In the third part of our series marking the 10th year since the conception of Super League, Richard Sutcliffe reveals his pain as a Keighley fan CAN YOU name the only club in sporting history to win two titles in three years and yet be denied promotion on both occasions?
I haven't checked the newly-released 20th Anniversary edition of Trivial Pursuits but somehow I doubt this particular question appears. Ten years on from the start of the chain of events that led to the formation of Super League there is no doubt the professional game is thriving at the top level.
But while that progress is to be lauded, there have been losers as well as winners since the revolutionary events of April 1995. And amid the back-slapping that invariably accompanies any anniversary of Super League, I doubt too many thoughts will be spared for Keighley Cougars.
I should, of course, declare a personal interest – I have followed my hometown club for almost 25 years. And, to me, the tale of how a rugby league club from a town nestling between Bradford and the Yorkshire Dales rose from near-oblivion to national acclaim in the Nineties is one that transcends rugby league and sport in general.
Re-branded in 1991 as the Cougars, the club became a beacon of hope for a town that had suffered badly due to the closure of the major textile mills and engineering firms. Keighley, increasingly lacking an identity, suddenly had a focus.
Chairman Mick O'Neill and director Mike Smith were the catalysts, energising the town in their attempts to transform one of the game's poor relations. Keighley's success BC (Before Cougars) amounted to one Second Division championship in 1903 and an appearance in the 1937 Challenge Cup final. But for a few magical years under, first, Peter Roe and then Phil Larder, Keighley, and their re-named home of Cougar Park, became a byword for innovation in sport. And, just as importantly, on-field success. Love it or hate it – the hype, the branding and the often cheesy match day entertainment that dominates rugby league today were all imported from America and aired for the first time at Cougar Park on chilly Sunday afternoons.
The youngsters bought into 'Cougarmania' and their parents followed. Matchdays became fun days for all the family. The partisan commentary of O'Neill on the PA and the playing of records after every try, de rigeur today, caught on quickly. Not everyone enjoyed it and I lost count of the number of visiting fans in the old Scrattin' Shed who were stunned into silence when their enquiry "who is this prat on the tannoy" was met by "actually, he's our chairman."
Bradford Bulls legend Jimmy Lowes, then a youngster playing for Hunslet, once pleaded to the referee during a particularly one-sided defeat 'can't you shut that idiot up?' The official merely replied 'you'll have to stop them scoring any more tries if you want silence, lad'.
Painted Cougar paw-prints appeared on the pavements of Keighley, leading from the town centre and down Lawkholme Lane to the ground. In the pubs, an innocent enquiry as to what time it was brought the cry "It's Cougartime!"
It wasn't just rugby league where the impact of the Cougars was felt. Thousands of schoolchildren passed through the innovative Cougar Classroom, since copied by a host of clubs, while drug education and healthy living programmes were introduced. When juvenile crime dropped in Keighley by 13 per cent one year, bucking the trend across the county, the community work done by the club was hailed for its positive influence.
Rugby league, as a sport, has long enjoyed a spot of soul-searching when it comes to expansion. I have lost count of the number of clubs in places such as Southend, Bridgend and Mansfield launched to a loud fanfare only to quietly die a couple of years later with the game's administrators asking 'why?'.
But here, in rugby league's heartland, was an example of how success could be achieved. From crowds being measured in the low hundreds, suddenly Keighley were averaging 4,000 – more than Salford and London in Super League last season – and had energised a whole town. Other clubs flocked to see how it was done.
All that counted for nothing, however, come April 1995. Tomorrow is exactly 10 years to the day since the bombshell dropped that Keighley, sitting top of Division Two with just three games remaining, would not be promoted after all. Instead, London, who would finish three places behind them in Division Two, and Paris, who had to let locals in free to guarantee a decent crowd, were to kick off the first Super League season in 1996.
Once again, Keighley had been in the right place but at the wrong time. In 1993, they won the Division Three title only for the RFL to decide to return to two divisions, meaning every club was promoted and not just the top two.
Ten years on, being excluded still hurts. I appreciate fans of Featherstone, Wakefield, Widnes and Salford will have felt similarly hard done to at having to kick-off the 1996 season in Division Two after finishing above the relegation zone. But all four had tasted life among the elite, Rovers having spent just three of the previous 22 seasons outside the top flight.
That wasn't the case for us. 1995 was Keighley's big chance and, through no fault of our own, it was cruelly taken away. And such has been the rate of change over the past decade, I can't ever envisage being able to watch my team in the top division.
It could all have been so different. A few seasons playing the likes of Wigan and Leeds would have helped cement our place in the top flight. A side coached by the then-Great Britain coach Phil Larder and led on the field by GB's first-choice stand-off Daryl Powell would surely have had more than a fighting chance of staying in the top division. The shame is we will never know.
The Mount Pleasant club had missed out on promotion from Division Two on the last match of the previous season but looked set to join the elite when they held off Huddersfield to finish in second place, just two points behind champions
Batley had never been in the top tier following the reintroduction of two divisions in 1973 and their exclusion was a bitter blow to one of the game's founder members, who estimate the decision cost them around 500,000.
"It took us a long time to get over that sense of grievance because we felt we deserved to be promoted after all we achieved," said Batley's chief executive Ron Earnshaw.
Having finished 11th in the 16-team First Division, Rovers looked set for another season of top flight rugby only to be sacrificed to make way for London and Paris.
Their effective relegation was a tough call for the supporters of a club who had been among the most vocal in the anti-merger protests.Featherstone went within a whisker of gaining Super League status in 1998, when they were beaten 24-22 by neighbours Wakefield in the promotion-deciding inaugural First Division grand final.
Since then Rovers have maintained Academy sides at all levels and produced a steady stream of top class players – London Broncos please take note.
Like Featherstone, Salford finished with 21 points in that final season before Super League was introduced.
They were six-points clear of Hull and seemingly safe from the drop into the lower leagues. The introduction of the new Super League structure, however, meant they fell out of the top flight. However, it would be just 12 months before Salford finally reclaimed their rightful place in Super League by edging out Keighley to win the First Division and replace relegated Workington Town.
They were relegated at the end of the 2002 season but a year later became the first club ever to gain promotion back into Super League on merit.
A difficult season, which had seen them sack coach David Hobbs in mid-term and replace him with Paul Harkin and Andy Kelly, ended with Trinity finishing in 13th place and seemingly safe from the drop like Salford and Featherstone.
Wakefield had been the most compliant of the three clubs involved in the proposed Calder/Caldaire merger and there were few tears shed in Castleford or Featherstone when they were omitted from Super League.
It proved to be a brief exclusion, though, and after two years in the middle tier, Wakefield were promoted following their victory over Featherstone.
Two points separated Widnes from the teams in the automatic relegation places, Hull and Doncaster, but they were not enough to win the Merseyside club a place in Super League.
A club which had been such a dominant force in the late Eighties under coach Doug Laughton with sides featuring the likes of union stars Jonathan Davies, Martin Offiah and John Devereux struggled to deal with life outside the top division until the arrival of Neil Kelly in 2001.
Kelly, who had taken Dewsbury to grand final glory the previous year, repeated the feat with Widnes in his first season, despite Widnes having ended the regular campaign nine points behind leaders Leigh.