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John Holmes - Leeds Legend
Posted by southstander on September 29 2009 - 11:21:41

By Iain Sharp

John Holmes - Obituary

John Holmes was almost a permanent fixture in the Leeds back division for over 20 years and during which time, he secured every domestic honour available to him within the game. Also during that career, he smashed the Leeds appearance record, held the world record for points in an International match and also came closest to breaking Lewis Jones’ monumental goal-kicking record.

Our obituary here......

John Holmes was born near to Kirkstall Road and was educated at Burley C of E school, just about as close to Headingley as you could get. He signed for Leeds in March 1968 shortly after his 16th birthday and made his first appearance in blue & amber, starting in the Lazenby Cup clash at Hunslet five months later at the start of the 1968-69 season. The fresh-faced youth made an immediate impression in the game, scoring a try and kicking 10 goals.

Appearances were limited during his first few seasons at the club, given that era was also a golden age of success for the Leeds team. His break came with the retirement of regular full back Bev Risman and upon taking his place within the best rugby team in the country to become a first team regular before his 20th birthday. In his first full season, he kicked 157 goals and 2 drops in 47 appearances and ranking him second only to Lewis Jones in the club’s goals-in-a-season record. Whilst playing most of his games at full-back to begin with, Holmes slotted in anywhere across the backs and made his first representative appearance for Yorkshire at centre.

By the time Holmes reached 21 years old, he was a Great Britain International and during his appearance in the 1972 World Cup in France, he broke the world individual points scoring record with 2 tries and 10 goals against New Zealand. A serious knee injured meant that he was unable to tour down under in 1974, but was selected for 1977 and on the 1979 tour he played in all six test matches and made regular England / GB appearances throughout the 70s and early 80s.

At the conclusion of the 1970s, John had won every domestic title available to him. He was part of the Leeds championship final winning side of 1972, made four appearances at Wembley (two as losers in 71 & 72 and twice as a winner in 77 & 78 ), six Yorkshire Cup wins (including a hat-trick in the ‘72 final), a BBC2 Floodlit winners medal, a Premiership title in 1975 and a John Player Trophy in 72-73. In the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in '78, had the vote been taken 5 minutes later, Holmes would have been nailed on for the Lance Todd Trophy, as he engineered a record-breaking last minute comeback for the Loiners.

I started watching Leeds in the early 1980s, a time when the team and the club was going in to somewhat of a decline. To me, he was the link from the great Leeds team of old to the one that I was watching. More often than not, he was the one shining light and often it seemed that if John didn’t play for whatever reason Leeds lost. He had the archetypal ‘footballing brain’ and in the later part of his career, what had departed from his legs in terms of pace was more than made up for by wonderful positional sense and the ability to split the defence for teammates with the perfect pass.

Playing during a tough era his style was fair rather than hard and of course, his talents were a focus for the opposition attention on many occasions. With legs waning, he announced his retirement at the end of the 84 - 85 season. However, he returned to first team action after a season’s absence to make 28 (+3) appearances in the 86-87 season alone. In the last years of his career, when not in first team action, John was also the old maestro leading the club’s A-Team reserves. It was in one such game that I remember Holmes coming in for terrible punishment from Saints’ Chris Arkwright. Many lesser players would have been carried from the field well before the end of the game, but John’s skill and guile kept him safe from the flurry of late challenges that day. Indeed it was Arkwright that was the first to leave the field, dismissed by the referee for yet another crude tackle.

When Holmes finally did retire, he had made full appearances at full back, centre, stand off, loose forward and even the occasional appearance in the second row. Whilst many of us were fortunate to see John Holmes play at some point during his career, there are many Leeds fans that have started supporting since his retirement nearly 20 years ago. Their first question obviously would be, would he fit in to the Leeds team of today?

The answer to that has to be he’d still probably be the first name on a team sheet even today and he possessed a talent that would fit in to any era. On harder, faster summer pitches and the advancement in support play techniques as well as the sheer space between opposing sides at the play-the-ball, Holmes would have had a ‘field day’ in the current environment. He would also be afforded far more protection from the match officials than he was ever used to. Imagine a player with the safety under the high ball of Brent Webb, the goal kicking abilities of Kevin Sinfield, the positional sense of Rob Burrow and the hard-but-fair steel of Gareth Ellis all rolled in to one complete package and you’d only be going some of the way to understanding John Holmes immeasurable talents. Even in the current ‘great’ Leeds side of the present day, there is no-one that comes close to comparison of John Holmes distributional abilities.

The only Leeds player to amass over six hundred appearances (including 50 games in a single season of 72-73) and nearly a hundred more than his nearest rival. John Holmes is also one of the few players in the game to be awarded the rarity of a second testimonial. It seems likely that his club appearance record will stand for an eternity.

Once his playing career was over he drifted away from the game somewhat, but still attended get-togethers like the events to commemorate the 1977 and 1978 Challenge Cup Final victories. It was during one of these events that I got to meet him in person for the first time and for me to express the enjoyment that his mercurial playing skills had brought me. Whilst his reaction was of thanks, it was a humble and modest acknowledgement of his talents, almost as if what he had achieved was ‘nothing special’ when in reality to the rest of us, it was exceptional.

Sadly, it was shortly afterwards that rumours of his serious medical condition began to circulate.

The shining light of his talent was finally extinguished last weekend and whilst he is no longer with us, we are fortunate that many of his greatest games came during an era when matches were televised and recorded more than ever before meaning they can be enjoyed in perpetuity. Those recordings, the records and honours that he attained, along with many happy memories from those that were lucky enough to see him live mean that his achievements will live on forever.

A true Leeds great.



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