“It’s Cougartime everyone, they’re in the cages ready to come out. And the Leprechaun and Mickey Mouse, too.”
The roar from Keighley chairman Mick O’Neill as the sides entered Cougar Park yesterday, the famous Challenge Cup mounted on the pitch in front, was perhaps not as fearsome as when he first helped start Cougarmania more than 25 years ago.
Unquestionably, though, the spirit (let alone all the surrealness) remains and the same can be said of this current crop of players.
The West Yorkshire club was on the brink of collapse barely a couple of months ago before O’Neill and some of his fellow directors from the glory days of the 1990s returned to rescue them.
Head coach Craig Lingard has quickly assembled a squad that demonstrated here just how much passion and talent they have, almost stunning their more illustrious neighbours Bradford Bulls in a typically intense and absorbing fourth round Cup tie.
The League 1 part-timers, spurred on by club legend James ‘Buster’ Feather, led early in the second period and were then level going into the final stages.
It took a highly-contentious penalty to finally break them.
Keighley’s Will Cooke was penalized for lying in the ruck in the 66th minute – despite clearly being motionless and awaiting treatment for a head knock.
Bradford’s Elliott Minchella slotted the goal and, though Cougars kept pushing hard, once a frustrated Josh Lynam was sin-binned for dissent, their hopes of stunning the five-time Cup winners faded. O’Neill, from the stands, took to the microphone to let out Cougar roars throughout to try and whip up the crowd but he did not need to; the gutsy players did just fine on their own.
The lively 77-year-old, known for his outlandish PA antics when Keighley were so close to Super League in 1995, could not help himself one more time, though, at the end as the players departed.
“Cougartime is back,” he bellowed,
“We’re part-time and we so nearly did it. They’re full-time – turn that music down – and will be getting winning pay but we still nearly did them.
“Well done to our Cougaaaaaars…..now get some pies!”
Brendan Hill, the popular prop who was one of those Cougarmania heroes, was in the stands, regaling old times no doubt with O’Neill before kick-off.
He would have loved the effort on show here. Keighley were 6-4 ahead at the break and, though under pressure for long periods, fully deserved their advantage.
They defended their line terrifically well, twice holding up Bradford players – Ross Oakes and George Flanagan – after they had got over their goalline.
Bulls were so disorganised at times, too, twice being tackled on the last tackle in good attacking position and twice seeing efforts ruled out for forward passes.
Feather, the veteran Keighley hooker who played so well at loose forward, put the hosts ahead from close range ahead in the 24th minute.
Benn Hardcastle improved and Bradford did not enjoy any success of their own until the penultimate minute of the half, Ethan Ryan atoning for a succession of errors at full-back by rising to claim a high kick.
As is so often the case, Flanagan added impetus to the visitors’ play when coming off the bench and it was the replacement hooker who put them ahead early in the second period.
Minchella improved and added a 53rd minute penalty but winger Alfie Seeley responded on the hour mark for Hardcastle to level before that late drama.
Obviously, there was not the same sense of injustice felt as when Cougars were denied a top-flight place in ’95 but, for the hosts, it hurt nonetheless.
Keighley Cougars: Welham; Dixon, Cooke, Hallett, Seeley; Miller, Hardcastle; Bailey, Million, Hallas, Lynam, Muranka, Feather. Substitutes: Coventry, Levy, Gaylor, Parker.
Bradford Bulls: Ryan; Grant, Gibson, Oakes, Foggin-Johnston; Pickersgill, Milnes; Wilson, Wildie, Crossley, Garside, Storton, Minchella. Substitutes: Bustin, Magrin, Flanagan, Hodgson.
Referee: Marcus Griffiths (Widnes).