Fartown will never fade from memory

In the final part of our 'Grounds gone but not forgotten' series, we take a look at Yorkshire's rugby league stadia

John Ledger looks back on one man's ultimately fruitless fight against all the odds to keep alive one of the most famous names in rugby league.

FOR all his efforts to put on a brave face, Keith Burhouse's emotions are betrayed by a sad and resigned shake of the head as he looks out across the Elysian fields of Fartown.

There are few physical reminders of the importance of a venue which once played host to rugby league Test matches, Cup finals, county championship cricket and an FA Cup semi-final but Burhouse is still able to see beyond the portakabins, padlocks and galvanised steel fences that now greet visitors.

Where thousands of people once stood on the steeply banked North Terrace to cheer on the Prince of Centres, Harold Wagstaffe, straggly birch and ash trees stand unchecked while the main stand, at which the masses paid homage to their heroes in claret and gold, is long gone.

"It's tragic, it really is and it still devastates me, even now," says Burhouse as he surveys a ground which has been a prominent part of his life, just as it was for his father and grandfather, both of whom were lifelong Huddersfield fans.

"I grew up on tales of Johnny Hunter, Pat Devery and Lionel Cooper and was born to become a Fartown man. Growing up as a boy in Huddersfield, little did I know how this place would threaten to take over my life."

Fartown was already a far cry from the ground that hosted three of the greatest Australian players in Huddersfield's history when Burhouse entered through a creaky turnstile to watch a match in the opening weeks of the 1983-84 season. He cannot recall who the visitors were that day but will never forget what happened when he took his seat before kick-off.

"I sat down to read the programme and there was an article appealing for people to help get the ground up to scratch to host a final in November," he recalls. "They were having an open evening so I turned up to offer my assistance. I was the only person to volunteer."

Burhouse was persuaded to take a week's holiday to put a temporary roof over the west stand and though he returned to work, the demands of carrying out routine maintenance on a ground which had been neglected for decades took their toll.

"In the end, I went to Fartown to work full-time, someone had to. It was a constant battle, especially after the Bradford City fire in 1985. The council closed down the main stand and we had a real job keeping the place open."

By the time Valley Parade went up in flames, Huddersfield had dispensed with one of British sport's most evocative names by renaming Fartown as Arena 84 and adopting a nickname which was to prove too far ahead of its time: Barracudas.

The force behind Arena 84 and Huddersfield Barracudas was local businessman John Bailey, who had taken over a controlling interest in the stadium, the club and the pavilion. As the crowds continued to stay away from a club whose glory days were becoming an increasingly distant memory, it became clear that Bailey did not have either the stomach or the enthusiasm to stem the decline.

"John saved the club at first and for a while he was the only director. There was no groundsman, no kit man, no-one to do all the things you need to do to keep a massive complex like this going," says Burhouse.

"There was never any money. In 1985, we persuaded the Huddersfield Examiner to sponsor the floodlights and that helped buy a few bulbs. Unfortunately, we couldn't afford to hire a crane to put them in so it was left to me.

"I started climbing with my eyes closed because I've never had a head for heights but when I got halfway up I froze with fear. I'd never been as scared in my life.

"One part of me was saying 'Climb down now' but I knew I couldn't do that. I had to get to the top time and again or there'd be no game so that's what I did.

"It was just John and me. He always said that if we could make the pavilion a successful business then he would find the money to make Fartown special again. It never quite worked out like that."

Bailey always retained control of the pavilion, which now survives in a ramshackle state, but passed on the stewardship of the rugby club in 1988, after which he enjoyed an often fraught relationship with his neighbours.

The pavilion once provided a backdrop for the great deeds of the great Huddersfield-born Yorkshire triumvirate of Wilfred Rhodes, George Hirst and Schofield Haigh.

Their exploits are marked by a memorial clock tower, which looks out over two muddy rugby pitches – formerly the cricket ground – now used for training by Huddersfield St Joseph's amateur club.

The Pennine League club play their first team matches on the adjacent Fartown pitch, which hosted its first match on November 2, 1878 when Huddersfield played Manchester Rangers.

Four years later, a crowd of 10,000 turned up to see the FA Cup semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers, when both teams had to change in the Huddersfield club's dressing rooms at the George Hotel, the venue at which the sport that would become rugby league was born in 1895.

The decision to move changing facilities to the pavilion, allied to development work around the ground, saw Fartown become a regular venue for Northern Union matches, including three Challenge Cup finals (1908 and the two 1911 replayed finals), three Championship finals (1907, 1936 and 1979) and the third Test between Great Britain and Australia in 1937.

The attendance record of 35,136 was set on April 19, 1947 for the Challenge Cup semi-final between Leeds and Wakefield Trinity and three years later there was a club record crowd when 32,912 people, most of them on the North Terrace, saw Huddersfield play Wigan.

"The view from that terrace was the finest in British, if not world rugby league," says Burhouse. "The day the JCBs came in to rip out the terracing was one of the saddest of my life.

"They also brought in a crane with a ball and chain to knock down the grandstand. I cried that day, it was terrible seeing 100 years of history being destroyed like that."

By the early 1990s Burhouse –- now saddled with the grandiose title of 'stadium director' – was in charge of a facility in terminal decline, although he managed to keep Fartown going even after the first team were forced to switch their home matches to Huddersfield Town's Leeds Road ground at the behest of the local authority.

"We hosted Colts matches for a while but in 1993 it all came to an end," he adds. "I did what I normally did, washed out the showers, tidied everything away, turned out the lights and locked the doors for the last time."

Huddersfield continued to use Fartown as a training pitch and as recently as 2002, now firmly ensconced in the state-of-the-art Galpharm Stadium, they had plans to redevelop their historic home.

The Giants formed a limited company and submitted plans to build a 300-seater stand that would allow Fartown to become a training centre and venue for Academy matches.

"We got permission but John Bailey opposed it all the way," says Burhouse. "He didn't want rugby at Fartown, he wanted peace and quiet. It got to the point that he was objecting to everything we wanted to do so the whole idea was abandoned."

Huddersfield are now looking at moving their training base to Huddersfield University's Storthes Hall campus, a switch being brokered by Burhouse, who works at the university, but the prospects of Fartown disappearing from common parlance are remote in the extreme.

For the people of Huddersfield, Fartown has come to symbolise not just the rugby club's spiritual home but the club itself and while they may go by the name Giants, the cry of 'Fartown, Fartown' remains the mantra at Super League matches.

Perhaps uniquely for any sport, as the old stadium has fallen into decline, Fartown has become a state of mind.

john.ledger@ypn.co.uk

FARTOWN, HUDDERSFIELD

Opened: 1868 for cricket, 1878 for rugby.

Closed: 1993.

Record attendance: 35,136 (Leeds v Wakefield, 1947).

Present use: St Joseph's ARL.

Historic grounds forced into touch during the modern age

Thrum Hall, Halifax

ERNEST WILLIAMSON scored just one try during his career as a forward with Halifax but it was a memorable effort, being the first at the club's new ground at Thrum Hall on September 18, 1886.

The ground, purchased for 3,000 from a local farmer, Major Dyson, drew 8,000 spectators that day and was to attract over 21,000 more in 1959 when Halifax hosed Wigan before 29,153 people in the third round of the Challenge Cup.

The site, measuring 55,000 square yards, also included a cricket pitch and bowling greens, both of which hosted contests in much balmier climes than many of the rugby matches seen at Thrum Hall, which will be remembered as one of the coldest venues in rugby league.

The ground was one of the most accommodating in rugby league before the Second World War when it played host to the 1914 Challenge Cup final and the Championship finals of 1912, 1929 and 1930.

Run by trustees, from 1921 Thrum Hall operated under a covenant stating it must be used for sporting purposes for all time until it was sold to the American company Wal-Mart for a supermarket development in 1998.

The proceeds from the sale were supposed to enable Halifax to complete a redevelopment of The Shay stadium, which they share with their football neighbours Halifax Town, but the money was swallowed up servicing historic debts.

The Boulevard, Hull

IT survived the Luftwaffe but rugby league's switch to summer rugby and the Safety of Sports Grounds Act proved a step too far for The Boulevard, which closed its doors for the last time in October, 2002 as Hull moved on to the multi-million pound KC Stadium, which they share with Hull City Football Club.

Heavily bombed by German air raids in the Second World War, the ground on Airlie Street – hence the club's nickname, Airlie Birds – was rebuilt and redeveloped several times over the course of the next 60 years but its quirky character left it unsuitable for hosting top-level rugby league by the turn of the 20th century.

The view from behind the posts at both ends of the ground left much to be desired, although the home supporters were better catered for, especially those in the Threepenny Stand, whose caustic humour remains the stuff of sporting legend.

Opened in 1895, when 8,000 people saw Hull beat Liversedge, the Boulevard drew a record crowd of 28,798 for a Challenge Cup third round tie against Leeds and hosted Great Britain Test matches on four occasions: 1921 (v Australia), 1926 (v New Zealand), 1981 and 1983 (both v France).

The ground is now derelict and scheduled for redevelopment.

Parkside, Hunslet

FIVE years after their formation, officials of the south Leeds club purchased at little cost 10.25 acres of waste land at Hunslet Carr from the Low Moor Iron and Coal Company and had to shift 2,000 tons of rubbish to create what would become Parkside.

The stadium remained little more than a pitch surrounded by terrace until 1914 when a wooden stand seating 1,600 was erected.

The stand partly collapsed because of mining subsidence in 1917 and was burned down by vandals in 1971.

Two years later, Hunslet sold the ground to an industrial developer for around 300,000 and became tenants at the Elland Road greyhound stadium before moving to the South Leeds Stadium via the Elland Road football ground.

Clarence Street, York

IT says much about the nature of rugby in York in the late 19th century that in 1886 the behaviour of supporters led to local residents objecting to the club renewing its lease of the Clarence Street ground, which was close to the city's lunatic asylum and workhouse.

York played their first match at Clarence Street as a Northern Union club in 1898, losing 29-2 to Hull Kingston Rovers and went on to attract a record attendance of 14,631 for a match against Swinton in 1934 that ended in a 0-0 draw.

Three years earlier, York had reached the final of the Challenge Cup for the first time.

Financial problems forced the club to sell their training pitch for 200,000 in 1986 and three years later, the rest of the stadium was sold to a housing developer for a knockdown 705,000, less than half what the ground was worth.

York's last match at Clarence Street before their move to the Huntington Stadium produced a 26-17 victory over Hunslet in front of a crowd of 2,904 spectators.