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Autumn 2021Rochdale Hornets 150th Anniversary

One of the world’s longest-surviving rugby league clubs celebrates 150 years of playing the full-contact sport.

Rochdale has a rich history of rugby league: its Hornets team is one of the oldest surviving in the world, founded after an epochal meeting between the directors of Rochdale Wasps, Rochdale United and Rochdale Football Club at the Roebuck Hotel in 1871.

Having joined forces to form a senior team to represent the whole town, Rochdale Hornets – and the iconic amber and black kit – was born, mostly made up of working-class men.

One of the original 22 clubs which formed the Northern Union in 1895 (which became Rugby League in 1922) the Hornets have overcome several periods of difficulty over the years, including financial crises, losing several players in World War One, plus a fatal match injury – but equally have had numerous triumphs to be celebrated, on and off the pitch.

Cup success and memorable matches

The match on 23 November 1878 against Halifax saw an attendance of 5,000: a Rochdale record at the time. It was also played under electric light, which was still a relatively new invention.

The game against Swinton in the 1884-5 season was left unfinished. Hornets had scored a try and were looking to win the game with a conversion. However, with excitement running high, the crowd broke onto the pitch, the game was suspended and the kick never taken.

In the half-season of the spring of 1919, Rochdale Hornets not only won the Lancashire League but also carried off the Lancashire County Cup.

In 1922, Hornets won the Northern Union Challenge Cup by beating favourites Hull 10-9 at Leeds. This would be Hornets’ one and only Challenge Cup final and was a real underdog’s victory. Incidentally, the club’s record attendance was set the same year earlier in the cup; a crowd of 26,664 turned out to watch the derby against local rivals Oldham.

Their biggest win against a senior side came in 1989 with the 92-nil defeat of Runcorn Highfield.

Hornets set an all-time Rugby League record in 2005 when they defeated the amateur side Illingworth 120–4 in the Challenge Cup: the highest score ever achieved by a team in the cup.

Under the guidance of Ian Talbot in 2013, the Hornets were led to their first trophy since 1922 when they won the Kingstone Press Championship 1 play-off final against Oldham. Talbot’s successor, Alan Kilshaw, would also enjoy resounding triumph. In his first season, Hornets became champions of the Kingstone Press League 1 division after a resounding victory over Toulouse Olympique on 17 September 2016.

This was the first time Hornets had been champions of a division for 97 years.

A Fijian legacy

In 1961, two Fijian players arrived: Orisi Dawai and Josefa Levula became the first of their countrymen to play in England and create a Rochdale legacy.

Their arrival would create a link to the Pacific nation which still exists to this day as Rochdale hosts the second largest Fijian population in the UK outside of London.

Voate Drui and Liatia Ravouvou soon followed in early 1962, and the strong connection between the club and Fiji lives on: Mike Ratu senior, son Emon, and grandson Mike junior all represented the Hornets, whilst Joe Taira is a current squad member.

Kit changes

Whilst the club’s most notable colours are amber and black, Hornets have played in other strips over the years, including cerise and grey, white, green and black, and red, white and blue.

The 2021 home shirt features bold hoops and red sleeves, inspired by the 1921-22 Challenge Cup shirt worn by captain Jack Bennett, plus the 150th anniversary crest.

The club’s original colours formed the main inspiration for the 2021 away shirt: thin hoops which scoop into a U-shape on the front and back, representing the body of the hornet. The bold amber and black colours were last present on the 2016 change jersey, which the club wore in their victory over Toulouse Olympique.

Home sweet home

The Hornets have played from various grounds, spending a considerable number of years at the former Rochdale Cricket Ground (now home to an Asda supermarket) until 1894.

From there, the club moved to the Athletic Grounds on Milnrow Road, purchasing the grounds in 1913. Hornets would remain there until 1987, when financial woes meant selling the land for a Morrisons supermarket.

After the sale of the land, in 1988 the Hornets moved to Rochdale AFC’s Spotland Stadium – now the Crown Oil Arena.

Ownership and co-operation

Weighed down by increasing debts and facing a winding-up order from HM Revenue and Customs, shareholders voted to put the original Rochdale Hornets Football Club Company Limited into administration in January 2009.

Assisted by Supporters Direct, a group of loyal supporters stepped in to save the club from extinction. On 29 January 2009 Rochdale Hornets was re-formed as a supporter-owned co-operative: the first professional Rugby League club to be owned and run by its fans.

During the co-operative era, the club punched well above its weight, winning the Kingstone Press Championship 1 play-off final in 2013, before being crowned league champions three years later.

However, in 2020, the members voted to place the club back into private hands, handing over control of the club to a consortium headed by former Swinton chairman, Andy Mazey.

The future

Today the club boasts three main teams: men, women and wheelchair (created in 2017). Formed in 2019, its women’s side is fittingly led by Rochdale’s Olympic judoka Sophie Cox, who at 11, became the first girl to play rugby league at Wembley in 1993.

Hornets avoided relegation from the Championship in 2018 due to a league restructure, but failed to sustain its second tier position. Winning just one league game all season, the club succumbed to relegation at the end of 2019 and now compete in League 1 under manager Matt Calland, a former player.