Thunder? They could have been Vikings…

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newera2015RUGBY League stands at the beginning of (yet another) new era. It’s the sport’s latest reinvention — and reinvention is something rugby league has always pursued.

In 1895 the founders met at The George Hotel in Huddersfield and created the Northern Union, breaking away from the Rugby Football Union over the issue of broken time, the act of paying working men for wages lost as they played their sport. In other words, it was about the money.

Over the next 100 years rugby league evolved, all the while being persecuted by rugby union. And then, in 1995, the entire professional game was uprooted from its winter season and turned it into a summer sport. Once again, it was about the money.

And expansion of the game was on the agenda. Why did this sport have to be confined to its heartlands?

newcastlethunderAn idea was forming, one which led, in 1999, to Gateshead Thunder joining the Super League. For the latest new era that club has a new name and a new home. So welcome Newcastle Thunder and good luck…

The article below, a reaction to a plan for a club playing its games in York and Gateshead, goes back to the beginning…

First published in The Northern Echo, April 18, 1995
The dust has yet to settle on plans for radical change in the sport of Rugby League but Echo writer PHIL LAMBELL believes the North-East should be included in the Super League

MEDIA tycoon Rupert Murdoch has forced Rugby League into profound, and much-needed, change.

Only a handful of the 32 professional clubs have two pennies each to rub together. A game which is athletic, action-packed and colourful is played in slums – a 90s sport with 30s facilities. The offer of £75m over five years from Murdoch was too good to turn down. It took the club chairmen just 96 hours to write off 100 years of history.

This will be the last season of Rugby League as the sport’s fans know it. Coming soon: the summertime Super League.
Clubs will be forced into shotgun marriages, famous names will vanish. There is uproar in the heartlands of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. There are cries of class betrayal.

But Super League is a golden, once-only opportunity for the sport to break out of those heartlands and the North-East should be on board.

So far only a handful of observers have recognised the opportunity that the North-East offers to a sport desperately in need of national credibility.

John Stabler, chairman of Ryedale-York, has recognised it, but his Northern Vikings plan may not be what the region needs. It could be difficult to build if only half the team’s home games are at Gateshead.

Much hard work has already been put into building the sport in the North-East and 6,000 — almost all locals — turned out on a foul February night to watch England play France at Gateshead Stadium.

The sport is now played by hundreds at amateur open-age level, hundreds more in schools. Last Saturday 15 teams of under-nines filled the Gateshead Riverside Bowl with their Little League enthusiasm.

On an average Sunday 50,000 pay at the turnstiles to watch Rugby League. Yet there are 2,300,000 within 45 minutes’ drive of Gateshead Stadium. Even a gate of 5,000 would boost an entire professional sport’s attendances by ten per cent.

A North-East crowd would come fresh to the sport with none of the prejudice or bitterness presently stalking established Rugby League territory and none of the baggage of the schism with Rugby Union 100 years ago.

The commercial appeal of a sport backed by exposure in the Murdoch media and the crowd potential of the North-East make a Super League team based in Gateshead irresistible.

It may be that Stabler’s scheme is not what is needed but someone in the sport must grasp the North-East opportunity. I think they will.

o The Northern Vikings never happened. Widnes, one of the founders of the Northern Union in 1895, adopted the Vikings name. Shane Richardson, an Australian, and Kath Hetherington, from Yorkshire, grasped the North-East opportunity and started Gateshead Thunder in 1998. John Stabler was a shareholder and director. The club’s Super League life lasted only one season, 1999, before the money ran out.

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Maltese like it hot, 2013

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First published in Forty-20, November 2013

MALTA – the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret. A sunny jewel set in an azure sea. A place of history and culture.

I went for the rugby league.

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Melita FC’s ground in the distance. As ever, the best way to find the ground is to aim for the floodlights

“Leave plenty of time to get there, the ground’s 20 minutes from civilisation” turns out to be good advice.  So I get off the bus on the main road and, after a few twists and turns, take a path across a rocky nature reserve before glimpsing the day’s field of dreams – Melita FC in Pembroke, venue for the MRL Dove Men+Care Championship grand final.

It’s a smart little stadium and when I arrive there’s a healthy crowd in. Then they all leave as the junior soccer session winds up on the pristine 3G pitch.

In search of company I take a seat in the glass-fronted clubhouse overlooking the pitch. “Best seats I’ve ever had for a grand final,” announces a new arrival. The accent is distinctively Australian.

Andrew is a Wests Tigers fan working in online gaming in Malta. We’re soon joined by Sonia Dorsett, also from Sydney’s west, who is visiting family in Rabat. Between the two of them the NRL gossip flows.

Sonia’s an official of the Windsor Wolves club down under and was in at the beginning of Malta RL when it was founded in Sydney. That team was an all-Australian outfit made up of players with Maltese heritage.

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Malta Origin defeated Sliema to land the trophy

To progress internationally the founders knew they had to take the game home. “So that’s when Choc packed up and came here,” says Sonia. That was in 2008. Choc is Anthony Micallef, organisational and social media dynamo, chief exec of Malta RL, and referee for today’s clash between Sliema RL and Malta Origin. He spends a large chunk of his free time working on the game and has big ambitions for Malta. He points out that while Malta is currently ranked 21st in the world that’s higher than any Maltese team in any sport has ever been.

Another couple in the bar turn out to be from near where Sonia lives in Sydney. Rugby league really is a small world. It gets a little smaller when I spot Gareth Barron leading the Malta Origin warm-up. I occasionally gave him a lift home when he was a Gateshead Thunder apprentice back in ’99.

Gareth, now well-travelled in rugby league, answered an online ad looking for someone to beef up the Malta Origin pack at the back end of the season. In the Maltese media he was billed as “the British enforcer”.

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The slightly unusual scene confronting goal-kickers at Melita FC

As the teams line-up it becomes obvious that a few compromises have had to be made to get the game on. The pitch has neither rugby posts, nor pitch markings. The try line is the front of the soccer six-yard box, supplemented by a line of brown parcel tape stuck across the width of the pitch. A goal is scored by getting the ball over the soccer bar and between two large green posts supporting the mesh that stops balls leaving the stadium.

Malta Origin kick-off, Sliema concede in the first minute. There are some good passages of play and Sliema are slick with ball in hand but can’t make their skill tell. Malta Origin are on top and lead 14-0 at half-time. Despite an early sin-binning for a high tackle the game is played with great enthusiasm and in good spirit.

Although it’s cooler than high summer the shade temperature is still 27 degrees and out on the pitch, where there is no shade, it’s warmer still. There are few concessions to the heat.

There’s a bit of a Sliema fightback in the third quarter before Origin romp away to a 46-10 win. With the Sliema defence tiring Barron, having played the full 80, completes a rare prop’s hat-trick. For Sliema it’s the end of a two-year unbeaten run. It’s fair to say they weren’t helped by losing eight regulars on the eve of the match.

Afterwards Sonia is called down from the stand to take on the role of visiting dignitary and present the trophy to winning skipper Joe Paolella. For the Origin boys there will be victory celebrations later in Paceville, Malta’s nightlife centre, but they can’t start until midnight. Many of the players have to attend a slightly sinister sounding “initiation” at their rugby union club first.

Meanwhile, there’s tidying up to be done and, still in his playing gear, the British enforcer is peeling the sticky tape off the pitch.

o Find out more at www.malteserugbyleague.com, www.facebook.com/maltaRL, or follow @maltaRL on Twitter

o This article originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine’s November 2013 issue: http://www.scratchingshedpublishing.com/magazine/

A dream on the Tyne, 1999

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First published in Rugby League World, October 1999

JANUARY 29. Kerrod Walters leads his teammates out into the pre-season chill of Wheldon Road, Castleford, and the Gateshead Thunder have reached the starting line.

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Gateshead Thunder promotional pack, 1999

Super League beckons in a few weeks and for the handful who’ve made the trip from the North East, a dream is about to become reality.

SEPTEMBER 12. Deon Bird scores under the posts at Wilderspool’s railway end and Kerrod slots over his first – and last – goal for the club as the hooter sounds to bring the curtain down on the Thunder’s incredible debut season.

The team tipped to finish nowhere, while playing in front of nobody, finishes sixth after contesting a top-five place right to the end.

There are about 250 Thunder fans behind the goal who have sung, shouted and conga-ed their way through the 80 minutes. Their players come to applaud them, hesitate at the advertising boards, then step over and join the party. They shake hands, hug fans and smile at young children and babes in arms.

Yet until that night in Castleford it had been a dream.

Mine went something like this: Saturday night, win the Lottery but don’t be greedy –- £3m would be enough. That’s £1.5m to secure the family’s future and £1.5m to storm the gates of Super League.

There were others in the North East who shared the dream. Some were North Easterners who had caught the bug at the RFL’s mlsslonary games at Gateshead, some were Rugby League exiles from the heartlands. I was an ex-Carlisle fan from Tyneside (long story!).

As far as I know, none of us ever won the Lottery – so we didn’t have to demonstrate how little we knew about running a professional Rugby League club.

But fortunately there were people who believed that Super League and the North East of England were made for each other. And while the rest of us dreamt, they were quietly working to make it happen.

Kath Hetherington and Shane Richardson introduced themselves to the North East media in June last year [1998]. They gained the franchise in August. Shortly afterwards they named it Gateshead Thunder. What has happened since has been a roller coaster ride for them and for anyone close to the club.

And there are a lot of people who feel close to the club –- because that’s the way Shane and Kath wanted it. Their pre-season pitch was, “Heroes You Can Touch”. That’s exactly the way it went.

From the very outset the connection was made between players and fans, players and youngsters, players and amateur clubs (although some amateur clubs were apparently more enthusiastic than others).

And let’s get this straight: yes, the team was packed full of Australians. Yes, that upset people elsewhere in the let’s-keep-it-to-ourselves world of Rugby League. And no, we don’t care.

Just ask the guy, originally from Widnes, who had seen only a couple of matches of his favourite sport in the 16 years before the Thunder came along. lt’s still an 80-mile round trip to a home game but he was so impressed he went out and bought an Aussie flag, emblazoned the word Thunder across it and waves it happily at every match.

Or ask those 250 people who were at Warrington on the last day of the regular season whether they care where the players wearing the shirts are from. They spent half the game singing this little ditty:

Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder,

You’ll come a-watching the Thunder with me,

And if we win, then we’ll sing,

lf we lose, we’ll sing it louder,

You’ll come a watching the Thunder with me.

The tune, if you haven’t worked it out, is Waltzing Matilda.

What those people have cared about more than anything else has been the pride and the commitment those players have put in. Pride and commitment which has ensured that the Thunder is a club with passion. That passion is what brought people back for more after they’d seen their first game.

For years we had said that North East people were like Rugby League people – that they could embrace the game and embrace those who play it. We were right. Of course the players will never be household names in the same way as Alan Shearer and Kevin Phillips in the North East – but Felsch and Grimaldi and Peters and Sammut are names in my household and in a few thousand more across the region.

Matt Daylight is more than a household name in my street – he is a hero.

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

Match programme, final home game, September 1999

At the final home game, the 66-6 rout of Wakefield Wildcats, the crowd was invited down to the track for a presentation to the retiring Danny Lee. Now, Danny may have been a big name in Cronulla, but six months ago no one in the North East had heard of him. Two thousand people stayed for the ceremony.

The squad fanned out around the track to shake hands, accept the slaps on the back, exchange a few words: the squad and 2,000 people reinforcing the bond they had built in the course of the season.

Up in the stand a neighbour of mine stood uncomfortably, missing out on the excitement down below. Before March 1999, Nicky had never set foot in a professional sports stadium. She almost froze on opening night as Thunder took on Leeds Rhinos in foul conditions. By July, she was prepared to drive to Hull – on her own – for a Wednesday night game. She shared the joy of the victory over Wigan in Edinburgh.

Five days before that final home game Nicky had major back surgery and set the Thunder match as a recovery target. She made it, but couldn’t get down to join the celebrations. Someone at trackside pointed out the lonely figure in the stand to Matt Daylight and the Thunder’s top try scorer didn’t hesitate.

He shot across the track, clattered up to row R, gingerly embraced the pained Nicky and said: “Hello, I’m Matt.” “Yes,” choked Nicky. “I know.”

Super League – and Rugby League – in the North-East has come a long way in a short time. It has won a lot of friends and can teach the rest of the game a few lessons. Just ask the man with the Aussie flag – a League fan for 20-odd years – or Nicky – a Thunder fan for 30 weeks.

Altogether now: “Watching the Thunder, watching the Thunder…”

  • This article appeared in Rugby League World magazine www.rugbyleagueworld.net in October 1999 under the byline Alex George. Alex wrote a lot about rugby league in the North East back then. He even edited the Thunder matchday magazine. He was, and still occasionally is, me.
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The Rugby League World article, October 1999

  • In November 1999 it was announced that the money had run out. In the absence of new investors Gateshead Thunder merged with Hull Sharks and moved to Hull for the following season. A new Gateshead Thunder joined the Rugby Football League in late 2000 and currently plays in Championship 1, two levels below Super League.