Can Manchester Rugby club bounce back from rock bottom?
Can Manchester Rugby club bounce back from rock bottom?
“History must be written of, by and for the survivors,” goes an old saying, as the venerable Victorian clubs still going strong today can agree.
The mid 19th-century was, in sporting terms, a time of prehistoric flux, with no league programme, no cup competitions and the rules of football and rugby variable, interchangeable and in need of codification, as local rules for traditional games going back centuries varied wildly.
As a result this ancient history is full of half-forgotten civilisations, ones that took a wrong turn and got lost in the sands of time, of trailblazers overtaken and left lagging behind.
Even after the Football Association drew up the rules for association football in 1863, and after the founding of the Rugby Football Union eight years later, clubs would switch between codes and colours in a haphazard fashion, based on arguments, opportunism or sheer whim.
Some of these earliest sporting institutions started life far removed from the game they play nowadays, with some football clubs having pasts as rugby or even cricket clubs and vice versa.
One such club is Manchester Rugby Club, founded as Manchester Football Club in 1860, two years before the football league’s oldest club, Notts County, and by some distance the first football side in Manchester.
They played their first ever rugby match in 1857 against Liverpool (no, not that one), and also have a notable list of feats with the round ball at their feet.
The first Manchester side to compete in the FA Cup, they were also the first English club side to play competitively in Scotland when they faced Queen's Park FC in the 1883/4 tournament.
“The game that you call rugby union is actually rugby football, and was effectively created before football,” said Pete Clarke, chair of rugby at Manchester Rugby Club.
“We have never changed codes, but the soccer hooligans of Manchester United have commandeered the name of football.”
As far as rugby is concerned, they provided several players for the first ever international match between England and Scotland in 1871, and former captain A N Hornby was the first of only two men to lead England in both rugby union and cricket.
However, despite such a proud history at the cutting edge of the formation of two sports, the club is now a mere footnote – a third successive relegation has taken them down to National League 3, the fifth tier of domestic English rugby.
Despite solid triple-figure attendances following the side at Grove Park in Cheadle Hulme, their home since the 1970s, a proud and traditional club now has an unwanted piece of history – its 63-successive league defeats and counting, spread over two years, is an English record.
Beating the previous longest losing league run of 55, a record held by Runcorn Highfield from February 1988 to January 1991, Manchester go into the new season in August desperate to get the monkey off their backs.
Pete felt that although they had played a significant part in the early days of the sports, a golden weave through the sepia-tinted past was no guarantee against lean years in the future.
“We’re proud of the role we played,” he said. “I suppose it’s a balance – just because it’s a strong tradition it’s arrogant to think it entitles us for something. I don’t think as a society we’re guardians of history.”
Manchester had been bobbing along merrily enough throughout the 20th century, but then the advent of professionalism in the 90s set about a chain of events which sowed the seeds of the present malaise.
The loss of 85% of their RFU funding in 2009 was the beginning of the rot, seeing them quickly drop from Division 1 rugby (known before 2009 as Division 2, two tiers below the Aviva Premiership) into their current perilous position.
“Rugby union only embraced professionalism long after football,” said Pete.
“For a long time [it was] an amateur sport. What it delivered as a benefit was a very strong international team and Premiership.
“What then happened was the RFU decided too much money was going out of the game and cut the funding below the top two divisions.”
“We were unfortunate to be promoted to that division then and doubly unfortunate to be relegated the next season.”
“We had players who weren’t playing for the club but for the money – it was a mercenary approach.
Despite the unlucky timing of their ups and downs, Pete was also ready to admit the club should accept some of the blame for their current woes.
“It’s all very well until the money dries up. We failed to think that through and we’ve been paying the penalties ever since.”
They may be nearing rock bottom, but Pete and his team are optimistic about their chances of reviving the club.
Pete said: “We have to find positives when you’re rebuilding and we’re not going to find them on the pitch. Our guys have been valiant in their efforts to compete against players paid a damn sight more.”
“We’re trying to rebuild the club from a very, very low base,” he added. “We have got great facilities so if we start winning on the pitch we’ll bring back the players and supporters.”
If there’s one thing that can cheer the Manchester faithful, other than flicking through sepia-tinted photographs in history books, it’s that they are still some way off the world record losing streak – that ignoble title is held by Caltech Beaver, the basketball team of California Institute of Technology.
Their 310-match losing streak in the NCAA Division III, only ended this February, spanned 26 years and was so notorious it even became the subject of a 2007 documentary, Quantum Hoops.
The good times most certainly feel like ancient history for the storied Manchester Rugby Club, and their important role in the early days of rugby and football is not reflected by their recent struggles.
“History is written by the winners,” goes an old saying, but it has a special place reserved for significant others, be they influential playmakers, antediluvian lawmakers or unlucky serial losers. Manchester Rugby Club will not end up on the scrap heap of history, but they may not come to be remembered in the way they may want.