Photo by George Wood

Southern discomfort

Has rugby league finally given up on London?

Artillery Row

London was once seen as essential to the revival of rugby league in England. But as the Broncos begin a new life at AFC Wimbledon, has the game finally given up on the capital?

It was the morning after the 1979 Challenge Cup final, and the Warrington Director Harold Genders was sitting in the room of his hotel in Mayfair. Over breakfast, he flicked through a stack of newspapers to see what the southern based journalists had made of rugby leagues big day out. The cup final was still the biggest game in the calendar and a rare opportunity to showcase the sport to millions of viewers on the BBC. The match itself had been a tense battle between Widnes and Wakefield, broken only by a scintillating sixty metre try from winger Stuart Wright. Surely, Genders thought, this would gain some positive coverage. But as he ran his finger through the various sports sections, he found nothing.

It was hardly surprising that rugby league had slipped out of the national consciousness in the 1970s. From its heyday in the late 1940s — when almost five million people passed through the turnstiles in a single season — it slumped into a malaise. Administrators pointed to irreversible changes in social habits and new leisure pursuits that had turned the crowds away. But others blamed the sport itself. As early as 1971, a group of management consultants observed how it had failed to keep up with modern consumer demands: “Hot water poured into an Oxo cube in an impossible to hold plastic cup will not tempt the housewife out of her trip to town or her wrestling on TV”. Nor, they concluded, “is it the best way to get more men into the game”.

Journalists had often urged the game to push beyond the invisible boundaries

More detrimentally, rugby league had no presence outside of the industrial north. The day after the cup final, Genders obtained a giant map of England and identified all the areas where rugby league was played. It was, undeniably, condensed. Apart from Cumbria, most of the clubs remained effectively contained by the boundaries of the M62 motorway — where they had first assembled in 1895. Widnes and Doncaster were about as south as it was possible to go to watch a top match.

Journalists had often urged the game to push beyond the invisible boundaries. After one spectacular Challenge Cup final, the columnist J L Manning pleaded with the sport to move south of its “artificial” frontier: “The trouble with rugby league is that it has an inferiority complex and a regional resignation to its unimportance”, but the offer was rarely taken up. By the time the Australian Kangaroos arrived in 1973, and demanded a test match be played at Wembley, the sport had no way of promoting the game in the south. The Aussies anticipated 30,000 spectators and were financially crippled when less than 10,000 showed up. In anger, they admitted that it wasn’t “worth playing in London on future tours”.

Genders believed that it was time to address the game’s southern discomfort. Not only did it need more column inches, he sensed that the sport had an opportunity to actively challenge the football market. In the late 1970s, football was arguably in a graver situation than rugby league. With millions of people lost to the terraces since the 1950s, barely a week passed by without a tabloid story on crowd violence and hooliganism. Over the summer of 1980, Margaret Thatcher was forced to condemn the actions of England supporters in Turin after bottles were hurled on the pitch and riot police fought back with batons and tear gas.

When, a few weeks later, Oldham v Sheffield Wednesday was abandoned for thirty minutes due to a terrace “riot”, a national panic ensued. A spokesman for the FA admitted that the tensions between supporters were now a primary concern: “We should actively discourage travel to away games,” he announced. “By the end of the eighties,” predicted a Daily Mail special report, “TV could be dubbing crowd sound effects on to film of matches played for the benefit of their cameras in otherwise virally deserted grounds.”

Rugby league expansionists believed there was an opportunity to frame itself as the family game for the 1980s. Fulham was identified as the area and they were soon welcomed into the Second Division. Their arrival immediately generated the back page headlines that the sport had been longing for. A promotional blitz by former England striker Malcolm Macdonald was boosted by the appointment of rugby league personality Colin Welland as a club Director. Welland, who would win an Oscar for the screenplay of Chariots of Fire, had a direct line into each newspaper in the country. In the Guardian he pitched league as the sport for all people: “There’s no pecking order, no international bars, no old school ties, no long rooms, no member’s enclosures.”

In contrast to the football side, Fulham encouraged women and children to attend, and “coachloads of northern invaders” were expected to give the “codes new baby the warmest of welcomes”. Rugby league fans could be trusted to handle their drink, too. Opposing fans were encouraged to go for a pre-match pint at the Boileau Arms in Barnes, ran by the former player Dave McManus. And when almost ten thousand people turned out to witness the team beat Wigan in their inaugural game, there was a sense that the tide was turning. The next day, Genders woke up to find serious cut through. It was The Sun who led the way: “Oh, what a knees up and under”, concluding that “they are no longer worrying whether the northern sport of Rugby League will take off in the south. It already has”.

What surprised people the most was how different the atmosphere was. “Carnival spirit as Fulham launches into rugby league” was Roger Heywood’s take in the Telegraph. “The family atmosphere contrasted with the hooliganism and rowdyism of soccer in recent weeks.” The Evening Standard meanwhile ran with a photograph of a family sitting on the terraces watching the action: “FUN for all the family? A rare site on the Fulham terraces”. It was little wonder that other football clubs — such as Luton, Charlton and Crystal Palace — all enquired about setting up their own team.

Over beers in a pub in Barnes, Colin Welland told journalists that rugby league’s time had finally arrived: “We have climbed the hills, and now all I see is the green valley of the Thames, and London and the south — all there for the taking by the rugby league.” But it turned out to be one of the biggest false dawns in the history of the sport. Once they were promoted to the First Division, Fulham were — despite winning nine games — one of four sides relegated back down. Unable to build on the initial media boom, the crowds soon dwindled as they yo-yoed through the league. In just five years, support dropped from 6096 on average to just 817.

It proved, however, to be another false dawn

Powerless to turn their fortunes around, they spent most of the 1980s languishing in the second tier with fellow minnows, as they moved from Fulham to Crystal Palace to Chiswick Polytechnic to Barnet Copthall just to survive. Surprisingly, their decline came at a time when the sport had actually achieved greater national prominence, following a series of high-profile test matches played at Wembley. When he was appointed the games Chief Executive in 1992, Maurice Lindsay declared that London would again be “the principal target area of expansion”. He was convinced that only when London was “capable of coming north and inflicting defeats on Wigan, St Helens and Leeds” will “they bring with them a huge travelling army of fans”. Only then, he argued, would the sport be able to fulfil its potential.

The creation of Super League in 1996 and the financial security from Sky Sports, finally allowed the London Broncos — rebranded in a bid to align themselves with Australian icons Brisbane Broncos — to compete at the top. They lured in marketable superstars such as Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah, and even enticed Richard Branson’s Virgin to buy up a 15 per cent stake in the club. Branson told the press that he had invested because it one day could “become the main sport in this country”.

It proved, however, to be another false dawn. As crowds struggled to grow, the debts piled up and Virgin eventually withdrew its backing. Various moves over the next 20 years — from Brentford to Harrow to Ealing, with a rebranding as Harlequins in between — have all been presented as a new dawn. But with each move, the club has fallen further and further away from the wider rugby league consciousness.

In a significant move last year, the RFL appointed Lord Caine to decide on which club would replace Toronto Wolfpack in the top division after Covid demands created an extra place. London applied and put a case forward but were rejected in favour of Leigh. It was widely felt that Leigh had more to offer the sport, they had the supporters willing to travel to games, to buy the beers and pies that boost the finances of the other struggling clubs. The Broncos were seen as a luxury that the game could no longer afford to indulge. It was evidence, if any had been needed, that they would no longer be protected from the harsh realities of rugby league economics.

Unshackled from the historic burden of carrying the hopes and dreams of expansionists on its backs, the future of the London Broncos now rests upon their ability to make the most of a long overdue move to AFC Wimbledon. For the Broncos coach Jermaine Coleman, it is another opportunity to regenerate: “There are so many communities desperate to pick up a sport, and we dont tap into it, we dont integrate with these people,” he recently told the Guardian. If ever a partnership between a rugby league and football club should work, it is with AFC Wimbledon.

Their games feel more like a festival than a football match

Forged in the aftermath of the controversial relocation of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes in 2002, AFC began life in the Combined Counties League, by a group of supporters who wanted to keep a team in the local community. Owned by the Dons Trust, a democratic supporters organisation, their dramatic rise to League One has given hope to fans that there is an alternative way of running a football club. Their survival, encapsulated by the flag “There is a light that never goes out” that hangs behind the goal, is down to the commitment of a loyal band of supporters who refused to let their club die. If rugby league has learnt anything in the last 125 years, it’s how to survive in similar circumstances.

Most importantly, the values of AFC Wimbledon extend well beyond the football pitch and into the local community. When the pandemic hit, supporters soon set up the Dons Local Action Group to collect and deliver food to vulnerable local residents, just as people in St Helens, Wigan and the rest of the rugby league communities did. The challenge for the Broncos is to embed themselves alongside the football club, to become another source of local pride in the area. As AFC Chief Joe Palmer outlined to the Dons Trust SGM, they will have the support of the football club because it is in their financial interests to nurture a vibrant rugby league culture.

The question of how the Broncos crack the London market remains unanswered. The club have set themselves an ambitious target of 5000 supporters within three years. Rugby league, in general, is in desperate need of new types of supporters, particularly young people, who can bring a different kind of energy to a match day. So far, the marketing of the Broncos has followed a traditional path. Adverts promoting “hard-hitting” action have been spotted on trains while hospitality packages have been sold via the newspapers. Perhaps the Broncos can follow the Toronto Wolfpack model of making the game a secondary event to the beer tents and food vans that surrounded their pitch? Ambitious Wimbledon brewers By The Horns have already moved their tap room into the ground, which should be an attractive sell to supporters in the summer months.

Others point to the success of Dulwich Hamlet FC, the non-league football team, who have become the “hipsters” club in London. By developing a counter culture, the club draw in people who are disillusioned with the corporatism and the tribalism of the football league. By appealing to young professionals with disposable cash, their games feel more like a festival than a football match. Moreover, they have developed a distinct identity by attaching themselves to local campaigns around LGBT rights and mental health.

In short, these are the kind of community projects that rugby league clubs have already pioneered for decades. In gentrified South London, just a few miles away from Vauxhall, Tooting, Balham and Clapham, there is nothing written in the stars to suggest that the London Broncos cant succeed. If they do lay some roots down in Wimbledon, they might finally be accepted on their own terms.

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