Historic Wakefield RFC folded this week. Yorkshire Post sports editor Bill Bridge reflects on their sad demise. TEARS at the demise of Wakefield RFC should not be shed for too long. The end was as painful as it was inevitable: Wakefield had performed well above their financial station for too long and with groups looking to buy up clubs on their uppers they represented a prime target. They had the name, the history and, just, the league position. What they lacked was the money not only to
The greed-driven top echelons were no longer for them and it was better they admitted defeat than suffer the ignominity of sliding down the league ladder.
Their financial backers, including former players Peter Bulless, Philip Hodson and John Waind, had kept the club afloat through their own wallets and they deserved whatever they made when the predators from Oxford moved in.
Wakefield as we knew it had gone; indeed it had probably gone a few years ago, on that fateful day when rugby union stumbled, unprepared and innocent, into the professional era. For while Wakefield loved winning, they loved winning with style much more and they simply could not afford to bring in the players to match their peerless tradition.
Whoever was coach, no matter who the players might have been, for most of the last 50 years Wakefield have been about playing proper rugby, running with the ball, scoring more tries than the opposition, debating the issues in the game over a glass or five of ale and looking forward to the next meeting.
They produced their share of internationals. Mike Harrison was the most celebrated, leading England into the first World Cup on the way to of 15 caps between 1985-88. By a quirk of fate, he never played in an England jersey alongside his mate Bryan Barley, who was capped seven times between 1983-88. Top players those two, but there were so many others in those halcyon days when Wakefield went from being a medium size fish in the pool of Northern rugby to big fish in the national pond.
Jeff Dowson was an inspirational captain at No 8 and earned deserved recognition from the Barbarians. Wakefield may never have had the largest packs but they always had footballers in their forwards, men like Mich Dearman, Dave Heron, Steve Cruise, Paul Stewart, Terry Garnett, Simon Croft and the irrepressible Ian Hill.
They also had chunks of anthracite, none harder than Paul Fennell, who thought nothing of playing a Yorkshire Cup tie of an evening, straight after coming up the mineshaft, then going back down below after a bath, a few beers and a quick kip.
If those forwards did their work – and they usually did – then the backs would make the most of the hard-won ball.
Internationals of the future like Les Cusworth and Nigel Melville were the biggest names but there were others like Steve Townend, Martin Shuttleworth, Pete Hannon, Neil Bennett, Dave Scully, Clive Harris and many more who made journeys to College Grove a treat, whatever the weather.
Off the field Wakefield were equally artful with a team which included Robin Foster, Alan Calvert, John Birkenshaw, Andy Gomersall, Dudley Taylor, Alf Daniel and the much-missed Peter Hodson. They made everyone welcome but were never shy at ensuring Wakefield were at the sharp end of any debates which would further their own goal: to put the club among the leaders of English rugby.
That lofty ambition was not even a dream for one Percy Swire, who started the club on June 15, 1901 by calling a public meeting in the city with a view to starting afresh after the schism of 1895 which led to the foundation of the Rugby Football League.
Breaks for two World Wars and a few diversions along the way did not prevent Wakefield thriving and promotion of many of their players to the county side – then a much greater prize than is the case today – kept the club at the forefront of the game in the North and further afield through the abilities of players like John Kaye, John Masters, Mike Elford and Geoff Clarkson, later to become a star with Wakefield Trinity.
County Cup success was embellished by glorious runs in the infant National Knockout Cup, including one memorable season when only Rosslyn Park in the semi-finals prevented Wakefield reaching Twickenham itself.
One who never aspired to such heights provided my first appreciation of the way rugby was played at Wakefield. Foster was his name. Or 'sir'. He was a history teacher by profession and a rugby enthusiast by inclination, to such a degree that he coached the youngsters at Bingley GS wearing his Wakefield Wasps (second XV) jersey of gold and black hoops. He did not so much teach us how to tackle as make us appreciate the after-effects but, typical Wakefield, he was also a sharp passer of the ball.
So it is with sadness that Wakefield leave the scene, but they should go not with a defeated shuffle, but with a proud glance back at a great tradition, many wonderful memories and an acceptance of the fact that rugby is not the game it was.