Inside RL: Wildcats at crossroads in fight for existence – Smith

Belle Vue, Wakefield.
Belle Vue, Wakefield.
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WAKEFIELD TRINITY Wildcats are one of the oldest clubs in rugby league, but the long-term future looks grim.

The club dates back to 1873, when it was formed by members of the Holy Trinity Church and Wakefield were among the founder members of the Northern Rugby Union in 1895.

Along with Leeds, Batley and Widnes, they are among the only founder members still playing on the site they occupied in the sport’s inaugural season, 120 years ago. Though Widnes’ ground has been completely rebuilt, any Leeds, Batley or Wakefield fan from 1895, with access to a time machine, would probably recognise their club’s current surroundings.

While the others have all made significant improvements to their stadium in recent years, Wakefield’s plan has been to move to a new base, but that now seems to be hanging by a thread. At a public meeting last week, club representatives criticised Wakefield Council over the lack of progress being made towards a new stadium.

Club chairman Michael Carter says the public inquiry which approved the Newmarket development did so on the understanding a stadium would be included in the plans, but work has already begun without any movement on the club’s new home. He is now considering taking legal advice in a bid to ensure the stadium is built, pointing out – quite rightly – that neighbouring towns or cities, including Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield, all have far superior facilities.

Belle Vue is an expensive place to maintain in its current state. Carter says it costs the club around £250,000 per year, to play in what is, without a doubt, the worst stadium in Super League. The club want to move and so are understandably unwilling to spend big money on major improvements. Facilities are poor, there’s very little on-site car parking and that may well be contributing to Wildcats’ disastrous attendances this season.

The visit of Wigan Warriors should be one of the highlights of the season. Last week’s match was televised, played on a Thursday night and during a terrible run of form and results, but even taking all that into consideration, an attendance of just 3,107 was appalling. On gates like that, there has to be a huge question mark over whether the club is sustainable, certainly at the top level.

There are two sides to every story, but Carter is justified in wondering if the council want a professional club in the city. And if they do, they need to start providing real, practical support. Wakefield has no league football team, or even one in the higher reaches of the non-league pyramid. The rugby union club has gone and now the full-time rugby league outfit are struggling for support.

Though there are two more clubs, Castleford Tigers and Featherstone Rovers, in the same council area, the state Wildcats are in at the moment hardly reflects well on the city.

It’s not all the council’s fault, if they are to blame at all. Wildcats haven’t been a well-run club for many years and success has been hard to come by, though they have never finished bottom of Super League since joining the competition in 1999.

With a broken down stadium, sparse crowds and a struggling team, Wakefield’s home games aren’t exactly a fun experience at the moment.

But the club is an important part of the city’s history and Wakefield will be poorer if they drop out of Super League, which is a real possibility this year.

These are still tough times economically, but the sponsors and supporters are out there. They need to decide if they want an elite-level club on their doorstep and, if so, back that up by clicking through the turnstiles, taking out an advert or any of the multiple other ways it’s possible to help.

Nobody wants to be associated with a struggling team, but Wildcats will continue to flounder without new and additional income. It is a vicious circle.

The rugby staff also have a huge part to play. Some recent performances have been unacceptable, but if the players can at least show they care, then maybe others in the community will do the same.

Tom Briscoe.

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