Weekend Interview: Keith McLellan recalls his finest hour at Leeds

Welcome back: Keith McLellan paid an emotional visit to a much-changed Headingley this week to mark 60 years since the Leeds team he captained won the Challenge Cup. He was also one of four inductees into the clubs hall of fame. (Pictures: James Hardisty)
Welcome back: Keith McLellan paid an emotional visit to a much-changed Headingley this week to mark 60 years since the Leeds team he captained won the Challenge Cup. He was also one of four inductees into the clubs hall of fame. (Pictures: James Hardisty)
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THE name may not be particularly familiar to younger fans, but for the older generation of Leeds Rhinos supporters, Keith McLellan is indelibly associated with a particular time and place: Wembley Stadium, May 11, 1957.

THE name may not be particularly familiar to younger fans, but for the older generation of Leeds Rhinos supporters, Keith McLellan is indelibly associated with a particular time and place: Wembley Stadium, May 11, 1957.

The tough and stylish Australian centre was captain of the Leeds team which beat Barrow 11-9 to win rugby league’s Challenge Cup for the first time in 15 years. It was one of 215 games played by McLellan for Leeds and the city, county and club still occupy a special place in his heart.

Now 86 and believed to be Leeds’ oldest surviving player, McLellan flew from his home in Australia to swap yarns with former team-mates and opponents at a dinner this week to mark the anniversary of the Cup win.

And – something he only discovered on the night – he also claimed a new place in Headingley history when he was named as one of the first four inductees in the club’s hall of fame, along with 1957 team-mate and fellow centre Lewis Jones, and 1977 Cup winners John Holmes and David Ward.

Staying at the Headingley Lodge hotel, within the stadium, McLellan is well-placed to reminisce about those long ago glory days.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, with former Leeds rugby player Keith McLellan, possibly the oldest-surviving player, now aged 86, has flown over from Australia, for the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Challenge Cup, and at that time he was team captain.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, with former Leeds rugby player Keith McLellan, possibly the oldest-surviving player, now aged 86, has flown over from Australia, for the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Challenge Cup, and at that time he was team captain.

“It is nice to be back,” says the former school teacher who graced the Headingley turf from January 1952 until December 1959. “Things have changed, that [points to the Carnegie Stand] was all terraces when I was here, but the South Stand is pretty much the same.”

As is the main stand, shared with Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Like the South Stand, the back-to-back structure’s days are numbered now a financial package has been agreed for a multi-million pound revamp. McLellan reveals just how overdue that is. “I helped put those seats in,” he says as he gazes around what used to be his domain. “I helped on the groundstaff. I was a teacher and during the long holiday, as exercise, I used to come down here and we used to move the chairs from one side of the ground to the other. When I did it I got free tickets for the cricket Test. The ground is different too. It used to fall away at one corner. It is much flatter than it used to be and the turf is in good condition. There was always straw around in the winter, they used to put straw on it because there was no underground heating.”

McLellan is among a host of Australians to have trodden the Headingley pitch over the years and it was that old-boy network which helped bring him to Leeds in 1952. He recalls: “I was playing rugby union for Eastern Suburbs in Sydney. My school teacher was Frank O’Rourke who played over here for Leeds in the 1930s with Eric Harris and Jeff Moores. I had had a Wallaby trial, but hadn’t made the Wallabies yet and Frank recommended me [to Leeds].

“I came over and had seven wonderful years. I made good friends. My wife’s [Gwen, who died last August] family originally came from Hampsthwaite, between Harrogate and Otley. Her grandfather moved out to Australia, so she had the Yorkshire background. She found some relatives and felt very at home while we were here.”

I helped put those seats in. I helped on the groundstaff. I was a teacher and during the long holiday, as exercise, I used to come down here and we used to move the chairs from one side of the ground to the other.

Keith McLellan

McLellan played for Leeds during a relatively quiet time in the club’s history, but 1956-57 was a special season. In October he was among the try scorers in an 18-13 win over Australia at Headingley and from November to March the Loiners recorded 18 successive victories, which is still a club record. And then came the crowning glory, a hard-fought and tense triumph beneath the Twin Towers. McLellan describes that as “absolutely” the highlight of his playing career.

“Wembley was wonderful,” he says of an occasion still fondly remembered 60 years later. “We had a very good team.

“We were close together as a group of lads. The average age was 25 and we had been together for a number of years and in 1956-57 we hit the spot and had a good season, in both league and the cup.

“We got to the semi-finals in the league and then won at Wembley against Barrow, who had been there twice before. They had won one and lost one so they had experience of it, which we didn’t.

Former Leeds rugby player Keith McLellan, possibly the oldest-surviving player, now aged 86, has flown over from Australia, for the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Challenge Cup, and at that time he was team captain.

Former Leeds rugby player Keith McLellan, possibly the oldest-surviving player, now aged 86, has flown over from Australia, for the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Challenge Cup, and at that time he was team captain.

“I was captain and I think Lord Derby presented the Cup. We had Lewis Jones in our team, Lew and I played together in the centre. We played about 200 games together in all and he would always rise to the occasion.

“But strangely enough, at Wembley he didn’t score a try or kick a goal, which was unusual. In all the games I played with him I think that must have been about the only game when he didn’t score a point.

“We scored three tries and they scored a try and two goals. Tries were only worth three points then. Lew scored 431 points that season, which is still a [club] record. That’s an average of about 17 points per game, which is quite extraordinary.”

McLellan rates Jones as the best player he played with. “He was a gifted player,” he says. “He was a little bit emotional at times. If things didn’t always go right for him he got down and you had to lift him up, which the whole team did because he was our points scorer.

“He was a wonderful player. Harry Street was the captain of our forwards, he was the leader of the pack and an ex-Great Britain player.

“And we had Jeff Stevenson as our half-back. He was mean, but a wizard. He got the Lance Todd trophy at Wembley.

“In Australia we would call him a larrikin, but he was a lovely fella nonetheless.”

McLellan keeps in touch with his former club and has been thrilled by the Rhinos’ success over the past 13 years.

“I watch it on television,” he confirms. “I saw them last week, when I first arrived here. They were playing at Catalans and I saw the game. The little half-back for Leeds [Rob Burrow] scored a splendid try in the corner.”

McLellan will watch Leeds live tomorrow when, by an appropriate coincidence, they play Barrow in the sixth round of Challenge Cup at Headingley.

“That will be interesting,” he says. “It is very nostalgic coming back.

“The game now is very different. The thing you notice is the players now are so much fitter.

“We were only part-time professionals, we only trained twice a week. We had jobs too, we were working as well.

“The tempo of the games is a little bit higher. The scrums are a bit of a mess, they are not competitive and you don’t have to have a hooker now, he has a totally different role.

“The game has changed in that respect, but I still think players like Lewis Jones, Gordon Brown, Jeff Stevenson, Don Robinson, Harry Street – they would have held their own in today’s game.”

Strong hearts prevail on long Cup journey...

LEEDS’ team song during their Challenge Cup run in 1957 was ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’.

The lyrics, written by Harry Lauder and William Dillon in 1924, include the line ‘Though the way be long, let your heart be strong’ and that is an approach which paid off through five remarkable Cup ties.

After home wins over Wigan (13-11) and Warrington (28-6) it seemed like the end of the road when Leeds were drawn away to Halifax in the quarter-finals. They had lost 11 of 13 post-war visits to Thrum Hall and were 10-7 behind at half-time, but Leeds clawed their way into a one-point lead and were defending grimly in the final seconds when a break from close to their own line led to try by captain Keith McLellan to seal a 16-10 victory.

Whitehaven were beaten 10-9 in an Odsal semi-final. Leeds seemed down and out when they trailed by one point with time ticking down. There was no limited tackle rule so teams could stay in possession for as long as they held on to the ball. Whitehaven were tackled in possession at acting-half 39 successive times, but then Joe Anderson dived on the ball, Harry Street’s pass found Jeff Stevenson and he sent Leeds to Wembley with a last-gasp drop goal.

Barrow were beaten 9-7 in the final with Pat Quinn, Del Hodgkinson and Don Robinson scoring Leeds’ tries.

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