Exclusive interview: Neil Hudgell on relegation, redemption, league structure and new signings

One year ago the Million Pound Game at KCOM Craven Park signalled the end of ten years in Super League for Hull Kingston Rovers, and the start of what some may call a rugby league revolution.

While city rivals Hull FC were celebrating a first ever Wembley victory in dramatic circumstances against Warrington Wolves, soon after the unthinkable happened to the Robins courtesy of Gareth O’Brien’s boot, causing enormous pain to hordes of Red and White clad fans, none more so than chairman Neil Hudgell.

Fast forward 12 months, and all is now looking very rosy in the Hull KR garden again, as his team, coached by former Salford Director of Rugby and World Cup winning coach Tim Sheens, swept all before them in the Championship and, when it came to the nitty gritty of the Qualifiers, confirmed promotion at the first time of asking.

It’s a path that the chairman, and his close friend Rob Crossland have plotted before after promotion in 2006, but chatting to me in Nibble Cafe near his new offices, it’s one that feels very different to last time: “It’s a lot different, last time was a novelty, our first promotion, our first incursion into Super League,” said Hudgell.

“We’ve had a ten-year stint in the top division, dropped out for a year, back again, so it’s really a sense of relief. It’s us repairing the damage of 12 months ago is how I’ve described it.”

The next subject is the appointment of former Australia coach Tim Sheens, promoted in his first season in charge of Rovers. Does he bring new optimism for the challenge ahead in Super League this time? “Yeah that’s a good question that, I’ve done some interviews when I’ve unpicked what’s gone wrong in the last couple of years.

“I think both myself and Rob had taken our eye off the ball, lost a bit of interest, and become a bit disillusioned with the game, and those fractures were maybe part and parcel of why we got relegated.

“Now, over the last couple of months we’ve re-engaged with the whole thing of what the club has evolved into, we’ve got a different culture.

“The fans have been hugely engaging and supportive, a great head coach and a backroom staff that will serve us well in Super League. So I think we’ve got considerably better foundations in place.

“We’re in a better position than certainly we were when we went down, and that sort of re-galvanised us as owners.”

Hull KR players celebrate promotion back to Super League.

Previously, this thoroughly engaging man has told me that the constant chopping and changing is a bad thing for the game, after the recent meeting between Super League clubs, does he think we need to stick with the current structure for the good of the game, or does it need to change yet again?

“Well I think if you look at it this way, Super League is back to the way it was three years ago, first year no-one dropped out, second year we dropped out, this year Leigh have dropped out, it’s back to status quo.

“It causes instability at the bottom of the table, and we don’t have a level playing field when a number of clubs, for a third of the season aren’t able to recruit on a level playing field.

“The game has a reputation for chopping and changing, it has a reputation for being innovative in some of the stuff that it does, so I’m a believer in stability, but I think if something’s not right, it’s not right.

“Whilst Rovers and Salford last year produced infinite excitement in that Million Pound Game, for 20 minutes of entertainment.

“We shouldn’t be jeopardising the longevity of a lot of clubs, whose owners, put significant amounts of money in to build something, then find the rug pulled from under their feet.

“So, the system has to change, there is ongoing dialogue to make some change, but how quickly that happens, nobody knows.”

So what would he like to see in the new structure, as and when it may happen?

“I’m an advocate of a simple structure, simple, plain and logical. I would say jeopardy is an intrinsic part of British sport.

“So it needs to be, for me, a simple one up, one down, and if there’s a platform for expanding the league beyond 12 teams, that needs to be considered.

“That’s because there are some outlying clubs with ambition, for instance like Toronto, there’s another club in France, Toulouse.

“There’s some heartland clubs, Featherstone, Halifax, there’s obviously London, so there are a number of clubs that sit outside the 12 who shouldn’t be discarded or shouldn’t be necessarily limited to a rooted Super League through promotion and relegation.

“If there is a business case for an extension of the competition, then I think it ought to be considered, but I think there needs to be a guaranteed route in if you perform at the top of the second tier.

“The other thing I think is the financial rewarding of clubs needs to be looked at. I think until you’ve still got self sustaining clubs, every club self-sustaining, you’re always going to have problems implementing strategy.

“For example if an owner puts in half the revenue of a club, and he doesn’t agree with the games strategy, and how it’s developing, then you’re at risk of him throwing his toys out the pram and destabilising that club.

“So you need self sustaining clubs, which means the revenue within the game, needs to be better distributed so the top teams get more money.

“Because ultimately the Super League is the front door of the game, and that’s where the resources need to be allocated.”

With Tim Sheens saying in the press that Rovers cannot carry the same size squad in Super League as they did in the Championship, what recruitment do they have in mind to cope with the rigours of the top division?

“I had a meeting with Tim yesterday, he’s going off to Australia. I think we’re going to be patient, and see what the World Cup throws up.

“He certainly needs to trim his squad, I think the recruitment has been exceptional, we brought four players in through the course of the season that all added value to the squad and helped us get to Super League.

“At one point I think we had about 15 players on loan. We needed a large squad to navigate our way through, because obviously it was fairly important that we got back into Super League at the first attempt, so no stone was left unturned.

“But clearly the squad, of the size we’ve got, some of those will go out on dual registration. We hope to play some reserve team fixtures, although it’s not set at this stage that it’ll be a full competition.

“So yes we need to trim some, in order to bring some others in.”

With the potential for a reserve team, but other teams not supporting the idea because it apparently isn’t worth it, what is the case for having a reserve team?

“I think in a perfect world, every club would have a reserve team, and enough fixtures, but the size of the talent pool just doesn’t allow that to happen.

“So I think we’ll make the most of our partner relationships, which is with York initially.

“But beyond that to play Ad Hoc friendly’s as you might call them, with other clubs, so it’s probably a bit of a mix and match really.”

So what is the state of the tug-of-war over Ben Murdoch-Masilla, who is also attracting the interest of Warrington Wolves?

“We won’t win a financial competition with Warrington, but we’re linked with every man and his dog, that’s what rugby is about, it’s what this city is about.

Salford forward Ben Murdoch Masila playing for the club in 2016. Picture: SWpix.com.
Ben Murdoch-Masila has been linked with a move to Hull KR.

“I get asked about rumours constantly, I enjoy it because it’s part and parcel of what the sport’s about, there’s no point in commenting on individual players.

“There’s plenty that we’re linked with, and there’s a whole raft of conversations going on at the moment.

“The message that’s been delivered to Tim is that we want to recruit quality, not quantity, to make sure we’re competitive.

“What we’re trying to put together is a very solid squad, with some real genuine quality in certain areas.”

Having had Jordan Abdull on loan all season, and Jack Logan towards the end of the season from the close neighbours, how are relations between the two Hull clubs?

“There is a mix there isn’t there, the competition needs to be in the senior competition, below that the clubs need to work together to make each other stronger.

“The Academy is a very good example of that, relations are good, Jordan came and contributed significantly, and has gone back there.

“It was never a discussion around whether he would stay or not, it was always an understanding that he came just for a year and then he went back.

“Jack carried an injury to the club, so he didn’t feature unfortunately.

“Myself and Adam (Pearson) get on very well, we’ve taken on a commercial venture together, opening the sports bar on Kingswood, so that shows the decency of relations between the two of us.”

Carrying on about the banter between the two clubs, there is a mischievous grin, as a recent comment by Lee Radford rears its head.

“Obviously there’s banter, like the little comment from Radders, ‘It’s nice to have the little brother back, but he’s annoying’, well we intend to be annoying and hopefully make him regret that comment for the next five years.”

Does the recent success of Hull FC, with back-to-back Challenge Cup Final wins, and Super League Top 4 finishes put anymore pressure on the Robins to be successful?

“No, not really. I think what it shows is, with a good coach, great systems, and a good group of people behind you, it can make you successful.

“I think they’ve had phenomenal success, and it doesn’t really hurt me to say it, it makes me think, if them, why not us?

“This year Castleford were in the Grand Final, now Castleford don’t have a bigger club than us in terms of fan base, they’ve been on a phenomenal journey.

“Wakefield aren’t far behind, they maybe should have been a Top 4 side, so all that gives hope if we can get the basics right, because it’s not easy.

“Hull have had a number of years of cutting out the dead wood, and the rotting flesh, I think the banners were out two or three years ago, calling for Radders head.

“That’s the nature of sport, so no I don’t think it adds pressure, I think it gives cause for optimism.”

So harking back to 2015, and the debacle at the hands of Leeds at Wembley, and then relegation last year, were the rumours of you walking away close to the mark?

“Yeah, you always reassess your position, as I say I lost a bit of love for the game, and I was ready to call it time.

“Wembley was very, very crushing actually, personally I found it very crushing, very embarrassing and it took me a long time to get my head round that.

“Then last year was obviously crushing in a different way, it didn’t effect me to the degree like Wembley did, and that was because I didn’t get the opportunity, because everybody was rallying round instantly.

“You know, you’ve got to get back, and it was the same for Rob, and it’s me and Rob, it was what can we do about this?

“We’ve got to get this club back, we’ve caused the problem, we need to fix it, we’re both from East Hull, we’re lifelong fans.

“We’re East Hull people, and the most iconic thing in East Hull is Hull Kingston Rovers, simple as that.

“So yes, I certainly considered it, but never quite managed it.”

After relegation, Hull KR fans responded with droves of season pass sales, the importance of that reaction from the fans was hugely important.

“It provided us with a platform, I don’t get tired of thanking everybody who’s bought memberships, done some sponsorship, sent me a nice letter.

“All those things, all individually have made an impression, I’ve got 4 or 5 letters that I’ve still kept, messages of support after relegation that contain tiny little messages.

“Some of them had slogans, they were all very galvanising, and I just imagine, somebody sat there, writing this letter out.

“They took the time to do that, and post it to me, so I’ve responded to them all, and I responded to them all again, after the end of the season.

“I thought it was important to engage with those people, to let them know that what they did made a difference.

“Throwing all those bits of the jigsaw together, that actually provided a platform to get Rovers promoted back to Super League.

What would be his final message to the fans, heading towards the 2018 season?

“You’ve stuck with us so far, enjoy the ride, we are a club that’s come a long way in a short period of time.

“We’re all optimistic for the future, hopefully with a long term plan in place we can make progress.

“We’re not going to make outlandish predictions, but if we do the basics right, and keep developing, then the rest takes care of itself.

“It’s a time to be excited about the connection with Hull Kingston Rovers and enjoy the next 12 months and beyond.”