Pete Sixsmith gets back to roots with a trip to Old Trafford, not to see Seb Larsson score an unlikely winner or Vito Mannone make the penalty shoot out saves from Adnan Januzaj and Rafael to earn a Wembley appearance but to savour a great day out for a man fond of the oval ball as played by 13 men on each side rather than 15. The outcome of the Rugby League Grand Final and the ups and down of his beloved Leeds Rhinos set him wondering about Simon Grayson’s ability to inspire the discipline and commitment needed to move Sunderland up the Championship table.
As always with Pete’s outings, what you are about to read combines incisive sportswriting, travelogue and wit …
They say that your first love is the one that you look back on with the most affection, even though you may have found deep satisfaction or a mutual love-hate relationship with the partner that you eventually settle down with and live all life’s ups and downs. I know these things. I read them on the back of a matchbox.
So it is with the teams that you support. Sunderland AFC and I were manacled together in 1962 and that hardware has stayed securely tied since then, apart from a brief escape in 1998 after a needless relegation which a little investment and some shrewd buying would have prevented.
Before and after that, it’s been like Jack and Vera Duckworth’s marriage – plenty of ups and downs, lots of shouting and cursing and a fair bit of weeping when things went desperately wrong, but a commitment that has stuck through thick and thin, with thin being noticeably more represented than the former.
But I still keep a very close eye on my first love, situated in the northern Leeds suburb of Headingley. As a boy of six, I was taken to watch Leeds Rugby League Football Club and, over the subsequent 60 years, have followed them through the medium of print, radio, terrestrial television and, for the last 20 years, attendance at games on Friday nights in summer.
During that time I have witnessed a fair number of highs, a few lows and the usual mediocrity that goes with following any sports team. At the moment, mediocrity at the Stadium of Light is what I crave…….
I have been to Wembley with the Rhinos three times in recent years and have witnessed a defeat to Warrington and victories over Castleford and Hull KR and have seen five of the eight winning Grand Finals that the club have had since Super League replaced the Rugby League which had replaced the Northern Union in 1922 – although there is a bit more to it than that.
The season ends with a Grand Final between the two sides who win the play-off semi-finals at the end of the regular season. Leeds had seen off Hull FC in a tense game at Headingley while opponents Castleford had come out on top by a single point in a wonderful game with St Helens the previous evening.
It’s a shade under 20 miles from Headingley to Castleford’s Wheldon Road stadium, the former being one of the citadels of the game with its hospitality suites, new stands going up and general air of opulence and situated in a once upmarket suburb of the city, although now that dreaded breed “the students” have taken over.
Castleford is a former coal mining town of 40,000 people with a couple of chemical factories on the edge of it. Wheldon Road (known as The Mend-a-Hose Jungle) is a stadium of great character but opulent it is not. I suggested to a groundhopping friend that he visit. He loved it for the reasons that I do, in that it is a down to earth venue which is reminiscent of how sport used to be in the 1950s and 60s. One can almost imagine Richard Harris in This Sporting Life – that was filmed at Belle Vue, Wakefield which is even more of a relic than Wheldon Road.
Suffice to say, there is no love lost between the toffs (in Rugby League terms) from Leeds and the downtrodden proles of Cas. They have had a great season, winning the League Leaders title and beating Leeds four times, one of which was a 66-10 thrashing in March which was as good as any performance I have seen. They went into the final as favourites. But it began to unravel before the game…….
First of all, they were expected to win. They had been the outstanding team of the season and had turned in some magnificent performances. The semi-final over St Helens had been one which showed their character and resilience, coming back from the dead to win in extra time, but would it have drained them physically and mentally?
Add to that the fact that they had never been in a Grand Final before and that this one was sell out (73,000 at Old Trafford and not a planeload of Swedes/Thais/Irish in sight), would they be able to cope with the atmosphere? Leeds had been there nine times and had won seven. The likes of Maguire, Burrow, Hall and Jones-Buchanan saw Old Trafford as a second home.
The bombshell that hit Castleford on Thursday may have been the turning point. Full back Zak Hardaker, a former Leeds player and, on his day a world class one, was suspended for a breach of club discipline. He is the rugby league equivalent of Ben Stokes, never far from trouble and left Leeds in 2016 for a short stint with Penrith (Panthers, not the Northern League club) before signing for Cas, first of all on loan and then permanently.
His absence meant a reshuffle and although Castleford had a good squad, the loss of a top class player and the psychological impact that had on Cas (negative) and Leeds (positive) could well have tipped the balance in the favour of the Headingley outfit.
My nephew Andy, a sports broadcaster of considerable promise, obtained tickets. Sixsmith Minimus offered to drive so it looked like a cheap day out for the pensioner. Then, to quote Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law, Jimmy “there was a bit of a cock up on the transport front” which meant that brother and nephew would not be leaving Durham until 2.30/3pm. I took the train.
I experienced two aspects of weekend rail travel that show why we need to nationalise the system when Jeremy becomes Dear Leader. A single ticket to Manchester, with a Senior Rail Card, is advertised at £35. However, if you buy a return at the station as I did, it costs £15. Explain that to a raw in the tooth capitalist…
Secondly, the privatised railway is quite happy to cram as many people on a three carriage train as it can. Saturday was hen party day in York and it looked as if the entire female population of the North East was on aiming to do to York what the Vikings did to it. I found a spare seat and gratefully sat down only for the seat to be claimed by a couple who had got on at Durham and who had to get off the train at Darlington to find the carriage where they had booked the seat.
On arrival at Manchester, I bussed out to Old Trafford (why pay for a tram when you have a bus pass?) picked up my ticket and took lunch at the Salford Quays leisure and retail experience, a 15-minute walk from the stadium and full of Rhinos and Tigers, including three Castleford fans who had had proper suits made up in a tiger stripe pattern. I don’t see Paul Smith or Hugo Boss following that trend.
By the time I had eaten (Café Rouge if you must know; ok food at an ok price but big tables so you can lay the paper out), the rain had started and it was a soggy walk back alongside what was once Salford Docks, where ships unloaded wheat for Kellogg’s and engine parts for Ford. Shelagh Delaney set A Taste of Honey in the area around the docks; now it would be more like A Taste of Quinoa and Passion Fruit.
The seats were excellent and I ticked off Dave Woods, Tanya Arnold, Brian Noble and a few other Rugby League names. Brother and nephew arrived after a steady journey across the A66 and M6 and we were ready for a game that would either define Leeds as the ultimate all-time greats or allow Castleford to access that exclusive club of Super League Champions; there have only been four winners in the 20 years of its existence.
It wasn’t a great game but it was a great victory for Leeds. They overcame the psychological barrier of losing the last eight games to Castleford and out-tackled, out-muscled and out-thought them. Skipper Danny Maguire, in his final game as a Loiner, was magnificent and completely eclipsed Super League Man of Steel Luke Gale. Maguire, who joins newly promoted Hull KR for next season, scored two tries and dropped two goals and was simply magnificent. He was the unanimous winner of the Harry Sunderland Trophy awarded to the best player and bowed out on a high with his eighth Grand Final Winners ring.
Rob Burrow also played his final game before he joins the coaching staff where he will show youngsters that success in professional sport, whether it is Rugby League, football or dodgeball, is down to organisation, commitment and discipline. Leeds had those three attributes in spades at Old Trafford; some of our players at Sunderland could take heed of that for the remainder of the season.
After the 66-10 thrashing in March, Leeds coach Brian McDermott was unsure about his future. Some fans were calling for his head and the message boards were as virulent as ours can be. He knew what he had to do; the four games post thrashing were against supposedly weaker opponents in Catalans, Huddersfield, Wakefield Trinity and a Wigan team suffering from an injury crisis. All four games had to be won or else it was highly likely that he would be sacked. The players listened, showed their commitment to the coach and all four games were won – not particularly well, but they were won and that was what counted.
McDermott knew his best team. There was a bit of tweaking, but the nucleus was there. Simon Grayson doesn’t have that luxury but he does have all his important players back for next week with Grabban and McNair joining the first team squad. Like Leeds, we know that the next four games are vital; QPR, Brentford, Bristol City and Bolton will hopefully yield the same results that the Rhinos got in their Set of Four in spring.
And then we may be able to relax and show the Championship and those who appear to revel in our decline, that this fine old football club, founded in 1879, can reach the heights that Leeds RLFC, founded in 1870 and converted to Rugby League in the great schism of 1895, have.
Keep The Faith, Comrades.