The appointment of Peter Roe at Cougar Park has seen an air of optimism blow through Keighley. John Ledger reports.
ELEVEN years may have elapsed since he last held the position but Cougar Park had a welcoming air of familiarity about it when Peter Roe signed in for his third stint as coach of Keighley Cougars two months ago.
Roe, who coached the club in the 1985-86 season and again between September 1991 and April 1994, lives just a couple of miles from Lawkholme Lane and went in to the job with his eyes wide open after being charged with the task of lifting the Cougars out of National League Two.
Much has changed in the period since he was replaced as coach by Phil Larder – Keighley's average crowd when Roe left was 3,032; the club he has re-joined drew a mean gate of just 910 in 2005 – but it took him just a couple of days to get to grips with the job he faces.
"It's very similar now to what it was then, especially financially," said Roe. "There aren't as many directors now, which has got to be a good thing.
"The player base is healthier than the last time I was here, we've had 40 players training in the last few weeks, most of them local lads, and that's something the club didn't have before.
"The resources we have are very modest but I knew that before I came. Most of the players are local lads through necessity because we can't afford to pay too many 'out-of-towners' but we're putting together a good balance of youth and experience."
The pivotal figure in Roe's team next season will be out-of-towner Barry Eaton, the former Widnes, Dewsbury and Batley scrum-half who recently joined them in a dual role as player and full-time development officer, an appointment made possible by funding from his sponsor Cadbury's Premier.
Eaton has also taken on much of the responsibility for coaching the first team, allowing Roe to take on a wider brief which has seen him working closely with local businesses to grow the club's sponsorship portfolio.
"Barry has ambitions to be a coach and I'll do whatever I can to help him progress," said Roe. "He's going to have a large say in what we do on the field, and not just because he'll be playing."
Roe was jettisoned by Keighley when the club brought in Larder to spearhead their ill-fated drive to join the game's elite during a period which, though a success on the field, was to prove financially disastrous.
At the height of Cougarmania, Keighley were regularly attracting 5,000-plus gates but their exclusion from Super League saw interest wane to the point where crowds dwindled to a little over 500 last summer.
Under his predecessor Gary Moorby, the Cougars won just five league matches in two years – only one of which came in the season that saw them relegated from National League One in 2004 – and Roe is in many ways having to build the club from scratch.
"Some people have told me that the crowds will never come back but I don't believe in the word 'never'," said Roe. "A lot of the problems go back to what happened when we won the grand final at Widnes in 2003.
"Gary wasn't able to capitalise on that because there wasn't the money to strengthen the squad. The same thing happened to me at Barrow last season.
"Teams who go up tend to come straight back down again but it's not the fault of the clubs, it's the system that's wrong.
"We still have ambitions here at Keighley but they have to be realistic. Super League is not an impossibility but it's highly improbable.
"It's important that we turn thing around on the pitch as quickly as possible and start to win back the confidence of the community. They want to back us, we all know that, it's up to us to show them that we're worthy of their support."
Roe's presence has already lifted the gloom that had descended on chairman Neil Spencer and chief executive Colin Farrar, the directors who rescued Keighley from the brink of insolvency five years ago and who have done a remarkable job with a shoestring budget.
Both men had served on the club's board in previous regimes and have had to work hard to rebuild the reputation that was tarnished by former chairman Carl Metcalfe, the self-styled 'Mr Midas' who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Farrar's shrewd financial management is finally seeing the Cougars make a modest profit while Spencer is working closely with Roe to win back the belief that has been missing around the town. Spencer said: "Peter has been a revelation. He knows the people of Keighley well because he's one of them and they're already starting to come back.
"I don't blame them for drifting away but there's a real sense now that we're ready to turn the corner.
"For all the problems we've had with the first team the club has been doing so good elsewhere. Our work in the schools is excellent, our Under-21s got into the play-offs last season and the future looks promising."
After several years of animosity, Keighley have developed a healthy working relationship with their neighbours Bradford Bulls who generate a not inconsequential amount for them through a shared lottery.
The Cougars will play the Super League champions in a pre-season friendly next month, a match which could prove to be the catalyst to a revival of the Joe Phillips Trophy, for which the two clubs used to compete annually.
"Super League does not have to be seen as a threat by any National League club," said Spencer. "We accept that people from this area are going to watch teams like Bradford but our competition is meaningful and attractive in its own right.
"As long as the door between the two remains ajar, and clubs like ourselves are allowed to dream, there is no reason why we can't all live happily together."
Tomorrow, John Ledger assesses the prospects of York City Knights.