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Keighley continue to lead the way with innovation in rugby league

Ian Laybourn, PA
·5-min read

Keighley introduced razzmatazz to rugby league long before the arrival of Super League and three decades on are still leading the way with innovation.

The Cougars have lived in the shadow of big-city neighbours Bradford Bulls for much of their century of existence but have never been afraid to be bold or brash.

That imaginative approach is currently being led by London-based tech entrepreneurs Ryan O’Neill, 42, and Kaue Garcia, 35, a married gay couple who became owners of the League 1 club nearly two years ago.

They demonstrated the club’s commitment to inclusivity and equality by hosting a Pride Game against West Wales Raiders in 2019 and marked LGBT Month in February by incorporating the Progress Flag on their playing kits for the 2021 season.

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In a sport with such a macho image, the radical moves might have been seen as a calculated risk but O’Neill is confident rugby league is moving with the times, having witnessed the progress close up.

“Rugby league has made some real strides forward,” he said. “I was reading about the Super League referee James Child and some of the stories about the abuse was shocking.

“But you wonder how that happened because we’ve moved on so far in the last four or five years and, if we can help and move it forward, so much the better.

“Rugby does have that macho image that suggests we might not be all that welcome but that’s incredibly false.

“Our supporter base is relatively limited at the moment because we’re in League 1 but the demographic in terms of ethnic minorities and gender and sexuality shows we have a real mix.

“We have a surprising number of gay and lesbian supporters. It shocked me actually. I thought when me and Kaue went up there, we’d be the only ones in the village so to speak. But we certainly weren’t.”

For O’Neill, it has been a return to the club he supported as youngster in the early 1990s when his father Mick was chairman and one of the men behind Cougar-mania which brought some glitz and glamour to a previously drab Lawkholme Lane.

Mick walked away from the club when their dream of top-flight rugby league was cruelly snatched away from them in 1995 when Keighley was deemed unsuitable for the new Super League despite earning their place on the field by winning the old Second Division.

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The love never went away, however, and prompted by Ryan over dinner during a visit to Australia – where his father was living – Mick agreed to return to lead a rescue act after the club was placed in special measures and faced the threat of extinction.

Mick fronted the takeover but was quick to introduce his son and Brazilian partner as part of the new ownership team.

“Kaue had never watched rugby in his life,” said Ryan. “He knew nothing about it to begin with and now I think he’s more savvy than any of us. He wants to be at every training session, he’s totally involved.”

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Mick is now back involved and his contribution to rugby league was finally rewarded with an MBE in the New Year Honours List which also recognised his services to the local community and to charity during the pandemic.

However, it is Ryan and Kaue who are coming up with new ideas and their plans for Cougar Park include a new entrance dedicated to Keighley-born Sir Tom Moore and a boxing arena under the main stand designed to engage with the local Asian community who have so far shown little enthusiasm for rugby league.

“When I’m half awake in the morning and a thought comes across my mind, I quickly jot it down on a notepad on my bedside table,” said O’Neill, whose day job is running a company that makes children’s smart watches.

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“Then I’ll review it and some of the ideas are total and utterly insane but some of them aren’t so bad.

“We’re always trying to think differently and reach out to new people. Generally crowds have been declining so you’ve got to reach out to people who otherwise wouldn’t be thinking of coming down to a rugby league game.”

Of course, the priority is still the rugby team and the addition of experienced players of the calibre of Scott Murrell, Wellington Albert and Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e should make the Cougars among the favourites for promotion to the Championship this year.

“We have endless ambition but it’s one step at a time, getting to the Championship and the next step is the top flight,” O’Neill said. “We’re not people who want to be just mediocre.”