Little Mix, Tom Jones and Hull KR ensure a busy existence for chief executive Mike Smith

THERE are not many rugby league chief executives who can cite Tom Jones and Little Mix as some of their biggest signings.

Hull KR's Mike Smith: Still in charge 11 years on.
Hull KR's Mike Smith: Still in charge 11 years on.

Hull KR’s Mike Smith, though, does have that on his CV, having attracted both world-famous acts, among others, to perform at Hull College Craven Park.

It begs an obvious question: what gives him the biggest thrill – getting a music superstar on board or signing a top-notch player?

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“One of the funniest quotes I remember came after signing Little Mix,” he told The Yorkshire Post, the girl band who performed at the ground two years ago.

Hull KR's Mike Smith at Craven Park where he attracted Little Mix and Westlife before the pandemic struck (Picture: Hull KR)

“Whether you like them or not – they don’t float my boat – they are still the biggest girl band in the world.

“But someone put on one of the forums ‘Mike Smith should stop signing girl bands and sign some prop forwards!’

“It was funny. To answer the question, obviously my job is signing players but I sign who the coach wants. It’s as simple as that. The fans who think I go sign players as I like the look of him misunderstand how it all works.

“But I get a buzz out of anything that makes people happy, generates money for the club and also brings people to east Hull and Hull.

Amateur roots: Mike Smith in his Skirlaugh ARLFC gear.

“We had 21,000 for Little Mix, 21,000 for Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott and that’s great that we have those people coming to Hull rather than Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester.

“Even after I’ve finished here, I’ll continue to try and do that to get the city on the map.

“I took January off this year to go to Australia as I’d not had a holiday the year before.

“I actually signed the deal with Tom Jones while I was on the Tasman Sea in the middle of the night! It’s bizarre how it all happened. (Hull KR owner) Neil (Hudgell) has always said it’s a 24/7 job and that proved it literally is.”

Unfortunately, of course, coronavirus meant none of this summer’s three concerts – Jones, the return of Little Mix and Westlife – went ahead, having a huge financial impact on the East Yorkshire club.

The pandemic also had a knock-on effect for Smith, the 57-year-old who was due to stand down as Rovers chief executive in May but stayed on to try an help navigate the Super League club through the myriad difficulties brought on by five months of no matches.

“It got extended by default really as there was nothing really for any new guy to come into,” he explained.

“I just kept it going and I think I’ll now be here until at least the beginning of November, if not longer. It’s just surreal isn’t it? I’m 58 this year and have never come across anything like it.

“The real sad thing for me is obviously people dying – which is horrendously sad – but to see my four-year-old grandaughter in Asda saying she has to wear that (facemask) because of the virus.

“I just think kids of that age should be able to be kids and not have that to live with. It’s quite eye-opening.

“As for the rugby, we’ve had to fight for our lives across the sport and that’s not changing. We’re back playing now but we’re still fighting.

“I’ve said I’ll stay around as long as I’m needed and work with whoever comes in to give them some guidance.

“On and off, I’ve had 22 years in the game with amateur rugby league and on to professional rugby league.

“It’s been good to me and I want to put something back.”

With his commercial background, Smith was initially asked by Hudgell to help out after previous CEO Paul Blanchard’s surprise exit in January, 2009 – “I’m still here now so it’s been a long three months!” – and has gone on to become an integral part of their organisation.

His service to the sport was recognised when it was announced last December he would take over from Doncaster’s Carl Hall as Rugby Football League vice-president in July.

That, too, has been delayed by the pandemic with Smith now not due to take on the ambassadorial role – BBC presenter Clare Balding has taken over from former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams as president – until December.

“I spoke to Carl and said I’d be happy to delay things to give him longer,” explained Smith.

“It didn’t seem right that he gets it for 12 months only to see six months closed down; these opportunities only come around once.

“You’re honoured to get the title of vice-president and to have most of it taken away didn’t sit well with me. We spoke to the RFL and they said, to make it fair, they’d give us 18 months each which was a bonus.

“He finishes in December and I take over right through to 2022.”

That, of course, means Smith will be in position when the 2021 World Cup starts here next October with three games in the city of Hull including Australia v Fiji at KCOM Stadium.

Smith admitted: “It’s great for me, my family, for Hull Kingston Rovers and for the city of Hull as we’ve only had a couple.

“(KR’s) Colin Hutton was president (in 1992-93) and (Hull’s) Roy Waudby the year after.

“It’s great to be recognised and I understand you serve your time because it’s your turn – I’m not getting carried away thinking I’ve done something special, it’s more a length of service thing – but it’s still a great honour.”

As for what he will use his time in office to try and achieve, Smith is quite clear.

“Carl’s a great, great guy who’s given me some tips and told me to enjoy it,” he said, about the affable Kiwi who actually played for Rovers before Smith came on board.

“That’s what I intend to do. But I want to leave a bit of a legacy.

“Grassroots is my background and getting more kids coming through locally and nationally is what I’ll be majoring on if I can.

“I got involved with (Hull amateur club) Skirlaugh when they got into the National Conference League.

“They asked me to come and help and develop the club and it was a great time.

“In my first year, we got promoted from the second division, then we went up to the first before going into the Premier Division.

“We won the league and the Cup as well as winning the international club championship in France.

“I first got to know Neil (Hudgell) through those amateur rugby league links and it is going to be so important moving forward after Covid.”

Numbers in the amateur game have dropped in recent years and it is no different in Hull, which is so often deemed a hotbed of talent.

Smith continued: “It’s all about getting kids playing rugby again whether it be touch rugby on park fields or whatever to get them out of the houses and off their devices.

“We had a major problem anyway getting kids away from looking at TV or Ipad screens so now to have been shoved in front of them for three or four months, it’s going to be horrendous.

“We need to get them running about again and that’s big for me – with both the RFL vice-president’s role and in terms of Hull Kingston Rovers.”

As is developing east Hull’s reputation for being able to attract some of the world’s biggest music talent, too.

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James Mitchinson