As you pull away from the M62 and into the West Yorkshire town of Castleford, two things stand out straight away. One is the overwhelming smell of malt from the local factories; the other is the vast number of people walking around in black and amber clothing.
In these parts, rugby league is not so much a hobby as it is a way of life. A quarter of the town’s 40,000 population watch Castleford Tigers other every week – yet they have spent the majority of the Super League era fighting relegation, succumbing to that fate twice. But recently, the tide has been turning and, at the midway point of Super League’s regular season, Castleford sit atop the table. However, it is a transformation that has not happened overnight.
“A few years ago we didn’t have two ha’pennies to scratch our backside with,” explains the club’s chief executive, Steve Gill.
Gill has spent most of his life affiliated with Castleford. He grew up operating the scoreboard on match days before eventually becoming head of youth. Then, four years ago, he was surprisingly elevated to the role of chief executive.
Even as recently as that though, Castleford were in a precarious state both on and off the field. “Frightening was an understatement of what I found,” he explains. “We were a million quid in the red and within three months, it was looking like administration and God knows what else. It was scary how close we came to disaster.”
Slowly, Gill began to rebuild off the field – and on it, he tasked the former Featherstone coach Daryl Powell with turning around their playing fortunes. “We had to convince certain people that Daryl was the right man but as soon as I spoke to him I knew within five minutes he was the man for this project,” he says.
In the 1960s, under the legendary coach George Clinton, Castleford were famously dubbed “Classy Cas”, owing to their free-flowing style. Powell has not only helped reattach that moniker with a brand of eye-catching rugby, but has also brought promise and fresh hope to a club still rooted to their principles.
Gill says: “After a game last year, I went into the changing rooms to see if everyone was okay and the first thing I saw was our assistant coach, Danny Orr, sweeping the changing rooms. I got a brush and helped him out and we do that every single game. When we leave a ground we want to show respect; leave it as we found it.
“The town has been through so much together. Rugby is the one thing that unites the people of Castleford and there’s a fever around the town about what we’re doing. Everyone is addicted to it; you walk around Castleford and everyone is wearing our colours. We feel we’ve a duty to the community.”
But even in the present day, there remain problems. Castleford’s old Wheldon Road ground is falling apart; the club have plans to move into a new stadium across the town in 2020 but until then, upkeep of a crumbling yet historic venue Gill continually refers to as “the old girl” costs time and money.
“It’s been tough,” he admits. “It’s taken a lot of hard work to get it in a position where we can use it. But it’s got history and character attached to it and we all love it. When we’ve gone, that’ll be it, we won’t ever be able to watch rugby here. It’ll be a sad day.”
Times have changed in Castleford. Once upon a time the target was Super League survival: now it is much more. “We want a trophy parade at the old girl before we leave,” Gill insists. “Those initial days in charge were dark days, having to make cold decisions to get us back on a level footing. But we had a goal, and that was to be at the top of Super League. Nothing’s won in April but we’re on the right track.”