(Photo: Dave Rogers/ALLSPORT)

Super League at 25: The unfinished revolution?

As Super League celebrates its 25th birthday, rugby league is further away from its founder’s vision than ever.

Artillery Row

As Britain approached the end of the 1970s there was much talk about the “managed decline” of a once-great powerhouse.

As debts spiralled out of control and the creditors came knocking at the door, the future looked bleak. In the pubs and clubs of the North West, people traded stories of former glories and wondered just how they had become the “sick man” of English rugby. And then, in April 1980, the inevitable finally happened. Wigan Rugby League were relegated to the Second Division.

“Declinism” was a central theme of political and economic discussion in the early 1980s. The new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, painted Britain as the “sick man” of Europe and warned that any medicine would be “harsh”. Then, just a few months into her premiership, a leaked memo from the British ambassador to Washington captured the sense of loss in the corridors of power: “You only have to move around Western Europe nowadays to realise how poor and unproud the British have become in relation to their neighbours. It shows in the look of our towns.”

Wigan was said to be one of those towns. In the post-war boom, heavy industry had fuelled the growth of its community and its team, who became “synonymous in most people’s minds with supremacy in the world of Rugby League football”. When Picture Post magazine paid a visit in the 1950s, they declared them the “powerhouse” of British sport – and wrote of how one in three of the town’s population could be found at Central Park on matchday.

Their descent into the wilderness had been slow and painful. Talented local players drifted towards neighbouring clubs, and new signings struggled to live up to past icons. Attendances slumped and the old-school directors seemed powerless to re-energise interest. By 1979 their coach – Vince Karalius – believed they were a “sick club” and that he was no longer “the right doctor” to fix it.

National newspapers swapped “The Road to Wigan Pier” with “The Road to Decline”, with The Guardian surmising that “the days of glory have long gone.” With unemployment rising, one journalist argued that, “If a town’s well-being is related to the success of its sporting heroes, Wigan is in deep trouble.”

Hope for the sport’s future instead lay 200 miles south, in the nation’s capital. Fulham – fronted by the ex-Newcastle United footballer Malcolm Macdonald and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland – breathed new life into the game in 1980. Their inaugural game, ironically against Wigan, drew a crowd of over 9,000, including minor celebrities (Tommy Docherty, Windsor Davies, Carwyn James and Clive Thomas) and the top Fleet Street journalists.

Maurice Lindsay’s decision to take a punt on Wigan would change the course of rugby league history

The following day the back pages heralded a new dawn with the Daily Mail leading the way: “Time will tell, but we may just have seen the start of something big in London.” With the newfound national exposure, Fulham’s winger, Adrian Cambriani, emerged as an unlikely poster boy for the sport. When he was pictured modelling clothes for a tabloid magazine, ex-players quickly pointed out that “this would never have happened had he signed for Wigan”. London would be “the way for rugby players to become nationally-known” in the 1980s.

There was one man, however, who believed that Wigan still had something to offer the world. Maurice Lindsay was invited onto the Board of Directors in the week that the club was relegated to the Second Division. Asked to stump up the cash to clear the huge debts, many advised him not to bother throwing his money away. But Lindsay, to his very fingertips, was a gambler.

As a child, he had stood on the terraces of Central Park and marvelled, not just at the genius of Billy Boston and Eric Ashton, but at the hustlers and the bookmakers – the “spivs” – who made money off over-exuberant supporters. Lindsay later became a part-time bookmaker, and his decision to take a punt on Wigan would change the course of rugby league history.

Initially, Lindsay found that his money didn’t actually buy him any influence. Joining a board of twelve, alongside another young businessman, Jack Robinson, the pair found the club still run by tradition and hierarchies. Decisions were made collectively and often kicked into the long grass, meaning the lines of accountability were blurred. Legend has it that at his first board meeting, Lindsay was interrupted mid-sentence and informed that his job was to pour the tea for the others as the most junior member.

Lindsay soon had the measure of them and managed to reduce the number of directors from twelve to four. The four then embarked on what he would later call “a complete strip down and some aggressive management” of the business. The sporting world was indeed changing fast. At Wigan, the fans soon became “customers”, and sponsorship and corporate hospitality were given a much greater priority.

Lindsay sensed an opportunity for the sport to capitalise on new business opportunities: “If rugby league pretends to be a game of national importance and wishes to attract major sponsorship then some clubs need to improve their standards all round – and rapidly.” Clubs needed to “supply the public with excitement”.

While other clubs were slow to embrace the new professional era, Wigan invested heavily in a squad; calculating that the market would decide whether a player was worth a record transfer fee or a three-figure salary. The Wigan public responded to the club’s ambitions, and attendances were on the rise. Their dominance, alongside a booming international game, gave the sport a newfound national profile in the 1980s.

When The Sunday Times magazine visited the club in the early 1990s, they celebrated the glamour of it all. Lindsay was their central focus, and “talking money” was “what he did best”. The range of sponsors he had brought on board – from Norweb to Heinz to NatWest and Whitbread – was proof of what could be achieved if clubs worked hard enough. The Independent drew a similar conclusion “what Wigan rugby league is doing on the pitch is a challenge to any team, in any game, anywhere”.

A £77 million broadcast deal for an elite summer competition would put the sport on footing with football and rugby union

In a sport that had once been to some “the most democratic in the world”, Lindsay’s methods were not without criticism. Opponents argued that Lindsay had got lucky in the 1980s. Unlike many rugby league towns, Wigan had been protected from the industrial change that hammered the smaller pit villages in West Yorkshire and had crippled the fishing industry in Humberside. Wigan had then raided the best talent and fuelled an unsustainable wages boom. And in the early 1990s, Wigan, too, would be racking up debts after attendances reached their natural limit.

To equip the sport for the demands of the globalised sports marketplace, rugby league would have to find new customers. Lindsay was tasked in 1992 with doing what he did for Wigan to the rest of the game. He had long called for the risk-takers to have greater influence because “the bigger clubs are underwriting financially the smaller less successful clubs.” “We should be free to control the game and our clubs”, he declared in 1986, “rather than Doncaster and Batley being in a position to control the Wigans of this world”.

A new buzzword – imported from the world of business – entered the game’s vocabulary: “Streamlining”. Struggling industries had been encouraged to streamline in the early 1980s, and the result had been much cost-cutting and redundancies. Rugby League, it was argued, was in the same critical position with too many clubs playing too many games. There would, Lindsay warned, be little future for a game of “35 clubs in terrible little, tiny areas all competing to get the same sponsors, the same people through the turnstiles, the same players.”

It is only in this context that the initial idea of a Super League can really be understood. The proposal – thrashed out with Rupert Murdoch’s executives in April 1995 amidst a broadcast war in Australia – was everything Lindsay had been fighting for in the 1980s. A £77 million broadcast deal for a new “elite” summer competition would put the sport on a competitive footing with football and rugby union. The game would be radically different: “We are moving toward a city/large town league”, Lindsay declared, with Newcastle, Bristol, the Midlands, and London viewed as essential areas for growth.

Over the past twenty-five years Rugby League has embedded itself further in its heartlands

The expansion would, in time, finally answer the perennial question of “How can the game become part of life for people not near the M62?” Merging existing clubs and pooling resources would “encourage people of an entrepreneurial spirit to buy into clubs”. Lindsay likened it to Nigel Lawson’s financial “big bang” of the late 1980s: “Banks and building societies are amalgamating because they’ve got branches next to each other after the same customer”. It would, more than anything else, be a new start for the game: “Super League will represent a dramatic sea change in approach, a quantum leap in thinking.”

Within a month, the idea – of merged clubs strategically placed across the country – was dead. Lindsay had seriously overplayed his hand. He soon realised that the fans still had some control over what happened to the game. Jim Quinn, the Oldham chief executive, summed up the backlash: “It is a game built by, played by, and watched by working class people. They may not have much in their lives but what they have is that treasure.” One fan concluded, quite rightly, that the plans had been “designed for the television audience”.

Rugby League instead decided to pursue a very different path and, with it, gave up any realistic ambition of becoming a truly national game. Over the past twenty-five years, it has embedded itself further in its heartlands. Despite the continuing economic impacts of deindustrialisation, it has survived and even thrived in some cases. Local identities – be they in Featherstone, Workington or Widnes – remain linked with their clubs and, as their work in the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, they remain an integral part of daily life.

Fans still believe that the game should be at the centre of our national life

However, there is naturally a reflection on the loss of what might have been for the sport. Maurice Lindsay would be the first person to stop any longing for an imagined past. He once argued that: “Nostalgia’s lovely, but if you wallow in it, it can lead you to mistakes.” However, the pride in which the whole rugby league community watched the 2020 Grand Final from their sofas – a pulsating, titanic battle to rival any sporting contest on the planet – is only hastened by the knowledge that few people outside the sport took any notice of it. When Jonny May’s recent try in the Six Nations went “viral”, there was a bitterness that it’s the type of try that goes unacknowledged each week in the Super League. Fans still believe that the game should be at the centre of our national life, but at the same time, nobody would honestly claim that the game has made the necessary sacrifices to achieve it.

The uncertainty that clouds the future of the game can be summed up by the promotion of Leigh at the expense of Toronto, Toulouse, London or York this season. Everybody understands how it made short-term financial sense, but wonders how it fits into a long-term strategy for growth.

All of this brings rugby league back to the same question posed of it twenty-five years ago. How can the sport survive when it is competing for the same supporters in the same areas with the same finite resources? It is a question that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, as much as we might like it to.

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