Harry Gration on his life and times in rugby league

HE is known and loved for presenting BBC Look North but, long before Harry Gration’s epic run on the famous red sofa, his broadcasting career began in far less salubrious conditions commentating on rugby league.

Harry Gration: Backing York City Knights.

The ebullient 70-year-old left his television role in October after the best part of four decades bringing the news to the people of Yorkshire.

Aside from being the face of Look North for so long, it is well-known he has a love of Yorkshire CCC, something which, no doubt, will take up plenty of his time in retirement – if he has any spare after chasing around one-year-old son Hamilton.

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However, Gration will also look to take in more rugby league, too, and revisit what helped form the bedrock of his journalistic career.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he recalled: “Working for Radio Leeds for the very first time, my first game was York against Batley around 1973-74. There was snow, rain and fog at Mount Pleasant. Batley won 12-8.

“Obviously, football was part of my brief but rugby league became the thing that got me started. From that moment on, really, I became hooked on it.

“It was always a very much down-market game in the eyes of the mainstream media but, for me, the whole thing was a top-class experience.

“It was just pure, raw sport. They weren’t paid thousands of pounds to play. They played for the love of it.

Bootham view: Ralph Rimmer of the RFL in the stands with Harry Gration watching York City Knights.

“It was an experience that really had a major impact on the rest of my life to a certain extent.

“I’ve always watched York Rugby League and obviously, back then, it was in the middle of winter when you could see the steam rising from all the scrums.

“It was hilarious to see but so raw – a kind of controlled savagery – and I loved that side of things. They played with such passion and gave everything. For me, it was the definition of pure sport and I’ll never forget what York Rugby League did for me in those days; it gave me my passion for the game.”

Gration was born in Bradford but moved to York around the age of 13 when his father, who managed a Boots chemist, was switched from the Leeds branch.

Early days: John Morgan holds the rugby league Challenge Cup aloft watched by, from left, a youthful Harry Gration, Peter Fox, David Watkins and David Coleman.

He left Leeds Grammar School, moved to St Peter’s School in York and now still lives in the city near Knavesmire.

York City Knights, of course, have made a bid to take Toronto Wolfpack’s place in Super League in 2021.

They have never played in the elite league before but, under the stewardship of ambitious owner Jon Flatman and highly-regarded young coach James Ford, have made giant strides in recent years.

Part-timers York won promotion from League 1 in 2018 and impressed in the Championship last year when they finished third and were named Championship Club of the Year by the Rugby Football League for their success both on and off the field.

With a bold and dynamic approach, a new stadium built, their application – under the banner of ‘Heartland Expansion’ – has earned plenty of praise as they go up against Bradford Bulls, Featherstone Rovers, London Broncos, Toulouse Olympique and Leigh Centurions for that coveted spot.

Gration said: “What they have established there is something quite special as far as its community involvement is concerned.

“I’ve been a few times now and on every occasion I’ve been impressed by the passion of the supporters but also the support that they give to the club when there’s not a match.

“A lot of people want to get involved and help the club. Now, in the past, of course, it wasn’t a very successful club; it was just meandering around.

“But then Jon Flatman took over as chairman and secured a great coach who was not only committed to the idea of having a successful side but gets the idea of getting the players involved with the supporters.

“That’s worked in a very, very significant way and, added to the fact the marketing of York as a city – one of the most attractive places to live not just in the UK but in the whole of Europe – the City Knights have a real appeal to rugby league when we’re trying to offer – now more than ever – a value for money day out experience.

“The city and its supporters can really get together and offer visiting fans something special.

“The new stadium is one of the best around and I think the compact nature of it – a capacity of around about 8,000 – could provide an incredible atmosphere for visiting fans and really help the game prosper.

“And, of course, it’s the North Yorkshire experience, too (there is no Super League club in the region).

“I’m hoping those factors will be considered very seriously by the people who have got to make a difficult decision. And it is a very difficult one.”

A seven-strong panel drawn from the RFL and Super League and chaired by Lord Jonathan Caine aims to make that call by Wednesday week.

It is sometimes forgotten that Gration himself worked for the RFL.

He left Look North to take up the role of public affairs executive in 1994 in what he thought would be his “dream” role. Gration recalled: “I did think that, I really did.

“I loved the game and thought it was right for me.

“I didn’t realise I would go in as head of complaints as that’s all it was in the end.

“I wanted to be promoting the game but it was a horrible experience.”

He explained: “It was part of the step towards Super League and Maurice Lindsey was the chief executive.

“The machinations of working for Maurice weren’t my cup of tea. We just didn’t hit it off really and that was the reason why I didn’t last there very long at all.

“Within three months of being there I realised it wasn’t for me.

“The only success I had – and it was quite significant – was I got a major, major sponsor for the Rugby League World Cup in ’95.

“It was so big the RFL could move on a little bit; it brought in a lot of money for the RFL when it needed it most.

“Maurice pleaded with me to stay for the 1995 World Cup and to get that sponsor sorted.

“As soon as that happened I left and fortunately got back into the BBC, ended up presenting South Today in Southampton for four years which I loved.

“I then went back for my second stint on Look North around 1999.

“It did sort of sour my attitude towards the Rugby League to a certain extent; there was so much infighting going on at that time and manoeuvring for position.

“But I don’t think that’s the norm now; the game is run with more consideration.

“And I’m much more conciliatory now in my attitude and approach to things.”

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