The Tale of Two Clubs: Outside the Heartlands

A decade ago, Coventry Bears and Bedford Tigers faced off in the Southern Conference Midlands Premier Division Play-Off Semi-Final. That game finished 58-10 to Coventry and the gap between the two clubs has never been closer.

Ten years down the line and the clubs are now in totally different places in the Rugby League ladder, having been on a level playing field back in 2008.

Both sides have been successful in their own ways since 2008, but those successes are seen in different ways.

Coventry ended the 2018 season with a victory over Hunslet and an  11th-placed finish in League One. On the other hand, Bedford Tigers, ended theirs with an East Rugby League Grand Final defeat but a fourth consecutive East RL cup triumph.

Alan Robinson, who formed The Bears in 1998, played in the Coventry vs Bedford game in 2008 believes that the reason his club have been able to improve throughout the years is because as a club they were prepared for transitions.

He told us: ‘These transitions happen naturally, between 1998 and 2010, we were probably one of the most successful clubs who had players who didn’t just play League but Rugby Union, Football and other winter sports.’

‘Everyone thinks that starting a new club is easy, these clubs that don’t last are usually run by people who don’t have a realistic vision. They are people who are quite egotistical and believe that if they have short-term success with one club that will boost their profile, they don’t do it to improve Rugby League.

‘Here at Coventry, we haven’t had that. I wouldn’t say we have a strong board, and clubs don’t necessarily need one. We have laid the foundations of a business within the club with a solid supporters base.’

In 2004, Coventry won the old National League Three. However, in 2005, the club were set-back as they realised that in order to compete they had to train two times a week and instead of having 20-25 players training all the time, it dropped to about 10 as players could not commit.

Robinson believes that is where the club made its first huge step forward, despite dropping back down into the Midlands Premier Division.

The year 2004 was also a big year for Bedford Tigers as they were formed from the ashes of Bedford Swifts RLFC and competed in the London Amateur Rugby League Merit League. 2005, was the first year in which Tigers competed in the East Division of the Rugby League Conference. 2006 and 2007 then brought silverware to Bedford Tigers with Grand Final victories over St Ives Roosters.

Back to 2008 and Bedford moved into the Midlands Premier Division. Coventry had rebuilt and looked to defend their 2007 Midlands Premier Title. The ending for that season we already know and it was the closest the Tigers and the Bears ever got to one another.

If 2005 was anything to go by, 2011 was an even bigger year for Robinson and Coventry.

After a big loss in the 2010 Midlands Premier Final, Robinson decided to turn Coventry Bears Rugby League Club into a Limited Company. This was the first step in the bid to join the National Conference League for the 2011 season.

As well as turning into a business, the club realised that in order to compete, they couldn’t have players playing sports 12 months of the year. So they decided that they players they had at the club were just rugby league players. This took a lot of hard work in terms of making players commit but in the end it worked for the club as they were prepared for the transition period. This was difficult for Robinson and the Bears as they lost nearly half of their player pool due to Union and other winter sports.

Robinson said: ‘Joining the National Conference League was Scarier than joining League One, We had to present to all the NCL clubs in Leigh and then invite them down to show them our facilities in the hope that we would be accepted.’

As Coventry ended their 2011 season in 12th,  Bedford were facing a much tougher challenge. The development officer for the region had just stepped down from his role and Rob Ashton, who joined The Tigers as a player in 2006, stepped in to create the East Rugby League. He received the buy in of clubs such as North Herts Crusaders, St Albans Centurions and Brentwood Eels in order to stabilise the competition and to see it grow in the years since.

Fast forward five-years, and Tigers, as the big fish in the pond need to take the next step to progress as a club.

Ashton would now describe his role within the club as a Director of Rugby, overseeing all the rugby output from the seniors down to the juniors to make sure the standards are good. Tigers have a small committee, which Graham Brown Chairs and others help with the jobs that need doing around the club, such as running the bar, running match-day food, etc.

Ashton said ‘We realised that in order to expand outside the traditional rugby union off-season we needed to generate junior rugby league activity. Being just too far outside London to make it easy, we set up 4 satellite clubs at junior level. Our junior side, Ampthill Hornets, Dunstable Dragons, and Luton Vipers. These are all part of the Tigers expansion. They all compete against each other at U14 and U16 level with 2 more age groups to be added in 2019. The player pathway for these junior clubs funnels them to senior rugby league at Bedford Tigers.’

As well as setting up a solid junior player pathway. The Tigers have just played their first season at their new ground, Kingsway. This is the Tigers very own home and means that they join Hemel Stags and Nottingham Outlaws in being the only three clubs in the south of England who are able to play rugby league in their own stadium without the presence of a rugby union club.

Robinson believes that clubs, whether new or old, have to have a realistic vision and have to know how to get there in order to succeed.

He added: ‘Some people who start rugby clubs without putting the club first and don’t think about long-term sustainability at the core of everything they do, think that it is easy.’

‘You only need the minimal amount of people who are prepared to do the things that need doing, it’s not good them staying for just a year though. The club needs to work together to make sure that those people stay. You need to nurture them, value them and they need to have the passion but they also need to want to stay around.’

Bedford Tigers have started to show signs of following in the footsteps of Coventry and the similarities between the two sides are starting to show, particularly with the long serving members of the non-playing staff and also the junior rugby league set-up.

The very fact that Ashton has been at the clubs 12 years, as well as Graham Brown being there for a long period of time suggests that the club does do enough to keep the important people round long enough.

On where he sees Bedford Tigers being in five years time, Ashton said: ‘In five years time, we will hopefully be either in this new Southern Premier League that is being talked about with other like-minded big fish clubs, or even further as a League One outfit.’

‘We need to give our next step some serious thought as we need to make our new ground viable. Sitting in a small regional competition isn’t going to do that. I can see us being a beacon club for the East. We already do so much development work with and for other clubs in terms of steering local competition and we are trying to forge university links too.’

He added: ‘I see our role behind the scenes as being the club who helps to deliver coaching a d referee qualifications and development as well as having a venue for cup finals, and festivals.’

‘Personally I’d like to see us as a self-sufficient League One club with a solid player pathway underneath us.’

Robinson believes that the two most important moments in Coventry’s history were after the 2005 season,joining the NCL in 2011, and entering League One in 2015. However, he does admit that not everything has gone the way he expected. Although he does say, that because he was prepared for the naturally prepared for the transitions is the reason why his plans have worked out in the end, and the Bears are still improving both on and off the field.

I feel like a club, such as Bedford Tigers, needs to follow in the footsteps of Coventry Bears in terms of how the take the next step. With the Tigers being the front for change in the East region, they have to be the first the move onto the next level.

With the on field successes being balanced out by their off field progress, it is now time for the committee at Bedford to sit down with each other and go ‘Okay, we know where we want to be, but what shall we do first in order to get their’. They need to make sure they have a plan in place and if they were to talk to Alan Robinson and the Bears it would certainly help.

Ashton explained: ‘The juniors is the key foundation, That’s why we have set up the satellite clubs in order to expose kids to Rugby League early and generate a pathway to the seniors. We don’t want to become another example of an expansion club who isn’t producing our own players and is reliant on the north.’

However, with the new Southern Premier Conference sitting at tier four of the Rugby League pyramid it may not take too long at all until the Tigers to figure out their next step, which long-term looks to be a spot in League One.


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