First published in Rugby League World, Issue 366 (Oct 2011)
Ground: Kingston Communications Stadium
Game: v Catalan Dragons
Date: Fri 13 August 2011
Driving to Hull and back on a Friday night was not top of my Bucket List but the prospect of seeing Hull FC at home in a must-win encounter with Super League’s on-the-road form team Catalan Dragons made this road trip more attractive. It has been the longest dusk in history. From midday the sky looked like an old Hull shirt washed too hot and too many times until it becomes a mess of dark and light grey. It’s warm enough but there’s no sun on the Humber. The weather reflects the mood surrounding the club. It’s been another poor season by their standards; Sean Long retired three days earlier and Hull KR could yet deny them a play-off place. New owner Adam Pearson knows it’s not good enough.
There is only so much Hull can do about making itself accessible: after all, it’s nearly in Holland (and the Dutch are far easier to understand). For most Super League fans, it’s a long old trek but the motorway network makes it as easy as possible. Public transport is an issue for a Friday night game though, with few away fans able to hike back to the station after a game and get the last train home. The KC Stadium, well signposted once you enter Hull itself, is rather two-faced: approach from the east on a footbridge through an industrial estate and over a rail-track and its pretty grim. Come from the south-west and it’s delightfully set in the corner of West Park, on a site where Yorkshire played cricket until 1990. As fans stream up the sculpture-lined paths that act like spokes of a wheel into the hub that is the stadium itself, there surely can be no more graceful setting in Super League. It’s a classy Boulevard for the 21st century.
It’s executive and guest parking only at the stadium and parking around the ground is severely limited. It’s nearly all residents-only at match times or double yellow lines, and local knowledge sees any spaces snapped up an age before kick-off. There are some free spaces off Rawling Way, a brisk ten minute walk from the KC, which enables you to make a quick getaway westward after the game. Other than that, pay a fiver in the hospital car park or take the Park & Ride.
As I drive west over the flyover an hour before kick off in search of a parking spot, I’m greeted by hundreds of men, women and children in black and white hoops flooding in and out of Tardis-like bars and grand Edwardian pubs along Anlaby Road. It’s a terrific show of social force, a communal army refreshing en route to HQ for their fortnightly dose of devotion. There was a buzz in the air and a hubbub signalling a major event. I loved it. I soon realised why home fans slake their thirst away from the ground: the Sports Bar outside the South end is members only and you can’t take alcohol to your seat.
At £44million to build, the KC Stadium should be a fine arena and it is. It manages to combine scale – the biggest ground in Super League – with a compactness and intimacy that makes you feel reasonably close to the action. I sat halfway up the South Stand behind the posts and had a tremendous view of the half closest to me, although the far end felt like it was in North Yorkshire. Critics claim all these new grounds look alike but they all have their quirks: the KC’s ‘A’ shaped floodlights in each corner distinguishes it from Pride Park in Derby for example. My only gripe would be the lack of leg-room. Fortunately, one of the few spare seats in the South Stand was next to me so I could spread out a bit.
ATMOSPHERE 7 /10
Most Super League grounds would be throbbing with 10,749 fans inside but the KC is less than half full. A chap in front leans across to his mate (all of six inches away as they are tooth by jowl ) and says: ‘It’s like when Harlequins come: no atmosphere. Actually, that’s not true. Harlequins bring a few and make a decent noise.” When the PA music finally stops a few minutes before kick-off, several thousand fans chat away like it’s the afternoon session of a Test match. With the North Stand totally empty, the Hull fans seem at a loss for what to do or shout. I honestly think there was not a single Catalan fan in the whole ground. I can see one woman in blood and gold about 100 yards away but she sat motionless after each Catalan try. Maybe she’s from Hessle but has dire dress sense. Only at 28-4 up do the home fans let themselves go. The first chant comes after 45 minutes!
The KC Stadium could be home to a hoard of Hull FC memorabilia and shrines to their rich past, but as a casual fan at one game, I didn’t see it. On the walls around the South Stand are some cheap plastic white signs with tributes from fans, interspersed with yellow Hull City ones, but it’s hardly befitting such a great club. The ‘executive’ areas and guest suites may be decorated with framed photos of Johnny Whiteley, Peter Sterling statues and a Jason Smith Restaurant, but the vast majority of the fans will never see them. The big(-ish) screen promises a Legends Dinner at the Player of the Year Awards night – rather more appealing than the Michael Bublé Tribute Show – but it’s disappointing. Oh, and the royal blue and yellow cladding outside (the city’s colours, apparently) looks like an extension of the Jewson’s builders yard next door.
This is a big club, one that’s grown massively since moving here in 2003. The percentage of fans wearing replica jerseys was extraordinary – the West Stand was like a giant humbug – and they have major commercial partners, but there is still an element of localism. During a quiet spell in the first half I noticed that all the ads facing the crowd are encouraging us to get healthier. Give up this, start doing that, ask for help for the other. I know there are health issues in Hull and an NHS clinic in the ground, but I feel a little offended. At least try and sell me some junk food or beer or encourage me to gamble more. Crowds are down 2,000 on last year but still twice what they were when they first played in Super League. One interesting marketing tool: for the derby it’s a fiver for kids instead of the usual £12. Get the kids in for that one and you should have a Black and White for life (as long as they win).
A local lass enthusiastically warbles her way through some recent chart hits before the game and again at half-time when four teams of minis play out their dreams on the KC’s lush surface. It’s underwhelming but I expect the club will put on more frills for Warrington’s visit in the next and final home game of the season. The real entertainment comes in the second half when the left-side combination of Tom Briscoe and Kirk Yeaman cause havoc. Against a woeful Catalan side, Briscoe looks every inch an international winger. Sadly those inches are just too few. He seems far too small to worry the Aussies or Kiwis but his explosive speed and foot movement is a joy to watch.
PLAYER INTERACTION 8/10
There seems to be a complex relationship between Hull FC fans and their team. The bloke beside me shouts “Ah, come on Hull – you’ve give ‘em ten metres!” at the very first tackle of the game. They are hard to please up here. I begin to notice that there are far louder and more heartfelt cheers for the defence (which is superb) than any attacking flair. The biggest roar comes when Kirk Yeaman wades in to Damien Blanch late on and is sin-binned for it. “Yeamo, Yeamo” they cry. This crowd want passion and pride, something they’ve not seen a lot of recently judging by callers to the excellent Radio Humberside en route home. The Hull FC Foundation is highly-regarded and the match programme is full of events where fans mix with players, including daily signing sessions in the shop throughout August. The players’ lap of honour at the end receives a great ovation. They had earned the love – for now.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Considering that average incomes in Hull are among the lowest in the country, a night out at the KC is not cheap. Tickets are £22 behind the posts, £24 down the touchlines, with the Hull KR derby costing a pound more. Burgers and Hot Dogs were £3.20 with all beers and ciders listed at £3.60. I ordered a Marstons and after a long wait was handed what was apparently a Worthingtons and ‘only’ charged £3.40. There was a meal deal for £6 or two cold drinks for £3.50. One wag told his mate to order the latter deal and demand two pints of lager. “The beer is cold – argue like f***!” I opted for a chicken balti pie at £3. When it had cooled down enough to eat (just before full-time) it turned out to be meat and potato. Mind you, it was big and bootiful, as was the cup of PG at £2.
Five figure crowds attend every home game: that’s extraordinary loyalty and reflects the strength of commitment Black and Whites have to their club. The cosmopolitan squad, with recruits from Australia and the Pacific Islands playing alongside local heroes like Briscoe and workhorse Danny Houghton, has to work hard to win over a pretty mono-cultural local crowd (I am virtually the only car leaving the city westwards after the game). Strangely, that bloke beside me gets more excited as Hull’s grip on the game becomes total. At 40-8 up he is foaming at the mouth. Just as he loudly declares that touch-judge James Child is a fornicating male prostitute, I was trying to decide whether his bomber jacket, tight jeans, shaven head and goatee made him look more like one of Village People or Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But I’m an outsider, both geographically and emotionally. I may not have warmed to Hull FC but I enjoyed my visit to the KC Stadium.
Chips: n/a Pie £3
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 7