The Dawn of the 'Vikings'
Words by Mike Healing
Widnes Rugby League Club has since its formation thrived on a very close bond with the town and local community, drawing many of its players from the local chemical industry in the early years. It is natural then that for the majority of its recorded history the club has been universally referred to as 'The Chemics'.
It therefore came as something of a shock to die-hard supporters when in 1996 a change of name - in line with the trend of the time - seemed to signal the death-knell of 'The Chemics'. On the back of missing out on a place in the inaugural Super League competition the club's Board of Directors were looking for fresh impetus and ideas to promote and market the club. At the same time 17-year-old Frodsham High School student, and avid Widnes fan, Helen Baxter was looking for a suitable subject for her A-level design course, and chose the club as the topic for her 'Marketing and Promotion' project. Citing a lack of marketing initiatives Helen commented at the time that "I think the club can make so much more of itself", adding "We've got a new generation of players, a new stadium and we should be looking to create a new image for the club".
With the club receptive to Helen's approach initial discussions were held with Directors Tony Chambers and John Hodgson with regard to looking at the way in which the club marketed itself. At the time the club's promotional activity centred around basic posters scattered around the town advertising the next home match, but Helen's vision was to produce a range of promotional and marketing initiatives to attract fans in greater numbers, especially families and young children. During these early discussions common ground was found as the forward thinking club was already looking to produce a package of initiatives to reinvigorate the club. However when it became apparent that the club was already actively considering a name change - to 'Widnes Wizards' - the main thrust of the project switched to identifying a new name which would also generate marketing and promotional opportunities.
It was agreed that any new name must reflect the combative nature of rugby league, offer marketing opportunities, and have a fun element in addition to local connotations. So where better to start than with the name of the town, with Helen's research leading to the original Danish name of 'Vid-noese', and the Viking presence on the north bank of the River Mersey. It was a natural progression to thoughts of viking warriors doing battle as our tenth century Danish 'Widnesian' counterparts took on the Saxons based in Runcorn. Having identified 'Widnes Warriors' as the best-fit option Helen moved on to draw up marketing proposals and designed a comprehensive range of merchandise to support her recommendation, which ranged from toys and pens to hats, scarves, flags and T-shirts. The opportunities presented by the combination of name-change, merchandising and marketing proposals were then put to Directors Tony Chambers, John Hodgson and Ernie Bate who in turn presented them to the full Board for approval.
At this point the Rugby Football League made the club aware that Whitehaven were already planning to adopt the 'Warriors' moniker and Widnes were asked to consider an alternative. As Helen's design work had focused throughout on viking warriors - along with a new club mascot 'Chemik the Viking'- the obvious alternative, giving a nod to the town's history, was 'Widnes Vikings'. Although 'Chemik' was so named to provide a natural link to the longstanding nickname and the heritage of both the club and town, it was later amended to what was considered a more marketable 'Kemik'.
So having gained boardroom approval Helen's recommendations were implemented on 27th November 1996 when the club became officially known as Widnes Vikings, coinciding with the opening of a club shop in the Greenoaks Centre and the launch of the club's own informative but short-lived newspaper - the Viking Flagship. At the launch chairman Tony Chambers commented: 'It's not just a change of name. It signifies the club's change of approach'
The historic final match in which Widnes were officially known as 'The Chemics' took place on 25th August 1996 when they went down by 25 - 16 at Dewsbury. The line-up on that day was: Broadbent; Hunter, Myler (D) (2g), Kendrick (1t), Smith (P); Cooper (1t), Charles; Makin, Donno, Hansen (L) (1t), Myler (P), Cunningham, Cassidy. Subs: Pechey, Hansen (S), Ashton, McCurrie.
Some five months later the 'Vikings' took their official bow, in a Challenge Cup 3rd round tie at home to Clayton, on an equally notable 26th January 1997, when they ran out victors by 56 - 2. The history-making team that did duty on that day was: Broadbent; Kendrick, Myler (D), Nelson, Smith (P); Waring (3t), Lythe (8g); Makin, Cassidy (3t), Hansen (L) (1t), Harrison, Myler (P), Cunningham (1t). Subs: Bloem (1t), Collier, Mills, Connor (1t).
The final piece in the jig-saw came on 9th March 1997 when 'Kemik' made his debut in the home match versus Workington. He had completed the transformation from Helen's initial sketches and hand-made doll to a living, breathing club mascot entertaining fans young and old.
Looking back recently Helen commented that 'whilst many clubs appear to have chosen a name at random it is nice that the club has a story to tell about where its name came from. It is part of the heritage of the club. The fact that I am a fan is quite a special thing - and it was not just a corporate decision. I was astounded that something I was doing for a piece of school work was actually used. It was amazing really'.
Thus a 17-year-old Frodsham schoolgirl has left her indelible mark on the history of her club.
A copy of Helen's project is currently on loan to the Widnes Rugby League Museum.
The photograph of Helen Baxter was kindly supplied by Runcorn & Widnes Weekly News