Championship Focus: Hunslet pay tribute to a true club legend

There’s no shortage of Rugby League clubs who have experienced both the highs and lows of this sporting life.

But not many can tell a tale as extreme as that of Hunslet.

For having become the first of only three clubs to achieve the celebrated ‘All Four Cups’ feat (Championship, Challenge Cup, County League and County Cup) in 1907/08, the grand old name was almost lost to the game in 1973.

Amid severe financial strife and having sold their Parkside ground, which had been home since 1888 to a development company, the original club folded.

That there emerged a New Hunslet (the prefix was eventually dropped five years later) was largely down to the efforts of long-serving player Geoff Gunney, whose name now adorns the main stand at the South Leeds Stadium, which has been home to the club since 1995.

The late Great Britain international, who made his club debut early in the 1951/52 season, was the last Hunslet player to leave the Parkside pitch after the final match at the ground against York.

And the then-39-year-old, who operated mainly in the second row but also made appearances at loose-forward, centre and fullback, was instrumental in establishing the phoenix operation.

Alongside the supporters’ club, Gunney, who grew up close to Parkside and was a regular spectator there as a child, worked tirelessly and against the clock to ensure New Hunslet were able to get the green light from the Rugby Football League to start the 1973/74 season.

Not only did he help seal a deal to play at the greyhound stadium close to Leeds United’s Elland Road, where the club were later to be based for a spell.

Gunney, who in 1970 had been awarded an MBE for his services to Rugby League, also helped bring the venue up to the required standard, even designing a set of American football-style ‘tuning fork’ goal-posts and persuading the local business community to get behind the venture. He hurriedly put together a playing squad, coached the team and turned out in two matches that first season.

That took his total appearance tally for the two Hunslets to 579 (with 126 tries and 73 goals) to go with eleven Lions games, two of them in the 1957 World Cup, after which he was selected for a Rest of the World team to take on tournament hosts and winners Australia.

Gunney also played for the Northern Hemisphere against New Zealand in Auckland that year and represented Yorkshire nine times.

His outings for the original Hunslet included the Championship Final of 1958/59, when 52,560 were at Odsal to see St Helens win 44-22 and so take the league title, the 12-2 Yorkshire Cup final triumph over Hull KR at Headingley in 1962/63, when player-coach Fred Ward’s side also won promotion to the top flight, and the narrow 20-16 1964/65 Challenge Cup final defeat by Wigan before 89,016 at Wembley.

Given Hunslet – whose honours’ list also includes a Challenge Cup triumph in 1933/34, league title in 1937/38, Yorkshire League titles in 1897/98 and 1931/32 and a Yorkshire Cup win in 1905/06 – have for most of their eventful history been susceptible to losing players to richer clubs, the loyalty of a player as talented as Gunney was all the more admirable.

He remained closely associated with the club he did so much to found and then nurture until his death, aged 84, in June 2018.

And it was great to see Hunslet officially acknowledge Gunney’s immense contribution with a main-stand-naming ceremony before their League One game against Oldham at the South Leeds Stadium a week ago, with attendees including the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Asghar Khan.

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