A near five year wait was over as silverware returned to Headingley within three months of Malcolm Reilly and assistant coach Alan Agar taking over the reigns – but it was an encouraging start that was not capitalised upon.
Off the field, Leeds underwent an important management re-structure with Bolton Wanderers’ Alf Davies coming in as chief executive while in the governance of the game, a new six man board of directors took over the day to day running of the sport which included Harry Jepson.
In an effort to obtain some consistency in refereeing standards, recently retired whistler Fred Lindop was appointed the first Controller of Referees. Three Loiners returned early from the Lions tour after suffering injuries; Garry Schofield, Lee Crooks and Paul Medley but there was genuine optimism throughout the code after Great Britain’s backs to the wall third Test win in Sydney in which Roy Powell was outstanding. That was reflected on the terraces; overall gates were up by a quarter, Leeds doubling their average to just over 12,000 in two seasons.
Negotiations were held with Jonathan Davies but he was to spurn overtures from both Leeds and St Helens to join Widnes. Andrew Ettingshausen and Cliff Lyons were on their way back along with Canberra, Queensland and new Australian prop ‘Slammin’ Sam Backo.
Trevor Clark was transferred to Featherstone as a result. After the previous campaign being undermined by poor away form, Leeds started with two comfortable victories on their travels albeit against promoted clubs.
Teenage winger Vince Fawcett was the star, benefiting from superb service from Lions centre David Stephenson, registering a try on his debut against Featherstone. He posted two more in the first round of the Yorkshire Cup – which was the preliminary one re-named – as Bramley were beaten in the first competitive clash between the neighbours since 1966. The kick off was delayed as more than 4,000 fans crammed in to McLaren Field, not least to see Loiners legend Les Dyl play for the Villagers after returning from running a bar in Benidorm.
Sadly, Fawcett was to suffer burns in an accident at home and missed virtually the rest of the campaign.
In the first real test of the season, Widnes were comfortable winners at Headingley, scoring four tries in eight minutes late on. Test prop Hugh Waddell made his Leeds debut after signing from Oldham – with John Fairbank moving to the Watersheddings in part exchange – and he had the consolation of gaining the man of the match award.
Cliff Lyons donned the blue and amber again for the Yorkshire Cup second round tie at home to Bradford, which again saw a Paul Medley-inspired epic comeback. Leeds trailed 21-8 on the hour before the young substitutes’ introduction along with Mark Broke-Cowden and he immediately changed the game; scoring a try and inspiring an irresistible 16 point blast. Garry Schofield with his fourth interception try of the season, Carl Gibson and Roy Powell were part of the Yorkshire side that beat Lancashire 24-14 in the War of the Roses encounter at Headingley that marked the switching on of the new floodlights and mirroring that, Leeds thrashed St Helens at home in a consummate display that saw Backo make his bow. Gary Lord had been signed for £20,000 from Castleford – to replace Errol Johnson who had gone to Bradford – by the time Wakefield were faced in the next round of the Yorkshire Cup. The visitors were without major signing Mark Graham and their other big import Steve Ella missed two easy shots at goal as Leeds hung on for victory, Medley again proving to be the difference off the bench.
Hull, under their new coach Brian Smith, gained their first league points of the season at the Boulevard four days before the sides faced each other in the county cup semi. Again it was a late show after Paul Eastwood’s long range try had looked to have put the Humbersiders in control; Backo coming off the bench with barely eight minutes left to power his way over between the posts for his most memorable score. It was Leeds’ fifth semi final in six seasons but qualification for their first White Rose final since 1980.
Wigan, without their four Kiwi internationals who were on World Cup final duty, fell prey to the majesty of Garry Schofield as he tormented the cherry and whites with four sparkling touchdowns. It was the perfect lead in to facing Reilly’s former club Castleford, who were unbeaten league leaders, at Elland Road before a superb crowd of 23,000. Magnificent interception tries from Schofield and then as the game hung in the balance Carl Gibson turned the tide Leeds’ way, both of them finishing with a brace.
Lee Crooks and Colin Maskill put in towering performances; Medley claimed his customary spectacular touchdown and Cliff Lyons was awarded the White Rose trophy for his midfield generalship. David Stephenson set a new record for goals in the final with six, allowing him to complete the set of having won every possible winners medal in the game.
Unusually, Leeds created history by winning the trophy without having to leave the city. Cas gained almost immediate revenge with a thoroughly deserved win at Headingley in the first round of the John Player; a spell of three defeats in four – all of them at home. The enormous Warrington front row of Steve Roach, Kevin Tamati and Les Davidson laid the platform for an easy win and Hull gained revenge for their Yorkshire Cup exit, Schofield suffering a dislocated collar bone. In between those setbacks, Salford had been defeated to end their unbeaten home record at the Willows that season with England rugby union international winger John Bentley on debut; a record 31st signing by Leeds from the England ranks but their first since Pat Quinn in 1956. He came on a three year deal for a reputed £80,000 although by then, Doncaster had paid a club record £11,000 for Kevin Rayne.
With Andrew Ettingshausen switched to full back, Leeds regained their potency and were particularly impressive over the Christmas and New Year period. They went into the festivities maintaining their excellent away from with a sensational success at champions Widnes to end their 13 match unbeaten run. Bentley scored his first try opposite Martin Offiah and Roy Powell produced a typical wonder tackle to claim Alan Tait in the shadow of the posts after he seemed a certain scorer.
A record first division home crowd of nearly 17,000 saw Halifax accounted for on Boxing Day with Carl Gibson scoring a try on his 100th appearance. Chris Vasey had been snapped up from Dewsbury and on the eve of the New Year, another of Malcolm Reilly’s Lions arrived in the shape of Phil Ford in a £95,000 deal which saw Mark Wilson go to Bradford. Ford joined elite company in the shape of Alan Smith and Eric Grothe with a hat trick on his debut, against Oldham, but the next piece of business before the challenge cup deadline raised a howl of protest.
In a transfer valued at £140,000, Test back rower Paul Dixon arrived from Halifax with immensely popular Paul Medley and John Lyons shipping out to Thrum Hall. Narrow defeat at St Helens effectively ended any title aspirations before the run of Leeds-based cup ties continued as Hunslet came to Headingley in the preliminary round on the road to Wembley; their first meeting in the competition since 1965 – the year the myrtle and flame had graced the Twin Towers. The clash also marked the returns of David Ward and Neil Hague and in a nervy first half; a shock looked on the cards until Leeds pulled clear thanks to a Paul Dixon try. The first round match at York provoked such interest that it was switched to Bootham Crescent where over 11,000 – guaranteeing club record receipts – saw Leeds again have to work for victory, clinched by an Ettingshausen special. Roy Powell missed his only match of the season and second in 85. More fortune in the draw saw a third second division side come to Headingley as Carlisle were comfortably accounted for. The season hinged on consecutive games, a spirited display at Central Park gave Wigan a real run for their money, Loiners creating more chances before an Ellery Hanley try proved decisive.
Youngster Paul Delaney retained his spot for his cup debut to face Widnes in front of a massive Headingley attendance of 26,300 – the biggest for 25 years. In their 14th quarter final in 15 years, the Chemics were awesome, racing to a 14-0 half time lead. Lee Crooks scored on the resumption and Cliff Lyons had a try disallowed and the home challenge ebbed, the only highlight an astonishing cover tackle by Ford on Offiah. Victory, with ET posting a try on his final appearance, and then defeat followed in consecutive weeks against Wakefield – Mark Conway and Andy Mason undoing their old club – but a five match winning run saw the Loiners finish in an improved third spot. Their success at Hull K.R. was their final visit to the old Craven Park and condemned Rovers to relegation and victory over Castleford in which David Creasser scored his 1,000th point, briefly saw Leeds head the table but having played more games than their rivals.
In the Premiership, Peter Fox’s Featherstone produced a massive Headingley upset, winning 15-12 with half backs Graham Steadman and Deryck Fox outstanding. During the season, Leeds had taken part in the televised British Coal Nines, beating the President’s IX before going out to the Rest of the World and young wingers Richard Pratt and Mark Massa had left to join Hull K.R. and Huddersfield respectively. Norman Smith’s Alliance side, superbly led by loose forward by John Holmes and skipper Paul Gill at prop, claimed the Yorkshire Senior and Slalom Lager Challenge Cups in front of record home crowds. Legendary, revered coach Roy Francis died in April 1989 aged 70 a week after being included in the Wall of Fame in the Social Club.