MICK O’NEILL turns 78 in May and Mike Smith is 70 next, so neither should really be thinking about returning Keighley Cougars to the glory days.
Considering they were left emotionally wrecked last time – “we just cried, literally broke down” – when their rightful place in Super League was cruelly snatched away in 1995, attempting it all again should be the last thing on their minds.
Yet sport does funny things to people. As does pride for a hometown, too, and the lingering sense of unfinished business.
When taking over a stricken Keighley club in 1991, eventual chairman O’Neill – a former publican and DJ – and commercial director Smith began a bold transformation; they rebranded it as Keighley Cougars and soon Cougarmania, all that matchday hype, colour, razzmatazz and the often cheesy PA announcements, was born.
No one else had done it like that. Bradford Bulls’ Bullmania? Like so many others, it simply followed Keighley’s lead.
On and off the pitch, the club soared, breathing life into a community that had suffered badly with unemployment and so crucially needed a focal point.
For four years, they lived the dream, winning Division Three in 1993 and, two years later, storming to the Division Two title, only to be told three games before the end of the season, the goalposts had shifted.
Super League and summer rugby league was born and Keighley were not in; London – who finished three places below them – and a team from Paris would be parachuted in instead.
“It is one of the greatest ever injustices of professional sport,” maintained Smith, now back at Cougar Park having helped save the club again when it was on the verge of liquidation in January.
“It’s not as if we were struggling; we had the third highest average gate of all clubs, signed the Great Britain stand-off (Daryl Powell), got a great team and the Great Britain coach (Phil Larder). We had a fantastic set-up and the town itself was 100 percent behind us. It wasn’t just damaging us but the whole area.
We felt wrecked. We were just like a band; we’d been so intense building this, put all our hearts and souls into it and suddenly it was taken away from us by the jealousy of other chairmen. It had a massive effect on all of us.Mike Smith
“We felt wrecked. We were just like a band; we’d been so intense building this, put all our hearts and souls into it and suddenly it was taken away from us by the jealousy of other chairmen. It had a massive effect on all of us.”
O’Neill, whose famously partisan commentary over the Cougar Park PA system so often left opposing players and fans furious, admitted: “It was the end. A horrible feeling.
“I never came down here for two years afterwards. And then I decided I couldn’t stand it any longer and I was off.
“That’s why I moved to Australia.”
However, the band, including company director Tim Wood from the 90s, is now back together and with a few new additions; O’Neill’s son Ryan and his Brazilian husband Kaue Garcia along with Mike Loughtman, a 79-year-old Keighley expat who spends much of his time in Australia, too.
Watching from afar it was too much to contemplate when seeing the club on the brink again, in special measures, players’ wages left unpaid, huge uncertainty and the old ground falling into disrepair.
“I heard a certain man was wrecking the place,” explained O’Neill, who had spent the last 24 years on the Gold Coast.
“I was sat on the balcony with an ice cold beer thinking ‘Do I...? Don’t I...? Let’s go for it.’
“I rang Mike up and thought we could do it again so here we are. It was all done in a day. When I heard it was getting dismantled and it would go out of business – the end of rugby league in Keighley? I kept thinking we haven’t got a Marks & Spencers and now we’re going to lose the rugby club. It took me about 15 minutes. And about six hours to persuade the wife!”
Smith, who lived in Spain, added: “As soon as I put the phone down I was expecting my wife to say ‘Don’t you even think about going to do that again!’
“But nothing was said. It was weird. And then about 10 minutes later she said ‘you’re going to do it, aren’t you?’
“ I replied only if you wanted to but then she said ‘I know you need to do it. Just go and do it.’
“And, yes, what happened in ‘95 is our driving force.”
But do they really need all the stress of running a professional rugby club at their ages?
“I’ve just been for a heart check yesterday,” chuckled O’Neill.
“It’s alright. But I do need to tell men to get their prostate tested. I had mine out but let it go and go and was on my deathbed.
“Going through that five years ago – and a triple-bypass straight after – that spurred me on as well; it was like a reincarnation.”
During the last couple of months, they have been overwhelmed by the support received from fans and people throughout the community.
Although starting with a 12-point deduction, they have won two and drawn one of their opening four games in the third-tier League 1 and tomorrow have a plum tie in the Coral Challenge Cup to host.
Derby rivals Bradford, who obviously did get chance to savour the rewards of Super League and soared to the status of World Club champions in 2002 before their own fall on hard times, arrive at Cougar Park for an intriguing fourth round tie.
The BBC will be there, too, live streaming the contest and the club have been busy with their ongoing work, renovating the Hall of Fame bar, installing new boilers, painting the terraces, giving it all the love and attention it had been missing.
“It’s great for the town,” added O’Neill, who is also back on that PA system.
“I’ve a few things lined up for matchday. It’ll be hilarious. We’ve some things to welcome Bradford with.”
A Leprechaun and Mickey Mouse are mentioned.
It should be no surprise; back in that heyday, Cougar claw prints were painted through the town to the ground, there was the Cougar Convoy for away days and the songs blazed out when a try was scored – so commonplace now – proved genius.
Smith recollected: “We signed Daryl (Powell )in an Italian restaurant in Leeds but there’d been no talk of money. Then, after coffees he said ‘right, let’s get down to business – what’s my tune going to be ?!’”
But Smith also reveals , at the behest of then RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay, he was behind the Framing The Future document used as the backbone for switching to summer rugby league.
The governing body loved Keighley’s innovation and success. He reflected: “They took it straight to Sky – and then we were kicked out. I wish I’d never bloody done it!”
O’Neill interjects: “And the rest of us didn’t know any of that until a few years after. I could have bloody strangled him!”
But the band is singing again and there could be an encore yet.