Walking through the centre of Castleford on Friday, the ‘morning after the night before’ feeling was unmistakable. There was a pre-noon torrential downpour and you could be forgiven for thinking this was the cause for most of the streets looking so empty, but you would be wrong. A little rain (even a lot of rain) does not tend to put off your average Yorkshire shopper.
Following Thursday night’s antics at Wheldon Road, in which the Castleford Tigers made history by making it into the Super League Grand Final for the first time, it seemed as though half the town was queuing to get tickets for the all-important final at Old Trafford this Saturday.
The queue inside the Carlton Lanes Shopping Centre numbered in the hundreds, kinking back on itself and then snaking towards the entrance doors, with some people having waited almost three hours to get their hands on the coveted tickets.
Such was the impact of the Tigers’ victory, it drew Castlefordians from far and wide. One of this dedicated bunch was Andy Kitchen, a 55-year-old operations director. He works in south Wales and had driven from there to his home town to stand in line with hundreds of others in the hope of snagging a ticket or two.
“It’s something they’ve never done. It’s taken 91 years and it’s also the first time there has been a golden point Super League semi-final,” he said.
Standing next to him was Sam, a 28-year-old mechanic who had driven from Derby to Castleford to watch the match on the Thursday night, before returning to Derby, only to make the trip back to West Yorkshire again the following morning to buy tickets for the final.
“What’s happened is unbelievable really. I’ve supported the team since I was about seven, the atmosphere in there was amazing.”
Just in front of him in the queue was 79-year-old James Speight, with wife Betty, 72, both of whom are ardent Tigers fans.
Former miner James, who has been supporting the team for 70 years, said: “I was born in Wellington Street, right next to the ground and I’ve been following them since I was about eight or nine. When I was younger, I used to catch the ball for the kickers and throw it back to them.”
Wife Betty said: “I think it’s fantastic for the town, it brings us all up. The Castleford Tigers have put us on the map nationally. I think that it’s a horrible world right now and this is something to be celebrated.”
The Tigers have a couple of very well known fans, too, in the shape of Labour’s Normanton MP Yvette Cooper and her husband Ed Balls, the former Chancellor.
“They’ve had an amazing season and no one more deserves to be in the Grand Final now,” says Cooper. “Everyone’s incredibly proud of how well they’ve played and it’s a real boost for the town too.
“Like everyone, I’m really looking forward to Saturday now. It’s great to see the support in town - orange and black everywhere and so many people queuing for tickets on Friday and Saturday so we can give them the best possible support. A great West Yorkshire final!”
Balls agrees. “In twenty years of watching Castleford, this is the best and most consistent team Yvette and I have seen. The Tigers are the beating heart of the town and we can’t wait to join the tens of thousands of fans who will be making the trip down the M62 to Old Trafford. Win or lose it will be a great day for Castleford.
“But these guys have proved they are winners and they have a real chance of lifting the trophy and making this a historic year that our supporters will be talking about for generations to come.”
Castleford has a lot in common with many Northern towns. Parts of it are in decline, with some shops boarded up, while others have plants growing from their roofs and the paint is peeling on more than a few. There are some sections which would clearly benefit from investment but generally the town centre is clean and its people friendly.
It has the feel of a place which is deeply proud of its Yorkshire history. Accents fall thick on the ground here, so woe betide anyone south of Sheffield who may have to contend with the linguistic nuances of “agin” (next to), “si’thi” (see you) and endlessly being called “luv” or told “ey up”.
It’s brash, look-you-in-the-eye no-nonsense Yorkshire: forthright and proud but at the same time friendly and unreservedly honest.
In the queue at the shopping centre, strangers stand shoulder to shoulder – some have been there upwards of two hours – but they’re all chatting. Some even have to duck out of the line to “pay a call” but their places are held by those next to them.
Fish trader Kevin Price, 34, who works for fishdirect.com on the outside market, summed up the mentality of people in the town: “It’s one of those places where everyone seems to know everyone else and anyone will give you a helping hand if you need one. Of course, there’s the odd idiot but apart from that, it’s a nice place to live and work.”
Speaking that afternoon he said the town centre was definitely quieter than usual. “Everyone is off buying tickets for the game. I went to the game and the atmosphere was unbelievable, especially when we won.”
Unfortunately, he won’t be attending the final but he will be recording it. “I’ll be working but I expect that the town will be pretty dead on that day. A lot of people follow rugby league and so they will be at the game.”
For many, the St Helens game had it all - high drama, excitement, disappointment and tension by the bucketload. One person in the queue joked: “Fingernails? What fingernails? I don’t think I have any left.”
The sentiment summed up the post-match mood of elation which is clearly evident in the town. Despite St Helens being 10-8 up at halftime, Castleford ran away with the match in the second half, at one point leading 20-10. But St Helens fought back until Luke Gale’s fateful drop goal led to a draw.
A few years ago, prior to the introduction of the “golden point rule”, the match would have run on and the Saints would have still had a chance to come back. But the showdown was effectively guillotined what turned out to be one of the most thrilling games in rugby league history.
Now the town has a hiatus, time to revel in its well-deserved glory, to assess and prepare for what could turn out to be an even greater challenge and an even greater prize. In a world where ‘norms’ are frequently being turned on their heads, one would not discount Castleford emerging victorious on Saturday.
Student Harrison Hall, 21, who is doing a masters degree in Liverpool, travelled from there to secure himself two £40 tickets on Friday. He said: “It’s cost me over £100 to come here. I’ve been a big Cas fan all my life, I’ve followed them right through university, which has been expensive sometimes.
“When they won, everyone was emotional. Everyone was hugging the people next to them. I think it’s hugely important for the town, it gives us a big lift. This is something we’ve never done before, we’re just a small town so this is a big deal for us. That’s why everyone seems to be walking around with a smile on their face.”
While the queue for tickets outside the stadium was said to be just as long as the one in the town centre, at least those in town were afforded the comfort of a roof over their heads. Indeed, management at the shopping centre laid on a special cordoned-off area and security guards to patrol the queue, which even at 1pm was being joined by newcomers, while those near the front looked weary but determined.
Only a matter of metres away, on the main pedestrianised precinct outside, stand around a dozen or so immense garish plastic planters in yellow and black, each one baring the name of a Castleford Tigers player, a mark of the reverence with which the town holds these modern-day ambassadors.
While the mood in Castleford the day after their historic victory could be described as one of understated joy, one can only wonder what the celebrations might be like if they win again this weekend.
The semi-final had just about everything you could ask for in terms of high drama and tension. At one point, the Tigers led 20-10 but three late tries from St Helens gave the visitors the momentum
Luke Gale kicked a penalty to force the 22-22 draw
It was his stunning drop-goal in golden-point extra time that brought the nail-biting encounter to a sudden end
The victory over St Helens means Castleford Tigers will now go into the Super League Grand Final for the first time in the club’s history... and Leeds Rhino’s dramatic win over Hull at Headingley on Friday means the final is an all-West Yorkshire affair
The grand final will be played at Old Trafford ‘Theatre of Dreams’ on Saturday