Talking Grassroots: A night to remember

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

In my mind’s eye the Irish Centre, on York Road in Leeds, is very much about watching such as Rory Gallagher or the Blues Band, pint in hand – and as the place where my mother was regularly taken on Sunday lunchtimes, as a very young girl, back in the 1930s, by her Irish dad.

I was privileged to be given a very different take on the Irish Centre last Friday night when I was one of nearly 400 folk who enjoyed what I fervently hope will be the first of many Leeds & District League reunions.

People might equate me with the Castleford & Featherstone ARL, if they link me with anything at all, probably because I’m chairman. But I played all my Rugby League for Leeds & District teams, so the occasion meant something to me – as it clearly did to many others, not least those who addressed us from the stage under the benign guidance of Loz Baker.

The highlight of the night – other, perhaps, than a diverting and unscripted cameo offering by the one-and-only former Hunslet, Leeds and Bradford Northern hooker Peter Dunn – was the inductions into the newly-launched Hall of Fame of Dave O’Connor and Mick Appleyard.

Both were very popular recipients. Dave is sadly no longer with us, having passed away in 2012. He had spent the previous 26 years in a wheelchair after having been seriously injured while playing for BARLA Great Britain in France. I knew Dave a little – played against him, in fact, when he was a hard-running forward for Yew Tree – and he never ever complained about his situation, which was a mark of the man, of his family, and of wonderful friends such as Glenn Davies and others.

There’s often a bit of rumbling going on in the background when people are speaking at Rugby League events. You can’t shut old-timers up really – especially if it’s me up on the podium, when you can understand it – but you could have heard a pin drop when Dave’s daughter Kirsty approached the stage and launched bravely into a beautiful and emotional tribute to her beloved dad, which I think her mum Jeanette, who isn’t too well just now, was watching on Zoom. I imagine Jeanette was very much made up by the occasion.

It was a memorable moment, not least because Dave O’Connor was unquestionably the right choice for the honour. Having said that, the second man to be so feted, Mick Appleyard, was also a very worthy choice. He is still well known as a fine captain of Bisons – together with Brassmoulders and Garden Gate, one of the clubs that combined to form Hunslet Warriors – and of BARLA Great Britain. And he also earned a place in Rugby League history for spurning a number of approaches from professional outfits to stay loyal to his amateur club and country. And the fact that he effectively ‘shared’ his Hall of Fame honour with everyone in the room in what was a short speech, given that he knew nothing about his impending honour (despite being on the event’s organising committee) tells me exactly why he was a hugely deserving recipient, not to mention and such a superb captain.

My colleague at League Express, Garry Schofield OBE, presented the David O’Connor certificate and he rightly took the opportunity to tell the audience exactly what the grassroots means. Not that most of them needed to know, but it really meant something, coming from a man who achieved just about everything as a professional player. If we had a few more inspirational figures such as Schoey around – including on the pitch – I doubt that we’d have to worry very much about our sport’s future.

Three other former Leeds players were at various points on the stage (I could have done with more Hunslet representation, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) in Roy Dickinson, Paul Fletcher and Richie Mathers. Roy was an old-school prop with a strong sense of humour, and I could listen to him all night. I know Fletch pretty well from his long and massively successful stint as head coach of Student side Leeds Met; this time, though, the former Leeds and Bramley man focused on his time as Milford’s coach, which also had many triumphant moments. And Mathers, who was called up at short notice, made clear how much his junior club East Leeds still means to him.

The night was, indeed, a massive success. I’d like to think we could so something similar at Castleford & Featherstone but I’ve got to admit I’m quaking at the very thought. Possibly – more accurately, only possibly – the stalwarts who made the reunion such a triumph, Messrs Baker, Davies, Appleyard (who had no idea of his pending honour), Helen Schofied, Bob Pickles and my hospitable companions for the night, Bernard Shooman, Peter Todd, Steve Boothroyd, Mick Preston and Ray Abbey might be hearing from us. Alternatively, we might show up en bloc next year (fingers crossed it will be repeated) to learn in a very enjoyable way how it should be done.

One thing few people who were at the Irish Centre on Friday would need to be told was how to behave. The memory can play tricks but I don’t recall any referee abuse in my playing days, during the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. It just wasn’t done. Was it? It’s different now, though, and the RFL has twice in the last week issued pretty much the same reminder to clubs, referees societies and leagues to attend a meeting at Mayfield early next month to thrash out the issue.

There’s also a very important gathering this Wednesday, at Golborne Parkside, when the North West Youth League will ask clubs for a definitive answer on where they stand over the Rugby Football League’s planned membership fees. This issue needs to come to a head one way or another I think, and I wouldn’t mind knowing what long-serving grassroots folk like Dougie Hird think about it. Dougie has been heavily involved with Shaw Cross since the late 1940s so his views are worth seeking. Sadly, I heard on Friday evening that the lad isn’t too well just now, having been involved in a car accident. I’m sure all will wish him a full and speedy recovery.

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