Thursday, 7 April 2011

Big Willie's Birthday Treat

Sunday 13th March - Hull KR 40 Crusaders RL 22

Big Willie's...
Despite the disappointment,  I was determined not to let the Hucknall defeat spoil my weekend and was helped to this end by Sunday being my birthday; my 45th to be precise.  I know, I know, I don't look it...
Of course, in the weeks prior to the event, Mrs Slush had asked, "What do you want to do for your birthday?" only to then ignore my answer, which had been, "I'd like us all to go to Rovers".
It was only when I'd trotted this reply out some five or six times that it dawned on her that an early season jaunt down Preston Road really was my choice of "treat" (well, actually, it was a Real Ale trail around Hull's old town as performed on my 40th but this had even less chance of success).  Therefore we agreed a compromise.  We WOULD have a family day out in Hull - but while the Elder Slushette came with me to the match, her younger sister would accompany her mum round the shops.  There, everyone's happy.  And to cap things off we arranged a family tea at the Ottringham Tandoori.  Hmm, things were shaping up nicely.
Even more so when just a day  after booking our tickets for the game against Welsh side Crusaders, Rovers broke the news everyone in east Hull had been waiting for - Willie Mason was finally here.
...gonna getcha!
After six months of protracted problems with passports, visas, work permits and everything else red tape-wise that only seems to affect rugby league players, the big man was finally arriving in the UK.  And he would make his debut against the Crusaders.
So, Sunday 13th March 2011 would be my 45th birthday AND "Big Willie Day" .  Mrs Slush was only too happy to tell people that the two events were in no way connected.
Now for those of you still in the dark about this odd-shaped ball game and, in particular the part Hull Kingston Rovers play in people's lives round this neck of the woods, you might wish to watch this or perhaps this.  Those whose only connection with the sport comes via BBC's Challenge Cup coverage may well remember this;  subscribers to the Murdoch empire may be more familiar with this.  All give a hint as to why, despite the mockery, "Hull Kingston Rovers" IS a name known worldwide.  
I've explained my somewhat chequered association with the club (and the game of rugby league) in a previous blogSuffice to say, it's 22 years since I first stood in the East Stand at the "New" Craven Park, along with many other first-timers as Rovers began life in the old Second Division with victory over Trafford Borough in front of a capacity 8,500 crowd.  A lot of water has flowed under the bridges of the River Hull since then.  Both for me and Rovers.
This was to be the Elder Slushette's first taste of matchday in what she terms, "the part where all the noise comes from" and she appeared somewhat apprehensive as we approached the turnstile; though, surpringly, not because she feared that her lack of inches may prevent her from seeing much action but because she feared she wouldn't get close enough to Rufus to catch the sweets!

It was rarely this full "in my day"
It was strange standing towards the back of the recently extended popular side for the first time since Rovers had rejoined the game's top-flight.  I'd last been in there for the win over Leigh during the 2006 promotion season.  Needless to say, it wasn't as full as today.
Indeed, apart from the aforementioned Trafford game, I can rarely recollect a time when the East Stand was "bursting at the seams" as is regularly the case now.  Not that it wasn't often a pretty raucous place.  With no segregation back then, you could enjoy eighty minutes of fairly lively banter whenever away teams brought anything approaching a decent following.  I seem to recall Wigan and Leeds fans (Loiners not Whinos back then) were the easiest to wind up.  But it rarely turned into anything more sinister...unless Featherstone were in town!
The derby games were obviously the biggest occasions and one of the most enduring memories of my time as an East Stand regular comes from the virtual sea of orange-wrapped fudge bars that were sent raining down towards a certain Hull FC winger the first time he received the ball on the near touchline.  I'll leave you to guess who I'm referring to...and the possible reasons as to the choice of missile.
Blake minus his Seven
Back in those days, Sundays consisted of a game for Longhill-based outfit Holderness Casuals FC (the name derived from the Borough from which the team originated) in the muck or nettles world of Hull Sunday League football, followed by a pub lunch and on to the rugby.  We had our usual spot - towards the back, just south of the halfway line - and would be joined by the same familiar faces each week, many of whom also shared similar interests in music and clubbing, meaning we'd often have bumped into them around town the night before.  Some would also have been to City with me the previous day.  It made for a great weekend.  Indeed, they were great days - for me if not for Rovers!
Of course time waits for no-one.  Circumstances - and priorities - change and Rovers duly took a back seat in my weekend planning.  I wasn't alone.  Indeed I'm not sure I know of more than one hardy soul from among the group referred to who has remained true to the cause over the intervening years; dutifully turning up week-in, week-out even when the Club had slipped into the third tier of the game and the fare on offer was undeniably awful.
And so when the Robins returned to the "big time"  our friends across the river  couldn't wait to mock the "bandwagon jumpers" suddenly filing through the Craven Park turnstiles.  People like me I suppose.  But, similar to City's recent rise to the Premier League, I  welcome the advent of decent crowds as a reflection of the club's success.  I also like to think that those trips to Altrincham, Trafford, Whitehaven and Runcorn count for something when the good times eventually returned.  (At this point it's also probably worth reminding any smug readers of a black & white persuasion of the lift in attendances suddenly experienced by their club when moving from the Boulevard to the KC).
What, no Willie?
Similarly, having seen some fairly dire stuff during those days of regular Rovers returning gives one a level of perspective and means I can't get too hung up on the so-called "crisis" the Robins currently find themselves in on the field.  
Since battering local rivals Hull on the opening weekend of the season, Rovers' fortunes had taken a turn for the worse.  A narrow defeat at highly-fancied Warrington had been followed by much less inspiring performances against Catalans and Castleford.  In addition, main playmaker Michael Dobson and skipper Mick Vella were both sidelined by injury, while prop Joel Clinton was rumoured to be out of favour and/or wanting away.  
In the days leading up to the game, the mood had been further darkened by news that Dobson - out for "8 to 12 weeks" - had been "de-registered" by Rovers in order to allow Mason to play, following further visa complications.  This in turn had fuelled all sorts of speculation about a possible move to St Helens for the Robins' talisman.  The natives of East Hull were becoming restless.
And so before kick-off the crowd were treated to an interview, recorded with chairman Neil Hudgell a few minutes earlier, in which he quashed any such rumours and attacked those who wished to stir up trouble.  It was one way of getting the crowd "up" for the game I suppose.
The Dobbo fears suitable allayed (ahem) attention now turned to the main man who arrived to a fantastic reception and for the opening 23 minutes offered some exciting glimpses of what he can bring to Hull KR.
And his team mates responded, running in four early tries to lead 24-6 at the break.  Rovers were equally clinical afterwards, although a worryingly familiar  lax period allowed the Welsh side to make things perhaps closer than they should have been.
Ah Thangyyyoooouuuu
Despite being less influential in his second stint, Big Willie - unsurprisingly - had done enough to be announced as the sponsors' Man of the Match. And aside from touching down himself, the day couldn't have gone much better for the debutant, a fact he acknowledged afterwards. Whether it also signals a significant upturn in Rovers' fortunes remains to be seen (with a nasty looking injury to Clint Newton suggesting even more reliance on the new arrival in the coming weeks).
As for the Elder Slushette, she enjoyed the experience in spite of having to watch the whole eighty minutes while perched precariously on a fold-away footstool kindly lent her by Cameron, son of our First Team manager.  So, is this where she wants to be when we come again?  "Hmm, can we go back in the seats Dad?"  Yeah, I suppose so, any particular reason?  "I got a bit tired standing up all that time."  Cuh, the kids of today.

(PS: Tea at the Ottringham Tandoori (@The White Horse, Main St) comes highly recommended!)        

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