Hull, the Floodlit Trophy, and the 1979 Final

Floodlights are a massive part of a sports ground. Think floodlights in Hull and you were instantly drawn to the massive towers at Boothferry Park, but the Boulevard, with its first set of lights sat on columns behind both the Threepenny and Best Stand, also packed a punch.

Matches under the lights soon became a thing across sport and rugby league wasn’t going to miss its opportunity to cash in on them, with the famous BBC 2 Floodlit Trophy knock-out competition running through the 60’s and 70’s – a trophy which Hull still hold as the last ever winners in 1979.

Bradford Northern were the first rugby league club to install floodlights at Odsal back in 1951, and Leeds had them at Headingley too, but few other clubs saw the need for them. In fact, games during the winter months were reversed by half an hour to 2:30 kick offs in the hope that they would be completed before it got dark, although if it rained or snowed, you’d be hard pressed to see the opposite end at the Boulevard (who didn’t install floodlights until 1967), if stood at the Airlie or Gordon Street Ends. Picture St Helens away 2010. Yeah, you’ve got it.

In 1965, the BBC 2 channel, whose popularity wasn’t great with license payers in the North of England, manufactured a new rugby league competition with who else but David Attenborough, yes really, to meet the demands of TV, and voila, the BBC 2 Floodlit Trophy was born. But straight away there was a massive problem; not many teams had floodlights.

Here we go, and as with anything new in rugby league, it was met with strong opposition from both clubs and their supporters, but they all soon realised how many brown paper bags the exposure of a televised tournament could give to participating teams, and no fewer than 21 clubs installed floodlights in what seemed to be no time at all. A year after launching with just eight teams taking part, the Floodlit Trophy experimented with limited tackles for the first time (four to begin with before increasing to six in 1972), and this as we all know became revolutionary for the game we idolise today.

The Floodlit Trophy was staged in the Autumn months, and at least one match would be under the lights on a Tuesday evening, with the second half broadcasted live on BBC 2. Non-televised matches were played at various times and were dependent on club’s success in other competitions, with the only catch to entry being that they had to have floodlights.

Though it didn’t matter how good the floodlights were, and in true rugby league fashion matches were broadcasted with the viewing experience akin to being sat in one of the corners of the Roger Millward stand; in other words, you could see bugger all. Elsewhere the likes of Barrow and Bramley had substandard floodlights, and their home games could not be televised.

Hull entered the Floodlit Trophy competition in it’s third year after floodlights were installed at the Boulevard. Then chairmen J.L. Spooner oversaw the installation that cost £7,138. Hull’s first game under lights was actually at Caravan Park in the preliminary round of the Floodlit competition, and they lost 8-12 in front of 6,000. The clubs first game in front of their own lights was the following week in a Yorkshire Cup semi-final tie against Leeds in front of 12,000. The following season, Hull won their first Floodlit Trophy game under their own lights against Widnes, beating them 22-13.

The first Floodlit Trophy was won by Castleford, who actually won the first three competitions, and who hold the record for the most with four. In 1974, Bramley beat Widnes in the final and it was to be the only trophy that the famous old West Yorkshire club would ever win. The Floodlit Trophy survived for fifteen years before a BBC cut back in their support grant and a freeze on their license fee ended the competition. However, its last final proved to be its most memorable; a Hull Derby on Tuesday 18th December 1979 in front of a packed out and competition record 18,500 Boulevard crowd.

Both clubs were soon to rule the rugby league world, with Arthur Bunting’s Hull side just back in the topflight following the “Invincibles” promotion campaign the season before. Captained by Vince Farrar and boasting forward supremacy in Charlie Stone and Steve Norton, the Airlie Birds were slowly beginning to find their feet, and this magical night at the famous old Boulevard ground was to be the first major trophy (so to speak) of the best silverware adorning spell in the club’s history.

Hull beat Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds and Leigh (all at home) to reach the final, with a 13-3 win over the old enemy coming courtesy of tries from Graham Evans, Steve Dennison and Charlie Birdsall. As you’d expect in the middle of December it was bloody freezing, especially for those on the terraces, and not packed like sardines in the Threepenny.

Upon entering Boulevard from Anlaby Road there was a magical glow from the floodlights that lit up all the rooftops around the ground. The place was packed, and that includes the hundreds stood outside the gates on Airlie Street without a ticket. The atmosphere was incredible and for the first time in what seemed bloody ages all the bulbs above the Best Stand and Threepenny sides were on and the old place looked fantastic.

Hull were massive underdogs going into the final. The old enemy had just won the first division the season before and the press had labelled Hull as team of “has been’s with a smattering of real class.” Knocker was in his prime, but Hull had stalwarts of the 70s in Keith Tindall and Keith Boxall, not to mention the massive frame of John Newlove in the halves with mighty 38-year-old midget Keith Hepworth who played most of the game with a broken hand. Suppose the media weren’t far off the truth, but it was the underdogs and “has beens” that would be cheering long into the night.

The final was a typical high tempo and fiery Derby affair with no shortage of big hits and biff. Hull raised their game and were unlucky to only go in 5-0 up at the break from Dennison’s hack and chase after a Rovers mistake. In the second half the pressure turned into points much more easily and it wasn’t long before Evans crashed over after some great work by Man of the Match Paul Woods, who had a great game at fullback. He probed all night and came with the sort of aggression that saw poor Phil Hogan stretched off and taken straight to hospital after trying to stop him.

Steve Hubbard pulled one back for the old enemy diving over in the corner, before Birdsall charged through the line to eventually roll over and score. This kickstarted a massive chant of Old Faithful and the place was rocking long after Vince Farrar went up to receive the little trophy, before parading it around the Boulevard for all to see and cherish after a decade that saw some of the worst times in the club’s history. That itself made the win even more special, to think that the tough times were over and that further glory would be just around the corner, not to mention it being against that lot who as usual in defeat moaned and complained for weeks afterwards.

Yet, the 1979 Floodlit Trophy final was Hull’s fifth match in sixteen days, and it was during a run where the side would only lose two of 25 games in a season that ended with that defeat at Wembley. They’d rub that in our faces for 36 long years, but on this famous night Hull were the king’s and nobody could knock us off our perch.

Hull Starting XIII: 1. Paul Woods, 2. Graham Bray, 3. Graham Evans, 4. Phil Coupland, 5. Steve Dennison, 6. John Newlove, 7. Keith Hepworth, 8. Keith Tindall, 9. Ronnie Wileman, 10. Vince Farrar, 11. Charlie Stone, 12. Keith Boxall, 13. Steve Norton. Bench: 14. Charlie Birdsall

Hull Tries: Evans, Dennison, Birdsall. Goals: Dennison 2

Rovers Starting XIII: Ian Robinson, 2. Steve Hubbard, 3. Mike Smith, 4. Bernard Watson, 5. Clive Sullivan, 6. Dave Hall, 7. Allan Agar, 8. Roy Holdstock, 9. Graham Tryeman, 10. Brian Lockwood, 11. Geoff Clarkson, 12. Phil Lowe, 13. Phil Hogan.

Rovers Tries: Hubbard.

Referee: Mick Naughton (Widnes)

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