Rugby League Heroes: Lee Crooks (Part 2) – Finding the right Rugby League role

In part 1 of this interview Lee Crooks talked us through his international career among other things.

On the domestic front, he signed for Hull FC at just 17 and was captaining them within four years.

He enjoyed three spells in the Australian competition before signing for Leeds in 1987.

Just over two years later, he moved to Castleford where he remained for the rest of his playing career.

Was the Hull team of 1982-83 the best you played in?

Yes. We had quality players across the board. If I’d played in an average team, I’d have probably been an average player. That’s how it works. I’m very fortunate to have signed for a club that had a very forward-thinking coach and who wanted success quickly. We had the four Kiwis [Gary Kemble, James Leuluai, Dane O’Hara and Fred Ah Kuoi], who were second to none. Mick Crane, Knocker Norton, Peter Sterling, John Muggleton, Trevor Skerrett, Paul Rose, Paul Prendiville, Steve Evans, Dave Topliss were all great players, and then we signed Garry Schofield. Tony Dean and Kevin Harkin battled for the halfback role – they were so underestimated by everyone outside Hull. Tony was very offensive, Kevin more defensive, but both could play.

Thirty-six years on, can you take any pleasure from the 1985 Challenge Cup Final, given how highly regarded the match is?

No. We all want to win, especially at Wembley, and it was one of the worst days of my life. I was renowned for being able to kick goals under pressure. We’d drawn the first semi-final with Cas, and I kicked a goal from touch to make it 10-10 and force the replay, but I couldn’t kick a cow’s arse at Wembley. If I’d kicked three of the four I missed, we’d have won.

You told us last week what was happening in your personal life when you were playing for Balmain. What do you remember of your time in the Winfield Cup in the mid-1980s?

Western Suburbs was absolutely fantastic. I went over quite nervous in 1985, looking forward to the challenge, and I achieved what I wanted to achieve. I made my debut at Penrith and I scored. I got myself into their team of the 1980s, which was very humbling. They paid for me to go over for a dinner, which was a real honour. Schoey is gutted he didn’t get into the side as well! I signed for Balmain in 1987 because I wanted to play for a top club, which is why I didn’t have a third year at the Magpies. But then I was phoned up and told I had to go home and sign for Leeds, which really demoralised me.

Why didn’t things work out for you at Headingley?

First, I didn’t want to leave Hull. I was enjoying myself in Australia and considered staying out there, but Hull warned there’d be all hell on if I did that. I still had some issues with my divorce, and I’d had three consecutive seasons in Australia. I wasn’t right mentally. I should have tried to be more grown up though. Leeds had assembled a good side, but I behaved childishly at times, and I have to admit that. Then I got injured in the semi-final of the John Player against Wigan. So, the first year was poor.

I had a decent season in my second year there – I won a few player-of-the-year awards. Malcolm Reilly then stepped down, so David Ward took over. I’d initially signed a couple of months before the contract system came in, so I was tied to them for ten years. I wanted that changed to a three-year contract with a bit more money. They said they wanted a big season from me, which is what they’d said a year earlier, so I told them where to go. Schoey tried to talk me round, but there was no way back.

I’d been talking to John Joyner at this time and Leeds agreed a transfer fee with Cas – about the same price they paid Hull for me. This was just before Christmas 1989.

I wasn’t a money-orientated person though. When my Hull contract was up for renewal after my first one had expired, I asked Knocker for advice to negotiate another. I didn’t know what to ask for. He told me to ask for 25 grand. This was 1982, so that’s probably worth three times that now. I didn’t have an agent. But when I went in, I bottled it and asked for 15 – because I knew the Kiwis were on that – and came out with ten. Deep down, I was just happy to sign for Hull. Money wasn’t a big factor.

You talked about the 1994 Regal Trophy last week. Why did Castleford not manage to land more trophies?

I loved Darryl [Van de Velde] to bits. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he was always my mate outside the game. He was a breath of fresh air for me. He put a side together that was just lacking something. When John Joyner took over, we found the thing that was lacking. Your coach is only as good as his players and they both assembled some really good players.

But, like Arthur Bunting at Hull, players got old and a lot of contracts ran out at the same time – the three Kiwis and Tony Smith to name a few examples – and John ended up getting the sack in 1997.

In 1994 we’d had some good players, some really good players and some outstanding players. The good players became really good players because of the players around them. But before JJ got the sack, we didn’t have enough outstanding players, so other players weren’t kicking on. I was coming to the end of my career and was struggling with my knees. It was unfortunate that JJ got the elbow, but that’s life with Rugby League. Stuart Raper came in as I was retiring, and he looked after me. I coached the Academy and did some bits with the first team.

Why do great players often struggle to hit the same heights in coaching?

I started off at Keighley. I always wanted to be a coach and thought I’d be good enough. But hindsight is a fantastic thing. I shouldn’t have taken the Keighley job. I was doing some stuff for Sky at the time. They wanted me to do co-commentaries for Academy games, but I decided to go to Keighley and Phil Clarke got the commentary job instead.

Coaching at that level is very different to what I was used to. I’d always played at elite level and I struggled with that. I’m not having a pop at players in the lower divisions, but if I’d gone in as an assistant coach I’d have learned a lot more.

We won a couple of games, and we stayed up, but I think players raised their game because I was a new coach. A new owner came in and gave me a budget of £150,000. He wanted me to sign the players and negotiate their wages. I didn’t want to deal with players’ money because I knew I’d fall out with them. And that’s what happened. I learned a lot through my mistakes and I made a lot at Keighley. I eventually got the sack after a home game that we were winning. I took the halfback off and we started getting beaten. But because one player shouldn’t make a difference, I wouldn’t put him back on to prove a point. We lost and that was the final nail in my coffin.

I then went to York. I wondered if I made my own problems or whether they just followed me around. We had what I thought was a competent group of players. I didn’t doubt anyone and that was probably a mistake. I’d be different now. But I was excited for the season. Hunslet only just beat us, and they were a really good side. It got to Christmas and the club said they were going into liquidation because they owed the taxman 40 grand.

They asked me to stay on and I did. We lost nearly all the players. I had a team of amateurs. There were some very loyal players, but many refused the pay cut and left.

Every Sunday, we’d be going round getting players from Lock Lane, Heworth and York Acorn. We went to Widnes one day and were short of players. You had to have four players on the bench, or you got fined. We only had 14, so I had to put myself on the bench, along with the kitman and the physio, although they didn’t come on. I got a rapturous round of applause from the Widnes fans when I came on, which I found quite funny. I hadn’t played for four years. We lost 90-6.

Anyway, we got to the end of the season and the chairman said I’d have to re-apply for the role along with other candidates, so I walked away. There were some nice people there, but Rugby League can be ruthless at times.

What did you do next?

I decided to go down the youth-development route instead, and I think I’ve done that quite successfully. I worked for the RFL as head of talent, managing regional camps. Then I got the opportunity to coach at Hull Kingston Rovers with Justin Morgan, which was a great experience and something I really enjoyed. But certain things happened, and a certain member of the admin team took the piss – not Neil Hudgell.

I worked for the RFL for a time, as regional ambassador in Newcastle. I was being made redundant because funding was running out from Sport England. I then became a club ambassador at Hull. What happened was that I was in a hospitality box, watching a game. Adam Pearson was there, and one of my mates shouted, “Adam, you need to get Crooksy a job!” So, Adam told me to ring him and we’d sort something out, and that’s how I got it.

I had taken the wrong direction with Keighley and York. It’s a difficult job, especially when you’ve had a career at the top level. I expected some players to do stuff they couldn’t do and my man-management hadn’t always been great. I could be abrupt with certain people.

So maybe it wasn’t for me, but I love what I do now.

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