The Winter League Story
The opening day of the first-ever season of Winter League bowling in Huddersfield seems an apt time to look back on how we have reached this point and recount for posterity the story so far.
In the Beginning
I was never really convinced that the Winter league would ever come to fruition and until we complete a full season those doubts will remain. That is not because of any lack of resolve or organisation but it just seems that sometimes some things are not meant to be. Such has been the journey of gestation that the intent could have floundered at a number of the presented hurdles, indeed I thought more than once that it had miscarried by an unexpected episode but each time it was resuscitated to fight another day.
On review, I have counted four major setbacks during the gestation period any of which could have resulted in termination of the scheme.
1. July 2019: No indoor green availability
2. August 2019; No outdoor green availability
3. July 2020: Veterans League rejection
4. March-September 2020: Coronovirus
First mooted in June 2019 but with a gestation period of 15months (the same as a camel) and a delivery date of 6 October 2020 this is a long-awaited birth which will be witnessed by around 60 bowlers (but no more than 30 at either green) at two venues.
The conception first came about with a conversation I had with Tony Lockwood of Lowerhouses BC when I was watching a match at Almondbury Liberal Club. I hadn’t met Tony before (I’m a come-inner) but he cornered me with a donation to the Veteran’s League Golden Jubilee Patron Fund and then spoke with some enthusiasm about the opportunity for a local Winter League.
The idea festered for a while until I decided to take it a step further by mentioning it at a Management Committee meeting of the Veterans League. That failed to stir any of the members to offer any help but they gave me their good wishes and sent me on my way expecting never to hear any more about it. If only! Their lack of enthusiasm for anything new did not deter me, I had expected nothing more and my reporting to them was just a courtesy.
I had no great hopes of a 2019 start as the end of the Summer League season was three months away and being League Secretary for the Veterans League was taking most of my leisure time. In addition I was trying to write the promised book on the history of the Veterans League with a target of publishing for Christmas 2019. I therefore set my own target of an October 2020 start some 15 months away. If I couldn’t bring that to fruition in that time then I really should give up.
The Indoor Model
The initial concept which I thought might create some interest from the clubs was for an indoor League. This seemed to me to be the easiest solution to delivering a Winter League and the one most likely to attract the interest of bowlers. Played during a weekday morning and afternoon seemed the best option and confined to veteran bowlers. I made contact with The Dome and asked about booking a regular slot for 6 months every year starting in October 2020. I was astounded to learn that the only free slots they could offer me were Friday tea-times or Saturday afternoons.
They professed to have regulars at all other times who would always be offered first refusals on their time-slots for the future (fair enough). However, I couldn’t believe that any commercial organisation would turn down a contract for a day a week for 6 months of every year with the likelihood of more business in the future as I fully expected the League to grow in interest. I decided to escalate the offer to see if KMC was more commercially minded the higher I went.
I contacted the Sports Complex Operations Manager, explained my vision for the League and the block I had come up against and he promised to come back to me when he had investigated things further. He duly did but there was no shift from the previous stance of Friday tea-time and Saturday afternoons are available or he could probably offer me some better dates from May to September. I explained that this was a Winter League which didn’t fit too well with a July timetable.
Meanwhile I learnt that a number of Veterans League clubs were among these regular bookings and I thought maybe I could convince some of them to forgo their weekly friendly games and release those slots so that a Winter league could be started. That met with a quick rebuff and so the thinking is back at square one and I decided not to escalate my plight even higher within KMC but took time-out to rethink the whole project.
Progress could have been halted there and this was the first of the four major hurdles I previously mentioned any of which could have curtailed all thoughts of delivering winter bowling for Veterans League bowlers.
The Outdoor Model
The second deal-breaker hurdle was apparent straight away. To continue the idea of introducing competitive bowling outside the traditional summer months meant finding a partner club that was prepared to offer their green for use during the winter. My second report to the Veterans League Management Committee did result in three suggestions of clubs that might be interested – Elland, Meltham and Linthwaite Hall.
The first two named had the added attraction of having two greens which would have offered a range of options as to the League format which I was keen to explore. I followed up on all three. Elland was definitely interested and a proposal to use one of their greens was taken to their Committee but failed to secure support from anyone to provide services to the new League bowlers such as a hot drink and access to toilets which immediately eliminated them from any future involvement.
Meltham could be prepared to offer one of their greens as well but they had great reservations about the location being attractive enough to entice bowlers to travel in all weathers to this bowling outpost. I think that they were right and so that one went no further as well.
Linthwaite Hall was not a member of the Veterans League so would always struggle to man a mid-week League and as a result were grateful for the interest but would not be taking it any further. So what future has a League without a green to play on? Things stagnated for a while in fact things moved slower than pigs in blankets at a Jewish wedding – brakes on, going nowhere, and I had reached the second major hurdle which threatened any further progress.
Nothing much happened for a few months when Tony Lockwood got in touch again and I couldn't provide any positive answers to his questions on progress. He remained enthusiastic and re-energised me with his commitment to making it happen, he never had any doubt that it would end up with a positive outcome. I didn't share that view but his enthusiasm shamed me into continuing and the timing was good when I learnt of Springwood’s interest in providing a winter green for the new competition. Mike Ralph had spoken to Frank Greenwood at The Griffin just before Christmas and I was keen to follow up with Mike to gauge his interest and commitment.
Springwood had a number of new members interested in raising the profile of the club and their thinking was that the focus of winter bowling would do no harm to such aspirations. This was confirmed by Mike and so we started to put some plans together during the months of January and February and then we began sharing those thoughts with the bowling community.
By the end of February we had expressions of interest from 10 teams who offered to test the concept by staging two Trial Days on consecutive Mondays in March. The intent being to test out the playing format with all 10 teams (5 matches) being played on the Springwood green at the same time. The Trial Day dates were set for the last two Tuesdays in March which could be used as warm-up events for the Veterans League fixture programme following on a week later. The lessons learnt from the two days would then inform the thinking about a League format to start in October that year.
Management and Coronavirus
I informed a 9 March meeting of the Veterans League Management Committee of progress and identified four options for the administrative management of the new League. These being
- The Veterans League Management Committee;
- The host club (Springwood);
- The member clubs involved in the Winter League;
- A nominated individual
The Management Committee expressed their keen future involvement in the League and voted 10-0 in favour of the Winter League coming under the auspices of the Veterans League.
Following that meeting the 10 teams who had expressed their interest in joining the new Winter League had arranged to meet to finalise arrangements for the two Trial Days and to gauge interest in the long term future of the proposed League. All 10 teams were represented at the meeting namely, Springwood, Marsh Utd, Milnsbridge, Kirkheaton Con, Huddersfield Recreation Club (2 teams), Lowerhouses, Denby Dale, Meltham and Almondbury Lib.
Enthusiasm was high although the elephant in the room was the new in-word COVID-19. Words of caution were spoken and sensible precautions were considered but all were still keen to go ahead. The four options for administrative management of the League presented to the Veterans League were also mentioned to the meeting but there seemed no urgency in deciding on the preferred way forward.
The week after the teams meeting I spoke with Mike Ralph to learn of his growing concern about the Coronavirus and how it might impact on our Trial days. I took it on to contact the teams to see if they were still committed to the two Trial Days but before I could do that Mike had consulted within his club and they had decided, quite rightly, that there was no sense in taking any risks at this sensitive time so the trials were postponed. The hopes being that we would stage them prior to the start of the League Programme in October.
Things moved on in the outside world and everything was turned upside down as the pandemic took priority in everyone’s life. All local sports events were cancelled including all the bowling leagues. We were still keen to progress preparations in advance of the Winter League start up and a telephone conference call of the teams was organsised for 17 June.
During the intervening period Almondbury Lib had withdrawn their interest as team members concerns with the growing threat of the Coronavirus pandemic taking over. There was some good news for the meeting as Milnsbridge offered the use of their green during the winter months if it would be required. With the maximum 30 people on or around the green rule well established, it became increasingly obvious that this would be essential if present team numbers were to be maintained.
Discussions turned to the League’s ruling body and Springwood announced that they did not wish to be considered for that role as the host club. It was unanimously agreed that the new competition should come under the control of the Veterans League which had always been the default assumption of most for some while.
Mixed Gender League
At that same 17 June meeting a proposal by Denby Dale that the League become a Mixed-Gender competition was discussed and none of the teams present had any objections so it was agreed that the first new bowling league in town in the last 50 years was going to be a mixed male/female competition. It didn’t seem to be such a big decision at the time but it was to prove to be the seed that threatened to overwhelm all our long term planning and became a big issue for me personally.
I knew that the Veterans League Rules did not allow for lady bowlers to be involved in any capacity on the bowling green so I set about smoothing that transition. A drafted rule change duly supported by the required five clubs was presented to the Veterans League Management Committee which would facilitate the involvement of lady bowlers in the Winter League only.
The Management Committee took exception to this move and decided to block the rule change going before a General Meeting of clubs as their rules say it must when properly presented. This fuelled a long-festering division on the Management Committee and a vote was eventually forced by one group which resulted in a 5-6 reversal of the previous 10-0 supported decision. The only thing that had changed between the two votes was the Winter League clubs wish to have lady bowlers in their League only.
This was more of an issue for me personally and directly led to my resignation as League Secretary for the Veterans League the reasoning behind that being well documented here.
Life Goes On
Although a major and totally unexpected setback to the formation of the League but such was the momentum behind the scheme that it was never going to be car crash moment and it was quickly agreed that the League would run itself. Mike Ralph offered, with some reluctance, to take on the role of Chairman and Bob Haigh of Huddersfield Recreation Club offered his services at Treasurer. I committed to be Secretary for the first year and so we were quickly back on course or so we thought but by now Coronovirus was the single topic on every sportsman’s lips as the threatened total wipe-out of all summer sports materialised.
This development created a major rethink on the logistics on running the League with the planned 10 teams on a single green each week a total non-starter unless it was extended to a full day with staggered start times. There was no appetite for such a format and so the offer of a second green from Milnsbridge was a lifeline we were keen to grasp.
With the full summer bowling season wiped-out by the pandemic interest continued to grow in some competitive bowling for later in the year and more clubs came forward to express an interest on joining. Now up to 14 teams which we judged to be the maximum we could cater for under the BCGBA guidance on two greens so membership was halted at that stage with a waiting list created for teams hoping to join in for the following season.
However the future had never seemed so uncertain to me as it did now with the Coronavirus threatening the future, not only of our bowling league but of people's lives itself. Whilst the previous challenges faced were mainly within our control to overcome this threat was totally out of our hands and we became spectators in a race that we should have been part of.
Daily speculation varied from the end of mankind to imminent normality and all we could do was look on and wonder what the future was going to be like and would bowling ever be part of it again. As I write Huddersfield has re-entered a second local lockdown period with the threat of no change until the New Year uppermost in most people's minds.
Weekly tinkering of the rules offered spasmodic hopes of an opportunity for some form of bowling in 2020 and gradually the rules were relaxed to allow clubs to offer club members appointments to book for social bowling only. This gradually moved towards a phased introduction of club competitions but all the while maintaining social distancing and limits of people on and around the green restricted to no more than 30 individuals.
The summer leagues were on the verge of cancelling all thoughts of any bowling in 2020 but we continued planning for an October start more in hope than expectation and that proved to be a sensible approach when an announcement was made on 26 July. That declaration of Phase 3 being implemented opened the door to competitive team bowling under strict guidance rules from the BCGBA.
A Lifeline Opportunity
This guidance required each club to undertake a documented Risk Assessment of their clubhouse and surrounds and provide adequate arrangements to tackle all the hotspots it identified. Both our host clubs duly completed that just before local lockdowns were introduced in Kirklees which once again threatened the reopening of our fixture programme. Again we continued the planning for a full season against a backdrop of uncertainty, local and national lockdowns, natural concerns about how many bowlers would return to their sport in the short term and an abandoned summer of sport.
Weekly reviews of lockdown rules continued to feed the uncertainty right up until the 10 days before our season start date. We needed to be squeaky clean in adopting all the guidance rules not just to be allowed to bowl but also to reassure our bowlers that all sensible precautions were in place to protect them and their families from providing a source of infection.
Discussions with the Yorkshire CCGBA and local Public Health officials provided written approval to go ahead with our League programme as long as we remained fully compliant with the guidance rules. Nothing was going to stop us now surely but one final hiccough threatened to do just that.
We had registered affiliation with the YCCGBA who were insistent that all leagues have insurance cover for public liability. The BCGBA has an approved insurance broker - Endsleigh Sportscover - that they work with to provide suitable cover for individuals, clubs and leagues. I applied for cover and was quoted £417 annual premium. I was expecting £45 as I knew what the Veterans League pay annually. I sought alternative brokers and received two further quotes for £212 and £115 neither seemed suitable or affordable.
An appeal for help to YCCGBA put wheels in motion albeit they weren't turning fast enough to ensure cover for our start date. However YCCGBA recognised the delay was of the BCGBA's doing and supported the move to run the Test Day without full cover being in place. [The cover was finally agreed on the day after Test Day at a cost of £45 per annum.]
So we awake on Test Day (29 September 2020) to a warm sunny Autumnal day ideal for bowling. For the first time things seemed to be in our favour at a key point in the proceedings. Over the past week you may have read on this website of the findings that the Test Day uncovered and the steps taken to address perceived areas of weakness and we are ready for the big day of a full League programme of fixtures. The first day of competitive team bowling in Huddersfield in 2020 and the first new bowling league in town for 50 years. Bring it on.
The League would never had materialised without the commitment and support of the two host clubs in addition to the interest in playing in the League of even more clubs. The HDVBA website was key in arousing that interest and reaching a wider audience and eventually communicating with local communities to get the project off the ground. The enthusiasm of Tony Lockwood was important in keeping the momentum going during a difficult and stagnant period. Lots could have gone wrong, lots did go wrong but not enough to stop a truly worthwhile project.
So what does the future hold for bowling during the winter months? Well I would like to think that it will grow stronger, involve more host clubs and attract more teams and bowlers. I believe that there really is an interest in taking this competition to the next level but key to that happening is more clubs being prepared to open their greens to other teams during the winter months. Without that basic ingredient the project is not going anywhere. Alongside that is the further commitment of the two current host clubs to continue supporting the concept beyond an initial season.
Why would a club offer their green during the winter months when normally they would expect them to be rested and allowing a programme of repair to be undertaken in preparation for the summer season. I guess it is a love of bowling that pushes clubs to offer their facilities in the first instance. There is some funding as well as I calculate that clubs will receive around £900 of income over the quiet winter season that wouldn't have been available to them otherwise. Any club requiring more details about becoming a host site for 2021 should get in touch now.
Some of the interest in bowling 'out of season' has inevitable been created by the lack of playing time over the summer months this year but the signs are that there is an underlying appeal to bowlers of extending their outdoor season. Whether the weather (sorry) dilutes that interest remains to be seen over the coming months.
I really believe from the expressions of interest already shown that the number of teams in the divisions could double next year. The current teams are realising that they don't have enough entered teams to satisfy the interest of their club bowlers so are looking to add more next year. They are not constrained by the usual limiting factor of only having their own single green which would normally only be able to support two teams in the same league. A lot of four-man teams can be formed from the 160+ bowlers already registered with our 14 teams without going outside that parameter at all.
On top of that is the interest being shown by prospective new teams as they stand on the sidelines and watch how the season develops before making judgement if this is just a one-season wonder or something to be part of for the future.
I believe that the current four-man team format will stand the test of time whether it be as four singles or a variation on that and we could even see teams being formed that don't come from a single parent club. It seems inevitable that the present two-division format based on location will change to one based on merit with promotion and relegation introduced very soon, in all probability next year. Competition creates interest and teams will find their true level over time and the more teams we have the easier and quicker it is for that to happen.
Some teams will look to rotate bowlers to cater for interest and not care too much about the outcome which if it suits them, is fine but I do believe that we all crave some form of competition to judge and monitor our own form and capabilities. After all if we don't care about the outcome of a game why do we keep the score?
The future is pure speculation of course but for now we can enjoy being part of something different and new. A Winter League, a Mixed Gender League, both are new and if the resolve developed so far continues then both will be around for some time to come. I truly hope so to make all the effort of the past 15 months to be worthwhile and I have no doubts whatsoever that this will be the case. Enjoy your winter bowling.