Beginning a new series putting the spotlight on junior sports clubs across the city of Leeds, Sam France meets a local couple attempting to put the fun into rugby league for local boys and girls.
For a protective parent, rugby league might not seem like the most obvious choice of activity for their child’s weekends.
Yet over the past six years, one Leeds couple have established arguably the city’s most inclusive youth sports set-up.
The Leeds Underdogs are a club formed with one thing in mind: fun.
Kevin Brock and Diane Marshman brave the mud the whole year round, putting smiles on the faces of all the children in their community.
And if some parents end up being tackled as a result, that’s a price they’re willing to pay.
We get them going in and out of slalom posts and things like that, and the minute they hit four or five, we then get them on the tackle pads.Diane Marshman
From its inception as a mismatched group of 25 youngsters of various ages, the club has grown to now contain teams for four age groups from under-5s to under-13s, with a girls’ team on the way.
“It was our six-year birthday last Friday actually,” club secretary Diane says.
“It started because Kevin was born and bred in the Leeds 16 area, and when his father passed away six years ago, he left Kevin some money.
“We wanted to put something back into the community where he was born.”
Leeds North West’s former MP Greg Mulholland was the most instrumental of a number of prominent local figures who helped the Underdogs find a home, with the club first setting up shop at Bedquilts, near the Headingley Golf Club.
Diane clearly looks back on the early days with some fondness.
“We opened the doors on October 12th,” she says. “Kids turned up of mixed ages. Kevin bought all the t-shirts for the kids as a thank you for coming, he’s really the owner. I just have to do all the work!
“It’s his club, it’s his brand, it’s everything. It’s his baby, if you like.”
Their philosophy? Let kids be kids.
“My motto is ‘as long as the kids are having fun, then we’re doing something right’.
“The minute the kids don’t have fun, then I need to look at what we’re doing wrong.
“Some clubs’ philosophy is ‘look, you’ll win, you’ll win, you’ll win’; ours is about letting your kids go and have fun.”
What really makes the Underdogs stand out is the variation in age ranges taking their first steps at the club.
Now sharing a ground with Leeds Modernians in Cookridge, children as young as three get their first taste of action thanks to Kevin and Diane’s hard work.
But if you’re picturing an army of toddlers with scrum caps, cauliflowered ears and bloody noses, think again. Things are far more light-hearted than that.
Diane says: “At three, we set up a mini obstacle course with little hurdles that they go over, just to get their hand-eye coordination.
“We get them going in and out of slalom posts and things like that, and the minute they hit four or five, we then get them on the tackle pads.
“A lot of the parents say they do go home and try it out on them, but obviously it’s soft tackling at that age.
“Basically it’s a fun obstacle course for them.
“That’s all they want to do! They want to go out and get muddy!
“None of our kids, for some reason, are interested in doing indoor training.
“They all want to go outdoors, so we train all year round because that’s what the kids want to do.”
Though the club has already come a long way since its inception, the Underdogs are hoping to fill out their ranks with a team to represent every age group.
They also hope that by next year, they will be able to put out a dedicated girls’ team.
Diane says that they tend to see a new girl turn up for training every week, and up to under-12s level they can play in mixed teams.
Newcomers to the sport are welcome, and often find that having fun and winning games aren’t mutually exclusive.
“We’ve got one child who had never played rugby league before in his life,” Diane smiles as she tells the story, “and he got Opposition Man of the Match last week.”
Diane and Kevin have put together a genuine community success story with the mixed rugby league team.
And everybody loves an Underdog, don’t they?