With the London Challenge match between London Skolars and Wigan taking place tomorrow 22 January 2016 – I go back to February 2014 when I met rugby league mad Hector McNeil
Having interviewed Nigel Wray, Saracens Chairman and been pretty nervous I found myself travelling up to London to meet Hector McNeil – Non Exec CEO of London Skolars. This time I had two reasons for my nerves, firstly again I hadn’t been able to find out much about the man I was going to meet. Secondly and far more worrying we were meeting at Bank. Now this is a place I never, ever get off the train. The GAP is one of my biggest fears in life; it was with some trepidation that I waited for the doors to open as we arrived at Bank. I can’t begin to describe how relieved I was to see platform rather than gap when the train doors opened! I walked on shaky legs to the Royal Exchange building to meet Ian.
I’d seen Hector at many London Skolars games but never spoken to him, this is a man who takes watching his team seriously, and intense is the word I’d use. I’d heard his voice however, largely yelling at the referee. Now as an Essex girl I can spot a Northerner from a mile off, I was surprised to hear though that Ian was born in North Allerton, hardly in the Heartlands of rugby league. He later moved to Yarm, similarly in the ‘wrong’ part of the North for the ‘other’ code. Ian played union, slotting in at Hooker and reaching both District and County level. None of this was pointing at a man who was to be instrumental in forming the club that was to become London Skolars.
Further Education was the answer to the passion for rugby league; Ian studied Economic History at Hull University; now we’re talking a place in love with the 13 man game! For his first two years he played rugby union, finally moving over to league taking the role of Hooker. That must have been interesting as the name may be the same in both codes but the position most certainly isn’t! The University League side was one of the best at that time, amongst the team was an ex Wigan player Hamsa Atta and brothers who’d played for Wigan St Patricks as well as a player released by St Helens. As far as watching was concerned Ian went to a few internationals as well as some games in Hull.
With his degree successfully completed Hector moved into the business world with a post as a Graduate Trainee in the Stock Exchange. He carried on playing rugby league for the Hornsey Lams, coincidentally at the New River Stadium, now home to the London Skolars. At 24 Hector returned to university at Warwick to take an MBA, in comparison to the majority of his fellow students 24 was young, he found himself at the Freshers Fair where the rugby league team had a stall. This was to be the beginning of Hector’s involvement with league in Warwick, he had Bev Risman as the Head of Student RL who took a keen interest in the Warwick side; this was likely to be a good team! And so it proved to be, Hector played for Scotland Student rugby league and several of his team mates followed suit in playing student RL for their countries. Hector also went on to play for Hemel Hempstead just after University who were riding high in the National Conference Premier League.
MBA successfully completed Hector returned to London with a will to carry on playing a game that was now under his skin. After a season with Hemel he and 4 of his friends set up Student Rugby League Old Boys, the fact that not one of them was over 5ft 10 was a bit of a problem, but one that was solved as their ranks grew after they advertised in Time Out and TNT amongst others. Dave Rotherham, now 1 of 3 national player development managers for the RFL coached the newly formed team. They played at Hackney rugby club and had enough players to field two teams; impressive work for the ex-students! Hector played until he was 36 or 37, which feels slightly crazy for this incredibly hard game, and yet, I find myself not surprised in the least! He did say he didn’t make many tackles in his last season. In 1997 the team joined the National Conference League and moved to their new home at a place familiar to Hector; the New River Stadium!
The change of name came when the club got close to a sponsorship deal with Skol, and London Skolars were born. The club became one of the founding members of the Southern Conference in 1997, winning the competition during its inaugural season. They later enteredteh BARLA National Conference League, which meant the club played in both the summer and winter for 4 years! In 2002 Skolars became the first amateur club in 80 years to take the leap into the professional ranks joining the National Leagues.
In light of the recent troubles of London Broncos the Superleague team in town I asked Hector where he saw the future of the club so close to his heart. He used a term that makes total sense, ‘Skolars are moving organically forward’ they now have a junior section running from U7’s and upwards, the U19’s have won their league for 3 years in a row. Hector has 3 children and it’s clear that he has a real passion for giving kids the chance to take part in and excel at sport. Again in his words ‘Outside of Spurs, Skolars are the 2nd biggest club in Haringey, rugby league is a more realistic way for a child to excel and have a chance of becoming a pro sportsman in the area’. London Skolars Under 19s received the Haringey Team of the Year award in 2013 and now employ 40 people in the Borough including all the players; an amazing statistic when you consider the humble beginnings of the club.
I asked Hector where he thought Skolars would be in 10 years, his vision is a place in the Championship, with a stable revenue base and playing on a state of the art 4G pitch. The pitch is on its way, and that place in the Championship was close last year. I have to confess London Skolars kept me sane in rugby league terms being a season ticket holder at Broncos too! I’m sure Hector won’t mind me saying I sometimes wonder if RL does the same for him; I’ve only ever seen one other man watching a game so intensely, Shaun Edwards and he doesn’t shout quite as much as Hector! His working life is likely to mean that in a few years he’ll have more time to devote to Skolars, so more time to concentrate on this passion of his. As a fan I’ll be watching the progress of the club with interest; 2014 should be another great season! For Skolars it kicks off against Oxford on Sunday 2nd March, I can’t wait!
After again feeling nervous I found time flew by and that I’d had a great chat with a fellow rugby fan, I had to ask the Sam Burgess question, Hector’s opinion? He’s making a mistake, as he hasn’t won anything in RL yet and has no legacy! A very fair point! We said our goodbyes and I realised I had the GAP to face again!! Oh no!! My solution, to ask the station guys where I needed to stand to avoid the horror; it can help to be a feeble female at times, one of them came with me and saved me the trauma!