NINETEEN YEARS ago today, Leeds were saved by the Bell.
Incredible as it seems now, in Super League’s first season Leeds won only six games and finished 10th out of 12 on the table, below teams including London, Halifax, Sheffield and Oldham.
Having spent big in an attempt to match Wigan during the final years of the winter era, Leeds were down on their luck, strapped for cash and with a team which couldn’t compete.
Throughout that season they were locked in a battle with Workington Town and Paris St Germain to avoid relegation.
By the start of August, Leeds had won just four league matches and were on a four-game losing run.
One of those wins had been in Paris three months earlier, but the French side, coached by John Kear, were confident of turning the tables and boosting their own hopes of dodging the wooden spoon in the return fixture.
Then-Leeds coach Dean Bell is one of rugby league’s fiercest competitors and his side’s struggles hurt him deeply.
Among the greats of his generation, he had won all available honours during a glittering spell with Wigan and, although he had hung up his boots when he was appointed boss at Headingley, he must have felt he could do better than the players he inherited.
And on August 3, 1996, he decided to prove it. In those days squads were not announced in advance and it was a huge shock when Bell’s name was included on Leeds’ teamsheet, in the left-centre, for the Headingley clash with Paris.
That made him only the second player-coach in Leeds’ history, after Syd Hynes.
Bell, who didn’t tell the players of his plans until two hours before kick-off, described the game as a “must-win” for Leeds and his influence helped them to a rare victory.
Bell made the first tackle of the game, one of 17 on his stats sheet at the end and was heavily involved throughout.
He also gave away a couple of penalties, for a high tackle and dissent, but scored one of Leeds’ five tries in a 34-12 success, which virtually ensured top-flight survival.
Graham Holroyd touched down twice and kicked seven goals and Tony Kemp and Mick Shaw also crossed.
Shaw was the victim of a foul which led to Paris substitute Justin Bryant being sent-off in the first half, just four minutes after coming off the bench.
That was it as far as Bell’s playing comeback went.
Job done, the Kiwi former international returned to his coaching role for the rest of the season and never played again.
August 3, 1996
(Tries: Holroyd 2, Bell, Kemp, Shaw. Goals Holroyd 7)
Paris SG 12 (Tries Bird, Bloomfield. Goals Smith 2).
Leeds: St Hilaire, Golden, Iro, Bell, Hassan, Kemp, Holroyd, Mercer, Shaw, McDermott, Newton, Morley, Hulme. Subs Hughes, Field, Fozzard, Tuipulotu.
Paris St Germain: Bird, Banquet, Vergniol, Chamorin, Wilson, Devecchi, Entat, Cabestany, Wulf, Sands, Parry, Smith, Pech. Subs Bloomfield, Bryant, Bomati, Griffiths.
Referee: Colin Morris. Attendance: 6,479.