I’m a relatively late convert to rugby league. Having travelled with "all of Hull" to Wembley for the famous 1980 Challenge Cup Final, it was almost a decade later before I again took in the Oval Ball game.
And by then (1988) I’d switched allegiances, which wasn’t uncommon for the young “Slush”. In fact it was a trait of my adolescent years. In football, an early support of Don Revie’s Leeds United was gradually eroded by my first visits to Boothferry Park (especially following the arrival at The Tigers of one of my former heroes, Billy Bremner); this was later followed by a change of Scottish club affinity from Hibs to neighbours Hearts (on account of the off-putting sight of the Oirish tricolour being flown high and proud in the Hibees end on Edinburgh derby day). "On the decks” it was out with Showaddywaddy and Mud and in with Matchbox and The Stray Cats. And in rugby league the colour of choice changed from black to red...although not before the game itself became a no-go. Let me explain…
Through my increasingly active support of Hull City during the Eighties I became all too aware of - and partly subscribed to - the “Football v Rugby” debate. In particular, I began to share the bitterness felt by many City fans towards the black & white half of the RL divide.
I’m honest enough to admit that part of this animosity was initially downy to jealousy. In the early Eighties, both Hull FC and Rovers were enjoying the kind of success on the field that City could only dream of and this was matched by their gates, which regularly topped ten thousand at The Boulevard and just a couple of thousand less across the River Hull.
But it wasn’t simply a green-eyed thing on the part of Tigerfolk. As Gary Clark (author of From Boothferry To Wembley and The Best Trip We’ve Ever Been On) recalls, the “egg chasers” didn’t help their cause: “I think it was before the 1980 RL Challenge Cup Final at Wembley when they chose to humiliate us, in a game against Brentford. Hull were invited as part of a Wembley send-off. I was there and remember possibly a couple of hundred scruffs turning up in gang, all dressed in an assortment of hand knitted black and white garb. It was like the cast from The League of Gentlemen. They gathered together in the vast emptiness of the North Stand (still there in those days) and supported the other team. City won 2-1 and the crowd was a little over 3,000.
“Of course several bouts of fisticuffs broke out, mainly from the City fans who objected to this little troop of misfits chanting for a team that none of them probably knew anything about. It was an important match for City too because we were in danger of relegation; our eventual saviour being Keith Edwards who scored in this game and then the famous 1-0 win over Southend a week later on 3 May 1980, the day that “all of Hull” - except the 3,700 who turned up at Boothferry Park - went ‘Down That London’.
“I think that one incident was the start of the animosity between supporters of the two clubs. Not helped a couple of years later when City were in real danger of folding and Hull FC somehow got hold of the Tigers’ sponsors list, contacted them all and offered them a better deal for "Hull's Premier Sporting Club".
Indoctrinated by tales such as this from the “old timers” on the Kempton terraces and the Simon Gray ‘Out-of-Towner’ coaches to City away games, dropping any lingering interest in rugby league came easily as did developing a real dislike for the Airlie Birds.
As for Rovers, although not totally free from attack by members of the Tiger Nation, the fact that they were geographically more removed than their Boulevard-based rivals meant they attracted less hostility.
However, having grown up with a couple of lads of the red and white persuasion, listening to their tales of adventure along the M62 corridor, curiosity eventually got the better of me and in September 1988 I attended only my second ever game of rugby league.
What's more it was an away game, at Central Park, the former home of all-conquering Wigan. I enjoyed it so much that I wrote about the experience ("End of a Myth" - see bottom of post) for the then fledgling Hull City fanzine, “Hull, Hell & Happiness”. I’m proud to say that it was one of the best received articles I ever penned, even attracting praise and requests for a follow-up from the editors of Rovers’ own ‘zine “Flag Edge Touch”.
The following March I attended my only ever game at the old Craven Park on Holderness Road. It was to witness a quarter-final defeat by Warrington, in what was the last Challenge Cup match to take place at Rovers’ home of 67 years. It was also accompanied by reports of the sort of "crowd disorder" that was only meant to accompany football matches in those days.
The following September, along with 8,499 others, I was at the New Craven Park to watch Rovers hammer Trafford Borough 48-8 in their opening home game in the Second Division. It was my first of three seasons following the Robins regularly home and away, a spell that included trips to some of the game’s forgotten outposts. These included some real eye-openers such as pre-'Cougar Park' Lawkholme Lane at Keighley and Runcorn, where a wall would collapse at a FA Cup tie against City a few years later. There were the traditional grounds like Thrum Hall, Station Road, Hilton Park and The Watersheddings, along with those that carried more than an air of menace i.e. Wilderspool and Post Office Road.
Having stormed to the Second Division title, Rovers then experienced something of a yo-yo existence before eventually finding themselves consigned to the lower divisions for the first part of the Super League era. I followed them through a couple of relegations and another promotion campaign. I tasted (literally) the highs (“pie-a-try” day at Rochdale - we gave up after Rovers’ fifth score…the pies, lovely though they were, were in danger of coming back up!) and the lows (conceding sixty-plus points at Widnes, crashing out of the Cup on a snowy day in Workington, then a division below, and seeing a 30-point lead eroded in the second half of that infamous 1990 Second Division Play-off final against Oldham at Old Trafford).
Admittedly I cannot claim to have been there when the need was probably greatest, in the dark days of the third tier of the game, but I like to think that trips to places such as Trafford’s Altrincham home helped pay my dues for when the good times returned.
And return they have. With my eldest Slushette in tow (kitted out in HKR cap and City badge - "You must be sooo proud?") I arrived at the KC Stadium on Sunday with Rovers now well on the way to becoming an “established” Super League side and currently claiming “top dog” status in the city courtesy of their 7-3 Super League wins record against their rivals.
However, if you read the local paper, these are worrying times for Hull KR – mounting debts, cutbacks, aborted development plans, no major signings etc. Meanwhile Hull FC enter the new campaign with what chief executive James Rule terms “new positivity” on the back of a major squad overhaul and record season pass sales.
Not that this perceived contrast in close-season news appeared to dampen the spirits of the three thousand-plus “Red Army” members who filled the North Stand and parts of the lower West. Together with the homesters it helped generate a 16,000 plus crowd for one of the city of Hull’s finest sporting sons, Richard Horne.
And after two of Hull’s other finest sons (!) - Mike Lodge and Johnny Pat – had serenaded their own sections of the crowd with “Old Faithful” and “Red, Red Robin”, the player in question (who many would have you believe was a HKR fan as a boy) was afforded a guard of honour and a superb reception from both sets of supporters prior to kick-off.
A decent game ensued. Despite the countless interchanges, both teams put on a committed display with Hull FC eventually claiming what the Rovers official web site cheekily termed "a rare victory over the Robins"...
Rovers started well and Colborn had us all on our feet inside three minutes when going in at the north-west corner after some shocking defending from Hull winger Calderwood. But the same player redeemed himself with a try and Hull bounced back to lead 16-4 at the break, courtesy of further tries from Dowes and Turner.
Rovers started the second half like a train, although my awful eyesight only barely made out the figure of “Mean Machine” Clint Newton ghosting in for 16-8 then Chaz I’Anson’s score allowing Dobson to tie things up with the kick.
The hosts weren’t to be denied though. Helped by a penalty count of 17-5 (!!) they finished strongly to seal the win with two late tries from Tom Briscoe and Richard Whiting. And fittingly, even though he disappeared with a shoulder injury early in the second half, Horney himself was named ‘man of the match’.
I’m not a big fan of friendlies - City’s 2-0 win over Leeds Utd at the KC was the last football one to float my boat – but this was certainly different. Neither side shirked a challenge and there was even a couple of outbreaks of good old handbags – one after Newton had taken out Hull’s scruffy-looking new “Maestro” Long!
Although not as charged as for a league game, the atmosphere was still enjoyable (even though it took until the 70th minute for the home fans in the East Stand to manage anything like unison on a song). And their choice of “Where’s Your Money Gone?” was a little bit ironic given their own recent chequered history. Gateshead anyone? (It also gets no points for originality, unlike City fans’ rendition of “You’re Getting Taxed In The Morning” sung to Harry Redknapp the previous day!)
As we crawled along the walkway that takes you back into the city centre it was apparent that both sets of fans had taken something from the day. But the man who will have taken most is a certain Richard Horne. And rightly so.