AMID the glamour and hype around the new Super League, it is perhaps easy to forget there were still 23 other professional teams going about their business beneath the top flight in the summer of 1996.
The RFL opted to stick with two divisions below Super League and this was a situation which would remain until they were merged to form the Northern Ford Premiership in 1999.
The make-up of the two divisions was exactly the same as it had been for the Centenary season due to there being no promotion or relegation, which led to 1995-96 Division One champions Keighley Cougars threatening legal action after being denied a place in Super League.
They eventually withdrew this threat after the lower division clubs were promised a larger share of the £87million deal with broadcaster News Ltd as part of the formation of the new top flight, but on the pitch they would be denied again.
It was Salford Reds who were crowned champions of the first summer Division One campaign, with Keighley having to settle for the runners-up spot and losing to the Reds in the Division One Premiership final.
This would prove to be the last hurrah for ‘Cougarmania’, with a takeover by Carl Metcalfe the following year eventually ending in the entire squad being sold and the club going into administration.
Even with the switch to summer and the extra money being pumped into the game from television was not the answer to all of rugby league’s problems though – and no more was that true in Division Two, where five of 12 clubs playing there in 1996 no longer exist.
PROPPING up the professional ranks that year were one of rugby league’s great survivors, Prescot Panthers.
The Panthers could trace their lineage back to Wigan Highfield – a club previously profiled on this blog – who were formed in 1902, moved to London’s White City stadium for one season in 1933 and then to Liverpool.
Spells under the guises of Liverpool Stanley and Liverpool City followed before the move to Huyton in 1967. But once they left the run-down and oft-vandalised Alt Park in 1984, they became something of a nomadic club.
The first stop was Canal Street, home of Runcorn FC, and a change of name to Runcorn Highfield. Six years later, Highfield agreed a groundshare of St Helens Town FC’s home at Houghton Road in Sutton – a move which was opposed by the town’s rugby league team, but eventually approved by the Rugby League Council.
But when St Helens Town increased the rent in 1994, the club was on the move again and ended up at Prescot Cables’ Hope Street ground, which was to be their final home.
The Panthers actually began the first season of summer rugby under the Highfield name in the Challenge Cup, although suffered a humiliating 35-20 loss at home to giant-killing amateurs West Hull in the third round.
By the time Division Two kicked off, they had adopted the Prescot Panthers moniker, yet it did not lead to a change in fortunes.
Prescot recorded just two league wins all season, coming against Barrow Braves and Chorley Chieftains, and finished six points adrift of 11th-placed Bramley at the bottom of the table.
They also shipped 883 points, with the nadir of the campaign coming in a 90-0 defeat against eventual runners-up Swinton Lions.
Trying to keep the club afloat amid all this carnage was Geoff Fletcher, who had joined Huyton in 1978 as a player, eventually fulfilling nearly every role at the club before becoming chairman.
But although they managed to survive the first season of summer rugby, the demand for an instant repayment of a brewery loan which had been used to keep the Hope Street social club open and provide the Panthers with modest income brought about the club’s demise at the end of 1997.
Carlisle, who finished fourth in 1996, disappeared at the end of the following year too following a merger with Cumbrian rivals Barrow. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Bramley continued until 2000, before reforming in the amateur ranks.
New to Division Two for 1996 were South Wales Dragons, who split their home games Aberavon’s Talbot Athletic Ground, Morfa Stadium in Swansea and Cardiff Arms Park.
Coached by legendary dual-code Welsh international Clive Griffiths, the Dragons achieved a respectable sixth-place finish. However, being overlooked for being fast-tracked to Super League – Gateshead Thunder getting the place instead – and small crowds saw the project disbanded after just one season.
Of the clubs no longer playing, Chorley lasted the longest. They were renamed Lancashire Lynx and moved to Deepdale in 1997 after being purchased by Preston North End, but this arrangement lasted only until the turn of the Century.
Businessman Trevor Hemmings returned the Lynx to Chorley’s Victory Park in 2000. However, their demise came about four years later, with coach Mark Lee and 16 players moving to Blackpool Panthers.
Even a long-established club like York Wasps struggled in the transition to summer, going out of business in 2002 and being replaced the following year by York City Knights.
Many of these clubs are now little more than footnotes in rugby league history. Yet it is only right their contribution to the game, however small, should be remembered – along with serving as a reminder of the stark realities of life at the lower end of the professional game.