David Oxley: In my day ... problems were similar to today’s challenges

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IT could never have happened in my day!

I was hugely honoured and very humbled when elected to be president at the Rugby Football League’s recent annual general meeting. When I retired as chief executive – 21 years ago I’m staggered to realise – I accepted invitations to join a couple of RFL committees in order to put something back into the game purely as a volunteer.

I advised the respective chairman to sack me if ever I said “In my day...”

I never have and so I survive on those committees. However, I do say it today.

Way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like society as a whole, the role of rugby league was very different.

In those days full-time officers such as myself were regarded as “paid servants”. There was no offence inherent in such a term. It merely reflected the tenor of the times.

With regard to the proposal that led to my election I am pretty sure the response of the council in those days would have been something like “Well, David’s alright (maybe!) but a former paid servant taking t’top job in t’game? Nay we’re not having that!”

Immediately following the AGM I was privileged to sit in as an observer at the council meeting expertly chaired by Brian Barwick.

On the agenda were such important items as the conclusions of the policy review committee regarding the structures of the leagues and the production, development and retention of young players as well as updates of the current Festival of World Cups (students, armed forces, police, women and wheelchair) and the fast approaching 14th World Cup involving 14 countries.

I was particularly struck by the high quality of the discussions and respect for the etiquette of debate on display. In my day – how shall I put this – I seem to recall council meetings were somewhat more excitable!

The council met at a time when, as has happened periodically through its long history, the game appears to be not quite happy within itself with doubts, anxieties and foreboding rearing their ugly heads. Let me tell you, these concerns are nothing compared with what I encountered on arriving at Chapeltown Road in July 1974.

Greeting me on my first day at RL HQ my long-serving assistant director Eddie Bottomley said: “I don’t know why you’ve taken this job David – none of us will have a job this time next year.”

Certainly the game had issues and problems aplenty in 1974 – BARLA had recently broken away (inevitable and necessary), at global level there was a damaging dispute between the northern and southern hemispheres as to whether the game should be played under a four tackle or six tackle rule and attendances were down as was central income and overall investment.

However, once I began to delve beneath the surface I soon realised that things were not nearly as dire as the profits of doom would have had us believe.

The same can be said of today. Yes, there are issues to be resolved, policies to be cemented, central income to be significantly raised, for instance, but there are many reasons why I’m totally confident the great game can anticipate an assured and exciting future.

Under Nigel Wood’s firm guidance there is a team of talented and dedicated executive officers working their socks off to promote and secure the game’s future in an environment which is very much more complex and prescriptive than the one that I and my staff (never more than 12 in number) had to work in and, of course, they must do so in face of the worst economic recession in living memory.

All of us in our different ways are custodians of a wonderful game. We owe it to our game to remain positive and keep the faith.

As the great Martin Luther King once said: “I have a dream.” My dream is that at about 9.50pm on the evening of Saturday 30th November at Old Trafford I might be privileged to be one of a presentation party which hands over the Rugby League World Cup to Kevin Sinfield.

An impossible dream? Time will tell but stranger things have happened. For instance, once upon a time a former paid servant became president of the RFL.