Before I start this review (other, more knowledgeable ones are available), I should confess that I know very little about Rugby League. Being middle-class and privately educated, I play and watch Rugby Union rather than League. With this in mind it’s fitting that class is at the centre of Anthony Broxton’s enjoyable history of Rugby League in the Thatcher era and beyond. The main premise of the book is that Rugby League was able to recover from its 1970s state of decline, culminating in a humiliation in the 1982 Ashes by Australia, by embracing many of the changes in 1980s Britain, whether this was increased emphasis on the individual in the form of celebrity players, deregulated labour markets, or changes in technology.
The book ends with the 1995 World Cup final played between Britain and Australia at a sold-out Wembley Stadium and the creation of the Rugby Super League as a consequence of Rupert Murdoch’s duel for the broadcasting rights to League in Australia with Kerry Packer, demonstrating just how globalised the world had become by the mid-90s. By chronicling the developments in Rugby League, from fan culture to professionalism (one of the historically intrinsically working-class aspects of Rugby League), Broxton also provides an overview of shifting class cultures in the 1980s.
It should be noted that the book is not a paean to Thatcherism, far from it; it offers a nuanced narrative. For instance, the section detailing the impact of the Miners’ Strike on Featherstone’s Rugby League team is a poignant illustration of how unemployment scars multiple facets of a community, including leisure. Equally, the book’s final section, which chronicles the backlash of fans to the proposed Super League, which initially proposed for several clubs to merge and cease to exist in their own right, was interesting in that it highlighted the connection to local place and tradition that would become a common reference point in the Brexit debates from 2016 onward, though this is perhaps more implicit than explicit.
Throughout its course, Hope and Glory provides various snapshots of working-class culture rooted in specific times and places. For instance, there are references to the fantastic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and Coronation Street (and, of course, This Sporting Life) that provide glimpses of Rugby League’s cultural standing in Britain. As well as this, there are frequent mentions of how changes in material culture impacted the sport, such as the changes to printing technology that the book states intensified after Murdoch’s victory in the 1986 Wapping Dispute (one of the major defeats of organised labour) that allowed for better quality photos of matches to be printed, via computer photosetting, making the sport more marketable.
One of the noticeable themes throughout the book is the emphasis on celebrity players which the author, when I discussed the book with him, acknowledged had always enticed him. In particular, the players who receive the most attention are Des Drummond, Ellerey Hanley, and Martin Offiah. Uniting these players, other than being tremendously talented footballers, is that they are all black, and the book does not shy away from engaging with the racism that each of these players experienced during their career (and their lives in general). While the book does rightfully point out that Rugby League was a much earlier champion of black players than association football, it does not offer a romanticised view of League. The chapter on women is keen to celebrate the impact of specific women on the game, such as the journalist Margaret Ratcliffe and Rugby League Council member Kath Hetherington, Broxton makes clear that these were women swimming against the tide, while offering some nuance on the increasing sexualisation of the “personality girls” in the form of Miss Rugby League
While the sport’s culture is not uncritically engaged with, the heights that it reached as a purely sporting spectacle are rightly celebrated. Just as Broxton uses frequent contemporary cultural references to provide a wider historical context, he also makes consistent reference to local and national newspaper columns to chart the development of the sport on and off the pitch. The referenced local coverage reflects League’s reliance on a strong print culture as it points to a now largely lost world of local journalism (which has recently seen substantial job cuts at Reach), while references to national newspapers highlight the improvement in the sport’s national standing. The most enjoyable of these are Stephen Jones, a Rugby Union correspondent for The Times, observing that the professional Rugby League is making the amateur Rugby Union look second rate by comparison. The book convincingly demonstrates that Rugby League was a distinctly working-class sport that, for a brief moment, reached the cutting edge of professional sport in the world. Iin terms of diet and conditioning the sport was at least a decade ahead of domestic football (though, in fairness, there was nothing to indicate that consuming multiple pints each day was not optimum sporting preparation).
I would imagine that this book will have prompted some debate on how much Rugby League’s 1980s boom was due to the changes wrought by the wider political and economic contexts of Thatcherism; however, as a narrative device it certainly works. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that League has never again enjoyed the level of popularity it obtained for a fleeting moment in the 1990s. As the book details, much of the 1980s boom was built on only semi-tangible foundations, as was acknowledged by Maurice Lindsey (a controversial figure in League and the architect of the Super League), with his observation that 60% of match attendees still came from the same four postal districts along the M62. Essentially, League was never able to consistently generate the cash to match the cheques written by its sudden and rapid expansion. In this sense, the sport’s mushrooming and the ensuing rush for glory with little thought for future sustainability was intrinsically Thatcherite. Broxton’s exploration of this, with its meanderings through wider working-class life and societal changes, is well worth a read.