Featherstone welcomes back its victorious rugby league team

Rugby’s debt to Mrs T

Rugby league was transformed from a fringe working-class activity into part of national life


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A community dismissed by some as “a set of traffic lights on the road from Wakefield to Pontefract” punched well above their weight 40 years ago last summer. On May 7 1983, Featherstone Rovers, a rugby league side from a small mining town in West Yorkshire, defied pre-tournament odds of 100-1 and the distraction of a relegation battle to reach the final of the Challenge Cup at Wembley, where they faced the mighty Hull.

Rugby league and coalmining were the alpha and omega of Featherstone. A sociological study in the 1950s found that almost half the town’s population could be found at a rugby match each weekend. More than that went to Wembley: it was said that the only person who didn’t go was the signalman at the town’s level crossing. Against the best-supported club in the country and watched by Lord Gormley, who had been president of the National Union of Mineworkers before handing over power the previous year to Arthur Scargill, the Colliers beat the league champions 14-12.

Hope and Glory: Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain, Anthony Broxton (Pitch Publishing, £25)

This was a rare glimmer of light and hope for a community whose fortunes were shackled to the mining industry, where players would head for the training ground covered in coal dust after a shift. The strikes in the 1930s had almost killed them and now, with Margaret Thatcher about to win a second term and gearing up for a fight with Scargill, they feared worse. Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary who had reported on rugby league in Halifax in the 1950s, warned the prime minister it would be a tough battle. Mass unemployment, poverty and suicides soon removed the Wembley glow.

Rugby league had been in steep decline in the 1970s. A sport that flourished amidst post-war rationing, when it was about the only fun to be had, began to die as people found other attractions in colour television, cheap holidays and pop music. Some blamed central heating for the malaise, saying they had only gone to matches because it was warmer than being at home. Rugby league had become a wasteland of dilapidated, unloved stadiums with no entertainment outside (or often during) the match — a world of tepid beer and lukewarm pies.

Yet Thatcher’s Britain would turn out to be a boom time for this one northern industry thanks to clubs finding leaders with the foresight and energy to use those Thatcherite attributes of capitalism, consumerism, creativity and commercialism. Men like David Oxley, an Oxford graduate from Hull — a surprising choice as chief executive of the Rugby Football League who brought optimism and vision to change the sport’s image.

Or Maurice Lindsay, owner of a plant hire company who joined the board of Wigan in 1980 at their lowest point before helping them become the dominant club in the country. By the mid-1990s, when this book ends, Lindsay had negotiated an £87 million deal with Rupert Murdoch to create the sport’s Super League.

League was safe and fun for the family

Like snooker, rugby league in the 1980s was transformed from a fringe working-class activity into part of national life. A key selling point was that, unlike hooligan-blighted football, league was safe and fun for the family. Wigan offered a crèche service during matches, supported by social services; Keighley ran education programmes and organised a pre-match fashion show.

A pregnant woman from Featherstone, Kath Hetherington, was voted onto the sport’s governing body, saying she was inspired by Mrs Thatcher’s determination, if not her politics. Another woman, Julia Lee, pushed to become a referee.

Players soon became celebrities, many the children of immigrants from the Caribbean, and were invited to attend film premieres and hotel openings for added glamour. None was more famous than the dynamic Ellery Hanley, the first player to be a magazine cover-star wearing fashion labels rather than muddy kit. Clubs eventually could import top players from Australia, the sport’s powerhouse, cashing in on our love of all things antipodean — as seen in the popularity of Neighbours and Fosters lager.

This tale of ruin and revival — and the times when it went wrong, such as the disastrous attempt to export rugby league to Maidstone — is superbly told by Anthony Broxton, a historian of the Labour party. His roots are in these working-class communities, where 80 per cent of professional clubs in the 1980s had a Labour MP (though it was significant that Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign targeted league fans in the form of Workington Man). But he recognises that for the sport, as for Labour under Tony Blair, the stark choice in the end was to reform and expand beyond the traditional fanbase, or die.

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