Council wrong to deny Leeds Rhinos a licence to host Josh Warrington fight – Peter Smith

IN 1888, Leeds Cricket, Football and Athletic Club Limited (CF&A) purchased Lot 17A of the Cardigan Estate for £25,000.

Tuesday, 27th April 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 27th April 2021, 8:59 am
NO LEEDS REMATCH: Josh Warrington congratulates Mauricio Lara after his defeat to the Mexican in February. Picture: Dave Thompson

The 22-acre site was previously playing fields. A pavilion and double-fronted grandstand, for both rugby and cricket, were constructed and on September 20, 1890, Leeds played their first game at what is now Emerald Headingley Stadium, beating Manningham by a dropped goal and a try to nil.

At the time, the site also included tennis courts, a bowling green and a cycling and athletics track around the cricket field.

Leeds CF&A was chaired by cricketer Lord Hawke, the Yorkshire captain, whose ambition was to develop an arena to rival those at Bradford Park Avenue and Bramall Lane, in Sheffield.

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NO GO: Leeds Rhinos' Emerald Headingley ground would have hosted the Josh Warrington v Mauricio Lara fight had it got the go ahead from Leeds City Council. Picture Bruce Rollinson.

One of only four original Northern Union sites where the sport is still played, Headingley also staged football of the round ball variety in its early years, including FA Amateur Cup finals in 1895 and 1902, as well as international rugby union.

The first Challenge Cup final was played at Headingley in 1897 and it was the second British ground, after Murrayfield in Edinburgh, to have undersoil heating installed. According to Leeds Rhinos’ heritage committee, other sports to have been played there include American football, baseball and ‘motorcycle football’ – and in 1902 England played the United States there in a push-ball Test match.

Over the past few years, around £50m has been spent upgrading Headingley’s facilities – including a complete rebuild of the cricket arena, plus new North, East and South stands on the rugby side, making it one of the best places to watch sport in the UK.

For the past year, those facilities have stood largely idle. Though Headingley has staged rugby and cricket during the pandemic, that has been behind closed doors.

TOP VENUE: Yorkshire take on Glamorgan at Emerald Headingley Stadium. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Rhinos are paying off the cost of the massive recent redevelopment and, clearly, need more than the income from a dozen or so rugby matches each year to do so.

All-year-round use was attempted when Leeds Tykes moved in a quarter of a century ago, with mixed results, but the club’s management – who employ around 150 people – are searching for new ways to utilise their unrivalled facilities.

Championship boxing was one proposal, but now seems unlikely to join the list of sports staged on the hallowed turf.

Working with promoter Eddie Hearn, Rhinos had hoped Josh Warrington’s rematch with Mauricio Lara could be held on the rugby ground in September. They applied to Leeds City Council for a licence to host up to two boxing or wrestling events per year, but that has been turned down.

The club may appeal but, in the meantime, the fight – possibly the biggest in history involving a Leeds boxer – could go to another city.

Councillors opposed to the event say they want to protect residents from the impact of a 25,000 crowd leaving the stadium at 11pm.

That’s understandable, but refusing the licence is bad for Rhinos and their staff, for Warrington who is desperate to fight in front of his own supporters, for sports fans being denied the opportunity to see history made in their home city and for Leeds which can only gain in prestige by hosting such high-profile events.

While residents have concerns, the boxing would be lucrative for local businesses – especially pubs and restaurants – who have just been through a costly lockdown.

Headingley is a purpose-built sports venue and its operators know what they are doing. Rugby matches generally end only an hour or so earlier than the boxing was planned to, so is the impact on locals really so devastating? Being 130 years old, the stadium pre-dates anyone living nearby and surely residents moving into the area understand there will be some disruption.

Simply saying no is the wrong decision. The right one would be to grant the licence, monitor the event and take things from there.

A successful Rhinos club brings prestige to the city, but the decision to deny them a precious income stream, particularly at such a difficult time, puts that at risk.

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