THERE WAS no prouder man in Saddleworth than Gareth Owen when he was invited to become Oldham Rugby League Club’s new captain.
Moorside born and bred, and now living on Buttercup Drive, off Haven Lane, just up the hill from his parents and round the corner from his grandad, Owen has supported the Roughyeds since he was first taken to Watersheddings as a small boy by his mum and dad, Karen and Geoff.
He is the home-town boy made good, a former Waterhead ARLFC junior who, in primary school days, used to play half-back at Peach Road in tandem England Rugby Union fly-half George Ford.
Aged 24, and in possession of a CV that includes 36 Super League appearances with Salford, Owen had switched from half-back to hooker before he was scouted by the Red Devils (then the City Reds) when he was 15.
He made his Super League debut as an 18-year-old, but his best season at Salford was in 2012, aged 20, when he played 18 times in the sport’s elite competition.
Throughout his seven years with the Reds, though, ‘Gaz’ and his mum and dad retained their interest in hometown Oldham and in 2014 he jumped at the opportunity to move back ‘home’ on loan before becoming a contracted Roughyeds player in 2015.
He was a key member of the side that won promotion from League One to the Championship in 2015 and equally influential in the squad that raised lots of eyebrows in rugby league by finishing outside the relegated bottom two in their first taste of the higher level.
Typical of the player described by Roughyeds boss Scott Naylor as “a proud Oldhamer”, Owen’s first thoughts when interviewed about his appointment were for those who steered him on the path to becoming a hometown rugby hero – his mum and dad.
He said: “It will mean just as much to them as it does to me. They’ve followed Oldham all their lives.
“When I was just a kid and the old club was in Super League, they followed them all the way to Paris.
“They’re made up for me and I’m chuffed to bits. It was a shock when I was asked to captain the side, but it was something I’ve fancied doing for a while.
“It’s a massive honour to captain the club I’ve supported all my life. I’m confident I can cope with the extra responsibility. I’ve always been one of the most vocal members of the team, so nothing will change there.”
Owen believes Oldham will improve on last year’s position – third off bottom – and says the target this time will be a mid-table finish, or better.
He added: “Last year it was all about staying up, but we’ll be more positive in 2017, having got a season at this level under our belts, and we’re not even thinking about going down.
“We’ve had a great pre-season -the best yet – and the new boys have slotted in brilliantly. You would think Adam Neal and George Tyson had never been away, while Scott Leatherbarrow and David Hewitt are forming a super combination at half-back.
“We haven’t seen a lot of ‘Chappie’ (Nathan Chappell) because he has had a knee operation, but Ben Davies is looking good at prop, as is young winger Harry Warburton, who is with us on trial from amateurs Folly Lane.”
Owen will have two lieutenants in vice-captains Sammy Gee, who has held that post for the last four years, and new-boy Leatherbarrow.
Explaining why the Moorside lad’s elevation was an “easy choice”, Naylor said: “He’s a captain the other lads will look to, listen to and respect. He’s been exceptional since he came to the club and we know he’ll do a good job.”