Gareth Dyer’s rugby column

Hoppers (in white) in action at Harrogate last weekend  (photo: Adrian Murray)

Hoppers (in white) in action at Harrogate last weekend (photo: Adrian Murray)

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On Saturday I took a trip on the Preston Grasshoppers supporters’ coach to Harrogate to see if Hoppers could keep their recent good run going.

It was an enjoyable day out – save for the result, where a late losing bonus point was needlessly thrown away – despite the weather being more suited to the pursuits of our feathered friends than open rugby.

It was also an opportunity to visit and consider a brand new ground, following the Yorkshire side’s move to a new complex on the outskirts of the town.

This was of particular interest to the travelling support, given Hoppers’ own recent decision to commit the club’s future to their current home at Lightfoot Green.

En route we passed the home side’s former ground based in the middle of town which, after much delay, was finally sold to a house builder after years of legal and planning issues.

From starting the due diligence process to finally moving into the new ground, took the Harrogate club 15 years.

During this protracted period of uncertainty the club almost went bust on more than one occasion.

Since rugby went ‘open’ in the mid 1990s, many clubs from all levels of the game have undertaken land sales, full-scale moves or ground redevelopments.

The land sales have generally been panic moves, required to pay off debts accrued in the early years of professionalism by chasing the ‘professional dream’, whilst the alternative approach of building of a brand new facility with the aim of generating long term self-sustaining income has also been no guarantee of success.

Some clubs have managed their transitions better than others and have built themselves at least a solid base for the future.

However, more have found that new grass on the other side of town has not always been greener.

Harrogate’s new ground is smart and well appointed but, after talking to some of the home supporters, it is clear that whilst they are glad to be in their new home, there remain concerns.

The lack of planning permission for floodlights – something brought into sharp focus on Saturday with the match finishing in almost total darkness, despite a 2pm kick off – was one issue.

And the location – on the outskirts of town – was another.

Local transport links are intermittent and the ability to cash in on passing trade will be almost non-existent.

Harrogate are a well-run club but the plans that they had in place at the beginning of the process had to be scaled back when the costs of the move, and the concerns of the planning authorities and local council, were taken into account.

I understand that one concern raised about the club moving to its new facility was what its future plans may be.

A club spokesman at the time had said in response: “We have no ambitions to be a Premier League side and expand but we have always offered sport for the town.”

I am sure to the non-rugby watcher this kind of statement will sound almost defeatist. After all, a new ground surely hints at bigger things on the field?

The comparison to a football club rising up the league pyramid – and with it increased riches at every level – couldn’t be more stark.

A lack of ambition in football is almost seen as disrespectful to the supporters, with words like consolidation, longevity and stability met with derision.

But in rugby union – and certainly at National League level – ambition can be a dangerous thing.

There is no increased pot of money for making the next level in the semi-professional game. In fact, the amount of central funding received does not meet the increased costs of travel.

So, what happens if you start to reach the top of the semi pro game and have to consider moving into the big bad world of professional rugby union?

Well quite frankly – and as most clubs in Levels three and four are doing and as the Harrogate official clearly alluded to – you aim not to get there in the first place.

Of course many clubs won’t admit it publicly but the limit of their ambitions is to finish as high up the table without having to deal with the threat of promotion.

Whether this delivers a league system of total integrity is open to debate but it is something that should be remembered next time you hear the bluster that the promotion avenue to the elite game should remain sacrosanct.