130 years of Headingley history

SIR EDWIN AIREY Chairman: 1923-1955

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.

Leeds suffered a half back crisis during the 1911-12 season, not least after the retirement of Bob Ward who had been re-transferred from Bramley. He played for over ten seasons, made over 200 appearances and was the club’s leading all-time try scorer with 72.  Walter Mackay was signed after starring in army rugby but only made two appearances, and county stand off Tommy Price should have returned from a loan spell with Millom but elected to stay in Cumberland. There were searches in Wales which looked at Cheshire and West at Cross Keys and Lloyd and Prosser with Pontypool but none were considered likely to make the grade. In the end, Herbert Ganley was brought for a record fee paid for a Leigh player at that time. He went on to make 64 appearances scoring 23 tries and 63 goals and was the father of Bernard ‘the maestro’ Ganley, Oldham’s record points scorer and a member of their Hall of Fame.

There was a close link between Leeds Grammar School and the first city side formed, Leeds Athletic, with many ex-pupils continuing to play the sport with the club after finishing their education. The most eagerly-awaited fixture in the early days was between the two and to ensure fair play, which was normally administered by the respective captains, each appointed an independent umpire to rule as happened in cricket. The principle of two referees became commonplace in such fixtures.

The first Northern Union season in 1895-6 saw Hunslet finish seventh and Leeds twelfth. In Yorkshire, Bramley, Wortley, Holbeck and Leeds Parish Church were in the first division with Armley, West Riding – based on Meanwood Road and Stanningley in the second. Below them, in junior competition – which was coming under greater threat from the popularity of football – were Woodhouse, New Leeds, Gildersome, Upper Armley, Kirkstall St Stephens and Headingley.

While all records are there to be broken, some remain timeless. It is extremely unlikely, with the reduced length of the season and lesser number of cup competitions now played, that John Holmes’ appearance record for the club will ever be surpassed. On debut as a 16 year old in 1968 – when he posted another club best with 23 points from ten goals and a try against Hunslet in the Lazenby Cup – his 21 year career spanned 625 matches, 604 of them starting appearances and 21 off the bench. That is over 80 more than the next great servant, durable prop Fred Webster who arrived on the eve of his 20th birthday from Brotherton and played for 18 seasons, making 543 starts – which would have been more but for the First World War. He captained the Loiners to their first trophy in 1910, scoring a try in the Challenge Cup final replay against Hull.

Tour trial matches were commonplace and on Wednesday 19th March, 1958, a White XIII met a Green XIII at Headingley. The only Leeds player included was Bernard Prior – who had won at Wembley the season before – as hooker for the Greens but he did not make the final cut, the first squad that left these shores without a Loiners playing presence, although former skipper Jim Brough was coach. In the White’s ranks was Hunslet back rower Brian Shaw, who later came to Headingley for a world record fee. 

The architect of the modern Headingley and of the club’s first golden age during the 1930’s was fearsome chairman Sir Edwin Airey who assumed the role in 1923 and held it for 32 years. His right hand man was vice chairman and trusted friend Edgar Alcock while George Ibbetson acted as secretary-manager for a quarter of a century during that time.