‘A special little town’: Castleford ready for Wembley Challenge Cup exodus

When dawn breaks on Saturday morning in Castleford, cafe shutters will be rolling up as early as 5am and the roads will begin to flood with traffic with one destination in mind. Few towns have as strong a connection with their sporting team as Castleford, a former mining town in West Yorkshire with a population of barely 40,000.

A quarter of the town – maybe more – will travel to London to watch Castleford Tigers compete in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, with St Helens standing between them and a first major trophy since 1986. To call the squad from 35 years ago legends in this part of the world would be something of an understatement and the significance of victory for a town that regards rugby league like a religion is not lost on the players, many of whom grew up locally.

“All people talk to you about is rugby league, there’s not really anything else,” says Castleford’s captain, Michael Shenton. Aside from a two-year spell with Saturday’s opponents, Shenton has spent most of his career with his home town club – he had two seasons at St Helens from 2010-11 – and he still lives close to the club’s Wheldon Road ground, as do many of his teammates.

“It’s a special little town, and rugby shapes the community here. If we’re playing well, then the buzz is huge. It pulls the community together.”

There are other towns and cities along the M62 where rugby league is important but unlike Wigan and Hull for example, there is no football presence in Castleford. Rugby league is everything; it shapes the mood of the people and with the collieries the town was once famous for long gone it is the sole rallying point in Castleford. This is the very definition of a rugby league area, making Saturday all the more significant.

“Wembley is memorable to people in this town,” says Castleford’s coach, Daryl Powell. He was at Wembley as a spectator 35 years ago when Castleford last lifted the cup. “You can’t quite put into words what it would mean to be associated with winning something here. There are pictures all around the town of the great teams of the past. To be part of that would be incredible.”

With Wembley’s attendance capped at 45,000 there will be thousands in Castleford who cannot attend. Last time they reached the final, in 2014, almost three-quarters of the population decamped. The pit closures in the 1980s ruined Castleford’s economy but the emotional, tribalistic bond the town shares with its rugby league team kept the fire burning for many during difficult times. That relationship remains as important as ever, particularly after the effect Covid-19 has had locally.

“Without a full crowd, reaching the final won’t be as worth as much to us as it normally would be,” says Castleford’s chief executive, Mark Grattan. “But the impact in and around the town in terms of the local economy and the mood in the area is priceless.

“When you drive around most places you see kids kicking footballs, but not here. Rugby league is the one thing that unites the people of this town.”

But they are starved of success. Finishing top of Super League in 2017 was a seismic moment for a club that has spent most of the modern era underachieving, but Castleford are without a major trophy since that 1986 triumph against Hull KR.

“We’ve had little bits in there, like finishing top and getting promoted, but nothing like winning the cup,” Shenton says. “We’re all aware of the history. It’s time to go and make our own.”

“You can feel the buzz around the town,” Grattan says. “We’re aware of the role we play here in shaping the mood of the people. Families who have stood on these terraces for generations, who’ve experienced so much trouble … we have a chance to do something special for them.”

With restrictions lifting on Monday, talks are already tentatively taking place with the local council about a civic reception should Castleford win on Saturday. There have been some notable homecomings in the past for Challenge Cup-winning teams, but this modest, working-class town will be throwing one heck of a party next week if their heroes manage to lift rugby league’s biggest prize.