When an amateur sports club requires an official historian, it is obvious that there is more to that team than immediately meets the eye.
And that is certainly the case with Manchester Rugby Club.
On the surface, Manchester is a humble club plying its trade in the sixth tier of English rugby, with an intense and successful emphasis on youth.
But not only did the club become one of the first official rugby clubs in 1860, play a part in the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871, and supply four members to the first every England squad in the same year, but the club’s football team predates both of their illustrious neighbours, United and City.
Albert Neilson Hornby, the only man ever to captain England at both cricket and rugby, was a Manchester member, and no less than six RFU presidents have been affiliated with the club, most recently Dr Thomas Kemp in 1971.
But the days of Manchester mixing it with the big boys of English rugby came to an end in the 1970s, when RFU funding was withdrawn and local backers couldn’t foot the bill.
And with the game turning professional in 1995, the likelihood of the club regaining their former status seems unlikely, leaving it to individuals like Len Balaam to preserve the memory of its achievements.
Here’s the programme from England v Wales, 15/01/1910; good to see that Manchester’s Len Haigh is in the starting XV! pic.twitter.com/lzZtqrxEGH
— ManchesterRugbyClub (@ManchesterRugby) January 15, 2015
Since taking the role of historian in 1980, Len, a former player at the club, has preserved the ‘old programmes and pictures’ at the club’s home in Cheadle Hulme – ‘if you have someone around to catch it and put it in a box then it’s always there in twenty years time’.
Speaking to MM, Len admitted that the club’s raison d’être may well have changed over the years, but said that both the club’s past and its present were sources of pride.
“The club is a very interesting part of Manchester life, we used to be central in the city in many ways,” he said.
“But we won’t ever go professional, and I don’t think we want to be.
“We’re about developing a community club, where anybody with one leg and one arm can go down and enjoy themselves on a Saturday.
“We’ve got an extremely good junior set up, which is probably one of the best junior sections in the North of England and it runs very well.
“If you go down there on a weekend it’s absolutely packed with kids enjoying themselves.
“You see these young lads of 11 and 12, and they grow up slowly, and the next thing they’ll be representing Cheshire or Lancashire and they still talk to you, they’re still your mate, they still remember.
“Here, you feel like you’ve got an input, whatever work you do there’s always an end product.
“And that is what a club is about.”
And it is that community feel that Len feels makes grassroots rugby – and Manchester in particular – a joy to watch, in comparison with wealthier branches of the sport.
He said: “I really don’t see a lot of point going down the road to pay £100 to see England playing someone or other – I’d rather go and watch the guys in the red and white hoops!
“But then I’m a grassroots rugby man, I’m for people being able to go out and enjoy themselves.
“I don’t see the point with supporting someone like Sale when they’ve got 15 people you’ve never met in your life playing – how important can it be that Sale win?
“If they’re short of a fly-half they’ll go and buy him from France or somewhere.
“The big problem is that Manchester then becomes a feeder club because if a Manchester player is told he’s good enough to play for England, he’s also going to be told that he has to go and play for Sale.”
The harsh realities of the modern landscape of professional rugby union have never been more apparent than at the ongoing World Cup.
Held all over the country – primarily in football stadiums – the tournament was intended to raise the national profile of the sport.
However, the statistic that this has been the most expensive sport tournament in history to buy tickets for does not reflect well on organisers, regardless of the level of glitz and glamour that has been injected into it.
Just as important to the RFU is the legacy of the tournament, with the organisation keen to avoid the pitfalls of the 2012 London Olympics, which promised much but delivered little in that regard.
And although Len did admit that it has been ‘a good showcase of rugby’, he believes that the money that has been pumped into the competition may have been wiser spent providing facilities for the grassroots that the tournament’s legacy hopes to influence.
‘Play Rugby Make History’ – MRC, one of the world’s oldest clubs, are looking for new players, senior men and ladies pic.twitter.com/gBWH8z5UDI
— ManchesterRugbyClub (@ManchesterRugby) August 13, 2014
He said: “Sometimes you go down there to Twickenham, you see all these flashing lights and fireworks going off before the game, and then you go to some youth team playing somewhere in Manchester and they can’t afford proper drainage.
“Where the RFU used to at one time dish out the money I think the money probably goes in different directions now.
“I’m not blaming anyone for it, but that’s the way I look at it.”
No blame is attributed and no pity is asked for.
A certain level of nostalgia could be forgiven for a club with such prestigious heritage.
But when asked if there was any regret about how Manchester Rugby Club had faded from the forefront of the international rugby scene, Len was unequivocal in his response.
“It isn’t sad, it’s life isn’t it?” he said.
“A number of clubs in the north of England have gone bust.
“A number of clubs struggled and they’ve had to sell ground off to stay alive, whereas Manchester has never had to sell our ground off, we’ve kept our own ground.
“We’re quite content to be a nonpaid amateur club playing good rugby.”
And although the club may have been forced into change over their long history, that simple pride shows that, for their historian at least, change is not necessarily seen to be a bad thing.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyDonleySport
Images courtesy of Manchester Rugby Club, via Twitter, with thanks