Lawkholmers to Cougars - A Rugby League History

THE 90’s – A ROLLER-COASTER DECADE

Ex-Bradford Northern, Leeds and Great Britain forward Tony Fisher with Peter Astbury as his assistant replaced Les Coulter for the 1990-91 campaign which started inauspiciously with one win out of eight games though between November and February a fine run of 11 victories out of 14 games turned things around. This coincided with the announcement that local Joinery Company Magnet Trade would be the club’s new sponsor and two new directors came onto the board in the shape of Mick O’Neill and Mike Smith. There were other high spots in the season on the field including going to unbeaten Salford and only losing by one point to the eventual divisional champions. A clutch of new players that would feature in Cougar successes in the future were signed such as Andy and Phil Stephenson from Clayton ARLFC, Andy Eyres from Widnes and John Wasyliw from Halifax RUFC. The season ended with Keighley in 13th place with 12 wins from their 28 league games.

The 1991-92 Season will be remembered has being the year of the Cougar. The name, chosen in a competition by schoolboy John-Paul Kelly, was launched at a presentation night at the Victoria Hall at the beginning of the season. A very early casualty of the new expectations at the club was Tony Fisher. He was released after only one game into the new season following a very disappointing 12-41 defeat at Bramley. Former Player Peter Roe was appointed as new coach and with Peter, a winner wherever he had coached, there was a new belief that the club this time was really going places. The team finished a very respectable 7th out of 14 teams in the new Stones 3rd Division, winning 15 matches from 26 starts.

Widnes star forward Joe Grima was signed for the 1992-3 season to lead the club on the field and it’s trailblazing community programme of it. Two important signing that year were Jason Ramshaw from Halifax and Martin Wood from Scarborough Pirates. The optimism, which greeted that season, was fulfilled as the Cougars went on to win their first trophy for 90 Years. Once again club records began to tumble. On the 1st November ’92, John Wasilyw, scored 15 goals in the home game against Nottingham City the game finishing a record 82-0 win and this was to be repeated against Highfield. This season also contained an 82-8 away win at Blackpool Borough. John Wasilyw went on to break Brian Jefferson’s goals in a season record by kicking 187 and the points in a season record with 490 points. Much of this and the following success must be attributed to the hard work and enthusiasm of directors O’Neill and Smith. As well as signing big named overseas players like Grima and Ian Gately, a trailblazing razzmatazz match day atmosphere was created, which supplemented the entertaining team performances. The season climaxed on Good Friday when, in front of over 5,000 fans in appalling conditions, the Cougars clinched the Stones 3rd Division Championship by beating Batley 34-10.

Despite the fact that because of another league reorganisation Cougars were not in fact promoted from their league, the 1993-94 season started with much anticipation as Cougarmania spread throughout the town and surrounding areas. Boyed up by the unique atmosphere at Cougars games the attendances continued to grow and regularly achieved over 3,000, peaking when 5,800 attended the Challenge Cup 3rd Round tie against Castleford, a game in which the Cougars lost convincingly by 14-52. Unfortunately, the team could not deliver the much sought after promotion, struggling particularly away from Cougar Park and finished the season in a disappointing fourth place. Although a record of 19 wins from 28 games would have been regarded as excellent not too long ago, finishing in sixth place, after the previous year, was seen somewhat as a failure and just before the end of the season Peter Roe parted company with the club. Nick Pinkney, signed pre-season from York, did break the most Tries in a Season record with 31, a feat which he would improve upon the following season.

There was a real surprise when Phil Larder, fresh from his appearance at Wembley with Widnes, was recruited to fill the coaching vacancy, as the Cougars went all out to gain promotion to the top flight, stretching themselves to the limits and beyond! The season started extremely well, the Cougars only loosing 1 from the first 15 starts in the league. This was complimented with an excellent cup run in the Regal Trophy reaching the 4th round before loosing cruelly to a late try from the legendary Jonathon Davies in the tie against Warrington. Nick Pinkney was rewarded for another outstanding season by being selected to play and scoring for England against France. When the Cougars signed Daryl Powell for a club record fee of £130,000 on 4th April 1995, promotion looked a certainty and the championship a distinct probability. With only 4 league games remaining, Maurice Lindsey the then Chairman of the RFL announced a new sponsorship deal for the RFL with Rupert Murdochs News Corporation. Unfortunately the strings, which had been attached to this deal, included a complete revamp of the League structure and the Cougars had two choices, either merge with Bradford or continue in the 2nd Division. At this late stage in the season the RFL had indeed moved the goalposts, well out of the reach of the Cougars and Super League was created. The Cougars were prominent in launching appeals through the courts and despite many public protests by fans, which did help to dilute the original proposals, the RFL refused to change course and the Cougars were denied their rightful and deserved promotion. The Championship was completed on a high note, with a record win of 104-4 against Highfield, in front of over 5,000 Fans at Spotland, Rochdale.  In the end of season Divisional Premiership, wins over Hull KR and London Broncos secured an Old Trafford Final place against Huddersfield, the only occasion in which the Keighley Club has ever won a Cup Final and ranks at the very top of the club’s achievements. The final score on that day was 26-6.

The 1995-96 Centenary season was to be the last full winter season to be played  Summer rugby would start in the spring of 1996 and also the season when the international spotlight shon on Cougar Park. Promotion had been agreed to be suspended for this season between the First Division and Super League. Even so the Cougars had a great start to the season winning 7 and drawing 1 from the first eight games before the enforced break due to the World Cup. Then on the 8th October 1995 Cougar Park played host to the Fiji v South Africa World Cup match. A televised game which attracted a crowd of 4,845 with Fiji winning comfortably 52-6. The rest of the league season was a little disappointing with the Cougars only winning 6 of the remaining 12 fixtures, finishing the season in 2nd position.

With the reward of promotion (for the top team only) being reinstated, the first summer season kicked off. The Cougars went in under a shadow of financial crises rumours and board room unrest. The crowds though kept faith and the 10 home league games averaged 4,871. The team performed well on the field, only loosing 4 games from 20 starts. However this was only good enough to achieve 2nd position and promotion went to great rivals Salford who had beaten Cougars home and away. The end of season Premiership tournament brought another visit to Old Trafford for a final appearance. Unfortunately this time losing for a third time 6-19 to Salford.

Phil Larder’s contract was not renewed for the 1997 season and Daryl Powell and Simon Irving were promoted to replace Larder as joint first team coaches. The season started with an excellent Challenge Cup Campaign, beating Halifax of the Super League 21-8 at Thrum Hall on the way to the Quarter Final, ultimately loosing 0-24 to St Helens. However success in the league was not to follow and the Cougars eventually completed the season in 3rd position in the league and loosing to Huddersfield 8-18 in the Semi Finals of the Premiership. This was also the season when the real financial position of the Cougars surfaced and the club went into voluntary administration. This lead to the dismembering of the first team squad and culminated in the sale of nine first team players to Leeds for a reported paltry £25000 fee. The players in this deal included coaches Daryl Powell and Simon Irving as well as Phil Cantillon and Darren Fleary (Later to play for England). This was indeed the end of an era.

The Cougars began the 1998 campaign having just taken control back from the administrator and had in fact had to contest a vote to be expelled from the league by the RFL only weeks before the season started. This was hardly the preparation the new coach John Kain required before taking on the mighty Wigan in the Challenge Cup. The Cougars team, decimated by sales and departures, lost the game by 0-76, the heaviest defeat ever for a home match. Wigan did however win the Super League and reach the Challenge Cup Final in the same year. After a poor start to the League campaign 4 defeats from the same number of games, Lee Crooks was recruited to first team coach. The young Cougars completed the season with 14 wins from 30 starts in 7th position, 16 points clear of relegation.

The 1999 season brought new League sponsorship (Northern Ford) and the unification of the two divisions outside of Super League. Unfortunately under the charge of Lee Crooks the first team were often accused of not playing the expansive game the supporters had been used to and after a poor start to the season, Crooks was dismissed. Frank Punchard took over the reigns first in a caretaker role before finally accepting the job. The team competed well for the rest of the season, winning exactly half their 28 League games.

Karl Harrison took over as first team coach for the 2000 Centenary season and immediately set a target of a top eight play off place. He practically had to rebuild the side with only one player on the books when he took over. His priorities lay in consolidation and this may have lead to the surprise defeat by the French club side Villeneuve who were coached by ex Cougar player Grant Doorey in the Challenge Cup 4th round. However after two seasons of mid table mediocrity, this was the season the Cougars began to roar again. The Centenary was celebrated with some style, both on and off the pitch. Many fans dressed in Victorian attire in keeping with those worn at the turn of the 20th century and the team thrashed a poor Barrow side by 66-6. The attendance on the day was 2,142. The League season was completed with a remarkable 22 wins from 28 games and the Cougars finished in 2nd place. Unfortunately due to the poor planning for the Premiership Play-off’s, the Cougars had to travel to Dewsbury, who themselves had finished top, a game which they lost comfortably 12-38.

Finishing so unexpectedly well the previous season gave new hope for a push once more for Superleague in the 2001 campaign but in pre-season moves first assistant coach Steve Deakin left for Rochdale then head coach Karl Harrison was recruited by Bradford Bulls to work alongside their new coach Brian Noble. Deakin was persuaded to return to Keighley as head coach which restored Cougars hopes. These hopes were justified when they went through the first fifteen games with just two defeats, once in the Challenge Cup at home to Superleague Hull FC and once to a rejuvenated Rochdale Hornets. Cougars then hit the disastrous month of April which started with a bad home defeat to Leigh and away defeats to Whitehaven and Hull KR. With only a narrow home victory to lowly Swinton Cougars went into the game at home to Chorley hoping to keep us in the running for the play-offs. Little did the club realise then that this was the end of that current Cougar era as most of the first team squad walked away from the club in a dispute over payments. For the next game at Oldham an unrecognisable Cougar team took the pitch with many local and Oldham based amateurs filling the empty spaces.

Some have classed the Oldham gave alongside the 1995 Premiership victory as a memorable game for the club. Despite losing 4-38 the makeshift Cougars showed magnificent team spirit and guts and indeed kept the high flying Oldham side at bay through much of the game. The ‘new’ Cougars gained their first victory in a thrilling home game against Hunslet the following week but only two wins in their following eight games saw the club drop in the league but still hold on to a top eight position and get into the play-offs—given the circumstances a great achievement.

That’s how the Cougars first hundred years had finished. A little disappointing but with much to be hopeful for as the club entered it’s second century. Keighley has been dubbed a ‘Cinderella Club’ by some, always reaching for but never quite achieving the big time. Given the geographical situation of the club I suppose that’s inevitable. But there’s one thing about Keighley; try and dismiss then you may but try and ignore them – never!