50 years on from one of the saddest days in Headingley history

Mick Shoebottom is carried from the field by physiotherapist Eric Lewis and Coach Derek Turner, with a grievous head injury

The 1st May 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the saddest days in the long history of Headingley when incredible talent and much loved Leeds star Mick Shoebottom was injured in the act of scoring in a Championship play off win over Salford back in 1971.

The Great Britain star never played again and lived with the consequences of his injury for the rest of his life before his untimely death in 2002 at the age of just 57.

Here are the words of long time Leeds historian Ken Dalby as he describes the day in his book The Headingley Story Volume 4: Rugby Cavalcade 1920-1982.

LEEDS v SALFORD

Championship Play-off: 2nd Round

1st May 1971

May Day! Just three weeks to go, and highly rewarding weeks they promised to be, as Leeds sought further garlands of success in a blossom-strewn end to the season. Winners already of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup and the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy, they were looking forward confidently to a Wembley Cup Final against Leigh, due a fortnight later, and in addition were justifiably hopeful of rounding off the campaign as League Champions. The stakes were high, and none awaited the outcome of this 2nd Round play-off clash with Salford more anxiously than the suspended Syd Hynes, with one more match of his sentence still to serve, for a Leeds victory would merely mean his exclusion from the Championship Semi-Final, whereas a defeat, unthinkable as it was, would leave him on the Wembley sidelines.

As for Salford, who were capable of attacking with all the flamboyant opulence of spendthrift millionaires, yet rarely defended with the miserly economy so essential for consistent success, their hopes of proceeding further on the Championship trail were shadowed by the absence of Bott and Kirkbride, likewise under suspension.

Leeds: J. Holmes; A. Smith (A. Wainwright), J. Langley, R. Cowan, J. Atkinson; M. Shoebottom (P. Cookson), B. Seabourne; J. Burke, A, Fisher, E. Barnard, W. Ramsey, R. Haigh, R. Batten.

Salford: Charlton; Colloby, Watkins, Hesketh, Jackson; Gill, Banner (Prosser); Frodsham (Hurst), Ciarke, Grice, Coulman, Whitehead, Dixon.

Referee: Mr. H. G. Hunt (Prestbury).

Leeds v Salford! No need to check the fine print: open rugby guaranteed!

And so it was, from the moment Seabourne kicked off for the Loiners . . . a fine gather and brave run by full-back Charlton… a short kick by Dixon, from play-the-ball . . . and there was Alan Smith taking the ball on the burst, evading Dixon’s tackle and then shaking off Hesketh, to cross for a sensational first-minute try, goaled by Holmes with a towering kick from the touchline.

Five points up, and that was merely an appetiser, for within a couple of minutes Seabourne was selling a bare-faced dummy to open the way for a superb unconverted try by Atkinson.

Nor did a 45-yard penalty from Watkins offer the Lancastrians more than temporary respite, for the men in blue and amber were ravenous to the point of gluttony, and though a combined raid by Seabourne, Batten, Haigh and Shoebottom was scotched by Charlton’s shrewd positional sense and uncanny anticipation, unrelenting pressure yielded its reward, Haigh and Langley unleashing Smith, for the winger to brush aside the challenge of Clarke and Banner, and storm over in the corner, yet only to damage a leg in the process, with Wainwright limbering up to take over even as Holmes’s conversion attempt fell short.

Twenty-five minutes gone, 11-2 ahead and, apart from Smith’s injury, not a cloud in the Headingley sky! And then, out of the blue, tragedy, stark and cruel! Accelerating on to a pass from Ramsey, Shoebottom strode out, gamely as ever, for the line, with Dixon in hot pursuit . . . a taunting swerve and a dive for the touch-down . . . a simultaneous split-second reflex lunge from the despairing Dixon . . . a try to Leeds, yet surely the costliest one they have ever scored, for ‘Shoey’ was carried to the bench by Coach Derek Turner and physiotherapist Eric Lewis, with a grievous head injury, and then stretchered to the dressing rooms, in readiness for transfer to the General Infirmary.

Alas, the universally popular Mick Shoebottom was never to play again, consequently it would be inappropriate and insensitive to continue this match report in detail. Suffice it to say that Leeds led 24—4 at the interval, and went on to win by 37 points to 22, Salford scoring fifteen of their points in the closing stages to attain a measure of respectability.

And what now of that blossom-strewn end to the season? Comprehensively beaten by St. Helens at Knowsley Road in the Championship Semi-Final, the injury-weakened Loiners suffered agonies at Wembley, the dismissal of Syd Hynes adding to the trauma of an inglorious defeat by 24 points to 7.

Nevertheless, their trials were transitory, and within a few short weeks they would be preparing to scale new peaks of endeavour. Would that an infectiously-happy Mick Shoebottom had been joining them! Highly-talented and whole-hearted, fearless and honest, he had always been prepared to sweat blood for whatever team he played, whether it be Great Britain, Yorkshire, Leeds, Bison Sports, or Hunslet Boys’ Club. What a tower of strength he would have been in years to come, and what further hours of pleasurable pride he would have given, had not his all-too-short career been so tragically curtailed:

Leeds matches only (excluding Lazenby Cup)

Debut : versus Doncaster, at Headingley, on 24th February 1962 : scored a try

SeasonAppTriesGoalsPoints
1961-62413
1962-6310412
1963-6423618
1964-652612648
1965-663682676
1966-6725121056
1967-684320162
1968-693918156
1969-704023273
1970-714213651
Total28811752455

1st May 1971, 3.25 p.m.: a date with destiny! For the twenty-six-year-old Mick Shoebottom, loved and respected by all who knew him, a personal tragedy to affect his whole way of life; for Colin Dixon, the deep anguish experienced by anyone involved in a serious accident; for the Leeds Club, and the Rugby League game in general, an irreparable loss.