Gary Hetherington’s 25 years at Headingley

Talking Rugby League with League Express Editor Martyn Sadler

I’ve been involved with Rugby League for an awful long time.

And for almost all that time, through League Express, I’ve covered Gary Hetherington’s role in the game, originally as a player, then as a coach, then as the owner, with his wife Kath, of the Sheffield Eagles from 1984 to 1996, and then as the minority owner of Leeds Rhinos, alongside the majority owner Paul Caddick, whose own rise to wealth through the construction and development company that bears his name, has been an undiluted success story.

Last Friday the two of them celebrated the 25th anniversary of the announcement that they had bought Headingley and the Leeds Rugby League Club.

At the time, Leeds had suffered an almost disastrous first season of Super League, coming very near to being relegated from the competition and showing absolutely no enthusiasm for the new order of summer rugby that had been so eagerly grasped by their neighbours, the newly-named Bradford Bulls.

But under its new owners, there would be radical changes at Headingley.

Here is a distillation of Gary’s thoughts on that anniversary.

How it began

“I’ve always been addicted to Rugby League. I started going to watch Castleford with my uncle Tom, although there was no real history of sport in my family.

“It was my mum’s brother who took me from the age of six or seven in the early 60s and was indoctrinated, not just by the game but the people and the clubs. I wrote match reports on games at school and was fascinated by it. Every match report would have the attendance and the gate receipts and it would say something like ‘364 less than last year.’ I had a real interest in the game as a whole, not just in terms of playing.

“My dad was the manager of Wheldale Pit, which was opposite Castleford Rugby League club. So, as a youngster, when I was about eight or nine, he took me down the shaft with him. And I thought to myself that some people spend a third of their life down here.

“If you grew up in Castleford in the late 1950s or 1960s, if you weren’t academic, you were destined for a life in the pits. I wasn’t academic. But I thought I’m not going down there! Rugby League created an escape for me. There was never any doubt that I was going to be a player. I never even considered that I might not be good enough. But ever since I’d been about 19, I actually wanted to coach and manage.

“Every club I played for I fell out with; I fell out with the coach, I fell out with the board. That’s why I moved around quite a bit. I never found what I was looking for. In fact I was never quite sure what I was looking for.

“With coaching, I knew there was a better way but I’d been Chairman of the players union, and I just knew I wouldn’t get a chance anywhere as no one would give me a job.

“I applied for the coaching job at York when I was 27. I’d played for them and I got down to the last two. It was me and Alan Hardisty, of all people – my hero from Castleford!

“I went for the interview at the old boardroom at Wigginton Road. York had some potential and I was explaining what they needed to do and how we could improve things and grow the club and the business, but all these old fellows were just looking at me.

“I drove home to Pontefract and I knew they wouldn’t offer me the job. Even if they did, I told Kath I wouldn’t take it and we’d have to start our own club, which we did in Sheffield.”

Time for reflection

“An anniversary is always a good time to look back and reflect on things and 25 years at Headingley has certainly provided me with some wonderful memories and experiences.

“Me and my wife Kath learned a lot about business survival and life in general during our time at Sheffield Eagles and this helped me when Paul Caddick and I came together in 1996 to take over Leeds CF&A, Headingley and Leeds RL.

“It was a big and daunting challenge, but an exciting one too. I knew the people of Leeds were passionate about Rugby League and the club had such rich history and heritage, but, as we all know, that doesn’t pay the bills and wages and the club were in a desperate financial state at the time.

“Our four key objectives from the outset were to firstly try and provide the city with a team to be proud of; secondly to turn a loss-making business into a sustainable one; thirdly to find a way to restore Headingley to its former status as a modern international rugby and cricket venue; and fourthly to engage with community initiatives and make a difference.

“It’s been a terrific journey so far and Paul and I have so many good memories to look back on.

“Paul and I are from very similar backgrounds in Castleford. In many ways, it’s been a perfect partnership. Right at the outset, we basically said ‘I’m not Paul’s boss, he’s not my boss’.

“We knew what each other could do. I’d never offer him advice on how to build something and he wouldn’t tell me about how to run a rugby operation.

“There have been many wonderful events, my favourites being:

“The 1999 Challenge Cup Final at the old Wembley and the ties against Wigan, St Helens, Widnes and Bradford.

“The 2004 Grand Final victory, which ended a 32-year wait for the Championship.

“Our first World Club Challenge victory in 2005 over Canterbury Bulldogs at a packed Elland Road.

“The 2011 50th anniversary celebration of Leeds first Championship win in 1961. It was so good to bring some wonderful former players like Ken Thornett, Wilf Rosenberg, Lewis Jones, Barry Simms and Jack Fairbank back to Headingley.

“The 2012 World Club Challenge victory and our first at Headingley against a star-studded Manly Sea Eagles.

“Winning the treble in 2015 and the memorable victories at the end of the season.

“The 2017 Grand Final victory over Castleford to end the remarkable careers of Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire.

“In January 2020, when the whole Rhinos and RL family came together to support Rob Burrow on an incredibly emotional afternoon at a capacity redeveloped Emerald Headingley against Bradford Bulls.

Project Headingley

“As for our most significant projects:

“Forcing Yorkshire County Cricket to stay at Headingley was a masterstroke by Paul Caddick; then working with them to own their own ground for the first time in over a century.

“The rebrand to Leeds Rhinos in 1997.

“Introducing Ronnie the Rhino and entering him as a candidate for North West Leeds in the 1997 General Election, a brilliant PR stunt that captured headlines around the world.

“The reintroduction of our Boxing Day morning fixture.

“Investing in our Academy and junior development to make those players the heart of our first team over the last quarter century.

“Converting Kirkstall into our training base and high-performance centre.

“Creating the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, which has gone from strength to strength and whose influence now reaches far beyond the rugby field or classroom.

“The redevelopment of the Headingley Stadium complex to create an iconic world class venue for future generations to enjoy.

“Embracing new Leeds Rhinos teams like the Women’s Super League team, Netball, Wheelchair, Physical Disability and Learning Disability teams.

“Launching the ‘Headingley is Home’ heritage scheme as we celebrate our heritage here at Headingley, including the unveiling of our first ever statue of John Holmes.

“Leeds Rhinos and Emerald Headingley are very special institutions and bring great credit to the city, which I am very proud of.

“Professional sport presents so many challenges, not least in the last two years due to the pandemic, but Paul and I have had a good innings so far and we are still at the crease.

“I’ve still got my drive and have never lost it; for me, this is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.

“I always say to the staff here, if you find a job you love, you’ll have never done a day’s work in your life.”


Farewell Danny Brough

Finally, Danny Brough has announced his retirement at the age of 38.

He’s been a brilliant but controversial player for many years.

My best wishes to him in his retirement and we’ll run a fuller tribute to him in next week’s issue.

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