130 years of Headingley history

2020 marks the 130th anniversary of the opening of Headingley Stadium in 1890. The Chairman of the Leeds Rugby League Heritage Committee Phil Caplan gives us goes on the search for fascinating facts covering the that period and the events that led the founding fathers of the club to buy Lot 17A of the Cardigan Estate to create our home.

Prior to the 1970 World Cup final at Headingley – the infamously dubbed ‘Battle of Leeds’ – the International Board met at the RFL’s headquarters in Chapeltown Road. It ratified the reduction of the value of the drop goal from two points to one and put in place a touring and World Cup schedule for the next five years. France proposed an international championship table be compiled but that was rejected. So too was agreement on the substitution rule to use replacements freely, as in England.

Those who played for Leeds Athletic in the early days of the sport were keen to start or help out new sides in the suburbs where they lived. By 1872, seven years after Athletic had made their competitive bow, teams were formed in Sheepscar – who played Leeds St Johns – and Chapel Allerton. One of the early matches saw them face Ilkley on land behind the Mexborough pub and Hull also visited there. Around the same time, Harrogate, Ilkley and Ripon formed in the north; Leeds Blenheim, based in Headingley, Horsforth and Chapeltown also regularly turning out teams.

Almost all scorers of hat tricks on Leeds debut are backs, usually in big wins. The exception was Bryan ‘Butch’ Adams who, astonishingly, was the only visiting try scorer in a disastrous 61-13 defeat at the Willows against Salford with his treble. Winger Alan Smith made the most eye-catching first start, crossing for four touchdowns in an Eastern Division clash at home to Dewsbury in August 1962.

The first team to beat Leeds after the switch to Northern Union were Widnes, in the second game of the 1895-96 season, the Chemics triumphing 11-8 at Lowerhouse Lane. Stand off J. Bastow, in his only season for the Loiners after the breakaway, scored one of their two tries and added a goal. Initial lowering of the colours by a Yorkshire team came five matches later when Wakefield Trinity were victorious 8-3 at Belle Vue. A week before that, Stockport became the first side to win at Headingley. Leeds gained a measure of revenge over the men from Cheshire in their only other meeting here, in February 1903, winning 30-0 with Welsh winger W. Evans, who transferred from Leeds Parish Church when they disbanded, crossing for a then club record five tries in a match on his way to another landmark of 28 touchdowns, the best in the Northern Union that season. Leeds’ first loss in a cup tie came in the second round of the Northern Union Cup in its inaugural season 1896-97, when they went down 9-3 at Tyldesley.

Over eighty years ago rugby league began in France after Jean Galia brought a party of players over to learn the code, Leeds prop Joe Thompson among those who taught them the intricacies, especially of the play the ball, at Headingley. On March 14th, Leeds played the French Tourists here, winning 25-17, Stan Smith posting four tries. In early May, the visit was reciprocated, the Loiners playing four matches against France in different locations, winning 35-22 in Lyons in torrential rain, 27-19 in Paris in front of a 7,000 crowd, 51-38 at Villeneuve and 65-31 in Pau with Smith registering six touchdowns. Both of those matches drew an attendance of around 10,000. In Tests at Headingley, Martin Offiah set a record when he went over five times against the Tricolors in 1991 and Great Britain ran in 13 tries two years later in a record 72-6 dismantling. France’s sole success came in April 1990 when they ran out 25-18 victors, David Fraisse’s goals and two drop goals from Giles Dumas proving to be the difference.