Headingley F.C – Yorkshire’s forgotten club

The demise of Yorkshire/Leeds Carnegie reached a sad conclusion this season after the former Premiership side dropped down to National League 1 after financial turmoil.

It could be seen as a crisis that has overshadowed the great foundations of the club from many years ago. In this series we look to uncover one half of the Headingley F.C and Roundhay R.U.F.C merger and what made Headingley one of the clubs of its time, through the thoughts of rugby union legends Sir Ian McGeechan and Peter Winterbottom.

A club proud of their history

Headingley Football Club was established in 1878 in a time when union changes were taking place. They joined the RFU and Yorkshire RFU in 1898 after several of Yorkshire’s big clubs left the YRFU to form the Northern Union.

Northern rugby was in disarray due to the number of clubs leaving until a Headingley member by the name Robert Frederick Oakes was elected secretary of Yorkshire and started to rebuild the union. The First World War came not long after, with many Headingley men fighting for their country. McGeechan, who had a 15-year club career at the club, was awoken to its significance when he first entered the club as a schoolboy in 1963.

 

“The thing that hit me when I went in was the history and legacy with the boards that they had up on the clubhouse walls where they had all the players that had been involved in both world war’s and all the captains.

“I managed to get hold of the First World War Yorkshire handbook which was printed after the first world war with stories behind some of the players and clubs.

“You look at them and the age of some of these players like John Abbott King especially, who was scrum-half, who was a similar age to what I was then when he was killed. It gives you a perspective I think which takes you back and you think this is what you’re a part of and getting involved in.”

Quality throughout the club

The history of the club gave all members a family-like bond that helped bring the club to the top of the English game. Headingley began to become one of the most successful in the country as it fielded several international players and a fixture list to match that quality.

“It was the best fixture list in Yorkshire so they were seen as one of the top three northern clubs in the country. I got an international trial because I had a particularly good game against London Scottish, “ says McGeechan.

“We played Harlequins, Blackheath, who were a big club then, Wasps, plus the big midlands clubs.

“Obviously, through all the decades Headingley grew more and more international players. I think they got seen as a club that because of its fixture list you were on the radar of selectors simply because you’d be playing in the midlands and London in particular where a lot of the selectors would be.”

Throughout the years some great players appeared in the green, black and white striped jersey. McGeechan and many other internationals and British and Irish Lions such as centres Chris Rea and John Spencer as well as wingers like Peter Thompson and Peter Squires featured for the club.

However, one of the finest players to come out of Headingley came later in the 80’s with Peter Winterbottom coming through the ranks. He would be capped 58 times by England and seven times for the Lions, and be later deemed one of England’s finest flankers.

 

John Winterbottom, Father of Peter, joined in 1950 and would go on to be chairman and president of the club. Winterbottom junior reflects on his childhood days at the club, saying:

“I was dragged down to watch Headingley from when I was four or five as my mum did all the after-match teas for 30 years. It was the go-to club of anyone of any ambition who lived in the Yorkshire area.

“People like John Spencer came and joined from up in the dales in Skipton and went on to be England captain and British Lion. We had several internationals knocking around the club.

“It was a good club that had new facilities and was majorly successful in the amateur era as much as the Yorkshire clubs could,” said Winterbottom.

“After the games would finish, I’d play with all my mates in the dead ball area with the lights of the clubhouse as the only light we had and then my mum would come out and drag me off covered in mud. I will never forget those times and we’d all pretend we were playing for England.”

The people’s club

Winterbottom was not at Headingley for the duration that McGeechan was as the professional era dawned and money began to talk in the game. Yet, the England flanker reflects well on the club that played a big part as a youngster, saying:

“Most clubs have a good spirit. Headingley was a very social club and was well run. I always found it a massively social club. A lot of my family’s friends were from the rugby club and it was a good club to be involved in.”

Sir Ian McGeechan had a great coaching and playing career with many adventures and experiences from his six Lions tours and time with Scotland. However, spending his whole club career at Headingley allowed him some opportunities and memories he wouldn’t get elsewhere. The former Scotland back believes that club became what it was from its member.

“In any rugby club it’s the people that make it. It was people with a bit of vision and a passion that had taken Headingley from pre-world war days through to be one of the biggest clubs in the country and certainly in the North,” says McGeechan.

“It’s the people that I will be forever grateful for, as coming across first class people that created an environment you could enjoy which was the big thing. You could play rugby with a smile on your face and enjoy their company.”

 

“Main photo credit”

 


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