WHEN Robert Elstone used to enter Old Trafford as Everton’s chief executive he recalls “puffing” out his chest a little further ready to face the might of the famous football giant.
When he returns there tonight he can repeat the ritual but for altogether different reasons.
Arriving at this evening’s Betfred Super League Grand Final – for the first time as the competition’s chief executive – the 54-year-old will have a sense of pride and elation at not only being back in the sport that was always his main love but being able to lead it from the front.
Elstone, Everton’s chief executive from 2009 until May this year, is now fully immersed in his new role after an eventful few months, that included successfully battling to make changes to rugby league’s format when many lower division clubs were staunchly against the idea.
That was just one part of the Yorkshireman’s remit, however, and a small section of the bigger picture as he looks to maximise Super League’s potential, reach and appeal.
I’m convinced Super League needs to realign itself to northern values – our blue-collar, community heritage; communities that extend our families; ready to stand together and ready to offer a helping hand. As you suggest, straight-talking and with strong opinions and a strong identity.Robert Elstone
The Grand Final, first introduced at Old Trafford in 1998, is generally an occasion that does showcase rugby league in its best light, garnering all too rare national attention; Elstone wants the sport to hold more of that spotlight and for longer.
He will tap into his football experience to help make it happen although, admittedly, the home of Manchester United – such a financial behemoth – was not always a happy hunting ground during that time with Everton.
“United is a great club; the world’s biggest club; the world’s most valuable club, a benchmark football club,” said Elstone, who, as a qualified chartered accountant, can better appreciate the vast economic disparities between football and rugby league than anyone.
“When I worked at Deloitte, clubs all over the world wanted us to make them like Manchester United. From an Everton perspective, as a director, it could be intimidating but I’m competitive in the extreme.
“When I walked into Old Trafford, I always puffed my chest out a little bit more, like any good underdog and United’s swagger always made the few occasions when we came home with anything, very sweet.
“It’s feels really nice personally to come back to a ground I visited so often with Everton, in my new capacity. Old Trafford and the Super League Grand Final go hand in hand – 21 times is pretty special. I’m really excited by it.”
Elstone was born in Barnsley and later became an ardent Castleford Tigers fan, eventually working for the Super League club as a director.
However, he was involved in the sport before that, helping the formation of Super League and assisting Rugby Football League chief executive Maurice Lindsay in the late 1990s before moving to BSkyB as a director of football business affairs.
But Elstone already has a history of helping rugby league grow; both in the South Yorkshire village where he spent his childhood and, later, persuading his PE teacher at his sixth-form college in Barnsley to introduce the code.
“I grew up in Royston, in splendid isolation as a rugby league fan, a legacy of an Altofts-born grandfather who moved to Royston to work on the railways,” he explained.
“That ‘loneliness’ lasted until my mid-twenties, by which time, probably showing how the game had grown, a rugby league team had been formed and I was a regular.
“I quite enjoyed being different, having rugby league players stuck on my school books and turning up for PE in amber and black hoops rather than a red or white football jersey.
“I also really enjoyed school, the first year of the Comprehensive, in 1975; a converted Secondary Modern that kept a swotty kid grounded.
“I’d say my favourite memories were, as a youngster, captaining the village cricket team and then organising impromptu and improvised games on the nearby football pitch. Playing cricket all summer long.
“As I got older, training and racing like a demon, in that obsessive way only runners can understand, for Barnsley Athletic Club, against Leeds, Bingley, Sheffield and all the best Yorkshire clubs (is another).
“For a lad who finished last in school’s cross-country to pull on a white Yorkshire vest and get a bronze medal in the Inter-counties 20-mile championship was a proud day.”
Elstone, of course, has not been short of Yorkshire folk offering sage advice in the best way forward for the sport.
But, although he forever holds a love of the Broad Acres, and it underpins many of his characteristics and philosophies, he believes traditional rivalries have to cease to ensure Super League grows.
“I’m a very proud Yorkshireman,” he said, ahead of tonight’s showdown between Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves.
“I idolised Geoff (Boycott). I watch cricket until Joe (Root) gets out.
“I love Alistair and Jonny (Brownlee) but I’d probably like Super League to be less divided by the Pennines and more united as the sporting-flagship of the Northern Powerhouse.
“I’m convinced Super League needs to realign itself to northern values – our blue-collar, community heritage; communities that extend our families; ready to stand together and ready to offer a helping hand.
“As you suggest, straight-talking and with strong opinions and a strong identity.
“All good Yorkshire, all good Northern values that resonate in many other parts of the country and world. We should be proud of all of that; embrace it and celebrate it.”
The last question centres on what people will say his strengths are and, ultimately, what’s his end game hopes for Super League?
“Maybe something to do with all that running; my energy, drive, competitiveness,” he answered.
“I’m obsessive about detail and accuracy – perhaps too much. I love energising young people.
“I’m a firm believer in meritocracy, giving people a chance and rewarding those that do well.
“I want everyone who works with me to walk away at some point and say that was great fun, look at what we achieved, they were great years in my career.
“For the ‘game’, I want to find the young people ready and able to take the game deep into the 21st century; marketeers and administrators who share my passion for the sport and have the commitment and ability to keep moving the game forward for decades to come.
“I need to leave the game in better financial health; I’d love to leave the game with a considerably bigger salary cap.
“To do that, to be younger, more confident and more ambitious. Let’s unite behind those messages and the actions that underpin those qualities.
“Let’s tell those messages like we believe them; tell them through our communities, events and social media platforms.
“Let’s also listen and learn. We’re a rebellious sport and an innovative sport. It’s time to dust off those qualities.”
The running vest is back on. It should be a fascinating race.