Mike Stephenson's delights as rugby league history returns to George Hotel
Stevo: "I'm pleased as punch it's gone back to where our sport was born. There are not many sports which can say that."
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 30/06/20 4:58pm
When he began collecting memorabilia as a rugby league-obsessed child, little did Mike Stephenson know it would one day be the basis for a museum celebrating the sport’s history.
Throughout his life, the now-retired Sky Sports pundit amassed a wide variety of shirts, medals, caps and programmes from both these shores and beyond, which were previously on display at the Rugby League Heritage Centre in the George Hotel in Huddersfield.
The hotel, famous as the location where 21 clubs met in August 1895 to break away from the RFU and form what is now the Rugby Football League, has been closed since 2013 and Stephenson's collection has been in storage since then.
But now, charity Rugby League Cares have partnered with Kirklees Council to reopen the George as the National Rugby League Museum - and the man known affectionately as 'Stevo' could not be happier his collection will once again be on display.
"I've been collecting rugby league memorabilia since about eight or nine years of age, programmes and the like," Stephenson told Sky Sports.
"Then when I went out to live in Australia, I started collecting Australian memorabilia and it grew and grew and grew - and cost me a lot of money! But I didn't mind.
"My mother used to go crazy, saying 'What's all this?!', but I've had 60-odd years collecting.
I'm overjoyed because, for 10 years, I had created this heritage museum for rugby league and I had some wonderful staff who helped me out, and it was a real pleasure
"I'm overjoyed because, for 10 years, I had created this heritage museum for rugby league and I had some wonderful staff who helped me out, and it was a real pleasure."
Letting the train take the strain
The genesis of the museum goes back to Stephenson's time in Australia, with the former Great Britain international hooker having moved Down Under in 1973 to join Penrith after helping hometown club Dewsbury claim the Rugby League Championship.
His personal collection continued to grow with artefacts to Australia now being added and, after hanging up his boots and taking his first steps in journalism, he approached the New South Wales Rugby League with the idea of putting in all on a train as a touring museum.
With the NSWRL jumping at the idea, sponsorship from breweries were sought and carriages converted for the travelling exhibition which would come to be knows as the 'Rugby League Express'.
Stephenson even had living quarters, a chef and four helpers on board for the 10-week tours of New South Wales and then Queensland. There were visits from some of the greats of Australian rugby league too.
"We'd do New South Wales then go up to Wagga Wagga just near the border of Victoria and it was just at the time when Canberra had joined, so it was an ideal time to take it away," Stephenson said.
"Then in the second year, we took it up to Brisbane, which is like a 10-hour ride on the train. It was fantastic and my dream has always been to open a museum.
"All the major stars like Laurie Daley, Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, all these wonderful players would come on board the train.
There was a shop at the end of one of the carriages and an extra carriage for sleeping, cooking and enjoying a few beers - seeing as it was sponsored by a brewery!
"There was a shop at the end of one of the carriages and an extra carriage for sleeping, cooking and enjoying a few beers - seeing as it was sponsored by a brewery!"
Back to the birthplace of rugby league
Stephenson wanted a permanent home to put his collection on display though and it was Gillette director Tony Colquitt, who also served on the board at St Helens, who helped get the Heritage Centre off the ground through sponsorship.
The then-owner of the George Hotel jumped at the opportunity to host the collection as well and Stephenson's dream was realised when it opened in 2005.
But the closure of the hotel eight years later left him little time to remove all of the artefacts, with the Huddersfield ex-players association and family helping rescue the items, and Huddersfield Giants chairman Ken Davy arranging for it to be put in storage at the club's ground.
"When the hotel closed, the administrators gave me only 24 hours to get everything out, so you can imagine the panic," Stephenson said.
"A lot of people have been really helpful to get it off the ground and get it off the ground. The amount of stuff I had, what they had on display was only about 50 percent, but I used to keep changing it around like most museums.
"But now, by all accounts, we'll be able to add to it even more. People are very kind and will often donate things, so I'm just hoping people will understand that and donate things."
Stephenson was quick to thank Rugby League Cares chairman Tim Adams and RFL Benevolent Fund general manager Steve Ball for looking after the collection and ensuring it will be able to be displayed at a location which holds such a special place in rugby league's history.
"I'm pleased as punch it's gone back to where our sport was born," Stephenson said. "There are not many sports which can say that."