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March 9, 2019

Wakefield Trinity switch sights to glory after fighting off threat of ruin

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Widnes’s financial crisis serves as a stark reminder that money troubles are never far away in rugby league. But for a lesson in how choppy waters can successfully be navigated in sport the Vikings should look at events 70 miles or so across the Pennines.

Wakefield Trinity, five times Challenge Cup winners, were facing a very real threat of liquidation as recently as 2013, with mounting debts and losses approaching a million pounds a year. Today they have rebuilt themselves as one of the most prudent, competitive teams in the sport.

“As that year went on, it was apparent things were going badly wrong and there were some real dangers for the club,” says the chief executive, Michael Carter, who put together a package to save Trinity six years ago having previously worked in an advisory role as the club’s accountant.

“We had to sell our star players immediately and the years thereafter were tough. There were losses of over £800,000 a year and you can’t just switch that off. We had to put business interests ahead of the team and that meant for the first couple of years we’d struggle.”

Struggle Wakefield did, finishing one place above the relegation zone in 2014. Twelve months later they had to go through the Million Pound Game to secure survival, a match Carter believes could have changed the club’s history had they failed to beat Bradford. “I would have walked away,” he say. “The club would undoubtedly have gone part-time straight away, so players and staff would have been made redundant on the spot.”

While losses were slowly being arrested going into 2016, results were still suffering, with the club winning one of their first seven games. Another relegation battle beckoned but, as with every rags‑to‑riches story, a pivotal moment arrived. “Chris Chester had just been sacked by Hull KR – ironically, they’d lost to us, so we got him sacked,” says Carter with a laugh when he recalls appointing the Wakefield‑born coach that March. “He’s a local guy, he understood the fabric of the club and before he came players were scared to play and express themselves. He relaxed everyone and from there we haven’t looked back.”

Chester guided Wakefield to safety with ease that year and in the past two seasons he has led them to fifth-place finishes. Sunday’s visit of Hull KR is the latest test for Wakefield, who now harbour realistic ambitions of winning a trophy, having firmly established themselves as a top-half side despite a smaller financial outlay than their rivals.

“We spend less than the big clubs, we’ve got far smaller backroom teams than most clubs but we squeeze every drop out of everyone,” Carter says. “The foundations of this club – on and off the field – are built on hard work.”

Homegrown stars such as the England international Tom Johnstone have committed their long-term future to the club, too. But while Wakefield are a success story on-field, off it there is one element missing.

Their famous Belle Vue stadium is a dilapidated, crumbling wreck. Major stands remain untouched since the classic Richard Harris film This Sporting Life was filmed there in 1962 and the club are in a six-year battle with developers to renovate the ground. For Carter success there would be decisive. “It could take us to the next level,” he says, with developments possible as soon as this month. “Trinity has 150 years of history in this city and I want to leave this club in a position where future generations can enjoy it.”

From the dark days of near extinction to today’s financial health, can Carter allow himself to dream the impossible? “Catalans, Hull KR and Castleford have all reached a major final this decade … so why not?” he says. “Let’s see where the ride takes us: we’re all enjoying it.”

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