Phil is in a league of his own as he shares passion

Phil Caplan has a life-long love of rugby league, as he tells DAVID SAFFER

RUGBY League's proud heritage is in the safe hands of Phil Caplan, who has written 12 books on the sport.

The acclaimed Leeds-born expert is the most prolific author on his home city club.

Co-director of Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd, which has a stable of 26 books since 2008, Phil is proud of its recently-launched rugby league monthly magazine Forty-20.

Feedback for the inaugural issue was positive and Phil is expecting a similar response for the second issue which came out this week.

"Everyone tells us the printed word is dead, but we genuinely feel there is a place in the market for something different," he enthused.

"We wanted to do something word-led rather than picture based, a little bit more in-depth with the best quality writers and have a different look and feel.

"In issue two the big debate is licensing. It gives us a chance not to report what happened because people know. We look at it from a different angle.

"Why did it happen? Did it have to happen in that way? Is it the right thing to have happened?

"We also want to be at events, first-hand experience as opposed to regurgitating press releases. It's a different way of looking at the sport and a huge challenge."

Regarding the magazine name, the 50-year-old noted: "Forty-20 is unique to rugby league. It's a modern rule, but we'll always have heritage in always mixing the past and present.

"Forty-20 is the present, other features cover the sport's heritage. The two are intrinsically linked.

"Our strapline is 'Treasure the Old, Embrace the New' and it applies equally.

"Forty-20 is a name synonymous with rugby league, but for the 21st century."

The son of Gill and Geoff Caplan, Phil was educated at Leeds Grammar School pupil.

Jewish youth group BBYO formed an intrinsic part of his teens.

"Every Sunday night was a great chance to meet up with contemporaries," he recalled. "It also gave us a chance to meet people from other towns, which developed into lifelong friendships."

Phil read communication studies at Coventry University from 1979-82.

"We were second year under-graduates and it was a fantastic course, but far more importantly it taught us more about ourselves," he recalled.

Rugby league has been a major part of Phil's life as a third generation watcher following his grandfather Oscar, father Geoff and uncle David.

"Dad watched Lewis Jones play. We've spoken about it, but I've had the privilege of meeting and working with Lewis and, dare I say, would now call him a friend, which is astonishing," Phil said.

Phil first saw Leeds RL play in 1967.

"Oscar had a seat with his name on and when you are really young, the excitement was running into the stand to find it," he recalled.

Too young to attend the famous 1968 'Watersplash final' against Wakefield Trinity, Phil's dad promised to take his son to the next Challenge Cup final that Leeds reached.

"It turned out to be the worst Wembley final you could take a young child to," he quipped.

"It was 1971. I was 10, Leeds were nailed on to defeat Leigh . . . but lost 24-7. We drove home and nobody said a word."

The Caplans were also a football family and Phil had a Leeds United season ticket in 1974/75 when they competed in the European Cup.

"Fixtures were structured so Leeds United and Leeds RL played alternate weeks," he said.

"My greatest game was the semi-final with Barcelona. I saw Cruyff and Neeskens playing live and Leeds beat them."

Rugby league though was Phil's sport.

"In your teens you start making choices and I started to fall out of love with football," he said.

"Leeds RL had a fantastic team. Lewis Jones was my father's icon; John Holmes was mine and at his peak. Holmes virtually carried Leeds to Wembley in 1978."

On the road to the Twin Towers, Phil had an opportunity to evangelise the virtues of his favourite sport to BBYO friends when Leeds faced Featherstone at Odsal in the semi-finals.

"The match coincided with my 17th birthday and friends from my Israel tour were coming for the weekend," he recalled.

"We had a fantastic time. I explained the game and it was settled late on with Holmes scoring the winning try."

Phil added: "The 1978 final against St Helens was arguably the most emotional game I'd seen - until Leeds Rhinos' 2004 Grand Final win against Bradford Bulls at Old Trafford.

"I'd gone a generation thinking a Grand Final success would never happen, but then you are suddenly writing a line 'I never thought that would happen'."

Regarding the Rhinos, he noted: "Leeds is the biggest club and centre that consistently plays rugby league in the game.

"Headingley is also the greatest iconic venue in world sport. It is the only dual Test ground.

"We are arguably in the most golden period the club has had. We've won four Grand finals so should be saying we're very fortunate to watch one of, if not the, greatest teams to wear the colours."

At Headingley, Phil is involved in a heritage project selecting the 'Greatest Leeds 13'.

"We are doing it by position so lots of great players will be missing out, which makes it harder," he said.

"What it's genuinely throwing up are current players who have every right to be called one of the greatest.

"I never thought Lewis' goal kicking and overall points scoring records would ever be beaten. They have been numbers in a book since I grew up and you think they'll be there forever.

"Kevin Sinfield broke one recently and the other will probably go next season. It shows how this current generation has thrown up some of the greatest players."

Phil worked for a decade in the print industry, returning at weekends to watch Leeds RL.

Keeping abreast of his team in local papers, Phil also kept a look out for businesses for sale.

"I had a vague, idealistic notion that I'd one day run a book shop," he said.

"From school I'd get a bus home and pass four book shops. You are either a bibliophile or not.

"I like the feel, look and get excited when authors you love are bringing out a new one.

"I remember getting Jennings then Alistair McLean and wanted to read all of them."

When a bookshop became available in Rotherham during 1994, Phil made a snap decision and took the plunge. Philip Howard Books opened the same year.

Returning to Leeds with his wife Ros and new-born daughter Emma, Phil travelled daily to south Yorkshire.

A second shop opened on his childhood parade in Moortown in 1999.

In the intervening years, Phil's seen an enormous change in the industry.

"We believe in what we do and try to go with diversity, but ultimately it's about whether people want to shop on the high street," he said.

"If they do then a bookshop is a lovely thing to have in your neighbourhood."

Phil's 20-year writing career began by writing articles for the Leeds RL programme and expanded when rugby league newspapers and magazines set up following the Australian RL tour of 1990.

Writing books was a natural progression. Among his published works are Headingley Rugby Voices, Leeds Rhinos Miscellany, Shoey the Lionheart and Leeds RL 100 Rugby Greats.

"Rugby league has wonderful characters, great stories and historical achievements," he said.

"We've had this fantastic sport, but not really told anyone about it. One of the reasons for writing in more permanency was to leave a legacy the sport deserved."

The formation of Scratching Shed - whose recent publications include Leeds lawyer Ronnie Teemans's autobiography A Lawyer For All Seasons - has made logical sense.

"Some books were incredibly worthy, but did not sit on the shelf with the latest cricket or football books," Phil noted.

"We wanted to set up something that its primary output was to do with northern culture.

"We had new material and a rugby league classics series where we reissued books with a fresh update.

"We'd love to have the next JK Rowling in our stable, but realistically know that is not going to happen and it's not what we are about.

"If John Holmes' book, Reluctant Hero, appears in 100 years for 1 and someone who has never heard of him or rugby league, picks it up, buys it, reads it and gets a flavour of how special Holmes was to a generation of fans, then we've done our job."

As for the future of his sport, Phil noted: "If there was a panacea, it would have been found," he said.

"It's how you sell the image of the sport. If you're content to be seen and talked about as a northern sport, that is exactly what it will be.

"There are more schools and juniors playing the sport in London than in Leeds and Wigan.

"Rugby union has heartlands as does rugby league, but ask people's perception of the two sports and one is seen as a worldwide global sport, the other as a northern parochial one.

"Only the sport can change that, but the reality may not be the perception and I'm not sure the sport has ever got to grips with that."

As for his future, Phil noted: "I don't plan it. You've got to spend as much of your working day enjoying what you are doing. If I stop enjoying it, I won't do it."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph