Gary Hetherington arrived at Headingley in late 1996 after a season which saw us finish third botton of Superleague, having witnessed the first sub-five thousand home league gate for years, and in financial crisis after trying to buy success for the silverware starved Loiners fans. Hetherington set about rebuilding the finances of the club and establishing a side that would once again compete with the best in the game.|
Initially he brought in a new coach, Graham Murray, and a number of players approaching the ends of their careers. We got a glimpse of what was to come with the lifting of the 1999 Challenge Cup, and behind the scenes the Rhinos were quietly making massive advances with the Academy side.
In late 2001, Gary Hetherington made an announcement to the press stating that 'Leeds Rhinos will be World Club Champions by 2004', how we scoffed! We'd just finished fifth in the table, a full twelve points behind the Bulls, and been knocked out by Saints in the first play off game. It had been a dire season.
For 2003 the Rhinos launched the 'Believe Leeds' campaign, and while I wanted to believe, I had to conclude that I was a Rhinos agnostic. That year we finished second in the league, and lost out on a Grand Final place in heartbreaking fashion by one solitary point to the Warriors in the final eliminator at Headingley.
But there were signs that we were getting there!
2004 truly was the 'Year of the Rhino'. Hetherington realised that coach Daryl Powell simply wasn't up to the task of reaching the next level, and he brought in the ambitious Tony Smith. With a squad containing 13 players who had risen through the various Academys, the Rhinos had a remarkable season, finishing nine points clear of the Bulls and going on to win the Grand Final on that unforgettable night at Old Trafford. How Gary must have wished he could have said 'I told you so!' at the press conferences.
Last friday saw Hetherington realise his dream when, just thirty-five days late, he delivered the jubilant Leeds supporters the World Club Championship. There are now three trophies in the Rhinos cabinet, and Gary assures us that we'll be going all out to retain all three, and add the Challenge Cup to complete the set.
From a club on the brink of bankruptcy, and in the depths of he Superleague table, to World Club and Superleague Champions in the space of just over eight years... Gary Hetherington - we thank you!