Malcolm Dawson writes……with a weekend of back to back football and World Cup Rugby on the telly there are doubtless thousands of sports enthusiasts who are content to lay back in their reclining armchairs with their cans, bottles and fast food of choice. But not Pete Sixsmith. Saturday was officially nominated as Non League Day when supporters of Premiership and Championship clubs are encouraged to go along and support their local non league teams. Me – I went to Tow Law where I witnessed the most embarrassing own goal I think I have ever seen. It takes a lot to beat the keeper with a thirty five yard back pass from the left touchline but Team Northumbria managed it. Elsewhere former Sunderland favourite Julio Arca scored a cracker for South Shields. See it here on YouTube. Julioooo scores (fast forward to 11 mins 15). Peter on the other hand made a cross Pennine trip to watch two former League sides before taking in the Rugby League Grand Final.
Another International break and another new manager. Two years ago, a young Uruguayan replaced a deeply divisive Italian and, eventually, the season worked out well. In fact, it gave us much to remember – a Wembley visit, the Great Escape, the derby bragging rights for the first time for an awful long time.
This time, we welcome a manager (I can use that word – he is emphatically NOT the Head Coach) who is seen by many as the only show in town – experienced with middle ranking clubs, thorough but slightly tainted with the whiff of “direct” tactics and with an allegedly too close relationship with certain agents.
Nevertheless, as Sam Allardyce returns to Sunderland for the third time for what I imagine will be his final job in the Premier League (hopefully he will pass the reins on to a younger replacement in 2019, the day after we have thumped Barcelona in the Champions League Final), there is hope that he can build on the reasonable legacy that Dick Advocaat has left behind and start to move us up the league – a league that sees three famous and well established clubs occupying the relegation places while upstarts like Watford, Crystal Palace and Swansea gambol joyously in the upper reaches.
International breaks are welcomed by me as an opportunity to “do” a new ground. That it was not possible this time was due to the Rugby League Grand Final being played at Old Trafford featuring my first love, Leeds RLFC, now known by the suffix, “Rhinos” although I cannot imagine my stoical paternal grandfather calling them that.
I took in my first National League game of the season prior to the main event, at Macclesfield as BT Sport had selected their clash with Kidderminster Harriers for broadcasting. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring choice as neither side were pulling up trees and Kidderminster were in the Newcastle United position of being bottom of the league. The previous evening they had appointed Dave Hockaday as manager, fresh from his ten minutes as Leeds United manager. His first game ended up in a 2-1 defeat as the Silkmen hung on by a thread to claim all three points. Hockaday would have been disappointed with the defending that allowed Macclesfield to score both goals from corners in the first half, but would be heartened by the way his team came back in the second half.
Macclesfield looked a beer drinkers paradise; within a minute of the station there were Holt’s, Robinson’s and Marston’s alehouses while I took my pint of Top Deck Full House in the Treacle Tap, a small pub inhabited by a couple of hipsters, a man with four large Labradors and a Macclesfield Town fan with a silver moustache. Very nice – the town not the moustache.
I had travelled by rail via Sheffield and took a train to Manchester, a Virgin Pendolino full of rugger types heading for Eastlands and the game between England and Uruguay. Manchester was ablaze with colour, with Leeds fans in blue and amber, Wigan fans in cherry and white, England fans wearing white and Uruguay fans invisible. At Old Trafford, there were fans of both teams sitting around chatting, taking selfies and enjoying the evening. Two weeks ago, you could not stir for tourists in United shirts taking pics of the statue of Best, Law and Charlton. On Saturday, this holy trinity were ignored and the holy trinity being talked of was Sinfield, Peacock and Leulai, who were winding up their rugby careers in the biggest game of all.
Leeds had already won the Challenge Cup and the League Leader’s Shield. By winning the Grand Final, reached after a pulsating win over St Helens the week before – Wigan had cruised past Huddersfield in their semi-final – Leeds would have posted their first treble of the Super League era, following in the footsteps of Bradford and Saints and saying goodbye to three with three.
They did it, winning 22-20 in the most intense sporting encounter I have ever seen. Leeds won the first half, going in 16-6 up but Wigan came at them in the second and scorched into a 20-16 lead, playing some scintillating stuff. But the Blue and Ambers dug in and showed the most amazing resilience and strength to come back and grab a try to level the scores, allowing Kevin Sinfield to kick the conversion and win the game for Leeds.
It would be fair to describe the game as an epic as two great clubs with two great teams played rugby league of a quality that I could not even have considered as a 7 year old sitting on the wall of the South Stand at Headingley. I saw most of the greats of that period – Lewis Jones, Billy Boston, Neil Fox, Brian Bevan, but none of them could have played the modern game, a mixture of brutal strength and sublime skills. The atmosphere inside the Old Trafford bowl was wonderful, something which the football club with its corporates and its tourists can no longer replicate. Rugby League is essentially a game for the people. It is sensibly priced – my ticket cost £20 – and has a family appeal that football does not. It is also the only game in town for many of its communities; there is not much football in Castleford, St Helens or Warrington.
The presentation of the game by the Rugby Football League was impressive and I even warmed to DJ Spoony, who played a good “set” as the young folk say, including a rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s emotional claptrap from Carousel “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in a version by popular Merseyside beat combo Gerry and The Pacemakers. The rascally DJ is a Liverpool fan (a natural move for someone from Hackney) and also likes golf. Oh dear – but he does like Rugby League.
Sixsmith Minimus, sometimes of these pages, brought a tired but happy Sixsmith Major home, via the Wetherby Whaler as another glorious chapter in the 120 year old history of Leeds RLFC was written.
Jamie Peacock, a giant amongst men, moves on to become football manager at Hull Kingston Rovers, Kylie Leulai may well be returning to New Zealand, while Kevin Sinfield is, inexplicably, going on to play union for Headingly’s co-tenants, Yorkshire Carnegie. He could end up playing for England, but is probably far too imaginative and creative a player to excel at “kick and clap.”
Normal service is resumed next week when Big Sam takes his team to The Hawthorns. Should he fail, then maybe we could dabble in a bit of cross code poaching and see if the excellent Brian Mc Dermott fancies a crack at the Premier League. Now, that would be interesting.