Neil Hudgell is looking forward to the 10th year for Hull KR in Super League, a season which sees him with the same relaxed demeanor but one which barely masks a burning ambition.
First he harks back to the beginning of his time as chairman when he saved them from financial and Rugby League oblivion: “We were at the bottom but just slightly coming out of the bottom, we were in administration and Don Robinson had bought the club on behalf of a company called Gain Group and acquired the stadium.”
Then his path to the top job became clear: “Peter May and Colin McNichol had been brought in as two local businessmen and two lifelong supporters of Rovers and then I came on board as a sponsor, got to know the lads and started to do some legal work for them and then I became a director.
“Basically they all jumped off leaving me more or less on my own so I brought back Phil Lowe, Paul Lakin came on board and that was like 12 years ago.
“We’d bottomed out, there was no money in the kitty and we were in the National League sort of mid-table, going nowhere and treading water.
Then another name was mentioned regarding the transformation the club was going through at that time. “Of course I got Rob Crossland in as well so that was sort of bottom but just turning upwards slightly.
“Then we had Malcolm Reilly as coach alongside Martin Hall and that never worked so Malcolm left and Martin resigned so short term we brought Harvey Howard in who didn’t work out.
“The sort of the beginning of the real upward turn was when we recruited Justin Morgan, heard about him via Tony Smith, he came from Toulouse who he got to the Challenge Cup semi-final that year in 2005.
“Interviewed Justin and he started just towards the end of that season, the year we won the National Rail Cup but flunked on promotion.
“So Justin said about the dead wood he wanted to push out so we pushed them out and gave him maximum salary cap in the National League as it was then and we more or less recruited a new team.
“James Webster was one the other Australian was Tangata-Toa but the main ones and probably the mainstay of the side that got us into Super League was probably Ben Fisher at hooker, Ben Cockayne at full-back those two.
“Gareth Morton had a big kicking boot on him and Webster was instrumental as well and Michael Smith in the back row, so we sort of constructed a team that we thought would be good enough to get us up but also to get Super League contracts because the whole thing at the time was you’d got to get a side that was good enough to keep you up as well as get you up because there’s this idea that if players are knowing that they’re not going to be good enough to perform in the elite then when it comes down to the cut and thrust of the end of the season they might not give their best because they might talk themselves out of a job.
“So we invested heavily and eventually it paid off and we got promoted and got to a Challenge Cup semi-final.”
The first season in Super League in 2007 is obviously a source of great pride for this very relaxed but competitive man and a glint appears in the eye as he talks of early successes as his side won four of their first five games in the top-flight:
He said:”Four of our first five games we beat Wakefield at home, last minute, Ben Cockayne scored.
“Then we won away at Huddersfield and then I think we lost at home to London but then we won at Wigan and beat Leeds, so we won four of our first five so that meant we were never bottom of the table all season.
“After those first five we lost six on the trot and then we had the Paul Cooke saga, Paul came over first game we just lost narrowly to Huddersfield but then we beat Hull FC at magic and then we beat Wigan again so Paul gave us a bit of catalyst when we’d hit a bit of a trough.
“Then we had another trough and we brought in Rhys Lovegrove and we rallied at the end, we beat Salford and Hull again to ensure our safety but we were never at the bottom of the league the entire season and I think that was a mind-set thing because it was always going to be either us or Salford.
“A big week was when we won in Catalans on Bastille Day and Salford lost so that gave us a 4 point push and that momentum to stay above them and stay up.”
We then moved onto the subject of fans expectations after that early success and the answer is very strongly delivered: “Well expectations are always high in Hull no matter what, you win three games and people think you’re gonna be world beaters, fans now I think would have expectations beyond where we would normally sit which is about the bottom half of the top 8.
“There’s a top 4 that’s usually there or thereabouts and Huddersfield are just sort of battling to get in there as well now and then there’s a clutch of clubs battling it out for the next four positions and we’re sort of bottom of that and that is our natural rank if you look at the side, the support base and the facilities.”
We then move onto the Tony Larvin episode and whether it was difficult for the club to move on from that, the reply is very swift and decisive: “It’s interesting you raise that, I didn’t think it had credible legs at any point and if you actually follow the media coverage the whole time there was nothing that anybody said in the club that would give any encouragement that it was gonna happen.
“The whole publicity came from Tony himself and the Hull Daily Mail got hold of that and decided in their infinite wisdom that they were gonna run the story or a series of stories around it so it was never, it never got off first base in my mind.”
There is clearly still a wish in this engaging man’s mind to see Rovers as a self-financing club as the subject is broached: “Yes I think anybody in any business wants to make a profit or, if not, to at least break-even.
“Rugby League in the main is an expensive luxury for those who own the clubs there’s only a few who are profitable, I mean Leeds sit miles ahead of anybody else and the likes of Saints and Wigan that are profitable but possibly have some historic debt, or certainly would have had historic debt.
“We’ve probably made an honest surplus on last year but that’s because of Wembley and the boxing but that’s an unusual year but on the whole rugby is still not a cash rich sport.”
Another subject to be chewed over is what the man himself thinks is his proudest achievement as chairman of Hull KR, this draws a slightly less sure than normal answer: “Err I dunno, getting into Super League, staying in Super League, getting to Wembley, I don’t think we’ve got the proudest moment yet because we’re still working on it but at this point in time I suspect probably getting out the gutter and actually becoming a serious contender at the top table, being in Super League and when you look at the day-to-day durge I suppose being in Super League for 10 years is a bit of an achievement.”
Ground improvements are the next subject but are plans imminent to put another stand at the opposite end of the ground to the newest stand at the KC Lightstream Stadium? “Yeah there are plans for another stand but the key at the moment is to fill what we’ve got, we’re not at capacity so there’s no pressing urgency but I’d like to finish the ground off in the next two or three years.”
The conversation then turns to the academy merger and the subsequent decision by Hull FC to run an under 23s team, are there any such plans for Rovers, the answer leaves no doubt whatsoever: “No it’s not on the horizon, I don’t think there’s any need if that’s what Adam wants to do then that’s up to him.”
Looking at the season just past there is obviously some regret and some things that could maybe have been done differently: “You can always learn and develop I think, certainly key parts of the season where we lost players, every club has injuries but we really suffered especially with our halves.
“Our front row was also very light at times during the season as well, I think we were really disappointing in some games and maybe our preparation could have been better.”
Inevitably the 10th year in Super League comes into the conversation and Mr Hudgell clearly has certain wishes for the milestone season: “A solid top 8 finish, another cup run, good football that people want to see and increased crowds.”
Finally we get to the subject of the structure of the game now with the new era of the Super 8s and whether he would like to see anything change in the current structure: “I don’t like the structure, I think the fact that we’ve now got it democratically voted in by the narrowest margin means we’ve now got to stick to it, rugby league tends to chop and change and I don’t think that’s good for the game.
“My view is we stick with what we’ve got, in terms of the product I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with it, I think I would change the video referee and how that operates, but on the whole n o I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with the product.”
The idea of giving out the league leaders shield and a World Club Series place after 23 rounds and then starting the Super 8s teams on 0 points again draws a reply relating to a conversation he had with Adam Pearson: “We said do you wanna finish 8th or do you wanna finish 9th, if you finish 8th it’s a seven week hurrah at the end of the season.
“If you finish 9th you’ve got the jeopardy of the middle 8, now we never moved out of third gear apart from half a game against Leigh and against Wakefield, apart from that it was just plain sailing so there was no jeopardy and it was very flat.
“I don’t think there’s any hardened fast or easy solution other than there’s always winners and losers in any play-off system.”
Hull KR supporters could therefore have plenty to look forward to over the coming years with more changes afoot and a chairman with a burning desire that comes across as clear as a bell.