Friday, 26 October 2012

Code13 Archive: Lewis Left a Weak Legacy for Rugby League

 Some more from the Code13 archive here. It's fair to say that the Rugby Football League didn't like this article...

Richard Lewis has now been gone from rugby league a while, but it seems fitting as the season nears its end to look at the legacy he left behind, and what that signifies for the sport as a whole.


As Bryn Hargreaves confirms he’s leaving Bradford Bulls and the game for a more secure way of making a living, one has to ask fundamental questions about the commercial strength of the sport as Lewis has left it.

We are now in a position where almost every club in the Super League lives, in some way, beyond their means. Club chiefs like Neil Hudgell at Hull Kingston Rovers hint that they are only a whisker away from financial doom. While the RFL seems comfortably solvent, most clubs do not.

Maybe there has been too much focus on moving commercial operations to London and chasing Sport England funding. Whatever the reality, things are not working and we, as a sport, are far too reliant on Sky cash.

What also struck many observers as strange was how in an article celebrating 20 years of Sky coverage, Richard Lewis chose to highlight how supposedly bad the sport was 20 years ago. He used the piece not to celebrate our heritage, but to state that the game 20 years ago was dull and ruined by bad pitches and weather.

It remains unclear just how much rugby league Lewis watched before he took over at the RFL, but he certainly was not describing a game most of us watched and loved, which was thrilling, aggressive and fast long before we played in summer.

To use an opportunity in the national media to blow your own trumpet about how summer rugby had made a poor sport great was an insult of the most unthinking and wooden headed kind.

Little wonder than that a sponsorship deal was negotiated for which no money changed hands. That is surely one of the most damning indictments of a commercial and administrative hierarchy ever in sport.


People outside the rugby league heartlands in this country, especially in soccer towns, often believe that there is only one kind of rugby and that is rugby union.

We all agree that internationals are the biggest tool we have in creating genuine expansion, so why has our international game gone massively, massively backwards while union sweeps up in the wider awareness stakes?

Many will indicate the changing of the Great Britain team. Having an England team may have been a decision motivated by enthusing the kind of people who watch the odd game of sport on telly because “England are playing”, but it did nothing for expansion.

When rugby league was riding a wave of general popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, it was in large part due to Welshmen like Jonathan Davies and Scots like Alan Tait playing for Great Britain.

Now Welsh stars can play for a largely part-time Wales team which may have a chance of beating England in a decade or so. No Great Britain tour to inspire passion and aspire to. The situation for players in Ireland is worse, while Scotland seems to have been forgotten about by the game’s hierarchy entirely.

Indeed, there is now a real possibility that should a player from the Celtic countries ever become good enough to play in the NRL (admittedly unlikely as things currently stand), the temptations of qualifying for Australia or New Zealand on residence should not be discounted.

There are no tours either. These were not just exciting international series which grabbed the imagination, but also allowed second string players to develop.

While a full-on tour is probably not practical any more, a test series with a couple of midweek games is. The Tri-Nations was not a bad idea, but the Four Nations has become uninspiring and often insipid, with no momentum building and often precious little passion from the fans for it.

Interestingly, Lewis left the Lawn Tennis Association largely because Great Britain lost their Davies Cup ‘World Status’ and were downgraded to ‘Euro-African Zone’.

The weakness of our international product is not helped by the often obstructionist tactics of the NRL either, but that is another story for another day.

The new era at the RFL must see stronger awareness of the sport’s true heritage, and a more aggressive attitude adopted towards negotiating with the NRL power barons who shape the destiny of the international game.


Most rugby league people can agree that expansion as it stands is not going too well. While there have been some significant strides at local levels, at the top level, fewer people than ever outside the heartlands go and watch rugby league.

Undoubtedly, the recession has played a major part in this, but too many expansion projects were built on sand during the Lewis era.

There seemed to be a naive ‘build and they will come’ mentality, which often appears to inform a lot of thinking in this sport.

People may point to Catalans Dragons, but French Catalonia is as much as heartland of rugby league as Cumbria. It was the region which produced the legendary Puig Aubert after all, and he played nearly 60 years ago, so it was hardly virgin territory to begin with.

Wales now has no Super League team at all, which is laughable considering how popular the game continues to be there.

Perhaps the signs were there. It is not, after all, as though tennis, where Richard Lewis cut his administration teeth,  has spread much beyond its traditional demographic either. Interestingly, tennis champion Andy Murray thrived outside the traditional system in the UK, something we see some of our talent now doing in the NRL, or rugby union.

There was also a lack of awareness of real success stories like Sheffield due to little sensitivity towards circumstances on the ground. The fact that little attention seemed to be paid to Cumbria also galls.

Grassroots summer rugby seemed to be intended for dual rugby clubs in the south, and has confused and discouraged many clubs in the north. It looked like a managerial, top down decision, which was made with little actual assessment of what it would it do in communities where rugby league is well-established.

The impression of technocrats imposing structures from above may not have been correct, but it was certainly how a lot of people felt.

What is clear as Nigel Wood takes over is that a new era is dawning. Quite what it will bring remains to be seen, but hopefully in cash strapped times we can continue to produce some of the greatest sporting entertainment going on the pitch.

Richard Lewis, though, certainly looked a lot happier dishing out trophies at Wimbledon this summer than he ever did at Old Trafford or Wembley.

Originally published at:

Zack Wilson is the author of novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Thursday, 18 October 2012

RFL insists it's helping Scottish Rugby League: So why the fixture foul-up?

The recent news that the Edinburgh Eagles Rugby League Club would not be entering the 2013 Challenge Cup after all came as something of a blow, I'm sure, to many of us who want to see Scotland develop a competitive rugby league structure North of the Border.

The ridiculous intransigence of the game's governing body is refusing to allow them to re-arrange fixtures so that their Scotland internationals could play for them in the Cup looks vindictively bureaucratic from this distance.

First round fixtures which would normally be held in January are being held at the end of October instead. When the Scotland national team is playing an international against the England Knights.

"We are disappointed to announce that we are unable to enter the Carnegie Challenge Cup 2013," a statement from the Edinburgh Eagles reads.

"The Rugby Football League has changed the normal start date for the preliminary rounds (and) Eagles are currently being represented on the professional international stage by Dave Vernon, Craig Borthwick, Tom Murray and Callum 

"The RFL have not allowed any flexibility in the dates for this fixture even though there is a representative match 
acknowledged by the governing body.

"We are therefore unable to enter the competition with a squad capable of competing.

"We feel that the RFL has let the club down as we look to develop and attract the quality players in the Edinburgh area to play rugby league."

When pressed about the game in Scotland, the RFL will tell you that there are three full-time development officers working there now. Three more than there were in 1995. Well, there's a massive cause for celebration.

Again, it looks like the RFL have not done their research, certainly not about Scotland and how to fire a passion for rugby league there.

No English person will ever understand how much fitba means to Scots. It dominates the national debate and cultural sphere as much as the sporting sphere. It dwarfs other sports in terms of the coverage it receives, even more so than in England. Only someone from maybe Liverpool or the North East of England could possibly understand just how much the game is fixed in Scottish identity.

This means that rugby league is working with a very difficult set of circumstances. Games like shinty probably have a higher profile than rugby league.

Rugby union has some kind of profile, because the Scottish national team, traditionally composed of Borderers and posh boys from Edinburgh private schools, has managed some degree of relative success.

But the current team is stocked with heritage players from England and elsewhere in the world, with few genuinely working-class players pulling on the Dark Blue these days.

Rugby is perceived in Scotland as a middle-class sport, something not really 'for us'.

Good work has been done in the Glasgow area in particular, but the game up in Scotland has to peddle incredibly fast just to stop going backwards.

Anyone who looked at the Scotland squad for the weekend's home defeat by Ireland at Meggetland in Edinburgh will have noticed how many amateur players there were present.

When it comes to Scotland having a competitive team at the 2013 World Cup, it does not look good. The fact that they will play their World Cup games in Cumbria and Salford is also unlikely to fire the imagination of many Scots.

Ireland have a game in Limerick, so why can't Scotland have a game in Scotland. Somewhere like St Mirren Stadium in Paisley would surely be adequate, with good facilities and small stands that will look less empty on television.

There is a serious risk of choking off Scotland's supply of rugby league internationals too. It's an old theme, but the removal of the Great Britain team as the top of the international pyramid was a serious blow to the game in Scotland.

A team consisting of heritage players which is successful can do much to raise the profile of a sport. Just ask Jack Charlton and the Football Association of Ireland.

English-born players from rugby league backgrounds could play for Scotland and help to develop the game, when they knew that they could still turn out for Great Britain.

Now, if you want to have any chance at all of being in a competitive team to play Australia and New Zealand, you have to declare for England.

This process will not be limited to Scots either. Rhys Evans, one of the most promising players to come from Wales in recent years, has already declared for England.

The England coach has also poached players from other countries, like Scotland, making it harder to develop a team for a tournament. Some though, like Dale Ferguson, have returned to the Scottish fold from England, making a mockery of eligibility rules.

Just wait until the day that Scotland produces an NRL level player. He will not be playing for Scotland when the time comes, but opting to play State of Origin or for the Kiwis.

So what can be done?

Restore the Great Britain team for a start. It's part of our game's heritage and should be there as a pinnacle for all British and Irish-born players to aspire to.

Then, you can have a ready-made 'Origin' series with a British championship, in which players play fo birth or heritage countries, keeping the quality level high and helping players to stake a claim for Great Britain places.

This creates a natural pyramid which will help our players better compete with the Southern Hemisphere teams by hardening them up in meaningful international games. It would form a stepping stone to test footy in the same way that State of Origin is meant to.

It also means that Celtic born players can represent their countries and still have a chance to take on the Aussies and Kiwis on a relatively more level playing field. They will then build a bigger personal profile, which can then be used to build a bigger profile for the game as a whole.

The profile of rugby league would also be raised in the Celtic countries by having a competitive British international championship to watch.

And at the end of the season, we could all look forward to a good three-game test series against the Kangaroos or Kiwis, with Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England providing tough midweek opposition for touring teams.

The chances of anything changing soon internationally look low though. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the way things are currently done amongst fans, there seems no real will to change at the highest level, with the Australian authorities in particular guilty of obstructing much of the progress which could be made with some constructive and less soilpsistic dialogue.

The current international set-up rewards complacency and makes the game look directionless and amateur.

Zack Wilson is the author of novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ray's Days 2: Stankevitch

Another short prose piece, dealing with some old exploits of Ray Doyle, the narrator of my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press available from

Stankevitch was probably the most xenophobic man I had ever met. Many people might have found that strange, given his name. He didn't know what ethnic origin he was though when I asked. He just said his name was "foreign, which is funny, 'cause I 'ate foreigners!" Then laugh with an exaggerated wheeziness, as if to demonstrate just how unhealthy he was and how proud he was of it.

He was probably no more stupid than anyone else in the place. Certainly, when it came to doing his job, which was making sure that all work was allocated properly, he was excellent. No one could complain about unfair treatment either, even the foreign workers.

Of course, there wasn't quite the same fuss about Muslims that there is now, not back then. All that kind of thing had settled down a bit, what with the E and that. Everyone seemed to get on in the yard, and Stankevitch probably contributed to that. He was good for morale, if not for improving conversation. He wore a vest in most weathers, showing off a badly inked and faded Union Jack tattoo on wiry, pale brown arms, tanned from years of unloading and loading trucks in all weathers.

And he never missed an opportunity to point out how stupid foreigners were, viewing the arrival of a shipment from abroad as a chance to laugh and mock at people who were not there. His wheezy delivery and simian face made him funny though, so everyone laughed.

But Stankevitch, though capable and competent, perhaps even kind, could never really be described as clever. He followed the rules and enforced them capably. He found thinking beyond the strictures placed on him by his worshipful boss comforting, they gave him safety and a kind of comfortable joy.

Anything out of the ordinary though tended to confuse him, as long as it was completely unrelated to work. Science in particular was a baffling thing he did not believe in. His fear and mistrust echoed the kind of thing parents feel when they learn that their adult daughter has joined a religious cult.

He was reading The Sun one day when he came across a report of an Unidentified Flying Object. There had been a series of lights in the sky over Somerset, and some cider drinkers were yakking in the paper about how they'd thought it was aliens.

Stankevitch's first reaction was, "How the bloody hell do they know it's UFOs. They can't prove that it's the aliens!"

Raj put him right.

"No mate, UFO just means Unidentified Flying Object. It means that they don't know what it is. Not that it's spacemen."

Stankevitch's tiny brown eyes looked up and down several times. He said,"Well, they can't be much good then if they don't even know that it's a UFO or not."

"But they have said it's a UFO," Raj replied. "But the fact that's Unidentified means that they can't classify it yet according to known phenomena."

There was a pause for several seconds. "Stupid pricks," said Stankevitch, "can't even work that out. What the fuck do we pay them for?"

Raj looked blank, his lips moving as he sought for words that weren't there. He genuinely didn't know what to say. Stankevitch slapped the paper shut and barked some commands. We got on with unloading two trucks that had pulled in that morning.

A couple of days later Stankevitch was doing some further research on the mysterious lights over Somerset. By reading The Sun again, he found that scientists had decided that they were caused by space debris. He announced this with great sarcasm and harshness of tone, his wheeze almost becoming a smoky bray as laughed.

"Ha ha fucking ha!" he said, "they call it space debris. That's just bloody shorthand for they don't what to call it. They don't know anything these scientists. I could have looked at the sky and said that. All that and they can't even identify it as a proper UFO. What do we pay them for?"

Then he slapped Raj matily on the back, as though he had just won an important but friendly debate. There was no answer any of us wanted to give him anyway. We all had work to do.

Read about Ray Doyle in 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Getting Between the Lines: A Review of 'Countries of the World', by Steven Porter

Steven Porter's novel 'Countries of the World' (available from Amazon HERE) is the kind of book you immediately want to do well. Much like the charismatic midfielder with an attitude that drives his manager mad, or the striker who never trains but still bags 20 goals a season.

Players like that are rare in modern football. Books like this are rare too, which is probably why Porter had to go down the indie route of assisted self-publishing when it came to getting this quirky, sensitive and touchingly humorous account of growing up in Scotland.

This is a book which is hard to categorise after all. If it was a footballer, one senses that it would play 'in the hole', neither striker nor midfielder, neither winger nor central thruster, occupying space where no one else quite sees it. And keeping the crowd, rather than the vain venture capitalists in the directors' box, happy.

This is certainly a reader, rather than a publisher's kind of book. The bittersweet characteristics present in much of Porter's best prose are here in great numbers. Porter's respect and affection for his characters is also clear.

Tales of maniacs like Wilson Dodds, who in any context apart from football would be viewed as an anti-social nutcase, litter the book. There is no contempt for the characters at all, no sneering from a writer at his less than perfect creations. Instead, we understand them better because of the context in which Porter presents them. Dodds, a man who "put his love for his club above his own welfare at times", emerges as a loveable British eccentric when viewed through this lens.

Not that Porter would thank me for describing his creation as 'British'. There is much in the book about Scottish identity, and the reader gleans a clear sense of Scottish Nationalism throughout. The tone is never one of bagpipes, tartan and shortbread though. Again, it is subtle, pointing out Scotland's cultural differences with England in a way which is not always obvious unless you are reading carefully.

Scotland's rejection of the values of Margaret Thatcher is dealt with nicely in an encounter at a Scarborough caravan park, where the English owner hails the Iron Lady and indulges in some casual hatred of the Welsh. The great blue elephant in the room of Rangers fans' bigotry and idolising of 17th century Protestant heroes comes into focus during a coach trip to Northern Ireland, where an Orange march holds things up for a handy family discussion. The link made to the Freemasons would not be obvious to anyone with little awareness of how the Protestant Ascendancy is expressed in Scotland.

At times, the tone can perhaps become a little didactic, particularly when it comes to filling in the details about football history. But that is easy to say when you know all this football history. It is sometimes easy to forget that many, perhaps even most, do not have the same obsessive knowledge as this author, and the detail is often necessary to make an obscure point a little clearer.

Scottish Nationalism peeps through a few times, but it is subtle stuff. One interesting passage relates a classroom discussion in the early 1980s. All the students pose as English haters before realising that many of the things they most like, such as Liverpool FC, The Specials and Torvill and Dean, are from England. Porter himself sums it up perfectly with his description of his feelings when watching 'It's A Knockout'

Porter perhaps sums up his own brand of Scottish Nationalism best when viewing it through the lens provided by football. "For Scotland supporters, losing a few games or going a year or two without a trophy is not a crisis...Winning more often than losing is the best any Scotland fan can hope for, qualifying for a major tournament and then falling flat, to be mocked and patronised. But we can laugh at our neighbours when their expectations of glory don't materialise."

The range of characters in the book is also great, and many of them have tics and nuances that require some knowledge of Scotland to fully appreciate. One highlight is the Roman Catholic Pole in the town of Breogan, who has become a full-on Rangers supporting Bluenose who makes sectarian remarks about Celtic fans.

When we find out that many of those Celtic fans are actually Protestants, a subtle point is made about how football shapes identity more than people's actual identity. Porter, typically, teases out the point, leaving it up to the reader to grasp it fully. This kind of writing is very appealing; it places the burden on the reader. If you want to really understand what he is saying, find out for yourself.

 The book can also be returned to time and again. Indeed, its quality becomes more apparent when picked up and dipped into. While the over-arching narrative of a young man coming of age is nothing particularly noteworthy, the way in which each piece functions as something which can be read entirely independently of the others is something special.

The references to pop culture will also strike a note with many readers of a certain age, with sweets, television programmes and chart hit records all given ample page time. This functions like a kind of literary archaeology, allowing the reader to date the events in accurate layers according to Subbuteo sets, Grifters, Commando comics and Russ Abbot on telly.

Difficult to market properly, skilful and neat, with maybe a touch of deliberate indiscipline around the edges: this is a book like all your favourite players. Sign it up for your bookshelf now.

Get yourself a copy of 'Countries of the World' at Amazon. Check out the Facebook page HERE.

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Monday, 15 October 2012

Lescar: Mayhem

My second collection of short stories, 'Lescar', was published a few years back by Blackheath Books of Wales. You can buy it directly from them HERE.

This is the first story in the book, introducing a character nicknamed 'Mayhem'...


Buy 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Friday, 12 October 2012

Stumbles and Half Slips: Ambition

As it's Friday here's a video of me reading a story from my new book 'Stumbles and Half Slips'. This is the first story in the book, and serves to introduce one or two recurring characters...

Buy 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Rugby League Needs A United Global Family

Sometimes news causes strange reactions in a writer. That was the case today when I read about Scotland international Lee Paterson, who has been plying his trade in France and Australia until fairly recently.

Paterson is a journeyman loose forward or stand-off who has won several caps for Scotland and has been playing at a good standard in France and Australia. Not in the NRL, but at a good level.

Yet he now worries that he might not be able to find a club in the UK due to people having forgotten about him.

"I was full-time at Widnes and when that ended, I got an opportunity to go to France," the 31 year old told the Scotland Rugby League's website.

"I knew I was never going to become rich playing rugby league but I could go and see the world.

"So I went and had two great years with Carpentras and had the chance to move to Limoux. But one of the Australians over there put me in touch with Anthony Seibold, the former London Broncos player, who was at Mackay Cutters in North Queensland.

"They're the feeder team to North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL. I thought this would be my only chance to play in Australia. I really enjoyed it there this year and was offered a deal for 2013 but I decided to come home for family reasons. Now I need a club here.

"I'm worried I might have fallen off the radar, having been away for three years.

"I'm hoping these games against Ireland and England Knights will remind clubs over here what I can do. I'm only 31 so I've got two or three years left in me and I'm confident I can still play at Championship level."

It struck me that an international player like this is an asset to the game, especially when it comes to representing Scotland. Paterson has acquired some rich experience, and clubs outside Super League should all be taking a serious look at him.

Maybe some are, but the point is that he should not have to worry about it.

It strikes me that far too often in our sport we forget about what we should be focusing on and instead fight fires of our own making that burn close to our noses.

The international game is a great example of this. There is massive need in rugby league for an international game which works at the highest level.

There is a great deal of very good work being done to promote the game worldwide, with countries like Serbia, Germany, Lebanon and Sweden all at varying stages of good grassroots development.

They have achieved much of that in spite of little recognition from the international game's true power brokers, the NRL.

The real problem is at the highest level though, where State of Origin has superceded test football as the aim of every player.

The way in which born and bred Kiwis have given up the chance to wear the black of their home country because they want to play State of Origin has become embarrassing.

That is a case for another blog, coming soon, but back to Paterson's case.

It is hard to imagine a player in soccer going away to play abroad for years and being completely forgotten about.

Instead, scouts based in the country where he was playing would be detailed to keep an eye on him, for the sake of his national team as much as anything else.

By the time he returned to his home country, many people involved in the game would have a pretty accurate idea of where he was in playing terms, and what he might be able to do for their club.

In rugby league, it seems that such players simply fall off the radar far too often.

Now, distances are greater in a sport that is played mainly in Northern Europe and Australia, and resources are vastly less than those in football, with nowhere near the kind of global community that the 'Beautiful Game' can claim.

But the game of rugby league is too fractured on a global basis. There seems to be no overall plan when it comes to the international game, and no clarity of common purpose.

Vested interests act to protect privilege and keep their own status intact. 

To improve things, and make the international game as successful as it should be, there needs to be a sense of global family, that we all play the same game and want the same things for it.

Too often at the moment, as Paterson's words show, when something leaves our own little box, our own little section of the sport, we forget about it far too easily.

Reform is needed to make rugby league the great international sport it deserves to be. No single body can do it on their own.

'Stumbles and Half Slips' by Zack Wilson is available from, published by Epic Rites Press.

Code13 Archive: Mark Aston Part Two

Following on from Tuesday's post, this is the second part of the interview I conducted with Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston in the summer of 2011. 

In this part, Mark discusses his plans for the Eagles, some of which have undoubtedly come to fruition since then, with the Sheffield club winning the Championship Grand Final in 2012.

The Eagles now share Sheffield United FC’s Bramall Lane Stadium, and Aston is encouraged by what the new venue has done for his team’s prospects, as well as the way his players have responded to this season’s challenges.

How would you assess the state of Sheffield’s season so far, Mark?

I’m reasonably happy. We’ve played nine games and won six of them, so we’ve got a bit of a roll on. We lost our first league game at Bramall Lane to Widnes, but since then we’ve swept everybody before us. So we’re happy there.

When we went to play St Helens I thought we were outstanding – 52-26 and it could have been so much closer. We just made some individual mistakes which cost us. You don’t give interceptions away against teams like that and win games, but it could have been a little bit closer as far as I’m concerned.

The week after though at Leigh we got a lesson in how to play rugby League. They were clinical and we weren’t. We were at sixes and sevens, and the question was ‘Have we fallen in love with ourselves?’ and the answer was ‘yes’, time to get to reality.

It was disappointing though because we had a really good crowd in. We had all the 31 boxes at Bramall Lane sold out that day, we were on Sky and we turned up with a poor performance like that, which we were a bit disappointed with.

So it’s back to basics, back on the field and let’s get physical, as the saying goes.

I know you were pretty disappointed as well about the game at Halifax. What went wrong there?

That was really disappointing. We’d worked hard on defence all week and defensively we were outstanding. But in the second-half our ball control was ridiculous, our completion rate was something like 35 or 37 per cent of our sets. How they didn’t put us to bed I have no idea.

But there was our attitude, our willingness to scramble and put our bodies on the line for each other which was great to see. But we’re disappointed, we scored three tries to two even though we didn’t have a lot of ball. Again, another smack in the chops for us and we needed to bounce back.

The result against Hunslet certainly seemed to show that things had turned round a bit, especially as the Hawks aren’t an easy team to play against, for reasons we won’t discuss here! Were you encouraged by that?

We’ve been pretty physical with the players because I thought they showed a lot of disrespect last week to the backroom staff, to themselves, to each other. They were disrespectful to how we want to play. There were too many individuals coughing up really poor mistakes

So we hammered them again this week and then they came up with a performance like they did against Hunslet, where they beat them 70 odd to 12 and had three other tries disallowed. They were certainly back to the standards I know they’re capable of reaching.

Who’s been playing well at the club?

Misi Taulapapa is getting back to his best, Quentin Laulu-Togagae is fitting in there as well and Menzie Yere’s getting some early ball and causing problems, so we’re encouraged by that.

They’re quality players, but there’s a lot of quality players around them, like Mitchell Stringer. I named Mitch as a prop against Hunslet, he then played in the second-row and I ended up moving him to stand-off. He’s kicked well and he’s put out a ball that any half-back would be proud of to set up Jamie Cording to score by the sticks with not a hand laid on him.

People say he might have a future as a loose forward, but he’s one of the smartest front rowers in the competition. I love smart front-rowers, the days of ‘not so smart’ front rowers have gone.

Andy Henderson is thirty-odd years old but he’s running about like a spring chicken. He’s infectious to have around the place.

What I’ve got here is a real good group of lads who want to play and they want to enjoy it and play with a smile on their face. We’ve had a few hiccups but they’ve bounced back and we’ve got another tough challenge against Dewsbury this week.

We were disappointed where we finished last year in sixth. We want to be as high as we can be up that top six and we want to do better than we did last year, when we got to the semi-final and got beat. So if we can do a little bit better than that we’ll be in the final I’d imagine.

How’s it going off the field as you look to develop the Eagles’ ‘brand’ in a soccer mad city?

The crowd’s are a bit better here at Bramall Lane, and the atmosphere’s better. You can feel a bit more part of it even if you’ve got one or two thousand. the atmosphere’s brilliant. The facility is one of the best rugby facilities in any competition.

It’s a slow burn. It’s a slow process and we’ve always known that. With what’s happening behind the scenes with the scholarships and the academy, all the performance parts are there in place now. What we’ve got to do is drive the attendance up and we’re looking at ways to do that.

I’ve spoken to Hull FC about the re-alignment of their community programmes to try and get more people in. That’ll come. Where we’re at is how do we get that two and a half thousand attendance that you need to get to tick a box for Super League.

All we can is keep knocking away. What I do know is that if we were in Super League we’d get four, five, six thousand at Bramall Lane.

There are people who were Sheffield Eagles fans who now aren’t because of the merger with Huddersfield. I was at a promo we were doing on Fargate in Sheffield city centre not long back. All the boys were there, giving vouchers out and things like that, and there was a man who hasn’t been to see one of our games since we reformed.

This man had never missed a game before the merger. He went to France, he went to Wales, he went absolutely everywhere, home and away, him and his daughter.

I got talking to him and said the merger ripped the heart out of it I asked if he understood the merger, and he said he didn’t really and I don’t think generally people did. This bloke didn’t understand but I explained it to him and he reacted positively.

Has he been back? He said he would, and I would hope he has. We need people like him, as well as the people who live in my village near here and go and watch the Leeds Rhinos now, which is sad. We need those people to get behind us to help us fetch Super League back here.

A lot of people were gutted about what went on in that time period. Can we get back there? Yes, we can. This [Bramall Lane] is the place to do it. There’s lots of exciting things happening. We do what we can on the corporate side of things. Kevin McCabe (Plc chairman of Sheffield United) is very, very supportive of Sheffield Eagles, which is key.

Article originally appeared at:

'Stumbles and Half Slips' by Zack Wilson is available from, published by Epic Rites Press.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Code13 Archive: Has the RFL Forgotten Sheffield - Part One

Here is an article which was originally published at, which argues the case for more support from the rugby league governing bodies for Sheffield as a city.

In the light of recent comments from Sheffield Eagles director John Whaling, it seems appropriate to re-publish the article here.

If a rugby league club told you that they had the support of the city council and chamber of commerce of the fourth biggest city in England, a place with a large number of well-populated satellite towns, and the backing of the local soccer team who have offered the use of their superb stadium long-term, you would probably think that they were in Super League.

That they have an ex-international player as coach, a charismatic cheerleader for the sport in an area outside of the heartland of the game, would only make them appear more of a top flight outfit. That the city is at the heart of England, a transport hub which connects the east and west coasts and the north to the south east of England, should surely only make it more of a nailed-on top-flight contender. A place where the RFL would surely want to be.

Given the fact that this would also be an ‘expansion’ team, then it might raise even more of an eyebrow of surprise. However, this team is not in Super League, and seems to have been forgotten about when it comes to raising the game’s profile outside of the M62 Corridor. Although it may surprise some people, Sheffield is the city, the Eagles the club.

Sheffield has never been part of rugby league’s heartland. Never. The round ball code has always been king here since the early days of organised ‘football’ in the 19th Century. Two of the world’s oldest football clubs, Hallam FC and Sheffield FC play here, while Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United are two of the game’s most famous names, despite their current lowly league status.

So, although it is in Yorkshire, its sporting culture is significantly different to somewhere like Leeds or Hull. Football, and cricket to some extent, are the chosen pastimes of athletes here, with rugby union well down the list and rugby league rarely mentioned or discussed. This means that, for our sport, it is as much an ‘expansion’ area as North Wales or London.

Yet this seems to have been forgotten by those in the game who crave expansion. Is it because it’s too close to the heartlands, too Northern, too flat cap industrial in the eyes of southerners, to really count as an expansion city?

If so, that is an incredibly short-sighted view. Sheffield has a huge population and huge hinterland and influence which stretches right through vast swathes of the northern and eastern parts of the Midlands. It is a gateway to so many other areas, as well as being in a superb location which enjoys easy transport access however one chooses to travel.

Yet the Eagles struggle for crowds, with awareness of the team barely registering when it comes to the soccer-obsessed public in the city. If only the sport was being punted with the kind of enthusiastic backing which rugby union receives in South Yorkshire, then this would change. Some serious investment in the marketing of the sport in Sheffield would surely bear fruit, with the two football clubs having had so little to celebrate recently.

The basic structures are all already there in place, thanks to the work of the international coach referred to above.

Sheffield Eagles are a shining testament to the work of Mark Aston and his dedicated team of supporters and backers. The fact that they even exist at all is down to his effort, after the original outfit, Challenge Cup winners in 1998, were clumsily merged with Huddersfield as Super League’s early traumas played themselves out.

He deserves credit for what he has achieved, sometimes in the face of odds which would make a lesser spirit quail. Aston, though, relishes the adversity.

“The club in general has only been going 20-odd years. We’ve only been going 12 as the current regime, and when we took over, there was literally nothing left because of what had happened a couple of years before,” he told Code13, referring to the merger with Huddersfield Giants which saw the original Eagles club effectively cease to exist.

“So now to have all that structure, all those schools and all that community from top to bottom is a tremendous credit to all the guys who have been involved in it.

“But also, it means that it CAN be done.

“Now it’s down to finances. What we want is for people to get on board. The council are still interested. We’re talking to them about what we want to do for 2014-15.

“Sheffield United and Bramall Lane are 100 per cent behind us. The Chamber of Commerce are behind us. Hopefully we’ll be in with a kick next time it comes to licence time.”

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips', available from Epic Rites Press and

More Sheffield Eagles Anger

Sheffield Eagles director John Whaling has today expressed sentiments which in no way surprise me, but may well have surprised a few at Red Hall,where the Rugby Football League is based.

His statement in full can be read HERE, at the Eagles' official website, but it is worthwhile dwelling in a little more detail on a couple of the points raised.

Whaling said:

"When it was announced that there would be a mini round of licensing in the wake of the Bradford Bulls troubles the press release said it would involve Leigh, Halifax and Featherstone, why was this when Sheffield Eagles had also earned the right to apply for Super League status by virtue of making it to the 2011 Grand Final? When we queried this with the RFL we were told ‘failure to mention Sheffield is probably as a result of journalists errors rather than a proper assessment of which clubs might be a candidate for any mini-licensing process’ however when we queried it with the press we were told it was exactly as sent out by the RFL, it shows that South Yorkshire is nowhere near the front of people’s minds in Red Hall.

"When we queried why nothing had been released congratulating Sheffield and Doncaster on their Grand Final success we were told ‘after the Grand Finals last year we did issue something along those lines and it didn’t get picked up at all’, is this a good reason not to put anything out this year?"

The mealy mouthed nature of this alleged excuse is really something else. Excusing amateurism by saying we thought there was no point in doing it properly is poor.

There is also a coded accusation from Whaling that there is clear bias shown in favour of clubs from the 'heartland' over those in South Yorkshire in the press release. This is strange when the game's governing body is usually so keen to trumpet its achievements with regard to expansion.

Whaling continues:

"The RFL have thrown money at expansion in Wales, London and France and yet the closest place to the heartland receives very little encouragement and no financial support to help expand. Both Sheffield and Doncaster have to battle against other sports, mainly soccer, but the potential in both areas is enormous but we can’t be expected to do everything ourselves when we are already struggling with finance due to a downturn in the corporate market."

My own contact with the RFL regarding this matter has been confusing. The matter of general economic downturn does not seem to factor into their thinking. The fact that they are making money seems to shape a somewhat solipsistic kind of perception of what empty seats are actually caused by, something which is also found in the mainstream rugby league media.

There seems often to be a wilful blindness to just how difficult a task the Eagles have faced in building a club up from basically nothing, to where it is now, arguably, the most successful club currently outside the top flight.

Mark Aston's team has won honours on the pitch, the club has put down firm roots in the community and has contributed to the spread of the amateur game in South Yorkshire. Players from the region are coming through and playing first team rugby league, while there is also a credible commercial plan which  has made profit for the last two years running.

There are lessons to be learned from this, for everyone in rugby league. Yet the game's governing bodies seem time and again to avoid mentioning the Eagles at all. One wonders if there is some kind of clash of personalities in play. Perhaps it is just the traditional rivalry of those from the Leeds area with those from the south of the county of Yorkshire, but to draw no attention to the obvious success of what is an expansion side seems ignorant and myopic at best, contrary and stubborn at worst.

You can read what my thoughts were on this matter earlier this year in the next blog post HERE. This article comes from the Code13 archive, and includes another interesting chat with Mark Aston.

'Stumbles and Half Slips' by Zack Wilson is available from, published by Epic Rites Press.

Dreams of a Girl in New England: A Review of 'Meat' by Erin Reardon

As I look to get most of what I've done available at this blog, it's time to look at one of my favourite poets of recent years, Erin Reardon.

This is a review I published at Parasitic a few years back, about here book 'Meat'. I'm sure you can still buy it if you ask nicely.

Remember you can buy my book, 'Stumbles and Half Slips', from HERE.

“I’m not a spinner of saccharine sticky love poems” asserts Erin Reardon, in this chapbook collection of poetry. That’s not entirely true. There is definitely love poetry here, and it’s occasionally sticky. The stickiness is, however not caused by anything sugary sweet and innocent.

Various bodily fluids trickle across the pages of ‘Meat’. The fluids one associates with sex, violence, heartbreak and over-indulgence. There is a coarseness in the poems that’s actually delightful, Reardon relishing dirty details like the girl in infant school showing her septic scabs to the boys. Reardon is very definitely a girl though, coarse not so she can be one of the boys but rather to shock them from time to time.

This is very female poetry, but there are no tales of sugar and spice and all things nice. Rather, there are gin addled hangover mornings where the narrator is “vomiting the last/Of [her] rancid soul”, using the diet pills for “too many toots” not to fit into a wedding dress in time. The self-loathing is of a different stamp to the kind in Sunday magazines.

There is much more here than just girls behaving badly bodily function though, and to dismiss these erudite and musical poems as simply Beat inspired lifestyle shock smears would be to severely underestimate the depth, subtlety and shade that the work possesses.

The speaker of the poems can be predatory, hunting the male in as deadly a fashion as the girl in the Scott Walker song, but this is no ‘Sex & the City’ vapid status fuck search, but rather a need as desperate as any crackhead’s with an underlying vulnerability that does not so much feminise the hunt as humanise it. Reardon shines a spotlight on the unpretty hunger in all our souls for love or its approximation, and the inevitable disappointment and regret that ensues.

As she writes in ‘Autumnal Equinox’ they will always let you down. “He’ll lure you in with flowers…pretend he’s got a pussy too/Push your buttons of fidelity/’Til you’re squealing at the moon”, the supposed devotion driving the girl mad. ‘Acquiescence’, with its refrain of “What kind of man are you?” explores similar territory, it’s lines “when she reaches out to cradle you/And you bite her on the tit” reflecting the place we all end up in eventually, the place where the wires don’t cross properly anymore and the sparks are damp fizzles. The place where everything is mere functionality, the fulfilling of procedure described in ‘Gangrene Prophylactic’: “I will squat/On your erection/Just so you can hear me say/I need you.”

Obsession and addiction are recurring themes. Addiction not just to chemicals natural and synthesised, but also to hope and optimism, often embodied in a sick fascination with the boys who disappoint the speaker time and again as she reaches for the bottle, pill jar or syringe that can help to bleed their “medical caress from memory”. Addiction to the hope they bring, “She hated her skin/Until/It found his.” (Eating Matches) But they always leave her let down and seeking solace.

The kind of solace often found by religious faith, and Reardon’s Roman Catholic education casts an obsessive shadow of worship and abasement over many of the poems. Questions to mothers and fathers, both earthly and divine, are stamped out, the lies of their “communion wafer tongues” refuted and their roles challenged. The humiliation inherent in such abasement/worship is explored too, and the theme of a Virgin ruined by Christ Reborn recurs throughout. As she says in ‘Glory Be’, “if I can’t trust the word of Christ reborn…Who can I trust?”

At times, there is almost a twisted desire to be humiliated, Reardon’s narrator seemingly reaching the conclusion that there’s only one thing worse than having someone humiliate you and that’s having no one humiliate you. “We was born to be abused” she despairingly decides in ‘Born Into It’.

But it would be to mislead the reader to imply that this was a blood and cum, menstrual heart fuck bitch drama circus. There is much hope and beauty here too. The hope found in the eyes of the doomed boys and the steps of the dancing girls that dream above the vomit puddles and the broken glass.

This beauty can be found in ‘Black Coffee’ with its “blessed blue jay shrieks/Among the trees, a new bud lingering…Tranquil as we knew how”, or in ‘Centred’ with its “heart/As heavy as a boulder/Haunted by…love”. Throughout, a wistful regret at all the trauma and wasted days hangs on the shoulder of the narrator, best summed up in the closing poem ‘The Best Days’ with its Eleanor Rigby references and closing lines “my best days/I’m still waiting/For them/To begin” which provides a fittingly melancholy ending to a skilfully written and craftily sensitive chapbook, the sadness seasoning the coarse, vocal “Boston-Irish” clamour with a sweet beauty and dark longing.

This meat is pink and cooked to perfection, its “sulfur taste” definitely one to be savoured. Get thyself to a butcher’s.

Originally published at:

Zack Wilson is the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', available from Amazon HERE.

Lescar: Sheffield Star Interview

My second collection of fiction is called 'Lescar', and was published by Blackheath Books of Wales a few years back.

You can buy it here. You can buy my current novel, 'Stumbles and Half Slips', from here.

I'll be blogging a bit about 'Lescar' later on here, but it was a series of stories set in a real pub in Sheffield, on Sharrowvale Road, near Hunter's Bar. It's a real pub and it's still there, but it was changed enormously in recent years. All of the characters are fictional though some names may be familiar...

You can find out a bit more about the book and its inspiration in this interview with Martin Dawes of the Sheffield Star...

 Lescar's new chapter

Published on Wednesday 31 December 2008 09:35

TO the Lescar Hotel at Hunters Bar to interview author Zack Wilson about his new 'chapbook' of stories set in the boozer.

Now this 17th century term is not one you hear much these days, but think bigger than a booklet, smaller than a book.

We arrange to meet in the Lescar itself. Zack, a former English teacher at Westfield School, hasn't been in there for getting on for three years, ever since he went on the wagon.

The book is set in what Zack insists is a fictional Lescar in 2004 so the fact that his Lescar has a landlord called Duncan McAllister and the real Lescar had one called Duncan MacFarlane, or the pub had a barmaid called Emma and the book one named Emily is purely coincidental.

It's perhaps best not to inquire if there really was a Jewish Dave or a Bob Brown, about whom it was rumoured... no, we shan't go on.

The one character Zack says is not a composite is Mayhem, a man devoted to the music of Status Quo.

"It's very definitely fiction but like all fiction every writer takes what they see and weaves into it their own experience. There are several things which really happened... but the details and context have been changed, usually for the sake of style," he says over a lime and soda.

The stories are written in a crisp, vivid style which often reads like reportage. There was a visit from the Blades Business Crew but, says Zack, he wasn't there at the time.

His stories started on the web, where much of his writing now is. He gave up teaching to work for the city council's youth offenders' service (another literary gold mine) but is now full time as the Premier League reporter for a football internet website.

It's not clear what the new management of the Lescar will make of the book. He's not told them but wonders whether they'd like to sell it on the bar.

The Diary asks why he needed to name the pub at all and not just make one up.

"I am drawn to fiction set in recognisable locations, as in James Joyce's Dublin or Irvine Welsh's Edinburgh. There is a recognisable context for what goes on," he says. Besides, the Lescar was then his local and had a heady mix of respectability and riff-raff. It was what you would call bohemian, a place where you could find people with recreational substances.

Those days have long gone, of course. We are intrigued to find the 2009 Lescar has a wine club.

The stories don't sound like they were written by a man who sat alone in the corner.

"I used to stand here at the bar. I hardly ever sat down," he says.

This collection of stories is the first volume. Another is planned for the spring and, sitting on the backburner at the moment, is one on the Lescar's women.

After all these years of self-imposed exile that will have to be done from memory. And any resemblance between fact and fiction will be purely coincidental.

Originally published at:  

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips', available from Epic Rites Press and

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Code13 Archive: Mark Aston, Part One, June 2011

As some of you will know by now, Code13rugbyleague, a website I worked for covering the great game of rugby league, has closed at the end of the 2012 season.

I'm very proud of what the website achieved, and so I'll be reproducing here some of the interviews I conducted with some of rugby league's personalities.

First, and it's somewhat topical considering that his team won the Championship Grand Final this year, is Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston.

I spoke to Mark in the summer of 2011 following his appointment as coach of the Ireland rugby league team, a post he continues to fill alongside his duties at the Eagles.

Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston was appointed as the new coach of the Ireland rugby League team last week. Code13‘s Zack Wilson caught up with the effervescent Eagles chief this week at Bramall Lane for a chat about Ireland as well RL in Sheffield, Yorkshire’s only rugby league ‘expansion’ city.

In today’s Part One, Mark talks about the challenges of his new role with the Irish. Read Part Two on Friday for his thoughts on the Eagles’ campaign so far…

Congratulations on the appointment Mark. What’s first on the agenda for the job?

I’m on my travels this weekend to Dublin to look around the place. They’ve got a final going on, the Inter-Province final, so I’m going to have a look at the standard of that and see what’s around there.

On Sunday morning I’m actually going to do a bit of a session with the Ireland ‘A’ squad – the Wolfhounds – and have a look at some of those guys.That’s the squad drawn from the domestic league and things like that. So I want to have a look at what it is and where it is and get my own ideas of the standard and, I guess, the task in hand.

What is the appeal of the job? What drew you to the post?

It’s the challenge. Looking at it, it’s like where I was ten years ago with Sheffield Eagles. That’s how I look at it. We had nothing and at least Ireland have got a squad of quality players in there. They dipped last year and they weren’t happy with the standards and performances, but they weren’t happy on a number of other things as well. I aim to resolve those and build a professional environment there and challenge them to be the best they can be.

What do you see as your main tasks?

Structures are a big thing that need looking at, as does coaching over there. I’m not going to be there every week coaching week in and week out, so we need to make sure that we get the structures in place. We need to look at the identification of the Irish squad. I’ve just spoken with Scott Grix, to see about getting a coffee with him and finding out some of the issues they’ve had over the last couple of years. And also making sure that he’s on board, because he was the skipper last year.

It’s not a quick fix, it’s something to build to.

Talking about that, there’s been some high-profile defections from the Ireland squad recently, such as Ben Harrison and Chris Bridge. Have you got a plan for counteracting this kind of draining of talent?

We’ve got to find the next generation. That’s the challenge. What I’m amazed about with Ireland is that they’ve go the senior squad, but underneath the senior squad they’ve got an amateur squad, and I think there’s something missing there like an academy to put in place.

Have any new players expressed an interest in playing for Ireland after your appointment?
I’ve got one here at Sheffield – Vinny Finegan. He’s Irish and he’s put his hand up and said he wants to be part of it. One of the things I’ve always spoken about is getting the youth. Are those players who put up their hands and were part of the 2008 World Cup going to be part of the 2013 World Cup? If they are, then we’ve got four games this year and they’ll have to be putting their hands up for those as well.

You’ll be taking on England, Australia and Fiji at the next World Cup. That must be an exciting for challenge for you?

Fantastic! How good is that for three games? If you want to be on the big stage, then they’re three nations you want to be playing. I’m really looking forward to it, and the guys should be too, but I want them to be preparing now and I want them to feel that when they come into the environment it’s a professional, respectful and disciplined environment.

If we get that right, then look at the players Ireland have got. The Grix brothers, you’ve got people like Pat Richards. There’s others around – Tyrone McCarthy and Tim Bergin. I want the kids who are going to be around for the next few years.

What Ireland is is a passionate nation. That’s what we want in the camp, that passion and pride. Has the sport been going for a few years? Yes, but is it established to the extent it should be? No, and we certainly aim to do that in the next few years. If I can be part of that then I’ll be extremely proud. I just see so many similarities between where Ireland are at now and where I was at Sheffield ten years ago.

I’m sure there are some quality players who are underneath the radar as well. They probably fill the form in and just put England down without thinking whether they’ve got any Irish ancestry. There’s only so many people can play for England, and at the end of the day  we want to give opportunity to players.One of my first jobs is to speak to all the heads of youth and find out who actually who is available and capable of playing for Ireland.

Are there are any of Irish RL’s past greats who will be helping out at all? I’m thinking particularly of Brian Carney or Barrie McDermott, though there are many others.

It’s a clean deck at the moment. There’s me in post, and I’ve got to have a look at who I want to be involved. I know who I want to fetch as my assistant -there’s no dount about that. Whether he can commit to that is something that we have to try and resolve over the next week or so. If he can’t, then it’s Plan B I suppose.

What do I see for Brian and Barrie Mac and Terry O’Connor? I had a meeting with Barrie last week about it, and he’s still very supportive of the Ireland team. He wants a new environment. He wants a professional and disciplined environment. That’s what I want. So I can see all three of them having some sort of ambassadorial role, or just being about the place. Obviously they won’t be involved in a coaching role, but they’ve got massive commitments already.

What is your strategy for getting more first generation Irish born and raised players into your group?

Of course we have to do that. I’ve been looking at the list of players they’ve had over the last few years, and who do I want to keep and who interests me and who do I think is going to be around until the 2013 World Cup. We’ve already got people like Tim Bergin (born in County Laoise) in the environment, so I’m looking to see who else is around.

What really does interest me is the academy over there, where a couple of weeks ago some of the Super League clubs went over and the players that had come through the Provinces there, in the academies, they got them together. And I believe that St Helens took a couple on trial, Hull FC took one and I believe Wigan have taken another one. Those people interest me. What does that potentially give my squad? Pride and passion. Maybe they couldn’t quite make it in rugby union, but could they in rugby league? I guarantee you that there will be some skilful and very decent rugby league players there.

Are you eyeing up any rugby union converts at all?

There’s a lot of people in the rugby union system over there. They come through the school environment and go into the academies. But the Ireland RU only keep the cream of the cream. So what happens to the rest? I think those players are highly skilled and they’ll have good habits, good systems and that. Can we transfer their skills into rugby league? I’m sure we can. It’s got to be a lot easier changing from rugby union to league than vice versa. So they do interest me.

I want to build a programme of work over there where we can get an elite training programme, where some of those kids might come over to England for work placements. They might go to Sheffield Eagles, they might go to Wigan, they might go and have a week or a month at a professional club and see what it’s about and smell the Super League environment and see what it’s like to train with the first team and see the intensity. That’s one of the challenges of the job: to see if we can turn some of these rugby union people into rugby league players, and even international players. If we can get one or two of them, then you get three or four, then you can start talking about profile and raising the awareness of Rugby League  Ireland.

If we can get that then people will buy into the concept of what we’re trying to do. We need to drive the pride and the passion into rugby league in Ireland and say: “We want Irish people playing rugby league for Ireland.”

Look at what Leinster has done in rugby union. They used to be run by one man and a dog and they used to just get a couple of hundred people watching. Now they’re up to tens of thousands in the crowd week in and week out. People get behind a winning team. That’s what we’ve got to deliver.

That’s why I want to get over there and have a look. Show me what Ireland has got and what I can work with. I want to make Ireland proud of their international rugby league team. The talent is out there, we’ve got to convince them that rugby league is a great game.

Article originally appeared at:

Monday, 8 October 2012

Sport's More Evil Aspects: Violence

This is an old short story of mine, dealing with an episode of football violence. It is fairly mild by the standards of the 1980s, but incidents like this used to occur more often than the media would like you to have thought when I was a regular at matches...

 I once went to Pride Park when Derby were playing Everton. We were still in the premiership then so it was probably 2000 or so. I used to still occasionally wear a replica shirt to the match then, anyway.

Around this time I got friendly with a bunch of lads from Matlock, who were friends of a lad I worked with in Sheffield at Yorkshire Electricity, in the Disputed Reads Section. He was called Paul and was sound, quiet lad, never acted without thinking first. We worked for a character called Phil, who we nicknamed ‘Pop’ because he was fat and bald. He claimed to have been a trainee at Lincoln City and played semi-pro for Long Eaton Town or someone, fairly near the bottom of the pyramid. Actually, he organised a 5-a-side office team and entered us in a league. We did quite well and came second in our division, and Phil missed a penalty which was the last kick of our ‘season’ that would’ve sent us up, and no one could take the piss out of him for it because he would get upset. Phil used to sweat a lot when he played because he was overweight. He had good touch and could pass well, but his head used to shine with all the sweat. Simon, our keeper, used to say that he worried Phil would have a heart attack, what with all his shouting as well. If that had happened I think we would have laughed.

After one game in this league, Phil tried to organise a big night out. At my suggestion we went to The Varsity on West Street, they had a thing going on Thursday nights where if you paid a quid to get in then all your drinks were just a quid for the rest of the night. Phil had made it out to be a massive night out but when I got to The Varsity it was only me and another lad who showed up apart from Phil. After the pub we went to Kingdom where an awful ‘70’s tribute act called ‘The Gutter Band’ played. They were shit. There was loads of nurses in Kingdom and one tried to impress us by saying that she could make us come by massaging our prostates and she was really good at it because she was a nurse. I said, “You might buy me a drink first.” Phil called her a fat bastard and blamed me. I heard once that years ago when he was a coach in kids’ football he’d kicked a kid really hard on the arse for tackling him.

Anyway, these lads from Matlock I got friendly with, some of them were a bit handy, or thought they were. They knew some very handy types anyway. There were also two lads who were Paul’s mates called Nigel and Chris, who weren’t handy at all. It was these two I was friends with, and a harder lad called Graeme, all the others I really just knew to nod at. Nigel was slow and a bit simple really, but loyal and kind, he used to get a lot of grief for his name. Chris was sharp and bright, if a bit of a straight peg. He was a real ladies’ man though. He always got some action, or seemed to, fuck knows how. They were good drinking mates anyway, and knew enough about football for a decent chat.

We’d gone into the Merry Widows after the Everton game. We’d had a couple in the Waterfall immediately post-match, and then moved next door into the Widows. This was a game Derby had lost 4-3, coming back from 3-1 and 4-2 down. It was probably Branko Strupar’s finest hour for us, he scored with a classy header and a fantastic 35 yard volley that was probably the finest goal I’ve ever seen at Pride Park. But we still lost and it was another step towards relegation.

When we got into the Widows I was really feeling the drink. I’d had a few pints before the game and now I was drinking Strongbow. I liked the way it was easy to drink after pints of gassy lager, mixing well with whatever you’d been drinking before and producing a kind of appropriate headstrong buzz. We sat down in a corner by a fireplace. Either the layout of the Widows has changed since then or my memory’s playing tricks because the last time I was in there, for the Cardiff game this season just gone, it looked completely different and all the geographical indicators, like the bar and the toilet door, were in different places. Maybe it’s because the Cardiff game was in August or September, a sunny day like, and this Everton game was February time or something and it was dark by the time we got to the Widows.

I have a recollection of an embarrassing conversation with 2 coked-into-numbness DLF lads, friends of Graeme’s, but that might’ve been another time, I was really silly and drunk and asking what Wednesday were like these days. One of them was definitely there later on too, though, a ginger haired lad whose tight white skin was discoloured by dissipation beneath nasty blue eyes. He always seemed in a bad mood, and when I commented on this one time with Chris, he laughed and agreed. I wondered whether it was just me he didn’t like, but Chris told me he was like it with everybody, which was a relief. He was always really nasty, this ginger lad, if you were talking about the game he never said, “We should’ve played 4-4-2, not 3-5-2,” it was always something like, “Why didn’t we fucking play fucking 4-4-2, that stupid cunt Gregory, fucking 4 fucking 4 fucking 2! It never fucking fails!” Anyway, after this game he was with us for a bit in the Waterfall and the Widows too, but then he’d moved away to snarl with other men in expensive jumpers and baseball caps.

So me, Chris and Nigel sat down by the fire and were enjoying a rambling chat about a load of shit. I noticed that there were 2 or 3 kids playing about in the pub, about 10 years old or so, they kept going up to a fat woman with curly black hair who was behind the bar and getting crisps and coke off her without having to pay . She was the landlord’s wife and she had round staring eyes that were black and angry. I can’t remember what her husband looked like, he was indistinguishable from the generic shavenheads he was serving and chatting with in one corner of the bar. He only emerged into the wider environment to collect dirty glasses and ashtrays that needed emptying.

Beyond the immediate bar area, I remember the pub being strangely unlit. Only flashing lights from fruit machines and the lamps over the bar provided any light. It was hard to see people’s faces, and everyone looked very white, their faces contrasting grotesquely with the darkness. The pub had an intimate feel, friendly but exclusive, an insulation against the cold blue shadows beyond the windows.

Then there was uproar at the door. We turned round, Nigel and Chris and me. I sensed our bewilderment, I couldn’t see whether it showed on our faces. A large man with gelled hair appeared in the doorway of the pub. I can’t remember if it was the street entrance of the pub, or just an exit from the pub’s other bar. He was wearing a casual jacket and jeans, white trainers.

“Cum on den Daaahhrby!” he shouted, making the appropriate flapping hand movements.
Someone did go on. The landlord of the pub vaulted the bar impressively. I saw someone else’s hand grab a bottle of Beck’s that was still capped. The landlord punched the scouser and he went down, some other guys from the bar jumped in and kicked him. I saw the Beck’s bottle, still with its cap intact, break over the scouser’s head. Beer foamed and then trickled. Someone lifted him up and a little crowd fell through the door and into the streets.

Me and Chris and Nigel sat still, maintaining exactly the same poses and facial expressions we’d had at the beginning of the incident. I shrugged and the other two looked at their pint glasses. “Another one?” I asked, or something similar. I went to the bar to get a round in.

The landlord’s wife was standing by a fruit machine with her arms around a little girl who was crying. I heard the girl ask, “Did Daddy hurt that man, Mummy?” The woman smoothed the girl’s hair and carried on cuddling her.

“Is she alright?” I asked with a smile.

“Yes! No thanks to people like you though!” She was really aggressive and mardy.

I thought that was a little unfair.


Remember that you can buy my debut novel, 'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press of Canada, from

Savouring Succulent Lamb: Review of 'Downfall' by Phil Mac Giolla Bhain

Rangers FC are an abominable institution who deserved everything they got. Your response to that statement is a good gauge of how much you will enjoy this gripping, entertaining and informative piece of sports journalism from Phil Mac Giolla Bhain.

Mac Giolla Bhain is a Scottish-born Irishman who was educated in the West of Scotland. For those that do not know, Scotland's West is home to a peculiar religious divide which also afflicts the north east of Ireland. The division between Scottish Protestant and Irish Catholic continues to express itself, often over several generations, by football, with Rangers being the team of the Orange tendency and Celtic that of the Green. A particular kind of ethnic sectarianism has blighted many aspects of Scottish society, from Church of Scotland ministers writing overtly racist tracts against the presence of the Irish in Scotland in 1926, to the common question of "What school did you go to?" asked by a prospective employer.

It is in reference to this background that 'Downfall' must be understood. This is not a simple tale of a sports club going bust. The story of the so-called 'Famine Song', detailed in the book, also informs further understanding of both the mindset at Rangers and the author's own motivations for writing the book.

This book deals directly with the issue of Rangers going into liquidation, and how it was dealt with by Scottish media and society. The author's assessment often makes uncomfortable reading, especially for those of a Rangers persuasion.

The text consists of re-published articles from the author's own website, which was first with a number of scoops when it came to the saga unfolding at Rangers' Ibrox home. Organised into sections which deal with Finance, Media, Fans and the Scottish Football Association, the book provides a complete detailing of the story of how the most powerful club in Scottish football, one of the most influential institutions in Scottish society, fell dramatically from its perch.

This approach sometimes hampers the narrative flow of the story, with the ordering of the various articles often requiring a measure of mental rewind. On balance though, this approach does work well, allowing the themes of the whole episode to emerge more clearly.

The basic reason why Rangers got themselves into such a financial mess that they no longer technically exist, at least in their original form, is convoluted. It revolves around giving players two contracts, one which the game's governing body and HMRC knew about, the other that they did not. Without going into too many specifics here, it was a major, huge tax dodge.

Added to that was the excessive spending carried out by former chairman Sir David Murray. This spending made Rangers Scotland's premier club, but never brought them the European success that they so craved. Mac Giolla Bhain's assertion that much of this spending was driven by a deep need to match the single European Cup success of city rivals Celtic is an interesting one, in which one sense that there might well be some mileage.

Another theme is the hubris of the Ibrox club, first under the chairmanship of Sir David Murray, and then under the control of Craig Whyte. Many involved with Rangers simply seemed to see things like tax bills as something that the little clubs paid. Rangers could do what they liked, how they liked; as Scotland's Establishment Club they were simply too big to fail, a bit like a bank.

The fact that they did fail, and then the plan by the game's governing bodies to shoehorn them back into the Scottish Premier League and the the Scottish First Division, rather than forcing them to start at the bottom of the league, is testament, as the author states, to fans of other clubs.

The book goes into some detail about how ordinary fans of those other clubs, sick to the back teeth of Rangers and their behaviour, organised protests so that every club chairman in Scotland was in doubt about what would happen if Rangers were allowed to get away with it, yet again.

What is particularly entertaining is when the author lets himself off the leash of journalistic neutrality, a stance he is fastidious about in much of the book, and indulges his clear dislike for Rangers and everything that it stands for.

Many people, inside and outside Scotland and Ireland, will have their own views on Rangers. In the experience of this reviewer and many other people, it often seems that there is not much they stand for beyond an overriding hatred of anything remotely Irish and Catholic. Songs about 'wading in Fenian blood' which also commemorate members of the British Union of Fascists like the odious Billy Fullerton testify adequately to this mindset.

The mindset at the club is one of entitlement, exemplified by the way in which the game's governing body in Scotland often features figures like Campbell Ogilivie, also simultaneously a Rangers director. Anyone who is not for the predominant position of the club is clearly against them, and not just against them but probably has an agenda. It is a mentality that sees fans play the man rather than the ball when it comes to breaking bad news about their club. Mac Giolla Bhain makes great play of his Irish ethnicity, and it was this ethnicity which prevented many at Ibrox from listening when he first started digging into the facts of the story.

The fact that this mindset seeps into Scotland's media, to the extent where most of the press corps seem to be 'Rangers men with typewriters', is something that 'Downfall' deals with admirably. Mac Giolla Bhain details how Scottish sports hacks fed on 'Succulent Lamb' from the Ibrox table. Rangers were Scotland's establishment club, in every way. From the 20th century policy of signing no Catholics, to Sir David Murray's use of his establishment contacts and the club's status to spin never ending lines of credit, Mac Giolla Bhain documents in clear detail the hubris of a club which thought it was invulnerable.

Mac Giolla Bhain's analysis of why no massed fans' group emerged to protest about the way things were being done at Ibrox is also interesting. His opinion is that the blue hordes are basically supine in their deference to authority and bovine in the way that that authority can herd them where it chooses.

The fans chose to believe the stories told by an aggressive Ibrox PR department about men such as Craig Whyte, and they were helped in it by a Scottish media pack who were so in the pocket of the Ibrox hierarchy that no serious investigation at all was conducted by any of them into any of the claims made by the club. This is the story that Mac Giolla Bhain tells, and it will be interesting to see if any alternative narratives from the blue side of Glasgow make it into print to contradict him, especially when it comes to his assertions that there is a widespread acceptance and encouragement of a culture of institutional sectarianism in the Scottish mainstream media.

Scottish football is not the only sporting arena where this kind of journalism flourishes. Other sports clearly have a culture of accept anything we are told, make friends with players and management and never write anything negative. English football's media coverage is better, but certain personalities still wield ridiculous levels of control over what can be written and by whom. The 'Succulent Lamb' savoured by Scottish football journalists has its equivalents elsewhere.

That is perhaps the key strength of 'Downfall'. It lifts the rock in terms of media practise in Scotland and will hopefully provide the inspiration for other working journalists to take more serious interest in what goes on in their sports. It also shows the value of new media such as blogs in holding the powerful to account, when more established media is more concerned about potential sales rather than digging out uncomfortable truths.

Zack Wilson is the author of novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press, available from

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ray's Days 1: Zip

Ray Doyle is the narrator of my debut novel, 'Stumbles and Half Slips'. In a new series of short pieces, I'll be giving him some new tales to tell, mainly about being at work. Along the way, you may well pick up some new details about his life...

I knew that the job was going to go to shit when the zip broke on the jacket that they'd given me. This only happened a week or so after I'd started, and I somehow knew then that it was not going to last.

Not that the job was anything special. Anything special at all, actually. It was meant to be security, but all we were doing in fact was car park attending. We were all working for an independent scrap metal merchant, who seemed to think he was a bigger businessman than he actually was. This was somewhere on the edge of the East Midlands, where it becomes the west, Burton I think.

There were two of us, and what we had to do, in a series of bizarrely organised shifts, was to stand at the gates to the company 'car park'. We had two deckchairs to sit on, which didn't really strike me as giving off the right impression. I hadn't asked about this, but Sean, the other bloke, did. The boss - some fella who's name I forget right now, this was back in 1993, 94 possibly, a long time back, but I do remember his jacket and trousers never seemed to come from the same suit -he just said that it was something he was working on.

The deck chairs didn't really bother me. Things like that never really do. It felt quite good to be sitting in a deck chair by what passed for a car park. It was actually one of those areas of what look like waste ground, turned into a temporary car park. The surface consisted of several different shades and kinds of gravel, washed with a thin grey sludge of rain, tiny pebbles and what could have been ashes. Puddles of varying depths, breadths and colours of water dotted the expanse like the spots on a damp dalmatian.

The weather did bother me though. This was autumn, about October, and the weather was not kind. I had a very nice jacket though.

What we had to do was basically stop every vehicle who came to the gate in the fence and take some details. All we did was ask their name and what they wanted. Then we'd tell where to park in the great space of the car park, which was never full, and often entirely empty. It was big enough to play five-a-side football in, but we never had enough people for a game.

Once we had taken the details we would completely forget them. There was no procedure for writing anything down, and no reception desk to take the details too, from our outpost by the gate. Instead, the visitors would just  drive over to the space we'd indicated and park there. Then walk over the dirt and water to the small, single storey brick building that contained the two offices. The actual scrap yard was about two hundred metres away, down the road. When visitors wanted that, we would point at it for them.

But it was the jacket that made the job for me. It was one of those top quality hiking jackets, something that was still relatively rare back then. It was like the parka I'd worn at primary school, only cool looking, with layers and zips that made me impregnable to the cold. I loved that jacket. There was no company logo on it either.

Which was why I'd actually cried when the zip broke. It just seemed so typical. This was not long after my step-father had tried to kill me in a drunken rage, and then cried like a child the next day as he said sorry over the phone.

I was staying with a friend in his flat. I had few things to call my own. This coat, although on loan, was one of them. Something that defined me in this short period. But the zip broke when night when I was taking it off. I told the boss the next day but he said that there was nothing he could do.

Sitting at the deck chairs with Sean was still okay though. But later that in the day the boss returned and told us he didn't need us any more. He took the coats off us and we had to walk home. Sean told me that the agency that had got him the work was crap, and I agreed. I didn't know what agency he was with.

I still think of that coat though. It was the best I'd ever owned, until the zip broke.

To find out more about Ray Doyle and his life as a van driver, buy 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Sport: More Art Than You Realise

One thing that struck me about the recent Olympic Games was how it grabbed people who professed not to like sport.

Someone else pointed out in a newspaper article that sport has all the drama, narrative and passion of great art. The pattern seems to have been repeated across the summer, with Andy Murray winning tennis tournaments and our cycling team, backed with Sky's cash, showing other sports how you work collectively to achieve great things for the common good.

The idea that you do not like sport in this country often seems to be predicated upon the idea that 'people like me don't like sport'. What people seem to mean by that is that they don't like football.

But from roller derby to archery, more people in the UK seemed to have realised that most sport actually has nothing whatsoever to do with football and its extreme self-regard.

Sport, in fact, reflects human life. It allows us to construct narratives, to identify with causes beyond out daily lives, to feel part of a community with common aims and to share in the glory of achievement.

It allows us to empathise with struggle and sacrifice, as well as feel that there is some kind of higher purpose. Sport provides flawed heroes and appealing villains.

However much Ayn Rand's hatred of kindness and love of selfishness infects society, sport promises something more. Almost every great sporting story involves some measure of human companionship and solidarity.

It also allows us to experience empathy for losers, to share their pain, in a black/white binary moral universe very similar to that used by Hollywood. The big pictures it paints gives it an audience that most artists would struggle to even conceive.

Those who decry sport and write it off as barbarism probably just had very little aptitude for it as youngsters. Not being naturally good at something does tend to put people off. These people probably make cheese or do morris dancing or buy antiques in their spare time, things every bit as absurd in a modern society as voluntarily running 26.2 miles.

George Orwell may have termed sport as 'war without the shooting', and perhaps he was right in some senses. But surely if we can turn warfare into something symbolic and metaphorical that is a sign of civilisation?

I'll be exploring the links between sport and literature further on this blog in the future, with some interviews and articles dealing with authors who have consciously used sport in order to provide a wider framework for other concepts and ideas.

In the meantime, here's some art about football...