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.

To mark the 130th anniversary of the first ever game at Headingley, we recently launched a new celebration shirt which includes the names of every player that has played for the club since the establishment of the Northern Union in 1895.

The first international to represent Leeds was R. Henry Fowler, a forward who played for England against Ireland in 1877 as part of a 2-0 win at Kennington Oval, home of Surrey CCC. It proved to be his sole cap.

Leeds provided six players for the 1970 World Cup squad, with two games against Australia played on home Headingley soil including the notorious final. In their occupations, Alan Smith was a cost/accounts clerk, Syd Hynes worked as a sheet metal worker, John Atkinson – best known as a policeman – was a joiner at the time, Mick Shoebottom a welder, Tony Fisher – just signed from Bradford – drove wagons, and Bob Haigh – recently acquired from Wakefield – a fitter by trade.

There was little real interest in an opening round Challenge Cup tie in 1978 when holders Leeds were drawn at home to face a struggling Halifax outfit anchored at the foot of the second division, and soon to appoint Maurice Bamford as coach. But with frozen weather affecting pitches and the BBC needing a guaranteed fixture to focus upon, the cameras duly arrived at Headingley. Although the visitors put up a gutsy show belying their lowly position, the Loiners won at a canter, scoring seven tries – including doubles to wingers David Smith and John Atkinson – but only kicking two goals and rarely getting into second gear. The inadvertent star of the show, though, and a focus of Eddie Waring’s commentary became a stray dog who wandered on to the field from the South Stand and avoided several efforts to chase it off. A producer with the Beeb quickly got his caption writer to flash up the name ‘K9’, taken from a character in a recently shown ‘Doctor Who’ episode, the dog rather than the game grabbing all the headlines.

Since the advent of Super League, Leeds have supplied selections for eleven different representative sides; Great Britain, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Jamaica and France. Barrie McDermott and Francis Cummins share the distinction of pulling on three different shirts – the Lions, England and Wolfhounds. The club’s first summer internationals were Neil Harmon and Adrian Morley who played in four and two tour games respectively on Great Britain’s ill-feted trip to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand in 1996. Five players have captained their national sides; McDermott, Iestyn Harris, Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Rhyse Martin. 

During the 1872-3 season, recently-formed Yorkshire invited trailblazers Oxford University to play a match in Leeds. The game was staged at Oldfield Lane, home of Wortley cricket club and attracted a then unheard of crowd of more than 3,000. The hosts – who were represented by men from Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Bradford and newcomers Apperley Bridge – played with 19 men to the visitor’s 20, the students winning comfortably.