Gareth Dyer's rugby column

When is a club not a club?

Thursday, 14th April 2016, 11:13 am
Updated Thursday, 14th April 2016, 12:17 pm
Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby Gareth Dyer

This might sound a strange question but it is one that you sometimes have to ask when travelling around the circuit watching semi-professional rugby union.

Some set-ups on the circuit are so confused that it makes you wonder what they are actually there to achieve.

For example, I was talking to a couple of diehard Preston Grasshoppers supporters last week who follow the Lightfoot Green club home and away.

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They were telling me about one of their recent away days watching the Hoppers play in the Midlands.

After a tricky three-hour journey through torrential rain they arrived at the ground a couple of hours before kick-off, hoping to get a pre-match meal and a pint.

Alas their first impressions were that the clubhouse appeared to be shut, such was the lack of people milling around.

In fact, they were at first unsure as to whether they had gone to the right ground, given that this was their first visit to this particular team.

Fortunately their concerns were alleviated when the Hoppers team bus pulled into the ground a few minutes later.

However it quickly became apparent that this was not a day when the ‘house full’ signs were going to be put up. Nor was there much refreshment on offer pre-match.

In fact such was the low turnout for the game that one of the Hoppers clan was able to do a head count of how many supporters were actually inside the ground.

Despite the unrelenting downpour, my source counted less than 50 spectators of which half appeared to have travelled from Lancashire.

After the match they went into the sparsely-populated clubhouse for an after-match drink and to have a chat with any home supporters they could find – not an easy task in itself.

In fact, after both sets of players had been fed and watered it quickly became a bit like the Mary Celeste such was the emptiness of the bar. None of the ‘home’ players had stuck around for a drink and had all quickly got into their cars and left. So much for camaraderie!

After some further investigation it appears that this is par for the course at this particular ‘club’.

Essentially the team is brought in from the surrounding counties, with players being paid handsomely to travel up to an hour to play.

As a result there is little buy-in to the club as a whole and little by way of a club atmosphere to boot.

The players are paid by a benefactor who must feel that his hired hands give him a return on his investment, as it is unlikely he is going to be paid back out of gate receipts or bar takings.

I have to say I shudder when I hear about clubs who continue to pursue this kind of approach.

I recently read former England international Neil Back’s excellent autobiography entitled ‘The Death of Rugby’.

In his book, Back recounts the bizarre goings on after his high-profile appointment as head coach at Rugby Lions – a famous club with which Hoppers have locked horns with for many years – when a charismatic benefactor by the name of Michael Aland turned up out of the blue, with designs on making the Lions a Premiership club within a decade.

I am sure most of you know what happened next but to those of you who don’t, let’s just say that on the pitch Rugby Lions had an excellent season under Back, winning promotion and the Warwickshire Cup.

In fact, they went unbeaten for the whole season.

There was just one little problem.

Mr Aland – despite continued promises – didn’t have any money to back up his lofty ambitions for this small provincial club.

It left an embarrassed Back as the fall guy, paying people out of his own pocket.

As a result, the club quickly folded with all of the hired hands walking away being owed significant sums of money.

A quick look at the league structure now sees Rugby Lions trying to rebuild themselves as a phoenix club, having had to start again at the bottom of the league structure.

The problem is that the current league set-up still makes it too easy for clubs to fall into bed with ‘benefactors’ who only want to see their adopted team win and move up the pyramid. Often their money is only directed towards players’ pockets, with hired hands brought in from higher levels to ensure success on the field.

It is time that a wider set of rules came into force to determine whether clubs can move up the levels.

Improved grounds, facilities and youth development should all feature heavily in any promotion criteria, whilst the ability to be self sufficient should become more of a 
pre-requisite the higher you wish to aspire.

This would really develop a stable game based on firm foundations of long-term development, rather than a short-term punt.

So when is a club not a club? Well quite simply, when it is sacrificed to become more about individuals rather than of benefit for all.