Rugby league has always been seen as the little brother to rugby union, the latter of which takes all the money and attention. ‘You can sound a little bit chippy when you say that, but I think it’s nevertheless true,’ explains Tony Hannan, a Bradford sports journalist who has spent much of the last year following a small-town rugby league club, the Kingstone Press Championship’s Batley Bulldogs, through the trials and tribulations of a sporting season.
Batley had narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship in 2015 – a potentially catastrophic outcome for a club that was a founding member of rugby league back in 1895, winners of the first-ever Challenge Cup, and one of only four rugby league sides in the entire country still playing at their original ground. Tony wanted to follow the club as it attempted to claw back some success, but ended up painting a portrait of the meaning of such sports clubs to northern communities.
‘Sometimes you hear the term “rugby league family”, but at Batley it’s less a cliché and more a reality,’ says Tony. ‘It’s a part time club often playing against full-time professional opponents. When the team has finished playing they go off to work at building sites, and in shops, and as a ratcatcher. It’s very down to earth.’
Because of that background, and because of the constrained finances (in their first match of the season, a single player in their opponent’s team was paid the entire annual wage bill – £150,000 – of the Batley side) the club constantly fought against, it proved a community hub for a changing Yorkshire town. ‘It’s a little bit like Yorkshire cricket,’ says Tony. ‘Even though people don’t go to watch in the numbers they might once have done, they do still take an interest. They’re still reading about the adventures of Batley in the local newspapers, even though they’ve never gone to see them. It’s still a big part of the identity of the town, but not as big a part.’
In many ways, Batley’s strife is representative of rugby league itself, which has always lived in the shadow of rugby union, classified and condemned as too northern and too working class. ‘Since its formation rugby league has struggled for decade after decade,’ says Tony. ‘It has survived, not thrived.’
The club opened their doors to the author, who spent up to five days a week at training sessions, boardroom meetings and big crunch ties. ‘I set up camp there,’ he recalls. ‘I was in the boardroom, on the bench during games, in the changing rooms at half time and afterwards, on the team bus, the physio room – you name it. The only place I didn’t go was on the field to play.’
What he saw was a traditional community club battling to survive among the changing currents of increasingly professionalised sport. Mount Pleasant – Batley’s home ground, also known as the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium in a nod to the commercialisation of the game – sits on the top of a hill in the town, in what was once part of a large white working class neighbourhood. ‘If you go there now,’ Tony says, ‘it’s an island in the middle of a large south Asian population.’ Though the fans still turn up, not every conversation on every street corner revolves around the changing fortunes of the team. Money has also flooded the sport, but at the Super League level, rather than the Championship, where Batley have battled. Even then, ‘the Super League is not by any means a rich sport,’ says Tony. ‘Even in the top levels in this country clubs are scrabbling around for money – but the gap between that level and the Championship is still huge.’ His worry is that as the world of professional sport continues to change, clubs like Batley will be squeezed out by market forces, and will fall by the wayside.
That’d be a shame, not just because rugby league would lose a much-loved team, and because Yorkshire and the north would lose the spirit of a sport that has evolved hand-in-hand with the changing face of a part of the country sometimes overlooked in the south. It’d also be a personal loss for Tony. Despite being born in Bradford, and a fully signed-up fan of the Bradford Bulls, he has a soft sport for Batley.
‘They get into your blood,’ he says. ‘You fall for them hook, line and sinker.’ After a year charting their progression from near-bottom to more stable ground, it’s hard not to share his interest in the team. ‘I’m still following the results, still going to games, and I’ll continue to go there as well,’ he says. ‘It’s a fabulous club.’
Underdogs: Keegan Hirst, Batley and a Year in the Life of a Rugby League Town, is published by Bantam Press, £18.99