Preston is a city which has the scope to sustain Championship football...and rugby union.
That is the belief of Preston Grasshoppers’ outgoing director of rugby Gareth Dyer, who is standing down this summer after six years in the hot-seat at Lightfoot Green.
The 37-year-old proud Prestonian was delighted to see the city’s football club make a long-awaited return to the second tier of English football after four years away.
And while he concedes that Hoppers could never compete in the popularity stakes with their neighbours from down the road at Deepdale, he sees no reason why the rugby club cannot propel itself to similar echelons within its own respective game.
Currently residing in National League Two North, Hoppers are theoretically just a couple of steps away from reaching the Championship – the division below the Premiership.
On paper it looks very do-able, but as former Hoppers player Dyer explains a lot would have to happen – both on and off the pitch – for that dream to become a reality.
Currently a semi-professional establishment, Hoppers would have to enter the realms of full-time rugby to attract the required standard of player to compete.
And to sustain itself at that level, the club would also have to increase its fan-base from its current average attendance, which is between 300 to 500.
With more supporters walking through the entrance doors at Lightfoot Green, Hoppers would also be able to attract more revenue into its coffers through sponsorship.
“Hoppers will never be on a par with Preston North End,” Dyer said. “And nor should it seek to be.
“But when I look at places like Rotherham and Doncaster and see that they can and have offered both Championship football and Championship rugby, then I don’t see why Preston can’t either.
“What is and has been frustrating for me is that there is limited ‘buy-in’ from the people of Preston and the Central Lancashire area.
“We know that Preston is a football town but it always amazes me that the local public don’t understand that they have such a highly-ranked rugby club in its midst.
“There are 1,900 rugby clubs in England and Preston Grasshoppers ranks in the top 4% of those given its current standing in the National Leagues.
“When we played Caldy in our last home game this season, we put on a family fun day and had 1,200 people at the game.
“Does this show there is an appetite for the game and the club to do well?
“To put it into context, if we could regularly get 1,200 people watching then we would find ourselves easily in the top 25 best-supported clubs in the country.”
What is also more remarkable about Hoppers is its participation levels.
The club currently runs six senior men’s sides – there are no clubs in the North or Midlands who run this many.
In fact, only the clubs around the densely-populated Home Counties would be able to sustain such numbers.
There is a ladies’ XV which has grown hugely in participation numbers over the last two years and a youth system that gives youngsters a grounding in the game from the age of six to 19 years of age.
“There are roughly 400 children – both boys and girls – who are playing the game at the club,” Dyer added.
“If you consider the level of participation, you easily have one of the biggest clubs in terms of playing numbers in the country.”
In recent years, Hoppers have found themselves playing second fiddle to Fylde as the premier club in the local area.
Despite running into difficulties in the late 1990s, which eventually saw them drop to National League North Three, the Lytham St Annes-based outfit has enjoyed a renaissance.
They won promotion from National League Two North in 2011 and have since prospered in the division above.
In 2014, the men from Ansdell Road finished in third spot – although they were a long way behind the top two – Doncaster Knights and Rosslyn Parks – while at the end of this season, they ended up one place further back in fourth.
Dyer admits he is full of admiration for the way Fylde have adapted to National League One, but sees no reason why a club like Hoppers cannot follow suit.
“Fylde have done very well to move up to National One and not only survive but be very competitive,” Dyer said.
“I don’t think its wide of the mark to say that they benefitted from a capital injection brought about by selling off part of their land.
“Their hands were forced a bit due to excess spending when the game went professional and the need to clear debt but they weren’t alone in getting into a mess.
“That has perhaps always been a strength and a weakness of the approach taken at Preston.
“Those running the club have always guarded against gambling the future of the club and I certainly won’t ever criticise that approach to protect the future of the club.
“After all we are 145 years old and I certainly don’t want to see the club disappear because we chose to take a leap of faith and were punished because financially we couldn’t sustain it.
“But given the size of the population in central Lancashire, the number of potential sponsors and fans, there is scope for Preston to have a rugby club that can, with the right approach, sustain itself at a higher level.
“I believe there is definitely potential for the club to make the next step.
“By that I mean moving up a level to National One which is essentially the top standing you can have as a semi pro club below the full-time game.
“If you make that initial step up you then have to invest in your wider club offering.
“This would encompass a sound infrastructure, improved spectator facilities and marketing and, of course, the right personnel in place to drive the product forward on the pitch.
“Once you have these in place and they contribute to a viable rugby business, then you can start to look at what can then be further achieved.
“Four-figure crowds would provide the interest and the revenue to allow a club like Preston to comfortably sustain itself at that level.
“Perhaps our weakness has been not to try to tap into the people of Preston in a bigger way.
“But it also depends on the appetite of the public and the surrounding areas to see higher class rugby union.
“The club needs to drive that agenda but it really does need the people and the businesses of Preston to get behind the club and realise what a fantastic sporting entity it has in the Hoppers.”
Dyer’s association with Hoppers began almost from the day he was born.
From just two weeks old, he was being cradled by his mother Meg on the touchline as she cheered on her husband Ian, who was a first-team player.
“My father played for and was a committee member at the club,” said Dyer.
“My mother was also a member of the ladies’ committee for several years.
“They were both avid supporters of the club and went to watch games home and away.”
Naturally, Dyer began to play junior rugby at the club and eventually progressed to be part of Hoppers’ “golden generation” Colts team which won three back-to-back Lancashire Cups.
He said: “I played alongside Steve Borthwick, Iain Balshaw and the Sanderson brothers – Alex and Patrick – who all went on to play for England.
“We beat many of the big guns in English rugby at that age group, namely Wasps, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Leeds and Moseley.”
It was in 1997 that Dyer left Preston and went to study for an economics degree at Coventry University.
At the same time he was snapped by the city’s rugby club, who at the time were battling for promotion to the Premiership.
After impressing in Coventry’s development squads, Dyer was offered a part-time deal by the club once his studies had finished.
However, he decided to reject the deal.
“What was on the table didn’t lend itself to trying my hand at being a professional rugby player,” said Dyer, who attended Broughton High School and Hutton Grammar School Sixth Form.
“Also the game was new to professionalism and the teething problems were clear to all. Coventry went bust at least three times in the first 10 years of pro rugby, so it was not a stable environment.”
After turning down Coventry’s overtures, Dyer returned to Preston to find a job and fight for a first-team place at Hoppers.
By that time the club had won promotion to National League One and with an influx of new players blocking his path into the team, Dyer moved to Blackburn to continue his rugby education with the hope of one day returning to Lightfoot Green.
“Hoppers, in the main, had always brought home-grown players through,” Dyer said. “But now it had become a market place and players started to move freely between clubs.
“A lot of the older players started to look around and a number dropped down a couple of leagues to join Blackburn.
“I was persuaded to do the same with three or four other young players.”
The decision to move a few miles east proved to be a good decision for Dyer.
Although two levels below Hoppers, Blackburn almost won promotion back to National League Two, only to be denied on points difference.
They did, however, one year knock defending champions Hoppers out of the Lancashire Cup, which was considered to be a major shock at the time.
After a number of years playing for Blackburn, Dyer was forced to retire after picking up a shoulder injury.
But he was asked to become director of rugby at Ramsgreave Drive – at the age of just 25.
He went on to mastermind a fruitful period in the club’s history as it won promotion and also reached the final of the Lancashire Cup.
Dyer’s success at Blackburn did not go unnoticed by the hierarchy at his old club and it was in 2009 that he was asked to take a place on the management team at Hoppers.
Together with chairman Mike Bailey, Dyer managed to attract a high-calibre coaching team in head coach Dave Baldwin – who was the then England Counties coach and a Sale Sharks legend –and Karl Fitzpatrick from Salford City Reds.
The next three seasons saw continual improvement as Hoppers recorded third and fourth-placed finishes in National League Two North and back-to-back Lancashire Cup finals, winning one of them.
“We played a superb brand of rugby, bolstered by the high-profile signing of rugby league legend Sean Long,” said the ex-Fulwood and Cadley Primayr School pupil.
“We scored more than 1,000 points in a league season and finished top try scorers in the division on consecutive occasions, averaging around five tries a game.
“Unfortunately for us, Leeds came calling for Dave and he understandably went into the full-time pro game just as we were really starting to hit our stride as a team.”
Having lost players such as Long and Fitzpatrick, the club has not quite hit the same heights over the last couple of seasons.
Indeed the campaign just gone was a fight against relegation under new coach Garth Dew, who took over the reins from Michael Lough.
However, Dyer believes Dew has a bright future ahead of him and can lead a young Hoppers side to great things over the coming years
“We have built a squad of youngsters who are now coming into their own and with a young coaching set up getting established the future is looking bright, providing the club can keep hold of most of its excellent young guns and perhaps add a little bit more experience to the squad.
“I’ve been very impressed with how Garth has developed over the course of his first season as head coach.
“I knew he had the rugby knowledge and right approach but he has certainly matured over the season and I think he has learned a lot about what it takes to succeed as a coach at this level.
“It can be a real eye-opener for former players.
“Players are only ever usually concentrating on themselves and know little about what it actually takes to build a squad and organise them into a unit. “The man-management can be extensive and you end up dealing with things you never thought you would have to involve yourself in.
“I’ve certainly got involved in things I didn’t envisage from playing contracts and the never ending admin through to counselling players about private problems or helping them to find work or just being there to offer advice when asked for it.
“It’s these almost ‘non rugby’ things that you have to embrace as a coach and I think Garth has certainly developed his all-round approach.”
For Dyer, though, he has decided to take a clean break from the game.
He and his wife, Kelly, have recently become parents to baby daughter Chloe and he has also started a new job in Kendal. “I believe I am leaving the club in a good place,” he said.
“The facilities we have are the envy of the majority of clubs in the National Leagues, we have a strong off the field business which continues to grow. Having been involved off the field for the best part of 12 years I am ready for a break
“Work and family commitments have increased but I also think a break from the game will give me the opportunity to rethink my approach to the game.
“I probably need to have that freshening up before I consider whether I should get back involved with the game.
“I’ve had a couple of approaches from other clubs and while I won’t put a time frame on anything, I’m in no rush at this point to get back in.”