Dragged along by her now husband to watch her first rugby league match with little clue of even the basics of the game, the then 17-year-old Barbara Wilford could not foresee ever “getting the bug” - let alone what that would lead to.
Yet she would not only become tirelessly involved in an active supporters group for her now beloved Featherstone Rovers, but would also become hands on in the club’s community endeavours, through a project delivering sporting and educational activities to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. And during her 16 years of involvement across both, more than £250,000 was generated through fundraising for the club and its outreach work.
"I probably didn’t even know rugby league existed until then,” she says, recalling that first match more than 50 years ago. “I wasn’t really into sport as a youngster. I was dragged along as a girlfriend just to stand on the terraces and I had no idea what was going on.”
Despite her Featherstone-born husband Doug being an avid Rovers fan, Barbara’s interest in the sport did not gain sudden momentum. In fact it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, and around two decades after the couple returned to West Yorkshire following stints in Carlisle and Sheffield, that, as she puts it, “I got hooked”.
“On a spur of the moment, I decided I would go to a game and that’s where it all started. I appreciated it as a fast and exciting game and gradually learnt what was going on on the field, picked up on the rules and it just struck me as being something that was really exciting to watch.”
Though her love for the game began to grow from that moment in 1993, Barbara did not envisage getting more actively involved in the club. But three years later and having got to know many of her fellow fans, she became part of a newly-formed dedicated supporters group.
Set up to support the team through a “financially challenging” time, the Featherstone Rovers Joint Supporters Group raised thousands of pounds for major projects and equipment as well as offering practical help.
“We had a go at just about anything in the club,” recalls Barbara, who became the group’s chairwoman. “We painted the dressing rooms, cooked food for the players on match days and put the sponsors lounge buffet on. That was a way of helping the club not to have to spend money but we also got involved in fundraising too.
“We did all sorts of events to pay for things that the club wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford to buy. We bought gym equipment and we funded the seating in one of the stands...We were a committed bunch of folk who were prepared to be in it for the long haul.”
That is hard to dispute. The group lasted for around 15 years, until 2013, with Barbara and Doug, now of Huby, North Yorkshire, among its core members. “I think we made quite a significant impact, particularly when we started doing the various jobs around the place at a time when the club was struggling financially.
“I think rugby clubs will always have tight finances but that was a particularly challenging time and it was not just the financial support, but other things as well, like the fact that we engendered a camaraderie that was important to the club at the time.
“I think it was also nice for them to know that if there was something that was needed, they could come to us and say would you be prepared to fund this?”
Barbara’s involvement with the club did not stop with financial assistance though. The 71-year-old, who formerly worked as both a nurse and a teacher, as well as in educational publishing, also played a part for ten years in Rovers’ work in the local community.
In 2003, she helped the club with its funding bid for the then Government’s Playing for Success scheme, which supported out-of-school hours study centres at football clubs and other sports grounds. The idea was for the centres to use sport as a motivational tool and focus on raising literacy, numeracy and ICT standards amongst struggling pupils.
To enable the club to demonstrate demand for such a facility in the bid application, the Study Rovers learning centre was founded, running activity sessions for various groups in the community.
When the grant was received, the Playing for Success scheme at the club focused on schoolchildren but the Study Rovers centre also continued, working alongside the club’s rugby players and offering activity sessions for the likes of young offenders, over 50s groups and adults with learning disabilities in both Featherstone and the wider Wakefield district.
Barbara was involved until she and Doug took a step back from volunteering in 2012, but today the Featherstone Rovers Foundation continues with similar work to the two schemes, in its words, using sport “to give the community skills to lead fulfilled, healthy and active lifestyles”.
“I think it’s a vital role that the club plays in the community,” Barbara says. “Featherstone is not a very big place and Rovers is a huge part of the community. In years gone by, all players were local players but that’s not necessarily the case now and a lot of people who move into the town are not necessarily rugby league people.
“It’s really important the club gets out into the community in an education sense but it’s a double edged thing really, as they are also engendering a new generation of supporters.”
Barbara has documented her experiences as part of a West Yorkshire heritage project. Inspired by the play REF!, written by Hull University lecturer Sarah Jane Dickenson and based on the true story of Julia Lee, who survived and thrived against the odds to become one of the first women to referee men’s Rugby League, Crossing the Line aims to uncover and share the stories of women connected to rugby league.
Julia, originally from Hull and now living in Huddersfield, is working alongside artist Helen Peyton, running community workshops in Featherstone and Batley. The memories collected are being documented on the project’s Women in Rugby League website and will be part of a wider collection of artefacts and archives at the National Rugby League Museum due to open in Bradford.
The majority of people would think that rugby league is predominantly a male sport with predominantly male supporters,” reflects Barbara, who has a collection of memorabilia including programmes and shirts from many years at the club. “But in actual fact, there are a lot of women involved and women with interesting stories to tell.”Though she is no longer actively involved with work at the club, she remains an avid fan. “I rarely miss a game. I still go home and away. It’s a special kind of club. I can’t imagine never being involved in that.”
The crossing the line project is gathering and sharing women’s stories of rugby league, supported by Hull University lecturer Sarah Jane Dickenson and Space2 arts and social change charity. It also aims to support the positive development of women in the sport.
So far the project has uncovered tales of four former rugby league pageant women and a Featherstone Rovers fan whose mum went into labour in the club’s car park.
Julia Lee, who is coordinating the project, was the first female qualified Rugby League referee in Great Britain and Australia, beginning her career at the age of 17.
She said: “We have met some amazing people but we are still looking for more stories of all generations.”
To read more rugby league stories or get in touch to share your own memories, visit www.womeninrugbyleague.org.uk