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Rugby League at Hope Street

posted 2 May 2018, 04:58 by Roy McDonald   [ updated 3 May 2018, 12:55 ]
This piece was inspired by a reference in a previous article in the Prescot Cables FC programme to the Prescot Panthers RLFC. It appeared in the programme for the postponed game versus Goole, originally scheduled for  3rd February 2018.

In the matchday programme for the Glossop game, mention was made of when Prescot Panthers brought Rugby League to Hope Street.

However, this was not the first time that the oval ball game had been played on the hallowed turf, nor the first time that an incarnation of the “Highfield” club had been resident in Prescot.

The tale is, generally, a sad one of poor performances, garnering little support and regular relocations and name changes.

Wigan Highfield entered the Rugby Football League for the 1922–23 season, playing their home games In Pemberton. Highfield generally struggled in the lower half of the league tables, and in 1932 were renamed London Highfield and relocated to the White City stadium in West London, where most of the games were played under floodlights. Despite reasonable success on the field, the venture was considered unprofitable at the end of the first season and In 1934, Highfield returned north to the Stanley Greyhound stadium in Liverpool and were renamed again as Liverpool Stanley. The move was initially a success and in 1935/36 Stanley won the Lancashire League (a sort of league within a league for clubs either side of the Pennines). However, performances on the field declined and interest in the club quickly waned.

The club had become increasingly concerned about the poor attendances (often less than 200) at their home games and, as a result, sought pastures new.

In March 1940, the Liverpool Stanley Rugby League Club announced that they had reached an agreement with Prescot Urban District Council securing permission to play their “home” matches at Prescot Cables’ Hope Street ground. The Council had granted Cables a moratorium on the rent and rates on the ground for the period of the war, so the income received from the use of the ground would be a welcome return.

Despite their previous name changes, the club decided, this time, to retain the Liverpool Stanley name.

The first game at Hope Street was the first leg of a Lancashire Cup second round tie, on Saturday 16th March 1940, when Stanley entertained Rochdale Hornets. As the Prescot district had never been regarded as a rugby stronghold, the Hornets club were concerned about the move and whether the Prescot public would take to the Rugby League game, with the risk that the attendance would not be large enough to cover the expenses of the fixture. Hornets were mindful that their league game in Liverpool earlier in the season had amassed the princely sum of £5 in gate receipts.

In the event, the novelty of game attracted about 2,000 spectators, with gate receipts of £77 and the Stanley officials were more than pleased with the success of the venture, especially as they won the match by 5 points to 2. As the Liverpool Evening Express reported, “Liverpool Stanley had a rousing welcome at Prescot. Spectators even pushed over the railings in their excitement.”

Encouraged by the turnout, the remainder of Liverpool Stanley’s home fixtures for the 1939/40 season were played at Hope Street, with admission set at 1 shilling for Adults, and half price for Ladies, Members of the Armed Forces and the unemployed. More than 2,500 turned up to see Stanley lose 2 – 9 to Wigan.

Stanley entered the Lancashire Division of the Rugby Football League for the 1940/41 season and now regarded Hope Street as their home ground. Despite mixed results, Prescotian support for Rugby League in the town remained heathy, but it became increasingly difficult for clubs to field teams as players became unavailable due to war work etc. with games often postponed at short notice. Stanley struggled on with the help of loan players and amateurs until the turn of the year, but were left with no option but to close down for the duration of the war.

The Stanley club was revived at the end of the war in 1945, but with homes games returning to the Stanley Greyhound stadium, probably as a result of the Prescot Cables agreement with Liverpool FC to use Hope Street for reserve and A team fixtures.

The Liverpool Echo’s celebrated cartoonist, George Green captured the day (left).

In 1950 the club relocated to a new ground at Knotty Ash and was renamed Liverpool City RLFC. In 1964, the club's board were informed that their lease on their Knotty Ash ground would not be renewed.  Successful negotiations then took place for a lease on the new Alt Park Ground in Huyton.  However, with Alt Park not ready, the newly renamed Huyton RLFC spent their first year of existence as homeless nomads. Most home matches were played at Naughton Park, Widnes. Alt Park was eventually ready in August 1969. Huyton struggled in the lower reaches of the league throughout their time at Alt Park and in 1985, they moved again – this time to Runcorn FC’s Canal Street Ground. The club then became known as Runcorn Highfield.

In 1990, Runcorn Football Club increased the rent for Canal Street, and the rugby club moved on to St Helens Town FC’s Houghton Road ground. Another name change occurred for the 1991/92 season, with the club now being known simply as Highfield. During the 1994/95 season another rent increase forced Highfield to move, once more, to Hope Street in Prescot, where, for the 1996 season, Highfield were renamed Prescot Panthers.

Would the story have been different had the club remained in Prescot after the war?