Phil’s Forty, 3: The biggest match

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

Phil Ascough, Dave Lee, Gavin Turner, Steve Hubbard, and David Burns.
Phil Ascough, Dave Lee, Gavin Turner, Steve Hubbard, and David Burns.

As anniversaries go it will be a big one – 40 years in May since Hull’s two rugby league giants faced each other at Wembley in the first, and so far only, all-Hull Challenge Cup Final.

It’s possible some people will even miss it, given that since 2005 the final has been played in August and many sports are quick to forget their traditions in the modern age.

But Saturday 3 May 1980 was the big day. Big for Hull FC and for the city, massive for Rovers and for Steve Hubbard. He scored a try, kicked three goals and is still the only member of the Robins squad from that day not to have a Wikipedia entry. Not even for Thieving Harry’s. Expect that to change soon.

The story goes that on the Saturday morning someone stuck up a sign next to the A63 asking the last person out of Hull to turn off the lights, and certainly the match brought both teams out of the Challenge Cup darkness.

Rovers hadn’t been in the final since 1964 and Hull since 1960. Here they were taking their derby rivalry to the biggest stage of all, and one or other would feature in five of the next six finals, always coming home empty-handed save for Hull’s eventual victory over Widnes in a replay in 1982.

I thought the match was rubbish but I didn’t understand rugby league then and I’m not sure I do now.

As I mentioned in the first of these pieces my rugby league baptism had come just a few months earlier. Doncaster, The Dons, my local team, were presented with one last chance to avoid going through an entire season without a win. They played Huyton at home, a ground called Tatters Field, which tells you all you need to know about the facilities but they used to have some great Bank Holiday afternoon discos in the social club.

The match itself and the plight of the club at the time is documented in classic, gritty, northern rugby league style in the excellent “Another Bloody Sunday”. It’s free to watch online at the Yorkshire Film Archive, so do it. About half a dozen of us went along not because we were passionate about rugby league but because there was a genuine sense of optimism, a real feeling that Huyton would be poor enough to hand the Dons their first win of the season at the 20th attempt.

They did it, courtesy of a try from the former Hull FC player Tony Banham, whose name usually carried the prefix “nightclub bouncer” and who seems to be remembered by most of those who knew him as a gentle giant. Banham barrelled over the line in slow motion to ensure the Dons recorded their only win of a grim season. And that was it for me and rugby league until that big day at Wembley when, before I’d even considered moving to Hull, I was enticed along by a few Robins whose dad was an Airlie Bird. They were neither gracious nor generous in victory, just brutal. It’s a good job they were old enough by then not to rely on him for pocket money.

During my first year or so in Hull we used to go together to the old Craven Park, with its refurbished railway carriages converted into makeshift tea bars at the back of the stand. It’s not true that when Rovers moved to the new place, they flogged them off to Northern Rail who put the wheels back on and used them on the Scarborough line.

But living down Newland Avenue I realised it was much easier to walk to the Boulevard than trek to East Hull so that’s what I did. Not often, even after I married a Hull FC fan. Our Matthew lost interest after we took him to a match as a toddler and, as he jumped to celebrate a try his seat tipped up and trapped him by the legs.

Also I’ve always preferred proper football, but there’s no doubt that rugby league has done a much better job of retaining its roots with communities. In recent years it’s been an absolute pleasure to be involved in apprentice awards evenings at Humberside Engineering Training Association, briefing guest speakers Chris Chester and, the following season, Tim Sheens. Both head coaches of Hull KR who were clearly and sincerely interested in the wellbeing of the city and its youth.

Sheens shone again at a breakfast event at 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar, up at the crack of dawn to engage with the city’s corporate community, and illustrating the parallels between the worlds of business and sport. Soon after, Hull FC went along and assembled possibly one of the best panels of Hull sporting legends with Johnny Whiteley, Gareth Ellis, Nick Barmby and Adam Pearson.

Just this week a benefit night at Thai House in Princes Avenue raised a phenomenal amount for Mose Masoe. I’m not going to steal their thunder by revealing the precise sum here.

But maybe the close-knit nature of the rugby league communities is one reason for the game only achieving modest, sporadic and regional success. For all the trips to cup finals, grand finals and magic weekends, for all the trailblazing technology that ignores the forward pass, and for all the expansionist efforts over the years to spread the sport to France, Toronto and… ahem… Gateshead it’s clear that round here the only match that really matters is the next one against the team across the river.

Phil Ascough

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