Headingley F.C: Yorkshire’s forgotten club part 2

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 unique style of play

Headingley F.C were successful throughout the decades following on from the First World War which saw a number of quality players join the club. This included eight internationals in this period which would set a trend through the generations of the side.

The club were renowned for a style of play that allowed them to compete with the sides they faced in their prestigious fixture list. Nowadays it maybe comparable to Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears who play with freedom and bravery

McGeechan reveals that Headingley did not have many options in the way they played, saying:

“You could have a pack that could dominate locally but when you played nationally the Midlands and London sides had much bigger packs. For some reason we didn’t have many internationals in the forwards. However, most of the internationals for Headingley were in the backs and when I played, we used to move everything and had a reputation for playing very open and quick rugby.”

As mentioned in part one of this series, Headingley were blessed with some fine outside backs who were key to how the side played.

“We always used to challenge ourselves to get the ball into the wingers hands no matter what the quality of what the ball was and sometimes move it from behind our own try line,” says McGeechan.

“We’d score tries and that’s what we used to do, and challenge ourselves to play out from the try line and see where we could score from. We used to love it.

“One time I played in a back division with five internationals in it, so we backed ourselves to play from anywhere so was just a really good afternoon with 750 to 1000 people at the game.

“I think they always enjoyed the way we played and the challenge of trying to succeed and score tries that you wouldn’t think were possible so as a player you got great satisfaction from it.”

Headingley F.C
John Eagles offloads in one of Headingley’s blistering attacks. Credit @HynesJourno

Top coaches

The four-time British and Irish Lions coach took on his first coaching role with Headingley F.C as his career drew to a close. During this transition period a young Winterbottom was making his first footsteps into senior rugby and believes McGeechan’s presence as coach was influential to many players.

“I think having Ian McGeechan as coach was one of the best things for me personally.

“I’ll never forget him as Headingley coach before he went off to coach Scotland and the Lions. My first season was his last, so I got to play some games with him as well which was good,” said the former England flanker.

“I think Headingley was the first club to have coaches, Bernard White was a Carnegie lecturer and was second team captain when I was coming through back in the early 60’s. He retired and became coach and was a very good coach. We were lucky to have the calibre of someone like him, he was brilliant and very helpful. I learnt a huge amount from him and then he finished and then had a year where I was player coach.

“I retired in 1980 then they asked whether I’d continue coaching the club through until 1983 and then I was asked by Scotland to take the U20’s and the B team and so on. It was great.

“That first-year coaching took a bit of organising with big numbers which was not too difficult. We tried to continue playing a quick game and trying to get everyone targeted in it. We had a warm-up game and scored about 50 points and I could not believe it and we had a really good season.

“We were scoring 30 points a game on a lot of occasions, so I was really pleased. “

Headingley F.C
An old Headingley programme, credit @HynesJourno.

A club for the big occasions

As one of the counties and the countries biggest sides, Headingley F.C had their fair share of big days out. Not only was their fixture list of fine calibre but the Yorkshire Cup was also a date for the diary.

However, due to a fall out with the Northern Union, Headingley did not appear in the cup from the late 30’s to late 70’s. Yet, on their return to the competition the club were victorious six times in the 80’s.

“1983 was the first year we won the Yorkshire cup which was my last year involved and past over to Peter Nash who was another former player. The Yorkshire Cup became a bigger thing for Headingley and they won it then when they decided to take it seriously and won it again on a regular basis,” says McGeechan.

Winterbottom was part of the team that would win the cup under McGeechan which he reflects on fondly.

“It was always played through April at the end of the season with midweek games. We all loved them and really enjoyed them and won it a few times. We did not play the likes of Morley who were one of the better sides in Yorkshire at the time but in the cup we would. We went to places we would not normally. The Yorkshire Cup was something we looked forward to that is for sure.

“Winning the Yorkshire cup is right up there with my best memories of Headingley. My memory of the club is just the characters that were there. I remember all the old boys who came down to watch then would tell you in the bar how well or badly you played after.” Said Winterbottom.

However, one of the greatest matches was a one-off occasion against one of rugby’s greatest sides. With McGeechan’s connections at the top he managed to pull some strings.

“One of the things I enjoyed was when we had a centenary game in 1978. There is a picture on it down in the old clubhouse. I managed to get most of the Lions I played with playing as a Lions team and Headingley played them and I played for Headingley.”

The Scot continued: “They had people like Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson and Dick Millican who I played alongside on the ‘74 Lions tour so it was just great.

“To be able to have a game like that at Headingley in the 1970’s was almost unheard of really. The fact they came, and I think we probably got 3,000 watching it and had a big dinner in the evening. It was a really nice occasion.”


“Main photo credit”

Headingley F.C
Sir Ian McGeechan goes aerial for a try. Credit @HynesJourno.