Gareth Dyer is head of rugby operations at Preston Grasshoppers
I have always been of the view that league tables do not lie.
Sometimes they might not tell the whole story of a season but ultimately, they confirm at what level you have consistently achieved over a campaign.
If you look at a league table and the words “If only…” start to spring to mind, then you are already questioning the reality.
Last season at Lightfoot Green there were plenty of “if only” statements from the Hoppers supporters. If only the team had not lost so many games to last plays or if only the team hadn’t made such crucial mistakes during games and if only the team could have held on to leads better.
Last season was a difficult one and two good friends of mine, Alan Holmes and Garth Dew took the full disappointment of a relegation season. The league table didn’t lie last season but it wasn’t down to those two individuals, who worked as hard as anyone to make the league table look somewhat different.
But what Alan and Garth did leave was a legacy of having blooded several younger players. Those young players gained experience that now makes them well rounded and the hard work that those two coaches put into developing those players has played an important part in the club’s ability to bounce back at the first attempt.
There has been plenty of comment about Hoppers this season from various places. As I touched on earlier in the season, when we hit top spot it was said by others that it was only because we had a bigger playing budget than the rest.
I don’t know if that is true or it isn’t. I certainly don’t know the playing budgets of other clubs and, to be honest, I couldn’t care less. Strangely those comments seemed to come from clubs under-achieving and smacked of diversionary tactics to take the focus away from their own lack of progress.
This season the league table again does not lie. Hoppers have dominated the Northern Premier Division. Before this weekend’s game with Morley, the side has won 21 and drawn 1 of 23 games played. Tellingly, the side has also racked up 19 try bonus points to date.
Still there have been attempts to belittle what that means. That other teams have tried to play in different styles and sometimes I have heard comments that “if only Hoppers had their backs” or “if only Hoppers had this or that”.
My response to those comments? Poppycock.
Successful teams play to their strengths and are comfortable in their own skin.
If only those other teams had our set-piece. If only those teams could match our intensity. If only those teams had scored more than 120 tries. If only those teams had our organisation and togetherness. If only those teams had accumulated as many league points as us.
Paul Arnold and the coaching team should be applauded for instilling an approach into our guys that has embodied a clear and focused approach. It has put substance at the heart of our mentality and we have built style and flexibility from there. To have tried to have done that the other way around wouldn’t have delivered a winning season.
As I said in my programme notes last weekend, to me this year was always our “Year Zero”. It was the opportunity to bounce back whilst building foundations to take us further.
Having confirmed our return to National Two, the first thing we must do is enjoy this season’s success.
As I said to the players, some can go through a whole career without ever experiencing a league winning campaign.
Fortunately, having won the title with three games to spare, there is an extended opportunity to do that before the season comes to an end.
The planning for next season has been ongoing for some time and I am comfortable that we will return to National Two in good shape to meet a bigger challenge.
We will do that with a stable squad and firm foundations on and off the pitch.
I have enjoyed our season in the Northern Premier. The more regional nature of the league has reinforced my belief that a more regional National League structure would bring huge benefits to northern club rugby.
All games this season have carried that extra intensity of playing your nearest and dearest and that hasn’t just been confined to on the field. The Hoppers supporters have clearly enjoyed following their team around the north and the connection between the players and supporters has returned to what it used to be.
But before we look at the future, for now it will all be about lifting that league trophy this Saturday and enjoying the hard work of so many people.