At last: Rugby League tells its story

Compared with other sports, Rugby League has been slow to tell its story. It has no great literary tradition, but now the game has found its voice. John Woodcock reports.

Linda Kitson's first awareness of something called rugby league was in the early 1950s, when she was little more than a toddler. She lived in Gibbet Street, Halifax and remembers the sound of supporters pouring out of Thrum Hall, the home of the town's team for 112 years, until it became an Asda store.

"On Saturday afternoons me and my sister would hear the noise of men leaving the match. It was like a rumbling. Many of them wore clogs because they worked Saturday mornings and went straight to the game from work. The sound of clogs and their chattering got louder as they neared our house and we'd rush out to sit on the step to watch and listen. There were waves of men, thousands of them, streaming down Gibbet Street. We wanted to know who'd won."

Linda was about seven when she went to her first match. Her curiosity had increased because one of the players lodged in the back-to-back behind hers. He stood out in another way.

"What we found most unusual about him was that he had different coloured skin to us. He was black and we'd never seen anyone of that colour before. The children round about would pile out and watch for him to come home from work. He was a painter and decorator by trade, but we also found out that he was a really fast winger in the rugby team."

His name was Johnny Freeman. He'd played rugby union for Cardiff and in 1954 joined the list of those condemned as traitors by the union code when he moved north to play professional rugby league.

In the 1956-57 season he scored 48 tries for Halifax, still a club record. Treacherous to some, but a hero to kids in his adopted neighbourhood.

They couldn't afford to pay to see an entire game, but ten minutes into the second half, youngsters, pensioners and anyone else without money were allowed in for free.

"We always asked Johnny to save his tries until we got there," said Linda, "and he told us he would. It always seemed like he did. He got me hooked on rugby league and I've been following Halifax ever since."

At that time spectator sports dominated escapism from the post-war drabness of life. When Halifax and Warrington replayed the 1954 Challenge Cup final at Odsal Stadium, Bradford, the official attendance was 102,569, but after a gate was knocked down, possibly 120,000 were there, with all the blood-chilling potential for disaster. Many more never got near the ground and pleaded with householders to let them listen to the match on the wireless.

Ken Dean played stand-off for Halifax and will never forget emerging from the dressing room and looking down on the heaving Odsal amphitheatre. "It took your breath away. Unbelievable. I've never seen such a crowd. But as soon as you got going you forgot about it." A normal game then? "If you did owt wrong you could still hear the boos."

Dean and Linda Kitson are among those who have been interviewed for "Up And Under", an oral history project which celebrates rugby league's social and cultural past in West Yorkshire through the memories of players, referees, coaches, fans, sportswriters, club officials, and administrators.

It's based, fittingly, at the University of Huddersfield, just down the road from the George Hotel where the game was born on 29 August, 1895.

The breakaway by 22 northern clubs from the Rugby Football Union reflected the gulf between the amateur game's middle-class rulers in the south and those who played in the industrial areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire and wanted compensating for losing wages when they took time off work.

Not until a century later did rugby union also turn professional, by which time the rival code was on the brink of another revolution – the launch of Super League – which still rankles with some of rugby league's own traditionalists.

To embrace the new image, Linda and Ken's team, known to its followers

simply as "Fax", became Halifax Blue Sox (if only to American-influenced marketeers), but amid the club's subsequent decline, at least its original name has been restored.

No such rethink over at Bradford, which means that a friend of mine won't be returning to Odsal any time soon. For him Super League is a betrayal of the game and club he supported for 30 years. Bad enough that it became a mainly summer sport packaged with razzmatazz. The greatest sin for him was that Bradford Northern was rebranded the Bradford Bulls. He hasn't been since.

Others share his sense of lost heritage, including Peter Fox, a former championship-winning coach with the club. In his contribution to the Huddersfield project he recalls how as a boy he would take down the rugby league results from the radio for his father, an ex-professional player who became steward of Sharlston Workingmen's Club.

Fox, junior, loved the names. Hull Kingston Rovers, Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers, and the unembellished likes of Wigan, Batley, and Barrow. But there was no doubting his favourite, and the thrill he felt years later to be associated with it. "Bradford Northern is the most charismatic name in rugby league. Just saying it is wonderful, and they've lost it. Bradford Bulls? It means nothing."

For the project's manager, Rob Light, the anecdote captures something of the game's essence, and its contradictions. It remains closely identified with its working-class roots, yet, often in contrast to the communities it sprang from, has not been afraid to embrace change. Like it or not, Leeds Rhinos, Wakefield Wildcats, Castleford Tigers and the Bulls represent a spectacle which is flourishing at a time when the competition has never been fiercer. Even the university, once known as the Mechanics' Institution, is part of the process – it sponsors Huddersfield Giants in Super League.

Light has an unlikely background for a rugby league researcher. He's a Dalesman from Pateley Bridge, where there was no opportunity to play the game. Even so, through his father's interest he became a Leeds supporter in the early '70s.

The project fits neatly with Light's current PhD in sport history, and his contribution to the university's study of grassroots cricket in Calderdale and Kirklees. There are striking parallels between the two sports, not least how they developed out of splits created by class divisions and produced great players who in many cases stayed true to their backgrounds.

In league's case that can be a double-edged sword, says Light. "Rugby League has had an image problem because sections of the national media have liked to portray it as a quaint northern pastime which doesn't really transcend mainstream sport." Some argue that instead of educating a new audience, Eddie Waring and the BBC became part of the problem and demeaned the game, and the parody was reinforced by his appearances on It's a Knockout, and Mike Yarwood inspiring a nation of Waring impersonators. Likewise, some may recoil at the Up and Under project borrowing an "Uncle Eddie" phrase, but Light stresses the man's positive contribution.

"For all that he was a controversial figure through his image and commentary style, Eddie Waring had a massive knowledge of and enthusiasm for rugby league, and did a lot of good. When he was involved in the game before TV, he had ideas which typified the game's instinct for innovation which has helped it survive. Rule changes improved it as a spectacle, it's welcomed players from different cultures, and introduced Super League to combat

signs of decline."

If something has been lost along the way, the three-year Up and Under project is ensuring that rugby league's wider value, and values, are not forgotten. They are captured through dozens of voices as diverse as Malcolm Dixon remembering being a winner with Featherstone at Wembley in 1967, and Cora Haley's recollections of Overthorpe Rangers, an amateur club in the Dewsbury League, where she was secretary, marked out the pitch, raised funds and bought, washed and repaired the team's kit.

The urgency with which the researchers are recording memories is highlighted by the case of Frank Wagstaff. The former miner died, aged 92, a few weeks after telling his story. He had played for his local amateur side but became a professional with Hunslet after the club advertised in the Yorkshire Evening Post for players to attend trials. Not quite how the likes of St Helens, Hull and the Rhinos recruit these days.

In the new landscape of Leeds, Hunslet is almost unrecognisable now from the district whose rugby league team underpinned the community's pride and sense of belonging, because many of the players were locals.

Harry Jepson saw his first game there in 1927. "I couldn't believe that the players performing these wonderful feats of athleticism were the same people who worked in local factories. Ordinary working men who wore overalls in the street were transformed into giants on a rugby field on Saturday afternoons.

"One of the great strengths of the game is that today's stars are still ordinary human beings who mix with the fans and talk about everyday things. They've never lost the common touch. That's where it's different from other major sports and those who live in another world."

The Up and Under Rugby League Oral History Project will become a permanent archive, include exhibitions, and develop into books and CDs. Anyone wishing to contribute can contact Rob Light,

project manager, 01484 473032,