Even the Wakefield chief executive, Michael Carter, can smile when he considers the irony surrounding his club’s on- and off-field fortunes. For years, one of rugby league’s most famous clubs have kept their heads above water in Super League while trying, and failing, to renovate their beloved but decaying Belle Vue home. Just as success on that front appears to be in sight, relegation threatens.
Parts of Belle Vue remain the same as when the classic film This Sporting Life was shot there in the early 1960s. It is a crumbling wreck and that is being polite. But there has finally been progress after nearly 20 years of effort, with the club awarded funding by the local council to renovate the stadium and bring it into the 21st century at long last. The redevelopment started last month.
The only problem? Just as Wakefield finally make progress off the field, they could be about to suffer irreparable damage on it. With five games remaining in the regular season, Trinity are two points clear of Toulouse at the bottom of Super League. The trap door to the Championship is very much ajar and for a club who have no significant financial backing, relegation could be catastrophic.
“The big question we’d have to answer – and we hope this never materialises – is whether we’d have to go part-time or try to stay full-time, but that would be a challenge,” Carter says. This is the harsh reality facing whoever is relegated; unlike in football there are no parachute payments to speak of and the club in question would receive approximately £200,000 in central funding, down from about £1.6m in Super League.
Carter says: “Since I took control here over a decade ago, we have tried to be as sustainable as possible because we don’t have a sugar daddy. In my experience, there aren’t too many sugar daddies keen on throwing their money into rugby league. With a funding drop in excess of £1m the playing budget simply has to take the brunt of the hit. So it’s then whether we could afford to remain full-time.”
Wakefield have flirted with danger in the past. In 2006, 2015 and 2019 they were involved in final-day fixtures where defeat would have resulted in relegation. On each occasion, they held their nerve and emerged victorious. While this is far from the most precarious position they have known, it is arguably more important than ever they survive this year.
While the funding to renovate the stadium is secure no matter what, remaining in Super League could open the door for genuine progress in Carter’s eyes. “You could argue our car park and stands looked like a demolition site even before the work begun,” he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t entice people to come to Wakefield. But in around a year’s time you’ll have a modern, updated facility that opens doors.
“We can host events throughout the year. We can make money away from our home games, which in turn gets invested into the playing squad. It’ll be easier to attract players and sponsors and it’s all a knock-on effect. But while you’re facing that uncertainty about what league you’re going to be in the following season, if we can be in Super League and have a new facility, we can really take things forward.”
There is also the growing school of thought that yet another league restructure, potentially trimming Super League to 10 teams, could be on the horizon. Being outside Super League if and when that happens almost guarantees exclusion from the top table and the financial rewards that come with it. Victory against Wigan on Sunday would be a sizeable step towards securing top-flight status for another year.
“We compete with what we have and we’re doing well,” Carter says. “I’ve likened us to Wimbledon in the past when they were in the Premier League, punching above their weight and holding their heads above water for a long time. But we’re finally approaching a moment where we believe we can aim higher. We just have to ensure we’re still in Super League by the time the stadium finally comes to fruition.”