Saturday 11th was the date of that season’s Challenge Cup Final and the protagonists were the two West Yorkshire giants, Leeds and Wakefield at the Empire Stadium. Both sides were packed with the cream of rugby playing talent. On the Leeds side, Bev Risman and Ray Batten, both from successful rugby playing dynasties, not to mention a youthful John Atkinson and Alan Smith, backed up by mercurial halfbacks Mick Shoebottom and Barry Seabourne. The ‘Dreadnoughts’ of Wakefield were not without their stars too, Neil and Don Fox from an equally influential rugby playing family, Bob Haigh (who was later to move to Headingley and form a devastating partnership with Ray Batten) and Harold Poynton at stand off, veteran of Wakefield’s succession of early 60s Wembley wins victory. |
Leeds had seen off the likes of Liverpool City (!) and Wigan on the way to the final, whilst as well as beating Castleford, Trinity took two attempts to see off Huddersfield in the semi final and replay. So, the scene was set for a classic final …. However, like so many British events, the fickle weather had to intervene to produce not a classic final, but remembered as one of the greatest sporting moments.
The weather in the capital on the day of the final was could only be described as torrential, with heavy rain right up to kick off time. With standing pools of water lying across the Empire Stadium’s tightly packed turf, had the game been played anywhere else and not in front of 86 000 paying customers, most of whom were there for the day and 200 miles away from home.
Clearly the game was never going to be a spectacle in the true sense of the word, the conditions saw to that, but as the game drew to a close Leeds led 11-7 through an Atkinson (3pt) try and four goals from the ever-reliable boot of Bev Risman. Could Leeds hold out for the remaining couple of minutes after Risman slotted over his fourth goal?
At the re-start, Wakefield kicked off to re-start and threw all their players forward. The ball bounced awkwardly and stood up in a puddle, deceiving the Leeds defender and allowing winger Ken Hirst to hack the ball forward over the try line and be the first to dive on the ball to score. With seconds remaining on the clock, the score was still 11 – 10 in Leeds favour and with Don Fox to take the 2 point kick to win the game for Wakefield.
What happened next has entered the British sporting consciousness. Just to one side of the posts, a reasonably straightforward attempt for an experienced kicker as Fox was and around 25 yards out. Some Leeds players stood behind the goal line waiting for the inevitable, a couple faced the other way, disconsolate and unable to look. There would be no time for a restart, let alone any time to mount a challenge. Fox took a short run up and for an inexplicable reason, mis-kicked the ball, screwing it wide of the posts. Leeds had sneaked a victory from the jaws of defeat. “Poor lad” said Eddie Waring and for a moment, we all knew exactly what he meant. Fox turned away, knelt on the floor and hammered the ground in sheer frustration. He was devastated by the miss and it was a moment that would have a profound, haunting effect him in the many years since then.
Last night at Headingley, in the Premier Suite, saw the return of many of those old players to re-live a game that had gone down in to sporting history. Former players Kenny & Albert Eyre, John Atkinson, Bev Risman, Bill Ramsey and Alan Smith were amongst those who where there. There were highlights of the game shown, taken from a Sky Sports repeat shown some years ago and it seems strange that with the plethora of sporting DVDs that are available these days, many of those classic games / finals that must by lying in the BBC vault, don’t see the light of day more often.
During the evening, John and Bev, cajoled by Barrie McDermott, gave some interesting insights in to life as a Leeds player during the late 60s, perhaps one of the most successful periods in the club’s history and life under mercurial coach, Roy Francis. It was the era of the unlimited and then subsequently the four-tackle rule. One of Roy’s main training ideas was to make players run, run and run again … Covering many laps of the cricket pitch during training. His school of thought was, that if you could make players run for long and sustained periods of time, when it got down to the last 10 minutes of a close game there would still be the stamina in the player to see the team home. It was great to see all those old players again and personally, the chance to meet some of them for the first time in the flesh. Prior to then, I’ve only ever read about them in books, heard what other Loiners have said about them and watched what is available on grainy video / DVDs.
The second half of the evening, sandwiched amongst the usual excellent catering available at Leeds functions these days, was given over to the boys of 1978 and the only ever Leeds side to successfully defend a Challenge Cup with back to back wins. Most of the 1977 cup winning team formed the backbone of the ’78 side, with the addition of Willie Oulton, Sammy Sanderson and Mike Crane in the side on the day.
Elsewhere in the world, in 1978, developments like the first ‘test tube’ baby were making history and Leeds were to make their own history at Wembley too, in the club’s forth and final appearance at the twin towers in the 70s. The game was notable for being the biggest come back in Wembley history at the time and only St Helens in 1996 have done any better.
Leeds basically clawed their way back from ten points down to end up with a 14-12 victory, thanks to tries from Atkinson, David Smith and Phil Cookson. Added to that, was a goal from Willie Oulton and the influential turning points of the game, 2 drop goals from David Ward and one ‘wrong footed’ effort from the genius that is John Holmes.
Leeds were slow out of the blocks to say the least and found themselves already 10 – 0 down after just 13 minutes and still trailed 12 – 5 at half time. Even with the Loiners in front in the dying moments of the game like 10 years before, there was a chance for the opposition to snatch victory from the grasp of Leeds. A three man overlap came to nothing when a Derek Noonan pass was knocked on and the line begging.
One interesting point in both the 1968 and 1978 finals, that the Lance Todd ‘man of the match’ trophy were awarded to players on the losing side. Don Fox was ‘congratulated’ by David Coleman in the Wembley Tunnel just moments after missing that vital kick and he told the BBC Commentator exactly what he thought of the consolation of the award. In 1978, the Leeds fight back was only just taking shape as the vote for the award was taken. At that time, with Saints in the ascendancy, the press picked forward George Nicholls as their best player. Maybe that was scant reward for the efforts of back row workhorse Graham Eccles, who never took a backward step all day or the driving force that was David Ward in a Leeds shirt.
In terms of the evening, there was a decent turn out from the boys of ’78 … Of course, John Atkinson was lucky enough to play in both finals. It’s not hard to see how David Ward went on to be a good coach and Roy Dickinson showed why he is in demand as an entertaining after dinner speaker. Other players present included Graham Eccles, Neil Hague, Les Dyl, Mick Harrison and Kevin Dick. Roy and Wardy entertained the crowd with their stories and their experience of a player’s lot under another successful Leeds coach, Syd Hynes. History would show that Syd was the first Leeds coach to use the tackle count, but according to the stories told last night, didn’t quite get the full benefit of the new fangled idea from Australia.
I suppose the next night like this, might have to be the reunion of the 1999 squad and another Leeds generation of record breakers at the Empire Stadium. It is perhaps a shame that nights like this are not open to the wider fan base and I am sure there would be a wide audience with some of the great players of yesteryear. Certainly, of the existing playing staff present, they were left in no doubt by the players that have gone before them, exactly what it means to play for Leeds, as well as the pride and responsibility of pulling a shirt on. After the rousing speeches, securing the Challenge Cup must be high on everyone’s list of priorities now and it is up to the team of today to emulate the players of the past.