Last night, I read a post by former rugby league player Francis Maloney, who played for a number of clubs during his career, but was a member of the Castleford Tigers squad for Super League IV in 1999, the year in which Gateshead Thunder took to the field for the first time.
It is clear that Francis has faced (and overcome) more than his fair share of adversity, and it was a very brave piece for the 42 year-old to write. Whilst scrolling through the comments, I spotted a message from Danny Fearon... not someone I know, but another former player whose name was instantly recognisable.
I was suddenly transported back fifteen years, to a game of rugby league between Halifax and Hull. On paper, that would not have been a game that I would have gone to watch, but circumstances in March 2000 were far from normal. Danny Fearon was in the Halifax seventeen that evening... it turned out to be a “memorable” evening for both me and for Danny but, as it turned out, for very different reasons.
Here is how I related the events of that Friday night in the second volume of my history of Gateshead Thunder’s early years and this article is posted with my best wishes being offered to both Messrs Maloney and Fearon.
The opening round of Super League V fixtures was surely going to be the moment when the loss of Gateshead Thunder would really hit home. Our players now wore the black and white of Hull FC, who had been boosted by a couple of huge, but relatively meaningless, Challenge Cup victories. Supporters were suddenly reappearing in numbers and it was rumoured that a massive contingent would be travelling to the New Shay for an intriguing clash with Halifax Blue Sox.
The game had been switched from the Sunday afternoon to the Friday evening, thereby reducing the number of Gateshead supporters able to make the journey to West Yorkshire, but a full coach and several carloads still ensured an eighty-strong presence at a ground where the original Thunder had suffered their worst defeat in 1999.
Mark Wightman had quashed fears of a protest, or backlash against Shane Richardson and Kath Hetherington, but the Thunder Storm Chairman was quick to admit that: “We’re going to West Yorkshire to show our support for the game of rugby league. It’ll be difficult to get behind Hull, but it will be nice to show our appreciation for the players who were magnificent for Gateshead Thunder last season.”
In the build-up to the game, Shane Richardson was quoted as saying: “It’s going to be a hard road ahead for the new club. It’s all about pounds and pence and getting enough punters through the gate. But I wish them well….
“A big piece of me has gone missing and I’m still sick to the stomach at what happened at Gateshead. It’ll be a night of mixed emotions when we play our first Super League game at Halifax Blue Sox on Friday, but the reality is it’s just another Rugby League match we’ve got to win.”
As we rumbled down the steep hill into the town, the main topic of conversation revolved around whether we should (or could) cheer on our former heroes, now they would be representing Hull FC, a club that didn’t exactly suffer from excessive popularity outside the west side of the city. Most (probably all) wanted the best for our players, yet the overwhelming majority were not thrilled at the prospect of Hull being successful. It was a difficult conundrum and one which, at that moment, I was unable to solve.
Bearing in mind the close rapport we had enjoyed with our team throughout the previous year, we wondered how we would be received by those same players, now they had acquired a new set of followers, much greater in number, much louder in victory... much less forgiving in defeat. I had spoken briefly with Adam Maher shortly after the move had been announced, but while the bulk of the squad were still training on Tyneside. I mentioned our concern that the new regime may force the players to ignore their former supporters, a view strongly rejected by the former Rochdale second row.
A few days before the game, Mark Wightman had contacted the West Yorkshire club to request that the Gateshead supporters be kept away from the end terrace where the Hull fans would be housed. It was important for the Halifax stewards to be aware that although the two clubs had theoretically “merged”, the same certainly did not apply to the supporters.
Save for a couple of stragglers that ended up next to the Hull contingent more by accident than design, the stewards did a thoroughly efficient job in directing the Thunder Army to the far end of the popular stand, just to the right of the bulk of the Blue Sox hardcore.
A firework display (of sorts) heralded the arrival of the players. Hull FC ran onto the field to be greeted by a tremendous ovation from the mass of supporters (as many as 2,000) gathered behind the posts. My stomach felt like it was being twisted in knots, as Brian Carney jogged towards the try line and returned the applause. The Blue Sox players then emerged from separate dressing rooms to our right and so intensely were my eyes trained on the ex-Thunder players, that I have no recollection of the welcome afforded to the home side.
Halifax would kick-off and the Hull thirteen began to drift down towards us. This was the moment. To the well-rehearsed strains of Thunder Wonderland we waited for the players to acknowledge our presence - just as they had to the Hull fans...
But it didn’t happen.
As the decibels increased, only three players (Matt Daylight, Dave Maiden and Craig Wilson) were able to manage an almost apologetic wave in return.
Rarely have I seen the mood of a group of people change so dramatically. A chorus of booing, a number of none-too-pleasant comments aimed at those players defending the touchline directly in front of us and one or two outbursts of language that (whilst out of character) reflected the heightened emotional state generated by these most unusual circumstances.
In that split second, I found the answer to the conundrum. Yes, I wanted the best for the ex-Thunder players, but if they were prepared to look the other way, after the kind of relationship that had been forged in the north east, then I was going to lend my voice to the Blue Sox. And I was far from alone.
Hull shaded the first half, but contrived to go in 12-8 behind at the break, thanks to two glaring defensive errors in a four-minute spell, which led to tries for Andrew Dunneman and Damien Gibson. Shortly after the interval, the Blue Sox had an inspired ten minutes, during which they ripped through the Hull defence for three further scores (Marns, Florimo and Pearson) and it was our turn to sing a song or two at the expense of the now silent travelling supporters.
The Halifax crowd warmed to the eighty-strong chorus of “you only sing when you’re fishing” and “you only win when you’re Gateshead” and responded with “there’s only one Gateshead Blue Sox”. The game looked all but over and surely only the most cynical would have predicted a dramatic fightback...
Which was, of course, exactly what happened. Brian Carney crossed twice in three minutes to complete an awesome hat-trick; Wayne McDonald, almost unstoppable from close-range, powered over and with Ben Sammut kicking absolutely everything, the scores were tied at 26-26 with only a handful of minutes left on the clock. The Hull fans had turned up the volume and they looked set to celebrate a stirring victory when Craig Wilson popped over a field goal. As if things weren’t already bad enough for the Blue Sox, Danny Fearon then sustained an horrific leg injury and there was a considerable delay whilst the youngster was stretchered from the field. With barely any time remaining, Halifax launched one last desperate push downfield.
“Cliché Man” would probably have described the evening’s events as a “roller coaster of emotions”, although a “see-saw” might be a better analogy as feelings had fluctuated from spine-tingling highs to sense-numbing lows ever since we’d stepped off the coach.
By now, we were standing right in the middle of a pretty deep trough, as Hull looked sure to snatch victory by the narrowest of margins. However, as we peered through the gathering gloom towards the far corner of the ground, the home side’s final assault was rewarded when former Wigan stand-off Greg Florimo went over for the winning try. From our vantage point, it was impossible to distinguish those players involved in the scoring move, or who had eventually crossed the line. Frankly, we didn’t care, as the award of the four points provided the catalyst for some truly amazing scenes as the Hull end of the see-saw plummeted to earth.
Losing in such a dramatic fashion must have been extremely hard to accept and several members of the Hull side hastily made for the sanctuary of the dressing rooms. To their great credit, a few of those who had graced the Thunderdome during 1999 (Matt, Dave, Craig Wilson, Steve Collins and assistant coach Tony Anderson) came to say their farewells... which were hugely appreciated.
Strolling back to the coach, ignoring the occasional taunt from Hull fans leaving the car park, I tried to make some sense of Friday 3 March 2000. We had celebrated a remarkable win for Halifax Blue Sox against a team that was essentially Gateshead Thunder. We had been warmly applauded by the Halifax players, acknowledged to a degree by some of the Hull side, yet what did we have at the end of the night?
Apart from fading memories of a brilliant year in Super League and vivid images of those surreal few hours in West Yorkshire, the answer was precious little. We still faced the prospect of a long battle to get a new team and the state of euphoria that had greeted Greg Florimo’s try suddenly seemed no more than a distant dream. It was a sobering moment....