working for the RFL as an area manager responsible for developing Rugby League across the boroughs of Salford, Manchester and Trafford.

Their ultimate aim was to gain entry into the RFL’s League 1 competition.

Manchester ambition

“We saw a gap in Manchester that we thought needed to be filled,” says Fitton.

“I already knew in the summer of 2012 that Sport England were pulling the funding from the RFL and a lot of us were being made redundant, including me. I was made redundant on 31st March 2013, roughly six months after we begun our initial discussions.

“I wanted to keep my foot in the door and not waste all the hard work that had been put into Manchester by Salford Red Devils, myself and a number of others. So I pulled together a group of well-connected people. The group has evolved since it was first set up and the people we have now were capable of taking the club forward. We had industry professionals and wealthy businessmen who were willing to invest in a club.

“We also had outstanding partners in the city, including Manchester City Council, the two universities, schools & colleges, businesses and the Etihad Campus. Sport is in the DNA of Manchester Council and they are keen to attract governing bodies into the city, to create a home for the sport and, importantly, to connect their residents to opportunities to participate. Manchester will become the home of the RFL, but they also want as many high quality professional sports clubs as possible, connecting to Manchester communities and giving young people the chance to engage in sport.

“We agreed with the Council that we would play at the Manchester Regional Arena, and the Council invested in posts and making the facility suitable for Rugby League. We were an amateur club but with a professional infrastructure, including social media. But we don’t pay our players. Players come to the club because they see our ambition.

“The Arena was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Situated next to the Etihad Stadium it is a 6,000 all-seater facility with a full-size Rugby League pitch. It has everything you would need for a League 1 club. This would have been our fifth season playing at Manchester Regional Arena.”

The business case for Manchester

And Fitton explains the rationale behind what he and his colleagues were trying to do and the reaction of the RFL to their efforts.

“The reason we established the club was to gain a professional licence and grow the game in Manchester. If we could do that, we knew that everything would fall into place. We had the facilities, the investment and the backing of local partners to enter League 1 and make a success of it, but at the same time develop the game at grass roots and in the schools. That was always our ambition.

“Our approaches to the RFL were well received at first. Ralph Rimmer came to our first game at the Arena when he was the RFL’s chief operating officer and I think he was impressed.

“At that point they had given out new licences and the Wolfpack were earmarked to join League 1. The RFL sent Ken Jones, who was working as a business consultant for them, to come and do some due diligence on us. He came out and scrutinised everything we were putting forward and he confirmed that this was a great opportunity for the sport and has continued to support us in our efforts.

“But unfortunately it wasn’t his decision to make. There are several semi-professional clubs in Greater Manchester and Ralph made it clear that the RFL would take some convincing that it needed another professional side in the area.

“There are no professional Rugby League clubs in the City of Manchester, which boasts a population in excess of 500,000 residents. The city hasn’t had professional Rugby League since the mid-1950s.

“We wrote a thorough business plan, because there wasn’t an application process at that time. When we submitted it we didn’t receive any feedback. It has been hard at times communicating with the RFL although we accept that they had a lot on their plate.

“We were told that we would have to bring something more to the table. Karen Moorhouse (RFL Head of Legal) told us that we should be prepared to follow the Wolfpack model, which is to self-fund.

“To run a team without any central funding indefinitely just wasn’t acceptable to our board. This wouldn’t be a sustainable model nor would it be fair.

Knocked back

“We continued to knock on the door, however. We tried to emphasise that the governing body could use us to grow the game in the city of Manchester and benefit from the commercial exposure that would bring. But it was a draining experience for me personally. It was sucking the life out of me, so we left it for a few months.

“Not ones for giving up, we approached Ralph and we met him at Salford Quays late last year. He laid it on the line that there was no position for a new team, but an option would be to take over another local club and move it to Manchester and we did reluctantly explore this option.

“The second option was to make this appeal to the local League 1 and Championship clubs, and in order to do this he suggested that we put a £500,000 bond into an escrow account so that if we went defunct after a certain time, we would forgo that money. When you take into account the level of investment in League 1 clubs, it would have taken us ten years to get that money back.

“The people involved with us were not prepared to hand over half a million pounds just like that. It was never going to happen.

“When you have people who haven’t been involved in the game before, they make hard-headed business decisions. If they are being asked to pay £500,000, their reaction is to ask what they are getting in return.

“Our board’s take on this was that we always wanted to get into the league on merit, and any investment would go into the club to move forward.

“Ralph never guaranteed us a place. He simply said that it was a suggestion in order to make us more appealing to Championship and League 1 clubs.”

Nothing in reserves

And that persuaded Fitton and his colleagues to investigate an alternative approach.

“There was a discussion about taking over Oldham. They are a club that has been very big in the past, but we were reluctant to wipe out over 120 years of Rugby League history.

“So we realised we had hit a brick wall and if we were to keep everyone involved, we asked Andy Rosler of Salford whether it would be a good idea to operate as a reserve team generating players initially for Salford, with a view to growing across Greater Manchester, bearing in mind that none of them currently have a reserve set-up. Salford Red Devils were very supportive.

“Manchester Rangers would enter, keeping our identity, using players from those clubs and tapping into local Academies. That would have allowed us to reach the table with other professional clubs.

“Ian Blease of Salford approached the RFL, but the response he got back was that the team had to be called Salford Red Devils reserves.

“Our investors had offered to fund a team at that level to the tune of £60 or £70,000, so that we could operate as Manchester Rangers and show the world that we could do the right thing for the sport. Changing the name, however, would have removed all the work that had created the club and completely destroy our identity. This was something our investors wouldn’t entertain.

Right place, wrong time

“We have jointly invested hundreds of thousands in Rugby League over the last six years, investing in facilities and relationships and building a presence for the game.

“I think our conclusion is that we were in the right place at the wrong time, with uncertainty about the league structure and the game’s finances, and the people at the RFL were just unwilling to take a punt on us.

“However, we aren’t leaving the city without Rugby League. We are continuing our community work to grow Rugby League within schools and the amateur game through our newly formed Charitable Foundation. We have given our blessing to our current players and volunteers to register Manchester Rangers as a separate entity within the North West Men’s League.

Rugby League will continue to grow in Manchester because of our legacy and, should a League 1 place become available, the RFL knows where to find us.

This article featured in Monday’s Edition of League Express.