Q & A with Mark Wynn (Rochdale Hornets)
Mark Wynn is chairman of the Rochdale Hornets Rugby League Club.
The Rochdale Hornets are one of the world’s oldest rugby league clubs and you’ve been a lifelong fan. What does it mean to you to be Chairman of this club?
In all honesty I suppose, as a fan, I wish I’d been a good enough player to have turned out for the Hornets, but being chairman is pretty close to my ideal position.
The Rochdale Hornets formed in 1871, becoming one of the original 22 Rugby League Clubs in 1895. I feel a huge amount of pride and responsibility for what is such an historical institution, both within the town and the sport.
On a personal level, the reason I am a Rochdale Hornets fan is because of my father. Sadly my Dad passed away around 7 years ago and a big part of my motivation is to make the club my Dad loved and followed for nearly 70 years a success and something he and the town can be proud of.
The league’s restructuring has seen Rochdale drop down to the Kingstone Press League 1 competition this year. Does that give the club some extra motivation in 2015?
Since the supporters rescued the club after the old Hornets went to the wall we have worked hard to rebuild on all levels. We worked on the principle that getting things right off the field will bring success on it. That ethos proved correct as year on year we improved our finishing position until we broke a 91-year barren spell – the club’s first trophy since 1922 – when we won the play-off final against Oldham in 2013.
It is of little solace that in any other year we would have stayed up in the Championship. But because of the League re-structure (and our decision not to risk the long-term health of the club by over spending) we were relegated.
As a club we have a phrase “to be the best we can be.” That is our motivation – constant improvement, constant development, to be the best we can be.
You’re 2-2 after the opening month of the 2015 competition. What have been the positives so far and where can you improve?
We have recruited the strongest squad we have ever had as a supporter owned co-operative. The core of that team is the “diamond” of 1, 6, 7 and 9. We have recruited new players in all these positions and, as yet, I don’t feel we have found our ideal formula.
At our recent AGM, I said we felt like a sports car that was not quite tuned correctly; slightly misfiring. In the coming games, we will settle and we will be one of the top contenders – of that there is no doubt. One thing we are quite happy with is that “like for like” crowds from the last time we played in League 1 are up. Last season our crowds rose by over 30%; only Leigh recorded a higher increase than us. We have a huge amount to be positive about at the club.
We have also launched a Charitable Foundation, which has seen the amount of community work we do grow 10-fold. We have diversified the type of work we do as well. As an example we have recently done a mentoring programme for kids nearing exams and work experience. Ryan Bradley, our CEO, along with guys from our board, our foundation and myself talked with the young people and did confidence-building exercises. It really was inspiring and rewarding to feel that we are making a difference, not just on the rugby field, but to people’s lives.
You introduced a Ladies’ squad in 2014 and they made the Challenge Cup Final in their first year. How exciting was that for the club?
The Hornets Ladies have been a massive shot in the arm for the club. We haven’t had any other initiative that has brought to the club an entire new group of people who love the game and love being involved with the Hornets.
Their commitment, graft, effort and endeavour is incredible, and they deserve our support. When the girls reached the final in their first year, we treated the ladies team just the same as the men. Our men’s and women’s teams’ presentation nights take place together and we try to get the girls playing games at Spotland Stadium as often as we can. Perhaps the success of the Hornets Ladies could be a template for other professional clubs.
You’ve built some great partnerships, the most prominent being with St Helens. How helpful is that for the club?
If one factor contributed to our success in breaking the 91-year barren spell, it was the link with St Helens. What became obvious was that the whole atmosphere at their club was about winning. That atmosphere didn’t exist at the Hornets and probably hadn’t done in living memory. Getting people to change a lifetime of attitude and behaviour, at times, has been problematic but we have got there (or at least a good way there).
The most public face of our partnership is when players like Joe Greenwood and Lewis Charnock have played for us, but the real benefit has been in making Hornets a club whose sole aim is to win.
More recently you established an alliance with Thailand Rugby League. What are the benefits of that arrangement and how do you see it evolving?
My wife and I have some friends who have emigrated to Thailand and they invited us over to have a holiday with them. Being a bit of a Rugby League anorak, I was aware of the fledgling Thailand Rugby League, so I emailed them to see if there were any games taking place during my visit. As it was, it was the Thailand Rugby League off-season, but several emails and phone calls later I arranged to meet up with Shannon Crane, the founder and CEO, for a beer whilst I was there.
Shannon and myself spoke for about four hours about Rugby League, about developing the game on an international stage and how we, as a sport, and us, as a club, can help promote the efforts of people like Shannon and the burgeoning international scene. We agreed on a friendship partnership as a first step. What the agreement does is give us both publicity and interest, and portrays the game in a new brighter light. Just the words would seem incredible a few years ago – Rochdale Hornets in Partnership with Thailand Rugby League!
The partnership has also allowed us to further develop the #HornetsFamily idea. We now have an additional international dimension to our club. I think it’s indicative of how we see our club, of our senior position and responsibility within the game. As I mentioned, Rochdale Hornets are one of the original 22 Rugby League Clubs – the entire sport’s DNA is intertwined with our own. We are a founder club and, as such, we have a huge responsibility to ensure this sport thrives and expands to fulfil its potential.
We believe Thailand Rugby League has already benefited from our partnership. People are talking about them, looking to go and play there or take in a game. It’s a genuinely exciting time for Thailand Rugby League. My wife and I are hoping to return to Thailand in October to watch the Thais take on the Philippines. Who, in their wildest dreams, thought that would be an international Rugby League fixture!
You hosted a World Cup match between Fiji and Ireland in 2013, which attracted a record, sell-out crowd. Tell us how that came about and what it meant for the club.
Being a Hornets fan, I have always been fascinated by our connection to Fiji and I always thought the club hadn’t made the most (if anything at all) of that unique heritage. When the 2013 Rugby League World Cup was announced, I decided that the Hornets would do all we could to secure a Fijian game in the tournament.
Once the groups were announced, I worked on the theory that we wouldn’t be awarded a game featuring either Australia or England, so I announced the Hornets would bid for Fiji vs. Ireland. The first person to come on-board to support the bid was Ryan Bradley (who would later become our CEO). Ryan and I then went knocking on doors trying to get people to support our bid.
To be honest the reception was less than positive. In fact, in one meeting we were told that we would be “lucky to get 1,000 people there.” The organisers of the World Cup then announced that bids must come from local authorities and that you couldn’t bid for specific games – a slight spanner in the works! I spoke to Sally Bolton at the launch event and, although she reiterated that you couldn’t bid for a specific game, she understood our rationale.
Ryan and I then went to work on the council to get them to bid officially. Apart from one or two negative voices, we were able to get the council behind the bid and, in fact, it became quite a galvanising force for the town as the game approached, in no small part due to the work the council put in.
We had an unusual “privilege” in the months leading up to the event, in that we knew exactly how many tickets had been sold. Mark Forster, from the RFL, really knew his stuff and I remember seeing the first month’s sales numbers for our game with about 10 months to go. The game had sold about 100 tickets and, to be honest, we were worried that if we only sold 100 a month the prediction of less than a 1000 would be correct.
Mark assured us that 100 was a great start and he proved to be incredibly accurate in his predictions on tickets sales and the peak points etc. But even Mark didn’t predict the eventual figure we achieved.
The game day was just incredible, not least having people calling at the office desperately trying to get tickets and having to turn them away. There was just so much interest: the BBC recorded TV stuff prior to the game, local TV and radio showed more interest in the club than they’d done in 30 years.
There was loads of stuff around the game that will live with me forever. For example, the Fijian team singing their hymn in Rochdale Town Hall and also after a warm-up friendly we played against them. We were also fortunate enough to meet with several Fijian players as we negotiated to try and recruit players for the 2014 season. Thanks to a lot of hard work from Ryan Bradley we were able to secure the services of (current Bati halfback) Ryan Millard.
The success of the Fiji vs. Ireland game, along with us winning promotion, saw the council award the club the Freedom of the Borough, recognition 140 years in the making.
The legacy of that game, and the whole of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, is still bearing fruit for Hornets. We have been able to foster and develop relationships as a direct result of that game.
Which players should we keep an eye on in 2015? Can you give us one from the men’s squad and one from the ladies’?
New Players like Danny Bridge have settled in well. Established players like Tony Suffolk and Mike Ratu are ripping it up, although both have suffered bad injuries.
One player who I think deserves to be singled out is our captain, Wayne English. Wayne was under pressure at the start of the season. He had another Rochdale lad chasing his shirt and then Wayne broke a bone in his hand. Given that Wayne is playing something like his 15th year in the professional game, he could have quite easily called it a draw and walked away, but he didn’t. Wayne remains the fittest player at the club – in fact his test results are more than a match for several Saints players who are full-time professionals. But his form on the field is what sets him apart. He’s fearless and seems to get better with age.
For the ladies there are a raft of a player I could pick but one does stand out and that is Armani Khaliq. Armani is probably as far removed from the stereotype of an old style Rugby League player as you could get. From a South Asian family, Armani achieved some of the best results in her exams by anyone in the town. Quietly spoken, a non-drinker, always immaculately turned out, but when she pulls on the Hornets ladies jersey she is one of the best women Rugby League players I’ve ever seen. A powerful runner, a great defender, with good feet and hands, and a superb attitude.
Finally, what’s on the horizon for the Hornets? What are you excited about in 2015 and beyond?
Partner working is something we are keen on developing. We are having discussion with the Great Britain Teachers Rugby League Team around some work we could do. On an international front, one of our directors has emigrated to Malta, which could potentially be another Thailand. We have also been approached by a supporter owned and run community club about how we could best co-operate.
We have literally just taken possession of the keys to a new training/playing facility, which, although it requires a lot of development, is somewhere we could develop as a genuine community asset. Our charitable foundation is going from strength to strength with our objective to have “more people, playing more Rugby League, more often”. We are in the first year of a three-year plan to increase our turnover and make us competitive with top-end championship clubs.
We aim to be the best we can be!
This Q & A is sponsored by Rugby League Network