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Rugby chief Chris is a man for all seasons

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date online: 03 April 2012

Martyn Torr meets... CHRIS HAMILTON
FOR 15 years, he’s kept rugby league in Oldham alive.

Fifteen years . . . it seems like a lifetime. To Chris Hamilton, the chairman, chief executive and 100 per cent shareholder of Oldham Rugby League Football Club (1997) Ltd, it is more of a life sentence.

Sitting in the boardroom at the Whitebank Stadium watching the part-time groundsman drag a hand roller over the churned-up pitch, I asked Chris if he had his time over, would he do it all again?

“No.” The answer was instantaneous, emphatic, final, unequivocal and brooked no argument.

For a man who has lived and breathed rugby league since he was a young and sprightly 34-year-old, it was an implacable statement. I wanted to ask did he harbour any regrets? But I didn’t have the heart and I suspect my A4 ruled notepad, already filling with heartbreaking anecdotes, didn’t have the capacity to record the answers.

That’s right, plural. For every question I posed of Chris, an Oldhamer through and through, from the very core of his soul, has more than one answer to every question.

Where to begin? It was on October 2, 1997, that the new legal entity that is Oldham RL was formed, with four equal shareholders including Sean Whitehead, Stewart Hardaker and Melvyn Lord.

Seventy days later, Paddy Kirwan sent out a team at Spotland to battle it out with Rochdale Hornets for the Law Cup. Oldham won. It was magical day, the atmosphere was unbelievable and the Four Amigos thought they could conquer the world.

“It was a fairy tale. There were 3,500 in the ground and most of them were from Oldham,” said Chris.

It came less than six months after Oldham Bears had lost to Paris — that’s right Paris, Oldham used to battle it out on equal terms with the capital city of France — to finish bottom of the RL Super League. Now Oldham had risen phoenix-like from the ashes.

More of a miracle than a fairy tale and from that day on it has been one of Grimm’s.

Days later, the Rugby Football League, who were supportive of the new club while pointing out there would not be any money from the Sky contract which underpinned the Super League, informed Oldham that they had “forgotten” to include them in the knockout cup draw.

It was the first in a catalogue of disasters which would surely have buckled a lesser man, a man who has come so far there is simply no turning back.

And if he looks over his shoulder there is no-one in sight, trying to catch up, offering help.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “We have some tremendous people working here on a voluntary basis. Without those people we simply would not be here. I’m talking about someone to come in and share the burden of ownership and leadership. I would welcome an approach, an offer. They can take over, I’ll walk away and pay to come as a fan. Or they can come in and ask me to stick around and do whatever they want.”

For a man who knows there isn’t a queue of suitors at the door of his rugby-club office in Lansdowne Road, he remains remarkably upbeat and sanguine about prospects for the next 15 years.

“I have to live the dream and have aspirations for this club — otherwise, what’s the point? What has it all been about?”

It was about that first day in Rochdale, seeing a club reborn and people from Oldham turning up there in their thousands.

They don’t turn up in such numbers now, and even his three founding co-directors have left, but at least Oldham RL has a home.

After playing at eight venues, including Boundary Park, even the ramshackle surroundings of the old Chamber Colliery ground in Whitebank Road seem like a home from home.

“I never thought I would see the day when we had our own home, our own stadium.

“I have been to anywhere and everywhere that could have housed a rugby league ground, but there were issues and problems and they weren’t even the same issues and problems.”

One bleak night he can recall loading up the club — “that’s what we used to do, pack it all up for a road trip and then bring it all back” — playing in front of a handful of fans on Monday at Sedgely Park. A dark evening, dark days — rugby league is a summer game these days.

Oh there have been peaks — like four successive play-offs between 2007 and 2010, but ultimately, all lost. And yet Chris still comes back for more, like the old-time slugger still eking out a living the in the boxing ring because he knows nothing else.

And here’s the rub. Chris does know something else . . . and he’s rather good at it, too.

A Mumps lad, his first home was in Spring Street, he was brought up on St Mary’s Estate and attended the local schools, including The Blue Coat.

He could have been a professional footballer — he was offered a scholarship at Rochdale — but his father had died and Chris needed to earn.

He started as an office junior at Partington’s, an accountancy firm in Chadderton, and worked his way through to eventually owning his own practice, with offices in Oldham and Rochdale.

He was a fan and sponsor of the rugby club and a lifelong fan too, of Latics. His home is still only a corner kick away from the club he continues to support.

Then, in late 1997, when he was an avid reader of Roger Halstead’s Chronicle stories of Oldham’s impending demise, as they exited Super League with debts untold and unquantified, came the decision which has changed his life irrevocably.

When The Consortium, as the four new owners had become known, refused to get involved with the administrators, the old club was liquidated. And so it came to pass that a new club was born — in October, 1997.

But the story of Chris’s love affair with the Roughyeds goes way back beyond that historic date. History can be made in 15 years if they are as momentous as the years Chris has endured and, on some days, even enjoyed.

So the next question is why? The answer is long and convoluted and rooted in the depths of a time when Watersheddings would rock and the old wooden stands would, literally, roll.

As Chris sits and contemplates the future, he still allows himself to dream. Of finding a new investors. Of producing a stadium that will allow promotion to the Championship — a minimum 3,000 capacity, a minimum 500 seats and terracing so all the fans can get a view of the pitch. Of having offices on site to do away with the daily commute from the administrative headquarters in Lansdowne Road.

Of more staff — only one person draws a full-time salary from the club and no, it’s not Chris, and there are four part-time salaried employees, one of whom is the long-time, long-suffering but supportive and inspirational coach Tony Benson.

Of a time when his life will not be utterly consumed by the club.

Would Chris walk away if new investor owners walked in?

“Yes.” It was instantaneous, emphatic, final, unequivocal and brooked no argument.

But I think I have written that somewhere before.


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