Spent force?; SATURDAY FEATURE: The move into professionalism was a game too far as so many clubs are being kicked into touch.
Rugby in the professional era is struggling to survive. Too many clubs are paying too high a price. This is not the tired tub-thumping of ageing 'old farts' desperately trying to cling on to the halcyon days of the game - it is fact. Michael Ward who sees the harsh effects of this brave new world, visited tiny Lichfield to gauge the feeling of those battling at the sharp end
Lichfield are by no means the only National League rugby club to have fallen on hard times since the money that never really was ran out. But not many clubs in the country have hit the ground with such force.
The advent of professionalism has a lot to answer for. It crippled Moseley to the point of near-extinction and Lichfield have been severely maimed in the aftermath.
No longer in the National League ranks, they keep trying to pick themselves up - only to crumple at the knees and tumble down into another division.
Club members who were once distinguished players, like former captain and coach Barry Broad, go to Cooke Fields to down a pint or two in sorrow and talk nostalgically about the good times. They remember the days, not so long ago, when Lichfield almost beat the might of Harlequins in the John Player Cup (now the Tetley's Bitter Cup).
They reminisce about the days when Lichfield produced internationals of the calibre of England three-quarter Stuart Potter, arguably the finest centre ever to come out of the club. They remember the brilliance of George Sey, who went on to become a top-drawer flanker with Moseley. And it all seemed like yesterday.
In fact, the good days were only a decade-and-a-half ago, a time when Lichfield earned the right to take on Harlequins and Bath in the Cup and 7,000 spectators used to cram into their Staffordshire ground hoping to see a spot of giant-slaying unfold before their eyes.
Talking of Staffordshire, it was in the 1980s that the collective force of such clubs as Lichfield, Stoke and Burton defied overwhelming odds to win English rugby's County Championship by beating a star-studded Gloucestershire side in the final. It was a colossal achievement for Staffordshire, a proud entry in the record books when the County Championship really meant something.
And where are Lichfield, Stoke and Burton now? Jointly propping up the Midlands One table. Delve deeper into the divisions and you find the most poignant and depressing sight of all - Lichfield, rock bottom of Midlands Two West.
Two wins from 19 games is the sorry tale of continuing decline from the halcyon years. When Lichfield members recall the days when crowds at Cooke Fields averaged 3,000 and the gate more than doubled for Cup games involving the giants of English rugby, it really brings home the desolation of this season.
When Midlands Two West leaders Malvern played at Lichfield a few weeks ago, the visiting fans outnumbered the home supporters. The Worcestershire club's manager, Peter Woods, knows this because a coach-load of just under 30 fans came from Spring Lane.
As for the Lichfield supporters, he could count them on the fingers of one hand. It was not something Malvern cared to gloat about.
Lichfield began their descent from what was then the National Four North division four years ago. In their last season of playing against the likes of Walsall, Stourbridge and Nuneaton, the club went through eight first-team captains and deployed a total of 57 players under them.
The brief flirtation with relegation cost Lichfield dearly. When the payments inevitably dried up, most of the key players left to try their luck elsewhere. Just as inevitably, the club lasted one season in Midlands One and, most surely, they will be relegated again this season; destination, uncertain.
And yet, wherever they should happen to crash-land in the revised scheme of things, one other certainty stands out above the grim statistics. Lichfield will keep going, even if it means falling through another couple of divisions before the bad times bottom out and they can play to their level.
Broad, a big player at Cooke Fields in his time and a member of the side that ran Harlequins so close, has no doubt that rugby at Lichfield will be around for as long as the town's famous cathedral. The two are inseparable.
'The club is 127 years old - it belongs to the landscape and it's going to take more than a few relegations to close it down,' the former Lichfield skipper said. At the same time, Broad accepts that Lichfield might never be the West Midlands force they once were.
'What's happened in recent years is very sad. I joined the club in 1980 and I know what it's like to have played through the good times. I remember a crowd of 7,000 turning up for the big games and the Rugby Special team from BBC television coming to cover them. The reporters sat on straw bales on top of the grassy bank, because there was no room for them anywhere else.
'We had plenty of home-grown talent in the squad and others who travelled a long way to play for us. So why and where did it all go wrong? I suppose it was a combination of things.
'The professional thing never worked, that's for sure. When the finances ran out, we lost the better players at a stroke. You couldn't really blame them for not hanging around but, all of a sudden, we had a major problem and fortunes have been declining ever since.
'It is heartbreaking for the players and supporters who shared in the years of success, but it's not the end of the world - or even the club. We still have some of the best facilities in the Midlands. We still have dedicated people behind the scenes and a great club spirit on and off the field.
'Most importantly, the Mini and Junior rugby section is still going strong. In fact, it's probably as strong as ever. These kids regularly win the County Cups and with a bit of luck, in a few years' time, they'll be part of a successful first team. if we can keep them, that is.
'We might not bring back the good times, but I have no doubt the club will find its level somewhere in the Midland Leagues. We all like to sit in the bar and have a moan over our pints, but when the team starts winning again, the support will come back. Not in the numbers we used to have turning out, but enough to make a decent crowd.'
Lichfield hope that the way forward is their recent appointment of a new coach in Graham MacDonald, who previously had spells with Newcastle and Walsall.
He was hired to replace John Mahon, who left Cooke Fields just after Christmas, while Sey resigned as director of rugby earlier in the season.
As the club's long-serving fixtures secretary, Steve Barr, put it: 'In our position, a National League club no longer, we didn't need a director of rugby.
'But George continues to help out with the coaching, he's Lichfield through and through and the blood of the club runs through his veins.'
Barr blames the arrival of professionalism for the start of Lichfield's slide, saying: 'We jumped at the concept, but soon realised that we didn't have the financial means to sustain the payments we were making to players - small as they were.
'We had players with no real allegiance to the club and they soon left. Others started drifting away when we dropped out of National League rugby.
'For three years, we had a coach (Mahon) who didn't get on outstandingly well with his players and that was another factor. Results slumped and once you get into a downward spiral, it's very difficult to get out of it.
'But Lichfield will keep going, you can be certain of that. The Mini section continues to flourish and our Ladies first team have won promotion three years running. We even have a Ladies' director of rugby.'
The illustrious title belongs to Sarah Cragg, who played at No 8 for the first team before a hip injury forced her to hang up her boots.
When she says that the ladies section is doing 'fantastically well,' Sarah is entitled to boast. The first team have just won promotion to Premier One, the top flight of English women's rugby.
Elevated alongside Midland rivals Nottingham Casuals, they will be taking on the might of such clubs as Saracens, Wasps, Richmond, Waterloo and Worcester next season.
Lichfield have an England A representative in Vicky McCormack, four with the England development squad (Sharon Lyons, Kerry Ball, Sarah Wheatcroft and Aldine Woodward) and two England Under-18 internationals in Laura Broderick and Gemma Paul.
The contrast between male and female fortunes at Cooke Fields could not be more stark. So what does Sarah Cragg make of the men's first team crashing down the leagues?
'Well, they had all that success in the 1980s and a generation of people just assumed it would carry on,' she said. 'But of course, it didn't.
'A lot of what happened was beyond the club's control; trying to bring professionalism on board when the necessary funding wasn't there and the subsequent migration of players who were never replaced.
'But we still have a thriving Mini section and the ladies are doing fantastically well. At the moment, the club are playing to their strengths. We have some new blood on the main committee, including myself. Overall, we feel things will get better.'
For the men's first team, things could not possibly be worse. For this season, at least.
Financial times left writing on wall
Lichfield need a Staffordshire version of Cecil Duckworth to bring the good times back to Cooke Fields. So says Moseley's director of rugby John White, who knows only too well what it is like for a club to be down on their luck.
'There is a way out for Lichfield and that is to find themselves a benefactor,' he said. For Worcester, the benefit of Duckworth's financial backing was a total of seven promotions in 10 years and now a chance to ascend into English rugby's top flight.
White added: 'If Lichfield had money behind them, they would have a route back to National League rugby. Professionalism and the introduction of money have changed the whole parameters of the game.
'Money doesn't always mean you do everything right, but it gives you access to players you wouldn't otherwise be able to obtain. This might be stating the obvious, but you only have to look at Worcester to see what financial backing on that scale can bring.
'Lichfield and many other clubs will be looking towards Sixways enviously and thinking: 'Yes - I'll have a bit of that.'
White has watched Lichfield's plummeting fortunes from the outside with genuine sadness. 'It is a great pity, when you think what a force they used to be,' he said.
'Ten years ago, you would have fancied Lichfield to become one of the top sides in the country. They had everything going for them - a great club, wonderful facilities, loads of teams, a top-class junior section and the team spirit to go with it all.
'I went there to make after-dinner speeches from time to time and you could hardly get into the place, it was so packed. But then Lichfield got caught in the crossfire of professionalism - which they couldn't sustain - declining results and the loss of players. A lot of clubs around the country have suffered in the same way, except that Lichfield have had further to fall.
'Even so, the bottom line is performances. Ultimately, performances and results determine the face of any club.
'My last real recollection of Lichfield was in my days as coach of Birmingham & Solihull. The first time we played them, they were a serious obstacle. By the third season, they had fallen away badly and the writing was on the wall.
'At that stage, it was clear that the reason for their demise centred around the failure to achieve success at first-team level. Say what you like, the bottom line is that you have to win games.
'We all have bad seasons - even Bath have the odd bad season, but you can't afford to have too many of them.'
In view of the recent exodus of players from Cooke Fields, White has no wish to crow over the fact that three of their most talented youngsters have joined him at Moseley. Nathan Jones is a 17-year-old scrum half, Greg MacDonald (21) a stand-off and Andy Gray (20) a centre. All represent Moseley's future, as a reminder of Lichfield's glittering past.
'It's a harsh fact of life that these young players have come to us because they couldn't see a pathway to their personal development at Lichfield,' White said.
So the way back for Lichfield is to find their local equivalent of Cecil Duckworth, the ultimate financial prop in Worcester's forward mobility.
Applications to Cooke Fields, where at least the infrastructure is in place for a benefactor to take his chance.
Whither Lichfield? Cooke Fields can seem a lonely place these days but the players and staff are determined that the rugby club will survive. Training nights (below) are still a blur of activity as the diehard faithful prepare for the weekend's frayPictures/ ED MOSS Coach Graham McDonald presides over practice well into the night. He arrived at Lichfield, via Walsall and Newcastle, to replace George Sey - a Lichfield legend The players at Lichfield are as determined as ever to ensure their survival
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Apr 7, 2001|
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