A workforce of 70-somethings, salsa, spiritual healing, karaoke, quiz nights and the occasional funeral – when you’re Rotherham Titans, it takes more than just rugby to keep things ticking along.
Phil Duke emerges from the Rotherham Titans clubhouse beneath a sign with the words writ large, ‘Good People, Good Environment’. A gentle giant of a man, he’s been painting one of the offices inside and is coming out to have a chat with his former team-mate Dave Hudson who’s been busying himself with the electrics pitchside. “See that grey box down there,” Dave points out what we guess is a junction box attached to the fencing, “well, I’m taking power from there and taking it out to the shed over there – we’re going to have some electric signs towards the road, advertising the club.”
At 75, Phil, a former welder at the steelworks, is the older of the two. Dave, an electrician who once worked on the Vulcan bombers in the RAF, is a spring chicken at 73. Every Tuesday you’ll find them at Rotherham’s Clifton Lane ground, along with half a dozen or so other septuagenarian vice presidents. They’ll be painting, fusing, fitting, plastering, cutting, sticking – doing everything and anything to literally keep the Championship club together. “There’s a group of about eight or nine of us who used to play who come up to do various jobs,” explains Phil. “We’ll potter about, painting, or whatever needs doing. We were all amateurs, none of us professionals, they all come and go, don’t they?
“It’s quite quiet this time of year though,” he continues, “so we’re just keeping the ground as tidy as we can, which can be a bit of problem at times when you’ve got the youth of today wandering onto the ground and causing havoc.
“We had to finish early today though, because of the funeral – I don’t know whose funeral it was, but they hired the club out for it. Rugby is a very expensive sport so you have to do a lot of things.”
The two VPs have been part of the fabric of Rotherham rugby for almost 60 years. “I was a scrum half,” says Dave, “I left school at 15, came straight to the rugby club, and played until I joined the air force, but I’d still come home at weekends and play for them. He’s been here longer than me.”
“I joined in 1960,” continues Phil, “I was second row, I used to be quite big, but I’m not now.” “He’s still big,” chips in Dave.
“In those days, there were just a wooden hut here on this site,” continues Phil, “and that was both the clubhouse and changing facilities. We didn’t get any crowds in those days, it was literally one man and a dog, weren’t it?”
“Yeah it were,” agrees Dave. “It’s always been a good spirit hasn’t it? The spirit of rugby has always struck me. Such a good spirit, not just us, but the opponents who visit as well.”
“You’ve got to remember,” says Phil, continuing his history lesson, “that in those days you couldn’t get a full side to training because this was a steel town and they all had different shifts – you’d never get them in the same place. In my day, this was a working town and everyone went to either the steelworks or a trade, that’s how it was. It’s going downhill now, but it’s been a good town. There’s still a little bit of steel left, but there must have been 15,000 in and around this town working in steel and now if there’s 1,000, I’d be surprised.”
Whatever’s happened with the town, the rugby has always been a mainstay for both Phil and Dave. “The main thing about Rotherham, is that we keep the core values of a proper rugby club, as we like to call ourselves, and we’ve not gone to a soccer ground,” continues Phil. “We did two years at Millmoor (the club used Rotherham United FC’s ground in 2003), but that was different. Even then we used to go the ground for the game and then come straight back here.”
“We also have things like Titans Tuesday,” says Dave. “Every week, players turn up and go through the game with us, it’s really good.”
Titans Tuesday is the reason we’ve travelled to Rotherham. An informal debrief with the players and coaches chatting to fans about the weekend’s results is a great idea, but, in the case of Rotherham’s current campaign – they’d lost all but one of 14 league fixtures when we visit – it seems pretty brave too. “The two coaches are doing it tonight,” says Phil. “We’ve had two tough seasons [the demise of London Welsh saved them last season] but, I mean, you can’t take it out on the players can you? They’re just doing it to the best of their ability or their coach’s ability, whichever way you want to look at it. No, it’s all pretty amiable, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s very good,” says Dave, “it’s that spirit of rugby again.”
“There’s still a lot of the ethos of amateur rugby in this club,” says Phil, “a hell of a lot. We drifted away from it for a bit, but we’ve drifted back and I don’t think we’ve ever been in danger of losing it.”
Without having yet set foot inside the club, Phil and Dave continue to give us the insight into Rotherham rugby we’d hoped for. It’s even started to snow, but they’re happy to carry on chatting. Why has Rotherham struggled? “Money basically,” says Phil. “We can’t pay the players what some of the other clubs can. You’ve only got to look in south Yorkshire, look at Doncaster, two mega-rich people backing them and we can’t compete – they’re in the rich 100 list aren’t they?”
“Have you seen their set-up?” asks Dave. “It looks like an absolute palace compared to this.”
“We can only offer one-year deals,” says Phil, “so if a player has a good season they get picked off, and if they don’t shine, well, y’know, it’s difficult.”
Anyone shining this season? “The scrumhalf is the liveliest,” responds Phil, “but he’s leaving next year – he’s off to Newport.”
“They use us as a stepping stone,” says Dave.
“Gareth Steenson is captain of Exeter this year, isn’t he?” offers Phil as another example.
“I just want us to survive and I think we will,” says Phil, referring to financial survival rather than Championship. “The two directors have done really well in a very difficult situation and they want to work their way back and I’m sure we will. But I’ll be happy in the league below, it’s still a good league and there’s good rugby.”
Stepping in from the cold, the reminders of Rotherham’s glory days are on every wall. David Strettle, John Bentley, Stu Forster, Sean Lamont, Hendre Fourie, Guy Easterby, Kevin Maggs, and Henry Paul are just some of the stars of an international Titans board. Another plaque commemorates their ‘Ten Golden Years 1987-97’, when the club rose from North East Division 1 to National League 2’.
Arguably, the best was to come three years later when they won the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two in 2000 and were promoted to become Yorkshire’s first top-flight club. Still at Clifton Lane, they crammed in 4,000 fans (officially at least, one fan tells us it was closer to 6,000) and would even record wins at home against Saracens (19-8 – remarkable considering the away game earlier in the season was lost 59-5) and London Irish (19-18).
Relegation followed, but they dusted themselves down and won the second division again, only for the RFU’s ever-changing entry criteria to deny them promotion. That move to the Millmoor football ground solved the problem the year after when they won the title, but it brought even less success. A squad with wholesale changes in the close season struggled and were relegated again – winning only one game in the process. It wasn’t even Rotherham RFC who were relegated, but Rotherham Titans, having added the suffix due to a sponsorship deal.
The Championship has been their home ever since, although that run looks to be drawing to a close this campaign.
A win against Cornish Pirates the week before has given them the tiniest bit of hope, and it at least means this Titans Tuesday can start on a positive note. Bar manager Tara Townsend is expecting a good turnout. “It does depend on the weather,” she says, looking at the snow outside while pouring us a pint of the club brew, Rotherham Titans Ale. “It always depends on how they’ve done though. If we’ve smashed it we’ll get more of a crowd. That said, either way, it’s still a big crowd, the fans are loyal.”
Karen and Gary are among the first to arrive. “They’re phenomenal nights,” says Karen of Titans Tuesday, an event joined by salsa lessons and the Spiritual Open Circle on the weekly social calendar. “You get to know what’s happening with the boys, you get an honest view and they’ll say if they played really rubbish. If there’s not one on, we’re at a loss. It’s more like a family here than anything else.”
It’s been a tough season. “It has, but we’ve been here every week, come what may,” agrees Karen. “I stood and cried in the crowd at Leeds because I just thought ‘this is the end, we just can’t get anything together’. I thought ‘that’s it, we can’t come back from this, we’re going down’. So I had a few tears at Leeds then, when I got back home, I gave myself a good talking to and said ‘the boys need you now more than ever’.”
Fellow regulars, Lesley and Alan join them. “You should come in and do your interviews on Saturdays,” suggest Lesley, “then you would see a true family rugby club. Even the visiting supporters will say the same. If we have a disco some of them will stay too, like the other night, when we had the karaoke.”
“That was a good laugh,” agrees Karen, before explaining how the victory over Cornish Pirates led to a proper knees-up including the players getting on the mic. “The boys really need to be patted on the back because they’re not singers.”
“In fact, two of them,” begins Lesley, “the South Africans, begged me not to pay – because you had to pay £5 to get a player singing – and we got them both up singing. One of them did Barbie Girl.”
“And Ben Foley sang, what was it, what do we always sing here?” asks Lesley.
“I can’t think, what is that song we always sing here? What is it?”
“Wagon Wheels,” answers Karen. “There are certain songs that when they come on, the whole place gets dancing, Wagon Wheels is one, and what’s that other one called?”
“Penny Arcade,” says Lesley.
“We have a dance we do to Penny Arcade and the players have to do it,” continues Karen. “If Tara [the bar manager] is being kind they can stand up on the stools – the South Africans were doing it and one of them was 6ft 6in and his head was on the ceiling.”
“And they did that one with all the actions too, that was really funny too,” says Lesley. “Star Trekkin’,” says Karen.
Rotherham might be the place that opposition players hate to visit, but the same can’t be said of the fans. “Everyone wishes us the best,” continues Lesley, “they don’t want us to go down.”
“We had some people up from London Scottish before Christmas and one of their supporters actually sobbed,” recalls Karen, “I gave her a lift back to her hotel and she sobbed all the way back – she was clinging on to us. I said, ‘we’re going to see you again, we’re going to National One, not disappearing off the face of the earth’.”
Ex-players don’t even disappear from Rotherham, not completely anyway. With the town not being exactly the Silicon Valley of the north, a lot of the players are supported by individuals – everyone we speak to, sponsors a Titan. “Our lad has gone,” says Alan. “He went to Edinburgh. He came from Harlequins, played about five games, and then phoned me up and said he’d signed for Edinburgh. We’re still in touch though. The lad we sponsored the year before went to Cinderford, we’re still in touch with him too.”
“Our lad went to Jersey last season,” says Karen, “and me and my daughter got bouquets of flowers and my husband got a bottle of Scotch.
“And that lad who went to Jersey, Max Argyle,” offers Alan, “his mum and dad still come and watch us.”
The coaches have arrived for Titans Tuesday. After the departure of Andy Key, Nic Rouse has stepped up as head coach, although it’s two of his young deputies who are facing the fans tonight: player-coach Joe Barker and new skills coach Ed Robinson, son of former England and Scotland boss Andy. While it’s Ed’s first Titans Tuesday, Joe is an old hat and the first people he greets are Anne and Penny who are sat in their customary two-seater sofa right at the front. “I’ve only been coming for 17 years,” says Anne, “that’s not much compared to Penny.”
Penny? “Since 1979. My husband was up playing golf, and I just wandered in on the proviso that I’m a Yorkshirewoman and if I have to pay then I’m not going in, but I didn’t have to so I came in. I actually knew a lot of people here, some of them from church, and just enjoyed the chitter chatter in the crowd.”
As with everyone we meet, talk is as much of the karaoke as the game that went before it. “You should have been here that night,” says Penny, “the joint was jumping!”
“It was magic,” agrees Anne, “it was just like the old amateur days. That bloke who sang the Wagon Wheels song…”
“Ben Foley,” responds Penny. “He had such a lovely voice,” continues Anne, “he was my favourite, like a pop singer, better than some in fact!”
Relegation doesn’t worry them, in fact going up would be worse. “I don’t want to go back to the Premiership ever,” says Penny. “Ooh it was awful, you couldn’t get near the players, it was like segregation. Stewards had their back to the pitch, watching you in the stands and you were like ‘ooh, you don’t need to do that.’
“Northampton was quite nice,” offers Anne. “Yeah that was alright,” agrees Penny, “they were quite good.”
“Quins was alright actually,” says Penny, “I had a jolly evening at Quins from what I can remember.”
“At London Irish,” begins Anne, “we arrived and they randomly picked me and Sid to go into the directors’ box and have lunch and the whole kit and caboodle. We just got off the coach and they said ‘are you Rotherham fans? Do you want to come to the director’s box?’ So we did.”
Titans Tuesday begins. Joe and Ed talk them through elements of the Cornish Pirates game and what had been happening in training before and after the match. Ed, in particular, is keen to get across his methods, talking of the ‘chaos’ drills he likes to implement and how the boys have responded.
As the tactics talk continues, we wander to the club shop in the next room, where two other Rotherham mainstays are willing to share their wisdom, Jackie and Yvonne. “Were you the one who interviewed Phil and David?” asks Jackie “Well, Phil’s my husband. I had just started going out with Phil when I first came here in 1959. They used to play and the girlfriends and wives used to do the meals on the Saturday afternoon.”
“Same with me,” says Yvonne. “Tony, the hooker. We would have a club social once a month because it was just that wooden shed. We’d all go out together on a Saturday night though.”
“Nobody had cars, so it was all on the buses,” adds Jackie.
Although decades of service between the two of them, Jackie and Yvonne have only run the shop as it is – a little enclave of claret and blue memorabilia – for ten years or so. “It was 2004 when we nearly went bankrupt,” says Jackie of their start date, before adding, “not the shop, the club – when Mick Yarlett finished.
“We never had a proper shop before that, did we?”
“It was always out of cupboards and drawers,” says Yvonne, “but when it nearly went, Martin Jenkinson and Nick Cragg said to Tony about starting up a shop and I said I’ll have a go.
“Phil said ‘you’ll give her a hand, won’t you?’ and that was it,” says Jackie.
What’s the biggest seller? “Replica shirts,” says Yvonne. “When everyone likes it,” says Jackie.
Most unusual? “The Y-fronts,” offers Jackie. “Not Y-fronts,” laughs Yvonne. “Boxer shorts!” “We do all this ourselves,” continues Yvonne, pointing to the “printed pens, mugs, fridge magnets. The bobble hats are popular because the players have them – whatever the players have, they want.”
“If people want anything they’ll ring Tony Jenkinson (the team manager) and say, ‘is the shop open?’ And he’ll ring either me and Yvonne and we’ll come down and open up. We’re here on Tuesday nights and then for every home game, two hours before.”
Titans Tuesday is now into the Q & A session and, by all accounts, it’s very convivial, with people asking questions about Ed’s famous dad and his own rugby background. Head injuries had forced him to retire at 19, and he began coaching local sides, before he was recommended to Nic Rouse by Russell Earnshaw, the England U18 coach.
At 24, he’s probably one of the youngest coaches to ever work in the Championship, but he doesn’t think like that. Even when we ask if it’s hard to be so young, he counters: “I’ve been coaching for a few years now so I don’t think of myself as young really. I think I’ve been ready for a role like this for a couple of years.”
He’s a fan of Titans Tuesday, too. “This was my first one and it’s been brilliant,” he says. “These guys give a lot to the club, so to give to give something back to them is pretty cool.”
With no prompting, Ed admits he was also taken aback by the party last weekend. “After the game on Saturday, there were about 200 people here after half ten at night doing karaoke,” he says, “I’ve never been to a rugby club with that level of participation. It was hard to get a song in with Ben Foley around, he literally sang about ten songs, he was basically putting his name down to sing all the time – he was paying himself to sing.”
Did you sing? “Bat out of Hell – although I regretted it once I saw it was eight-minutes long.”
As we talk, people congratulate him on his presentation, Jackie and Yvonne have now joined their fellow Titans in the bar. Together with Phil, Dave, Lesley, Karen et al., they are definitely the real Titans of Rotherham, it’s just the players get to wear the badge for a couple of hours every Saturday. “There’s been so many memories,” says Jackie. “Although when we had kids, we couldn’t go to the games when they [Phil and his team-mates] went away and they’d all be back late. It was before the days of the lottery, and my dad used to do the pools and I had one line and I used to say if ‘I ever win, I’m going to buy this place and burn it down!” she laughs. “But, no, we wouldn’t ever change it here, would we?”
“No, we wouldn’t,” agrees Yvonne.
Words by Alex Mead. Pictures by Han Lee De Boer
This article was taken from Issue 2 of the RUGBY journal
Issue 5 of RUGBY is out now. Six Nations Storytellers features timeless stories from some of the biggest name in sport, including exclusives with Stuart Lancaster, Sir Bill Beaumont, Tommy Bowe, Serge Betsen, Phil Davies and Chris Paterson.