On a recent trip home to Hull I found out that they had demolished The Boulevard. It cannot have taken much effort to knock-over the remnants of what was a ramshackle construction even in its heyday. But it would have been nice if the City Council had supported Hull FC’s efforts to preserve some physical presence of their century old rugby league home to accompany the edifice of memories that will always remain. Sadly the club’s hard work in developing a new purpose for the site to promote health in the community in which it was rooted was thwarted and the old place has gone for good.
Contrary to the imagery conjured up by its exotic Parisian name, The Boulevard and its environs did not exude glamour. There was barely a pavement café in sight and the residents were too busy existing to bother with existentialism. Since the decline of the nearby fish docks had ripped the heart out the area, some of the streets around the stadium had come to seem like a laboratory for creating tabloid demons. But what The Boulevard lacked in glamour it more than made up for in raw charisma.
As a structure it did not conform to any sensible theory of stadium design. The ends were open terraces some distance from the pitch. The main stand had inexplicably been built on lower foundations than the playing area, giving those at the front a worm’s eye view of the turf and wingers’ ankles. The one concession to craftsmanship was the modestly ornate lattice work on the front of the old wooden Thre’penny Stand roof. The name “Thre’penny” was drawn from the original entry price but could have easily referred to its latter day scrap value. It smelt of a hundred years of stale beer, burnt onions, urine and cheap fags. Somebody should have bottled that scent.
Miraculously all of the architectural attempts to kill the atmosphere achieved the opposite effect. I have travelled widely but have yet to find anywhere to match the fervour of The Boulevard on a good night, when the 20-watt floodlight bulbs were working their blurry magic. Once in a while there was a feeling of electricity that came from more than the faulty wiring and you knew from the moment that you walked into the place that everything was going to be alright, whatever the odds. Somehow the combination of the history and the club’s deep roots in its community could be distilled by the crowd into an unstoppable force behind the team.
It smelt of a hundred years of stale beer, burnt onions, urine and cheap fags. Somebody should have bottled that scent.
To some opposition players this atmosphere could be intimidating. I do not think any of them really thought they were going to be eaten alive but there was enough doubt to keep them looking over their shoulders. Rugby league players are as tough as it comes but some were shaken into nervous wrecks from the moment they ran the gauntlet of grannies banging their brollies on the cage around the players’ tunnel. A few examples from recent memory were John Gallacher, the lauded All Blacks Union full-back, whose already tottering rugby league career with Leeds was irrevocably reduced to rubble during a Premiership semi-final. And Garry Schofield, a man who usually finds reticence a big ask, was notoriously shy about venturing over to the Thre’penny Stand side of the pitch on his returns to The Boulevard after walking out acrimoniously on Hull.
On the opposite side of the fence it all seemed rather different. Of course it was partisan, raucous and occasionally over-the-top offensive. This was the place where people came to get their emotions out after a hard week spent gutting fish and the like. But in amongst the crowd you could see it for what it was – a group of mums, dads, grandparents, kids and mates enjoying being part of a strong community. There was sharp wit too. The big, tough Castleford forward Dean Sampson, misguidedly turned up one day sporting flowing blonde locks and was barracked relentlessly with wolf whistles and shouts of “Gizza kiss Marilyn”. Somewhat distracted, Sampson duly had a shocker. When he finally got a little run together near the end of the game he at least drew the faint praise from the bloke behind me of “Good God, he’s broken a tackle”. Sadly, when he stayed down clutching his hand in pain, this was immediately followed by, in best Larry Grayson voice, “Ooh, but he’s broken a nail too”.
There was also great warmth. Nowhere was better at welcoming back former heroes who had moved on with honour, such as Lee Crooks and Peter Sterling. And in a funny way, I have rarely been prouder to be part of that crowd than on the closing night at the stadium when the pantomime villain, Schofield, was given a rapturous reception after the curtain-raiser old boys’ game in which he, to his great credit, had appeared.
Since our departure to become long-term tenants at the sparkling KC Stadium, fans of other clubs in the city have taunted us with the threat of being sent back to The Boulevard. To us this was not so much a threat as an impossible dream. Now that fantasy has died and we somehow have to turn the knowledge in our heads that we are better off where we are into a feeling in our hearts.
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