The 1980’s brought renewed hopes that Rugby League’s geographical straitjacket could be broken. Fulham kicked off the 1980-81 season in Division Two, becoming London’s first professional rugby league club since Streatham folded in 1937. The club surged to promotion in its first season, with average crowds topping 7,000. However, as the ageing side struggled to repeat its success and crowds declined, the board of Fulham FC, which had bankrolled the club, began to lose interest. In July 1984 it put the rugby league club into liquidation. For the next decade the club led a nomadic existence changing its name to London Crusaders with stays at Chiswick, Barnet Copthall and the Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium before being bought by the Brisbane Broncos, transformed into the London Broncos and earning a place in Super League by virtue of its geographical importance. The club is currently Harlequins Rugby League and is based at The Stoop in the shadow of Twickenham.
The initial success of Fulham led to a wave of soccer clubs expressing an interest in bringing rugby league to new areas. Soccer clubs ranging from Portsmouth to Hearts, Crystal Palace to Grimsby floated the idea of rugby league. Most of these ideas never got beyond the drawing board yet over the next five seasons Carlisle United, Cardiff City, Maidstone United and Mansfield Town either formed their own rugby league sides or were involved in ground sharing ventures. At the start of the 1985-86 season rugby league had thirty-six professional sides, its highest total since 1903.
Rugby League was seen by soccer club directors as a way of boosting income through diversification – ‘we want to make some brass’, Fulham soccer club chairman Ernie Clay told the press in 1980. When the soccer board’s at Fulham, Cardiff and Carlisle realised that rugby league was not a cash cow they pulled the plug prompting the RFL’s David Howes to remark: ‘The Carlisle board seemed to view the rugby league club like a publican might view a jukebox. Install it. Watch it twinkle. Enjoy the music but take it out the moment it shows signs of losing money.’
Once the soccer clubs had withdrawn their funding, the survival of the expansion clubs was a continuous struggle dependent on the voluntary work of supporters. Carlisle survived to 1997 when financial pressures forced the club under. Cardiff relocated to Bridgend but lasted only four seasons. Mansfield became Nottingham City and were demoted to the National Conference in 1993-94. The team at Maidstone moved to Southend but poor crowds including only 85 for a game against Huddersfield led to their demise after the 1984-85 season.
Sheffield Eagles formed in 1984 were by far the most successful. They caused one of the biggest upsets in Challenge Cup history by beating Wigan at Wembley in 1998 and they played in Super League. However, financial pressures forced them to merge with Huddersfield to form the Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants but the Sheffield part soon disappeared. The Eagles were resurrected and currently play in the National Leagues at the Don Valley Stadium.
Twenty years on the idea of ground sharing to make maximum use of facilities has again taken hold. Huddersfield, Wigan and Hull all ground share with their local soccer club at new, state of the art stadia. Leeds and Harlequins share grounds with Premiership rugby union clubs. Expansion is on the agenda in South Wales with the Celtic Crusaders, based at Bridgend, being promoted to National League one and expected to bid for a Super League franchise in 2009.