Behind the numbers – Jack Fairbank – heritage number 950

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 Leeds Rhinos Foundation Heritage Group traced every player who has made an appearance for the first team, and allocated them a chronological number going back to 1895. That has unearthed some fascinating stories and we are going to share some of those stories with you so you can look for the names on your shirt and realise the sacrifices those who came before us made to establish our great club.

Jack Fairbank was a man of few words; he preferred to let his deeds do the talking. Signed by Leeds in November 1959 from Huddersfield, he was just the enforcer the Loiners were looking for. A genuine character, he was important in giving the pack its edge. 

Traditionally, the Leeds forwards were seen as a malleable unit that opposing sixes could intimidate, get amongst and put off their game but not so with Jack. As so many of the ’61 side have said, if there was trouble ahead, Jack was the perfect man to send in to sort it out. Of farming stock, his physical prowess was much to do with his work there and he was not one for conventions. On away trips to Lancashire he would be picked up on the way and with club etiquette demanding the wearing of blazer and tie. On one such occasion it is said that he wandered straight from the fields in his muddied working clothes but was refused admittance on to the coach by the management who left without him.  

Always his own man, it is also said that for the 1961 Championship final at Odsal, he requested to be allowed to make his own way down to the ground from his work place not far above it rather than travel over to Headingley and come back on the bus with the team. On the field, although his menace was most remarked upon, he was a fine footballer with a high knee action running style that made him difficult to tackle. In the title winning side he formed a superb back three in the pack which, in the final, immediately got on top of their opposite numbers. He also crossed for the vital opening try, powering over by the posts having taken a slipped pass from second row partner Dennis Goodwin after fifteen minutes. 

He could also be an adept ball handler, setting up a fine chance for centre Vince Hattee just after the break. In all he played 98 times for Leeds, making his debut in a home win over St Helens in November 1959 and was described by team manger over the period, Ken Dalby as, ‘boistrous; finesse and fury went hand in hand.’ His first of 17 tries came in a win over York in April 1960, the second a week later, on Easter Saturday, in a Headingley defeat of Bramley. His most prolific run was during the championship winning season when he scored in four consecutive matches in April, the last at Hull, the only occasion that he crossed in a match when Leeds lost. The following year, when he was a member of the side that was defeated in the Yorkshire Cup final against holders Wakefield at Odsal, he posted his only two try hauls; at home to Leigh and a week  later when Hull K.R. were despatched in the first round of the county competition. 

In the championship winning season, Leeds drew Wigan at home in the opening round of the challenge cup, a match that Billy Boston remembers well.  “Jack clouted me in that game at Headingley and I wanted to get my own back but I couldn’t get near him. We drew and when we replayed on the Wednesday at Central Park I thought I’d let him know I was about and that he couldn’t take liberties with me. I waited for my chance when the Leeds line was spread out and I could see the ball was coming to him. I set my stall out, went in and hit him perfectly legally but with all my force and he stayed down temporarily knocked out. I wanted him to know it was me so I stood over him but Eric Ashton came up and ordered me to get back onto the wing. After an argument, I had to go. Jack regained his senses, rose to his feet and poleaxed Eric who belted him back and got sent off with him for the only time in his career.” 

Leeds devotee Marshall Worsnop recalled a couple of other anecdotes on website ‘eraofthebiff.com’. 

“As Leeds kicked off he caught the ball and ran 50 yards to touch down in the corner but before putting the ball down he stopped on the line and waited for two of the opposition to come and tackle him, he pushed them away as if swatting a fly then put the ball down, he was a real comedian. 

“In another incident, Leeds were penalised and the opposition were given a very kickable penalty. There was a bit of a rumpus and the ref had to go and sort it out. The ref dropped his white handkerchief at the point where the penalty would be taken and ‘big Jack’ moved it about 15 yards nearer the touchline to the amusement of all in the South Stand. He missed the penalty.”

Part of the Fairbank dynasty with strong connections to the Elland amateur club, his son John, a prop, had a spell at Headingley before moving to Oldham with Karl a legend at Bradford and for Great Britain and Dick playing with Halifax.