At the start of 2010, the Leeds chief executive, Garry Hetherington, the most powerful man in Rugby League, was kind enough to give me a couple of hours to discuss his time in the game as player, coach and chief executive. I particularly liked the quote on his captain: “If you were to clone a player – and someone to marry your daughter! – you’d inevitably come up with Kevin Sinfield.”
The article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Rugby League World, the first of John Drake’s editorship.
WITH Leeds RLFC in complete disarray, Sheffield’s owner, chief executive and coach, Gary Hetherington, arrived at Headingley in November 1996 like the proverbial knight in shining armour to drag the game’s biggest underachievers kicking and screaming into the modern era.
Younger readers may struggle to believe that in the game’s first summer season, Leeds finished tenth in a 12-team Super League. The only thing that saved them from the dreaded drop was the fact they did the double over both Paris St Germain and Workington Town, who occupied the final two league places.
They hadn’t won the Challenge Cup since 1978, nor the league title since 1972.
The average attendance in 1996 was a mere 8,581, down by a staggering 3,013 on the shortened 1995/96 Centenary Season, and only 4,956 watched the final home game. With most other clubs grasping the summer nettle and embracing modern marketing concepts, the embittered club refused to accept the game’s new dawn, firmly stating that Rugby League was for winter, and cricket for summer.
League legends Garry Schofield and Ellery Hanley and other handy players like Craig Innes and James Lowes had been replaced by kids who, with the exception of Adrian Morley, were badly out of their depth. For an away game at London (a 33-16 defeat), the club directors didn’t even bother to show up.
Unthinkably, Bradford (by now the Bulls) had surged ahead of them with huge crowds, boisterous marketing and two 50-point thrashings in the derbies as well as an emphatic win in the Challenge Cup semi-final.
Chaos reigned at Headingley.
At the end of the season, Leeds Cricket, Football and Athletics Ltd – the club’s parent company – was on the verge of bankruptcy. Yorkshire County Cricket Club had served notice that they were to leave Headingley and the Loiners, as they were known then, would barely survive without them.
Enter Paul Caddick, the owner of an extremely successful construction company, and Hetherington. Caddick’s money bought the club, but he would play no part in the day-to-day business. That was down to Hetherington.
In came the ‘Rhinos’ and Ronnie The Rhino. Kiwi international Richie Blackmore was signed along with several other players who offered a vast improvement on the existing playing roster. An impressive pre-season win against champions St Helens was notched up. And Iestyn Harris, League’s hottest young property, signed in a massive deal from Warrington shortly into the 1997 season. His full debut was a one-point home win over Saints with the South Stand louder than ever.
1997 was a huge turning point in the club’s history. The Rhinos were moving in the right direction.
And, with one eye on the future, coach Dean Bell even fielded a 16-year-old kid called Kevin Sinfield from the bench on two occasions – the first of those on the same day that the Bulls lifted the Super League trophy; a sobering indication that Leeds still had a long way to go, despite their admirable progress.
Hetherington is a former Leeds player, who also enjoyed spells at Wakefield, York, Hunslet, Huddersfield, Wigan (one game – against St Helens) and Kent Invicta; the latter opening his eyes to Rugby League expansion and to how a club operated outside the heartlands. He went on to play in the first four of Sheffield’s seasons.
He was a travelling reserve for the Great Britain Under-24 side that faced France in Hull in 1977 and the closest he came to honours was at Leeds, but he was left out the 1979 and 1980 Yorkshire Cup Final teams against Halifax and Hull KR, despite playing in earlier rounds.
By 20, he knew he wanted to coach and at 27 he applied, unsuccessfully, for the coach’s job at York.
“Rugby League is all I wanted to do. It’s been my life since the age of eight,” he says.
“My last game was at the start of Sheffield’s fourth year – the 1987/88 season. I played at Wakefield Trinity in the Yorkshire Cup and dislocated my finger. That was my last first-team game. It was becoming increasingly difficult to be a player-coach, even in those days. I then played in the A Team at Doncaster, got sent off – mistaken identity of course! – and never paid my fine. A fairly inglorious end…
“But I didn’t miss playing because I was so engrossed in coaching and the club in general.
“I wanted to coach when I was 20, but I was never going to get a job. What started Sheffield Eagles was that I missed out on the York coaching job to my childhood hero Alan Hardisty when I was 27. On the way home from the interview I knew I either wasn’t going to get it or, if I did, I wouldn’t take it because I was on a very different wavelength to the directors there. I said to Kath that we should start our own club with no baggage and no-one to blame if it went wrong.”
Sheffield squeezed in by one vote with the Castleford representative, Phil Brunt, changing his mind at the eleventh hour and voting the Hetheringtons in. Sheffield Eagles was born.
They played their first match on September 2 1984, beating Rochdale 29-10, after being 0-10 behind – with loose forward, Paul McDermott, posting a hat-trick, but financial problems blighted the club’s maiden year after their initial sponsor went bust. “Sheffield’s early days were a bit hairy,” McDermott recalled. “Youngsters like Daryl Powell, Mark Gamson and Mark Aston were finding their feet and there was a lot of pressure on the more experienced players like Billy Harris, Vince Farrar and myself.”
“The history of Sheffield Eagles is remarkable; one of survival and constant challenge,” Hetherington says. “When you look back it was significantly under-funded – it was funded on 13-thousand quid.
“There was never a penny invested in the club; we never took a penny off anybody. That original £13,000 was the start-up capital and we had to grow the business based on what we could afford to spend. There was a lot of me in there, based on my upbringing in Castleford – my dad was the manager at the pit – and the belief that you could only spend what you’d earned. We had to work extremely hard to earn what we could.
“I quickly realised that there was no interest in rugby in Sheffield – union or League. We were to be underpinned financially by Telvista Television but they went bust. We were admitted to the Rugby League by just one vote and with Telvista going, we were left with the choice of either putting in our resources or wrapping up before we started.
“We took the decision to have a go and the total turnover in year one was £86,000; £11,000 of which was gate receipts – and we came third from the bottom. We were hopelessly insolvent and had to put the house up as a guarantee up against the overdraft.
“We grew the business up at Sheffield Eagles without ever growing the hardcore support up over a couple of thousand. By 1995, the turnover was over a million pounds and that was before Super League. We had over 10,000 people in the lottery and a thriving commercial operation.”
You wonder how many blokes can go home and suggest to the wife that they start up a rugby club, and put the house up as security. Fortunately Kath didn’t need much persuading. Having been born into a bona-fide Rugby League family – her brother Gary Cooper played in the 1968 Watersplash final at Wembley – Kath was steeped in the traditions of Rugby League.
“Fortunately Kath has always been extremely supportive,” Hetherington says. “She was born and brought up in the game, albeit in Featherstone, and had a good understanding of the game.
“Kath was pregnant with Polly in 1984 and went to her first-ever Rugby League Council meeting eight-months pregnant. One of the conditions when we were accepted was that I, who had been chairman of the players’ union, could not be the club’s representative. So Kath went – the first time they’d ever had a woman in the chamber. They wanted her to leave while they discussed whether she should be allowed to stay, but she refused to leave. Subsequently, she got admitted – unbelievable isn’t it?!
“We were the first club to introduce contracts but by November we realised we couldn’t sustain them and had to give all the players the option of leaving. Fortunately all the players bar one – that was Mark Campbell, the current chairman of Featherstone Rovers – stayed on for 50 quid a win and 20 quid a loss.
“I was driven by the fear of failure. All the professional advice was to call in the administrators and wind it up but we weren’t prepared to let it fail.
“One of my big influences was going to Australia in 1986 and spending a week each with Jack Gibson and Brian Smith. It completely opened my eyes. It was what I’d always believed in, but had never seen, so instead of bringing back a coach, I decided to do it myself.
“The turning point was when we started trading some players. We bought Sonny Nickle for 19 grand and sold him two years later for 120 grand.
“We were solid because we were operating without debt, but Super League didn’t do us any favours. Even though we got £600,000, we had to go full time and that ate up all the money. But we were still a strong entity compared to most other clubs.”
During that first summer season, Hetherington decided to cut his ties with the Eagles. He agreed to sell the club to Sheffield United FC .
“I could never understand why Paul Thompson [chairman of Sanderson Electronics] wanted to buy the business,” Hetherington recalls with some regret. “I’d agreed to sell it to Sheffield United. We had a bigger commercial operation than them and they could see the attraction in us.
“Over the years, I’d given away 49 percent of the shares to people who had done a good, solid job but always under the understanding that I was steering the club.
“While I was in New Zealand with Great Britain, Paul bought the 49 percent from the other shareholders which I could never forgive them for. So even though I still had 51 percent, it scuppered the Sheffield United deal because they didn’t want an unwilling partner.
“In 1998 the Eagles won the Challenge Cup and that was their big opportunity, but they never grasped it. They stopped doing all the things we’d always done to make the club successful. They started losing money and Paul Thompson decided to get his money back by merging with Huddersfield. The club never really recovered.
“I’ve always been confident that it would have all worked out for the Eagles, if the Sheffield United deal had gone ahead.”
By anyone’s standards, Hetherington had proved himself a huge success – and was what Leeds badly needed. With speculation mounting that he would be joining Caddick at Headingley in November 1996, he flew home from New Zealand, where he had been part of the touring Great Britain’s coaching team, to face the media on the day the takeover was announced.
“The objectives,” he remembers, “were to create the facility we wanted by investing heavily in it, to create a winning team the city would be proud of, to create a profitable business and to engage with the community.”
Four emphatic ticks there.
“It was [Leeds chief executive] Alf Davies, who knew of our interests, who put us together. Coming from Castleford, Paul and I knew of each other, but didn’t know each other. I didn’t have the money to take on the debt on my own and Paul didn’t want to run a sports’ club.
“We met up and spoke of the viability and found ourselves with pretty much the same sort of vision. It was an exciting challenge and I’d like to think it’s turned out to be a good decision.”
So how did Hetherington turn around the business side of things?
“We inherited about £5.5m of debt and the business was losing close on half a million a year,” he says. “And to compound matters, the team’s fortunes took a considerable dive in 1996 when they narrowly avoided relegation. It’s fair to say the Leeds club didn’t embrace the move to summer rugby. Crowds were declining and so was income in general. The big challenge was to change the culture but that only happens over a period of time.
“We’ve doubled the turnover over the last five or six years, we have 100 full-time staff here, double the number of 1996 and we’ve created a very good rugby business. We have excellent, high-quality staff who deliver high standards and the fact we’re profitable has enabled us to invest without the fear of debt. We’ve put £7.5m into the ground and we’ve put half-a-million pounds into the training facility at Kirkstall. There’s been significant investment in the education centre too.
“The thing we’re most proud of is that we’re one of the few sports businesses who owns its own facility and doesn’t have a penny of debt. We’ve got facilities that have been developed significantly and we’ve got a successful team. That’s as good as it gets.
“Going forward, there are still major challenges and one of them is that we’ll have to replace the South Stand with something that will cost around £6m, so that is inevitably going to take us back into significant debt. It’s got to be affordable, but we could be sat here in a year with a new South Stand.”
But it was the rugby side of the operation that the fans cared about, particularly after such an embarrassing 1996.
“Looking at the operation, I said to Paul that I was confident that we could turn the Rugby League side of things around, but we’d need three years to do so. And we’d probably need to invest a further million pounds in that turnaround because, clearly, new players needed to be brought in.
“We brought in some significant players like Richie Blackmore, Ryan Sheridan, Anthony Farrell and some from overseas who weren’t necessarily superstar players but who had a terrific work ethic like Wayne Collins, Jamie Mathiou, Martin Masella and Damian Gibson. Then, shortly into the 1997 season, we signed Iestyn Harris, who was probably the biggest name. Dean Bell stayed on as coach and we made some significant progress in that first year, finishing fifth.”
“In 1998, which saw the arrival of Graham Murray [Bell had voluntarily become head of youth development], we went on to reach the Grand Final and, in 1999, we won the Challenge Cup for the first time in a long time.
“So the transformation happened fairly quickly and we started to get better crowds but the side we’d put together didn’t have much of a future because it was a very experienced team. One of our objectives had always been to create a system which would produce our own players. Leeds had always looked to develop young players but a lot of them had ended up going elsewhere.”
Jason Robinson ending up at Wigan is a prime example.
“Graham Murray left and that was a big disappointment for us,” Hetherington continues. “We were going through a transition period. Dean Lance came in and found it a very difficult job, which it was. We were moving from a very experienced team to a younger one, while trying to maintain our position in the game.”
Lance was sacked in April 2001 with Daryl Powell, who had just retired as a player, taking over.
“The appointment of Daryl Powell was an interesting one and a big surprise to everybody, but he did an outstanding job and was at the heart of a changing culture,” says Hetherington. “He helped to implement a much stronger work ethic and he helped to cultivate the production line of young players. By now, we’d had the emergence of players like Kevin Sinfield, Ryan Bailey, Matt Diskin, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Richie Mathers, Mark Calderwood.
“He sowed the seeds for what was a very successful period under Tony Smith and when Tony came in, he was the first to admit he had an outstanding group of players to work with.
“He had the technical skills and the experience to add to what he already had, and he did that extremely well.”
Hetherington was a successful coach. Has that aided the relationships he has had with the various Rhinos head coaches?
“Absolutely,” he states. “What you appreciate is what the coach requires in terms of support, and also the mental anguish that they go through. More importantly, I also know what a coach doesn’t need which is a lot of external pressure and people questioning what he’s doing. My job with the rugby is to create the environment for coaches to coach and players to play. All external factors that can prove to be negative are eliminated. I work closely with the coach and work closely with his needs and he understands our’s. If we can’t provide something, he understands why we can’t provide it.”
While Hetherington has employed six coaches in his time at Leeds, he has had four club captains, two of whom – Gary Mercer and Francis Cummins – only had the job for a year each of his tenure. Iestyn Harris led the team between 1998 and 2001, while Kevin Sinfield got the job in 2003. Last year, he usurped Saints’ Chris Joynt as the man who has lifted the Super League trophy on the most occasions.
“Kevin really is the ultimate in what you look for,” says Hetherington. “If you could manufacture a young player you’d end up with Kevin Sinfield. He’s intelligent, articulate, caring, thoughtful, tough, competitive and he’s blessed with outstanding ability. He has all these assets and he’s had a good, solid upbringing. If you were to clone a player – and someone to marry your daughter! – you’d inevitably come up with Kevin Sinfield. He’s a rare breed in terms of ticking every box.
“The thing that struck me about Kevin when I first saw him was that he was a very rounded player and he was such a pleasant young lad who knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there.”
. Smith’s appointment had been agreed early in the 2003 season – in fact, the Rhinos were top of Super League when Hetherington announced that Powell would step aside for the Australian who had turned Huddersfield into a Super League force following the aftermath of their shoddy merger with Sheffield.
“The players needed the benefit of Tony’s expertise and he provided it,” Hetherington says of a coach he was clearly close to. “Plus his management structure fitted in like a hand in a glove. 2004 was a particularly good year.
“We maintained those standards in 2005 but we didn’t manage to win the two big finals, after winning the World Club [Challenge]. 2006 was a disappointing year and we were in decline a bit. We haven’t been out of the top three for six years but it was disappointing by Leeds’s standards, especially on the back of 2004 and 2005.
“2007 could have gone either way but we came very strong late in the competition and came up with an outstanding win at Old Trafford against St Helens.”
Brian McClennan, the New Zealander who had masterminded the Kiwis’ incredible Tri-Nations triumph in Leeds in 2005, was Hetherington’s choice to succeed the RFL-bound Smith.
“Brian will be the first to acknowledge that he inherited a very strong and harmonious club,” says Hetherington. “We went for someone with a different approach and a different set of skills to Tony and I think it’s worked.”
Two Super League titles in two years under the likeable McClennan is solid proof that it has worked. His focus now is to ensure the three-times champions stay hungry and motivated for more.
“The real challenge is maintaining your position when you reach the pinnacle,” Hetherington agrees. “Motivation comes down to several factors – the types of personalities within the playing group; are they satisfied or are they hungry for more? You have to make those sort of judgements.
“How hungry and ambitious are the coaching staff? Well, that’s a big theme of Brian’s. He’s introduced a term called ‘kaizen’, which is a Japanese proverb for continuous self-improvement. That is at the heart of the whole Rhinos ethos and philosophy.
“I think there is a real hunger for more success because anything else comes as a huge disappointment and nobody wants to be disappointed.
“There’s no doubt that there’s never been a better time to be a Leeds Rhinos supporter. This is the golden period in the club’s history and Kevin Sinfield, without doubt, is the club’s most successful captain. The team has never enjoyed the dominant position it will go into this season with.”
Gary Hetherington Timeline
Gary Hetherington’s professional Rugby League life begins as he debuts for Wakefield Trinity.
The versatile forward is chosen as 16th man for the Great Britain Under-24s.
Hetherington is transferred from York to Leeds where he stays until 1981.
The game’s first-ever players’ union is formed In December with Hetherington its chairman.
Aged 27, Hetherington misses out on the York coaching job and decides to form his own club with his wife, Kath.
Sheffield begin life in September with a convincing win over Rochdale. They later draw Leeds in a money-spinning Cup tie which keeps the club afloat.
The club finish their first league campaign with eight wins in 17th place out of 20 clubs.
Hetherington plays his last match of Rugby League, being sent off in a reserve-team match against Doncaster.
The Eagles are promoted in third place and win the Divisional Premiership at Old Trafford against Swinton with Daryl Powell scoring three tries. But they suffer complications as Owlerton Stadium is deemed unfit to host top-flight Rugby League.
A highly credible 18-all draw at Wigan in September see the Eagles adorn the first-ever cover of the new Rugby League newspaper, League Express. “Eagles Defy Odds” screams the front page.
Sheffield reach the Yorkshire Cup final and also play host to Australia.
Sheffield Schools Under-11s play at Wembley.
Sheffield finish the Centenary Season in fifth place and end the inaugural Super League in seventh. At the end of the year Paul Caddick and Gary Hetherington take over Leeds RLFC.
The club become ‘Leeds Rhinos’ and improve vastly on the field.
Under Graham Murray, Leeds improve further, reaching the inaugural Grand Final.
Leeds hammer London 52-16 at Wembley with Leroy Rivett scoring four tries.
Daryl Powell takes over from Lance while Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire and Matt Diskin all debut.
Leeds lose the Cup Final to Bradford by two points and a play-off match to Wigan by a point.
Tony Smith becomes coach and leads the club to their first title since 1972 with victory over Bradford.
After winning the World Club Challenge against Canterbury, Leeds lose the major finals to Hull and Bradford.
Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock signs from Bradford but five-straight defeats in July derail the season.
After an inconsistent season, Leeds hammer minor premiers St Helens 33-6 in the Grand Final.
Leeds beat Melbourne 11-4 in a gripping world-title arm-wrestle. They beat Saints again at Old Trafford, 24-16.
Leeds lose a Challenge Cup game to Saints for the fifth time in the decade but beat them for the third time in a row in the Grand Final.
Leeds go into the new season as Super League favourites and face Melbourne Storm again in the World Club Challenge.
Dean Bell, who coached Leeds in 1996 & 1997 on Hetherington:
NO-ONE would have been more delighted to see Gary Hetherington arrive at Headingley in 1996 than the beleaguered Leeds coach Dean Bell.
Bell agreed to leave Auckland Warriors to become Doug Laughton’s assistant coach at Leeds, but midway through Bell’s journey to England, Laughton resigned and Bell took the top job.
1996 proved to be a nightmare for everyone at the club as the overspending from Laughton’s days came back to bite the club. Senior players left in droves and Bell did well to avoid relegation. He was even forced to pick himself for a match against Paris. The club was in chaos.
But Caddick and Hetherington’s arrival at the end of the season changed all of that.
“I can’t really say why there were financial problems at the club but Gary very much provided a calming influence,” remembers the Kiwi.
“Leeds had always been a sleeping giant and I was really looking forward to doing the job but it was a huge struggle in 1996 and we had to play so many kids all year. But I found Gary so easy to work with and he just allowed me to get on with it. I had such respect for what the Hetheringtons had done at Sheffield – selling double glazing in their spare time just to keep the club afloat.
“It was great to work with someone who knew the game like he did. Someone like that isn’t going to make too many mistakes and we improved a lot in 1997.”
But at the end of 1997, Bell stunned Leeds by stepping down and requesting that he become head of youth development instead – an unprecedented move for a head coach. Bell, with Hetherington’s support, went on to nurture the likes of Kevin Sinfield, Chev Walker, Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Matt Diskin, Ryan Bailey and Richie Mathers among many others.
“Gary knew the success of any club is largely dependant on getting the youth structure correct, especially in a vast place like Leeds,” says Bell.
“He was surprised at my decision and he’d offered me another year. I hadn’t really been ready for the job and I wanted to get my teeth into development. I’ve done it ever since.
“But he didn’t put any pressure on me and he backed me all the way. I think you can see from the results that it paid off.”
Hetherington is also the chief executive of the Leeds Carnegie rugby union side. This is his view on the relationship between the two codes:
“Rugby League and rugby union aren’t competitors. Rugby League’s biggest competitor is soccer, in terms of national profile, media coverage, the commercial revenues etc.” That’s the view of Gary Hetherington, chief executive of Leeds Rhinos and Leeds Carnegie.
In 1998, Leeds RUFC moved into Headingley, creating the first-ever dual-code partnership – Leeds Rugby Ltd. It’s fair to say Rhinos’ fans were hardly enamoured by the move, gleefully turning their backs on a Tykes friendly that was arranged before a Leeds-Bradford Super League fixture in 2001.
“I could understand the cynicism of our supporters because it was a period when Rugby League felt threatened,” says Hetherington. “Union had gone professional and quite a few League players had gone over. Those times have changed and the game isn’t as threatened now, although I could understand why people asked why we were looking to promote rugby union on the basis that it was a competitor of Rugby League.
“The rugby union side haven’t brought any tangible benefits to Leeds Rhinos but they have brought benefits to the business. Rugby union has not cost Rugby League any money [here]. It’s the same ownership for both but we do run the rugby union autonomously – it’s its own company. There’s a management agreement and it does pay for a management service and part of that service, for example, is me as chief exec for both. There’s the use of the ground too.
“They generate money for the business and they share a lot of the costs – the training facilities would still be needed, the electric bill would still be the same and so would the water rates. And in winter when there’s no Rugby League at all the 100 staff still need occupying and there’s catering and the bars etc.
“Our marketing manager and sales director sits above both teams as do I and the head of medical services. If there was no rugby union, we’d still need these people.”
“Both rugby codes can learn a lot from each other and I’ve never felt threatened by it [union]. I’ve always been confident that League can manage its own destiny and I still have that belief.”