Talking Grass Roots: Hull of a game

One part of my role at League Express as the amateur game’s correspondent that I particularly enjoy is the nationwide aspect.

I was excited, when I first started covering the grassroots a quarter of a century or so ago for the Rugby Leaguer, by the chance to report on matches and events in all parts of the land, way beyond my base on the outskirts of Castleford.

Forging links which in many cases have proved to be lasting with Rugby League enthusiasts in counties and regions such as Cumbria, Hull, the north east, Wales, the Midlands, the south of England and Scotland – plus of course all parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire – gave me a real buzz, and still does (maybe I need to get out more, but as I can’t during the lockdown I’ll stand my ground in the face of potential wry smiles and barbs).

I found the names of clubs some distance from me evocative, including plenty in Cumbria and Hull which particularly seemed to carry a certain resonance.

There was – still is – a certain mystique surrounding them, which when I think about it is perhaps one of the underlying benefits for those who are involved with outfits in the National Conference League. I know for a fact that some clubs, when considering pulling out of the amateur game’s flagship league for whatever reason, choose not to do so because they’d miss the excitement of travelling to relatively far-flung places. And, as time has passed, firm friendships have been established, relationships that are probably all the stronger for having been forged in the aftermath of hard-fought clashes on the pitch itself. That’s one of the glories of Rugby League.

I’ve been in a reflective mood (yep, I must try to get out…) after getting wind last week of a tremendous new book which I’m certain will interest anyone who is or has been involved in the amateur game (or, for that matter, the professional arena).

‘All for Nothing – The Story Of Amateur Rugby League In Hull And East Yorkshire’, written by John Mooney, charts the Open Age grass roots scene from a century-and-a-half ago (the estimable Tony Collins having unearthed evocative tit-bits prior to 1939 in Part 1) right through, in Part 2, to the present day, with the deeds of great clubs such as Hull Dockers, West Hull, Mysons, Jesmond, Skirlaugh, Beverley and Ideal ABI/Isberg chronicled with considerable flair.

Rugby League has, of course, always boasted its strong characters and Mooney, a former Racing Editor at the Press Association, has been blessed with plenty of material to work with – as anyone who has ever had dealings with Hull Rugby League folk will readily attest. Part 3 is packed with riveting anecdotes that will get grassroots stalwarts everywhere chuckling and reminiscing, while Mooney doesn’t shy away from the fact that amateur Open Age Rugby League in Hull hasn’t been immune from the decline which has affected all amateur team sports in recent years.

A fascinating and absorbing read is made even better by an illuminating foreword co-written by Mooney’s father, who was a President of West Hull, and by Wests’ co-founder Johnny Whiteley.

Whiteley has enjoyed life at the very pinnacle of Rugby League, not only as an inspiring captain of the fine Hull side of the late 1950s but as a fine player and coach of Great Britain, in which capacity he led the Lions to their last Ashes Series success, in 1970.

The great man, however, has never lost touch with the grassroots and, as he illustrates in his foreword to ‘All for Nothing’, he has long been impressed by the amateur game in his home city.

You get a sense as to why from the blurb on the back of the book, which states: “The story chronicles the early years through to the present day.

“The final section concentrates on the clubs and characters that have made such an indelible impact on the sport. The fearsome Albert Speckman at Ambassador; the brilliance of Albert Tripp at Reckitts; the great Bob Colgrave and Steve Critchenson at BOCM/Ace; Mick Clayton and Mick Crooks at Mysons; Len Casey coaching at Beverley; the incredible Skirlaugh story and the ‘invincible’ Dockers side are all featured along with West Hull, the most successful club of the BARLA era.

“The story is by no means confined to the major clubs, with chapters on Norland, Embassy, Jesmond, Hull Brewery, Fenners, Eastmount, Lambwath and many more. With the glory days fading into distant memory, now is a perfect time to recall the unparalleled contribution made by the amateurs of Hull and East Yorkshire to the ‘greatest game.’”

Highly recommended, even if I initially misunderstood the meaning of the title, “All for Nothing”, which I’d wrongly taken to refer to the current plight of Open Age amateur Rugby League in Hull – one which will hopefully be reversed by the Covid-19 lockdown; my hope is that players who are all too often conspicuous by their absence come match-day will realise what they have been missing. As Joni Mitchell reflected, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

“All for Nothing” means, of course, that blokes were playing simply for love of the game. The book, priced at £10 (plus £3 p&p) can be purchased by emailing the author at Enjoy!

By coincidence, I was chatting to an old friend later in the week – someone who played in the 1970s and 1980s – who, in passing, mentioned that there are no characters in the game anymore. He was referring to the professional arena as it happens and while I don’t entirely disagree with him I had to mention that I once read, in around 1970, an article by someone who lamented that, at that time, there were (you guessed it) no characters in Rugby League anymore.

It put me in mind of an essay by ‘Three Men in a Boat’ author Jerome K Jerome, in ‘Idle thoughts of an Idle Fellow’ (written in the late 19th century) in which he pondered on how old-timers always reckon that things were better in their day. Jerome was moved to conclude that the world must have been a wonderful place when it first started. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean that old-timers are always wrong….

Whatever gnarled veterans may say, though, it remains the case that Rugby League throws up some cracking entertainment, at all levels. The evidence of that will be there for all to see from this Saturday, when BARLA is renewing its weekly You Tube screening of big matches of recent years. Again – enjoy!

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