WHEN an author becomes as ensconced in a subject as Tony Hannan did with Batley Bulldogs in 2016, you wonder how they ever re-emerge.
The answer, it seems, is that they never truly do.
Bradford-born Hannan, a much-respected writer, rugby league devotee and aficionado on northern culture, earned plenty of acclaim last year for the excellent Underdogs – Keegan Hirst, Batley and a Year in the Life of a Rugby League Town.
With unprecedented access to the club – team, coaches, directors and fans – Hannan was able to chart a fascinating year in the life of one of professional sport’s less glamorous clubs.
Furthermore, though, the book underlines the club’s importance to the community within which it is rooted while detailing the erstwhile mill town’s own story and, indeed, offering an insightful commentary on northern working-class culture as a whole.
Crucially, Bulldogs coach John Kear, a colourful figure in the sport now ironically in charge of Hannan’s childhood heroes Bradford, was fulsome with his time and willingness to open the doors at Mount Pleasant.
With the book re-published in paperback a fortnight ago, Hannan explained: “I was up there five times a week and they must have been sick of the sight of me.
“I was at all the training sessions bar one, in team meetings, in directors meetings, sat on the bench sometimes, on the team bus… I could go anywhere I want.
“It was crazy at times. There was times when I was thinking am I really supposed to be in here? Win, lose or draw I was in the changing room with them and there was some horrifying losses including one down at London where the door slammed and Keary said ‘Everyone out except these players.’
“I was following the rest out and he said ‘you can stay!’ I was still allowed in. It was fabulous. A big part of it all was John Kear, such a fascinating figure to follow, while Kevin Nicholas, the chairman, is a fabulous man, too.
“The third main human story, of course, is (Batley captain) Keegan Hirst. I wanted to get a national publisher and so wanted to have some star quality and celebrity factor attached if possible.
“And 2016 was of course the year Keegan came out as gay so not only does he do a great thing for himself and that cause but me also. Suddenly, publishers were interested in little old Batley...”
Despite his Bradford Northern allegiances growing up, Hannan concedes to have “fallen in love” with their West Yorkshire neighbours when on this project.
“I’d been there from time to time just as a journalist but after that year, yes, it did absolutely get into my blood,” he said.
“I fell in love with it really. I’ve been back plenty last year. Obviously Keary and Keegan left at the end of 2016 – it all came together that year – but yes all last year I turned up just to watch and I intend to do it this year as well.
“It does just get into your blood. It’s real. It’s got integrity. And it’s just a real enjoyable place to go. You get as much fun watching the crowd as the game!”
On the story itself, he added: “I didn’t want it to be just seen as a rugby league book. Clearly it’s at the heart of it but the story is a bigger one and it chimes with the times in a lot of ways.
“I just get the feeling there is a bit of a mood afoot where people are getting a bit weary of mega-global multinational big-money sport, like football’s Premier League and even Super League, to a degree, is going in that direction with these recent games abroad.
“I’m not being critical of that; I think rugby league has to look bigger. But a lot of sport has been losing touch with the real world in a lot of ways and when you go to somewhere like Batley, which I randomly picked to spend that year, it shows the other side.
“I wanted a grassroots, struggling sort of place where there’s no glamour and everyone is involved as they love the place and have been going there forever.
“The sort of place where you can buy a Bovril or beer and drink on the terraces without worrying about people taking it off you.
“Batley always struck me as a club everyone liked. Everyone’s very warm – although the ground with its slope has the reputation of anything but – and I do think they’re everyone’s second favourite club.”
Next up? Hannan plans to work on a follow-up cricket version this summer with a football story then completing his trilogy.