The success of Castleford Tigers has made rugby league fans sit up and take notice. But what does it mean to the people of this former mining town? Chris Bond reports.
As a professional Freddie Mercury impersonator, Gareth Taylor has performed at some big occasions. But for the lifelong Castleford Tigers fan perhaps none have meant more to him than belting out a rousing rendition of We Are The Champions in front of the packed stands at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle (the Tigers’ home) last Thursday night.
The team had just beaten local rivals Wakefield Trinity 45-20 to clinch the League Leaders’ Shield for the first time in the club’s 91-year history and the mood among supporters was euphoric.
“I was standing there in my Freddie Mercury leotard in the tunnel as Michael Shenton [the captain] lifted the shield and there were fireworks going off,” says Gareth. “I was looking around and it sounds corny but it felt like a dream and I was going to wake up any minute.”
He wasn’t dreaming and the scenes of jubilation continued in the town’s pubs, where many of those who didn’t have a ticket for the match watched the game on TV.
The challenge for the team now is to go on and win its first Grand Final, at Old Trafford in October. In the meantime fans are basking in the warm glow of their team’s success, which has been achieved by playing with pace, power and plenty of panache – living up to the ‘Classy Cas’ moniker.
“We’re just a small town and we’ve been an underdog for years,” says Gareth.
“We’re not a wealthy club and we don’t have the same pedigree as teams like Wigan and Leeds. There are so many reasons why this shouldn’t have happened and yet it has.
“Everyone really values what Steve Gill, the CEO, has brought to the club over the last four or five years and also the coach Daryl Powell who has done an incredible job with the players.”
Gareth, a former teacher, says supporters have stuck with the team through thick and thin. “I’m sure every Super League club would probably say they’ve got the best fans in the world but we’ve always had loyal support even when we’ve been relegated.”
Castleford is an unashamedly working-class town that lives and breathes rugby league. “If you walk through the town on a midweek afternoon you’ll see real, working-class people. Like a lot of towns there’s food banks and charity shops but you’ll also see a lot of Castleford Tigers badges, jackets and tracksuits, it’s everywhere and it’s all ages from toddlers and teenagers to middle-aged men. But you don’t see that if you go to Leeds or Wakefield,” he says.
“It would be interesting to see how many supporters there are per capita in Castleford because I reckon at least half of this town are avid Tigers fans and I don’t think you’d find that in Leeds or Wigan.
“For many years throughout the 1940s and 50s right up to the 80s this was a coal mining town. People went out to work and then they’d go and watch the rugby and that’s how it’s always been. Rugby is woven into the fabric of Castleford – it’s what people talk about.”
Castleford Tigers aren’t the only sporting success story in West Yorkshire at the moment. Unfashionable Huddersfield Town were tipped by some people to get relegated last season but ended up getting promoted and joining the Premier League gravy train and have already made a winning start to life in the top tier of English football.
Gareth likens the Tigers’ success to that of another football team. “I think there are some parallels with Leicester City winning the Premier League last year. The big difference was that Leicester’s triumph was totally unpredicted whereas with Castleford this has been brewing for a couple of years now,” he says.
“From a media coverage point of view Castleford has started to appear in the national press and this will really help the sport because it creates a bit of interest even among people who don’t follow rugby league.”
It’s a welcome boost for a town that has suffered more than its fair share of hardships over the years. In the 1970s, the area’s eight collieries boasted a workforce of around 6,000. By the mid-90s the figure had fallen to just 600.
It wasn’t just the just the coal industry that Castleford lost. Once all along the banks of the river were potteries, brickworks and glassmakers, but for all its skills the town’s industry couldn’t compete with cheap foreign imports. One by one the factories closed and when the pits went the same way, for a while the town lost its voice.
The tide began to turn around the Millennium. The dawn of a new century seemed an appropriate time to draw a line under what had gone before.
A collaboration between Wakefield Council, English Partnerships and what was then Yorkshire Forward got the regeneration ball rolling. However, it was the people of Castleford who drove the project forward, the early plans sparking a real appetite for change.
Plans to reboot the local economy started with the Xscape leisure complex, built on the site of the former Glass Houghton colliery, which has now attracted more than 35 million visitors since opening its doors in 2003.
The Castleford Regeneration Project was one of a number of schemes across the country devised to breathe new life into former pit communities.
This included the creation of a village green in the outlying village of New Fryston and a railway underpass linking the central marketplace with nearby residential areas. A new £4.8m footbridge was also opened to great fanfare in 2008 and Castleford’s transformation was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary featuring Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud.
Nevertheless, social and economic challenges remain. The town has long languished in the shadow of nearby Wakefield, never mind Leeds, which is why the Tigers’ success is so important.
Martin McCarthy is a former player and agent who lives in Castleford. He watched last week’s historic victory and knows what it means to the community. “This is a mining town but when the pits closed they never really found anything to replace that. Like a lot of northern towns Castleford has struggled at times which is why this is such a great fillip for the people here,” says Martin.
“This is the only professional sport in the town. There are lots of amateur football and cricket clubs but rugby league is the one thing that really brings people together.
“It’s the only thing the people of Castleford can pin their hat on. They’ve been going to watch the team for generations. I looked around at the end of the match and there were grandfathers, fathers and sons in tears because of what the team had achieved.
“For years to come people will be saying ‘where were you when Castleford won?’ That’s how significant this is.”
Pit town with a fascinating past
For many people, Castleford is best known as a rugby and mining town and for being the birthplace of the acclaimed sculptor Henry Moore.
But it also has no shortage of interesting claims to fame. Castleford was home to a sizeable Roman fort that was used by the Romans for nearly 400 years.
The legendary Buffalo Bill visited Castleford in 1904 with his world famous tour that included Cossacks and Bengal Lancers and featured a re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The acclaimed theatre architect Frank Matcham, who built the London Palladium, designed Castleford’s Theatre Royal. It attracted many showbiz stars to the town in the early part of the 20th Century – including a young Stan Laurel.