Walking the Golden Mile – Blackpool’s rugby league past, present and future

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Blackpool has hosted professional rugby league in various guises

IT is now six years since a rugby league team bearing the name of Blackpool graced the ranks of the professional game and that does not look like changing any time soon.
The 2010 season concluded with a sense Blackpool Panthers were finally starting to establish themselves as genuine contenders in Championship One after struggling during their formative years in the division.
But just weeks after reaching the elimination final, losing out to eventual play-off winners York City Knights, the Panthers went into administration and eventually had their membership of the league rescinded after failing to present their plans for 2011.
It was an inglorious end for the team and although there is still a small but thriving amateur scene in the Lancashire seaside resort, the return of the pro game to Blackpool seems unlikely.
Attempts to bring the 13-man game to a town where football has always been king go as far back as 1950 when an unsuccessful application to join the Northern Rugby Football League was made.
A Blackpool team had played in the Northern Union’s Lancashire second competition in 1898-99, but it was not until the 1954-55 season that professional rugby league put down roots there in the form of Blackpool Borough.
That first season proved a tough one, with only Belle Vue Rangers – in what would prove to be their last campaign – and Dewsbury finishing below a Borough side which won seven of their 36 matches.
The following campaign would see Blackpool host the touring New Zealanders at Bloomfield Road football ground, holding them to a 24-24 draw, although until 1962 they called the St Anne’s Road Greyhound Stadium.
On the league front, Borough failed to finish above 21st in their first eight seasons and when The RFL took the decision to split the unwieldy 30-team Championship in to two divisions from 1962, it was little surprise Blackpool were in the bottom of those.

Borough Park

Borough Park, the former home of Blackpool Borough

TYPE ‘Blackpool’ and ‘wing wizard’ into any search engine and the chances are it will bring up a string of results about Sir Stanley Matthews, who is regarded as one of England’s greatest footballers and helped the Tangerines lift the FA Cup in 1953.
On the rugby league front, Borough managed to sign up two wing wizards of their own during the 1960s, with Brian Bevan and Billy Boston both turning out in the orange and black shirts.
Bevan, the all-time record try-scorer in rugby league history, spent the final two seasons of his career with the club from 1962 to 1964, grabbing 17 tries in 42 league appearances.
Boston’s stint at Borough came towards the end of the decade, joining in 1969 and scoring five tries in 11 appearances.
These signings may have signalled ambition from the club’s board and the move to their own ground, Borough Park, on the site of a former gas works and coach park brought hope as well.
The first season in the Second Division saw Blackpool place fourth, missing out on promotion by 12 points, followed by sixth in the 1963-64 season.
But in their infinite wisdom, The RFL opted to return to a single division structure from 1964 and Blackpool finished bottom of the pile with just six wins from 34 matches.
They could regularly be found at the foot of the table until two divisions were reintroduced in 1973 and unlike the last time this happened, Borough’s fortunes barely improved.
Despite their struggles in the league, the club’s finest hour arguably came with their run to the Players No.6 Trophy final in 1976-77.
Having edged out Championship outfit Barrow 16-15 in the first round, Borough saw off divisional rivals Halifax 7-3 before shocking two more Championship sides, Workington Town and Leigh, to reach the decider at The Willows.
The semi-final at home to Leigh, an early kick-off due to Blackpool FC being at home on the same day and the host club not having floodlights, saw Borough storm to a 15-5 victory the fog and set up a showdown with Castleford.
There was a party atmosphere in Salford on that late January Saturday in 1977, with Borough dishing out sticks of rock to the crowd and even presenting a giant one in club colours to Cas’ Mal Reilly.
The final, broadcast live on Grandstand on the BBC and attended by actor Windsor Davies, saw the lead change hands several times, but ultimately Borough were denied by a Castleford team who would finish third in the league that year.
The end of the decade also saw a Borough team coached by Albert Fearnley win promotion to the First Division after finishing fourth in 1979. But they were relegated after finishing bottom with just five wins, signalling the start of a decade of turmoil.

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Mal Reilly receives his Blackpool Borough-coloured stick of rock

WHILE the 1970s had seen Blackpool Borough – albeit briefly – scale heights they had never reached before, the 1980s would be quite the opposite.
A takeover of the club in 1981 saw their colours changed to green and black, but by April 1982 the club had been placed into liquidation and a crowd of just 550 turned up to what many expected to be their final home game against Rochdale Hornets.
Borough were saved after the intervention of Savoy Sports and Leisure Ltd, but five years later were forced to leave the town when being unable to gain a £65,000 safety grant from Blackpool Borough council to upgrade the facilities at the ageing Borough Park to make it safe for spectators.
So began a nomadic period for the club, who were bought and moved to Wigan for a single season under the name Springfield Borough, due to ground-sharing with the town’s football club Wigan Athletic.
That arrangement lasted for just one season before they were on the move again, this time to Chorley, followed by a move to Altrincham and being re-named Trafford Borough in 1989.
This caused a boardroom split and led to a new Chorley team being formed, while Trafford lasted for three seasons before eventually returning to Blackpool under the Gladiators nickname in 1992.
By now, the team were playing in the Third Division and the desire of RFL chief Maurice Lindsay to reduce the number of teams in the professional ranks led to the Gladiators being relegated to the National Conference League along with forerunners Chorley Borough and Nottingham City in 1993.
The Gladiators lasted one season in the NCL and joined the Alliance reserve league before eventually closing their doors for good in 1997.

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Blackpool Panthers celebrate their Northern Rail Nines triumph

IRONICALLY, it was the demise of a team from Chorley which led to the return of Blackpool to the professional ranks in 2005, with the Blackpool West Coast Panthers – later shortened to just Panthers – elected to National League Two in place of the defunct Chorley Lynx.
The Lynx squad comprised the backbone of the new Blackpool outfit, with 16 of the squad and coach Mark Lee joining the side which would play their home games at Bloomfield Road.
Lee did not even see the start of the 2005 National League campaign though, being sacked and replaced by former Great Britain international front row forward Kevin Ashcroft.
The return to the professional game for a Blackpool team proved something of a baptism of fire, with the side managing just three wins all season and finishing second-bottom.
Matters were little better off the field. Attendances hovered around the 400 mark and majority shareholder Dave Rowland proposed relocating the club to groundshare with Preston Grasshoppers RUFC.
Rowland was eventually bought out and the club stayed on the Lancashire coast, yet the struggles continued – even after moving up the coast to Fylde RUFC’s Woodlands Memorial Ground in nearby Lytham St Anne’s.
Indeed, the Panthers’ 38-36 win away to Gateshead Thunder in July would prove to be their last for some time and Ashcroft was replaced by another ex-Great Britain player, Wigan legend Andy Gregory, in June 2007 after a 25-game losing run.
Gregory was unable to lead a revival though as Blackpool became only the fourth team in the history of British professional sport to go through a whole season without recording a win, losing all 22 games and shipping 984 points.
It was the appointment of Martin Crompton as head coach at the end of 2007 which precipitated an upturn in the club’s fortunes, with the Panthers finally ending a losing run of 45 games and near-on two years with a 24-20 victory over a Workington Town team who would finish just above them in the table in 2008.
Back-to-back wins for the first time in the Panthers’ history – coming against Hunslet Hawks and Swinton Lions – even had Crompton talking of a push for the play-offs, although ultimately they would miss out by 11 points.
Crompton then guided Blackpool to their only trophy with victory in the inaugural Northern Rail Nines in 2009, which was held at their home ground on the same weekend as the Northern Rail Cup final at Bloomfield Road.
However, once again the promise went unfulfilled and the problems of 2010 which would ultimately lead to the club’s demise began when chairman Bobby Hope was forced to step down for health reasons.
Although the Panthers enjoyed a strong run in the play-offs, no new investment was forthcoming and once again professional rugby league in Blackpool came to an end.
Blackpool continues to host rugby league on an amateur level, with Blackpool Stanley the oldest of the teams in the town having been founded in 1979, and still maintains an active Blackpool Rugby League Supporters Club.
The pro game still pays an annual visit thanks to the Kingston Press Championship playing a whole round of fixtures at Bloomfield Road as part of the Summer Bash, which runs along the same lines as Super League’s Magic Weekend.
Only time will tell if this can lead to a revival of rugby league in the town on a professional level. Talk of expansion often – rightly – focusses on the areas outside of the heartlands, but maybe this town on the periphery could, with the right backing, yet host a stable team.

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