Gareth Dyer's rugby column
On Monday evening I was delighted to be part of a huge crowd of rugby fans who attended the official opening of Preston Grasshoppers' new artificial grass pitch.
With England head coach Eddie Jones in attendance to cut the ribbon and do some coaching with hundreds of enthusiastic youngsters, the evening showcased what a community club Hoppers is.
The media were there in numbers too and ensured the launch was a success.
The facility really is one to be proud of. Not only has the new pitch been laid but the main grandstand has been refurbished, whilst the pitch surrounds have been updated and improved.
Lightfoot Green really is now a stand out sporting venue and one the local community should embrace.
But after the initial fanfare, attention now turns to the 1st XV fixture with Scunthorpe – which hopefully will be played on the AGP once the final formalities are completed this week.
I think everyone who holds the club at heart is keeping their fingers crossed that we finally get the serious action back on the main pitch this weekend.
For this weekend’s game really is a must-win encounter. Some people have tried to downplay the occasion, stating that it will only heap pressure on a young Hoppers team who are low on confidence.
To me that is nonsense. As I have written previously, playing away from the main pitch has been an issue so the quicker the team can get on to the main arena the better.
The players should be looking at the opening fixture on the AGP as a once in a club’s lifetime opportunity to make history.
Head coach Garth Dew is correct when he says that the pitch itself won’t mean Hoppers suddenly turn the corner and win matches.
But he is correct that it should mentally refresh the players. The firm surface will also suit their intended style of play and personnel. Heavy boggy pitches have not been to this lightweight Hoppers’ outfit’s liking and a “fast track” will allow them to use the strengths that they have.
So the message should be simple. Forget what’s gone, embrace the new and write your names into the club’s history books.
For that is what is on offer to this group of players.
I have been watching Hoppers for a long time – before I was even knee high to a Grasshopper. And there are games that stick in my memory – as do the players who played in them.
There are three famous games that always come to mind when I think back to big days in the club’s history.
The Pilkington Cup match versus Northampton in December 1996 was probably the biggest in the club’s history. With more than 3000 packed into Lightfoot Green, temporary stands erected and a star-studded international laded opposition in attendance, Hoppers gave as good as they got before understandably running out of steam against their highly rated – and full time – opponents.
I can still recall Hoppers Glyn Dewhurst racing over for a shock try as Hoppers led the “Saints” 11-5 at half-time. The players in white shirts and blue hoops certainly took their opportunity to write themselves into Hoppers folklore that day.
The second match that always sticks in my memory is no doubt less well recalled but still made a huge impression on me.
It was a game in the early 1990’s against Otley who were runaway leaders of the division. They had a much vaunted pack and had been sweeping all before them when they arrived at Lightfoot Green. But Hoppers that day gave their visitors nothing. I remember respected scrummaging prop Lloyd Bell being brought back into the Hoppers side after a long period out and he together with the rest of the Hoppers back simply overwhelmed Otley with their ferocity.
When the first scrum of the match saw the home side march their much bigger opposition back 10 yards, the tone was set. The 16-4 scoreline didn’t do Hoppers justice, so well did they play.
The final match that sticks in my memory is also my favourite. It was the 1986 Lancashire Cup semi-final win over an Orrell side who were probably the best all round team to have come from the North of England.
This was the Orrell side of Langford, Carleton, Ainscough, Williams, Southern, Kimmins, Cleary and Buckton.
I’ve been fortunate to get to know a lot of the Hoppers players who featured in that game and their memories and stories from that match are compulsive listening to any Hoppers supporter.
The mind-set going into that game was that it was a chance to make history and they were going to embrace the challenge rather than be overwhelmed. Those players wrote themselves into Hoppers history that night. For the current Hoppers squad this coming Saturday is their opportunity to do the same.