Gary Hetherington still going strong after 25 years with Leeds RL
IN his own words, Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington is “addicted to rugby league.”
It is not hyperbole. Far from it.
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of him and Paul Caddick, two sons of Castleford, taking over at debt-ridden Leeds.
Since then, the duo – Hetherington with his rugby nous and property developer Caddick with his financial muscle – have not only rescued the famous old club from potential oblivion but transformed it into one of the game’s pre-eminent forces.
No club has won more than Leeds’ eight Super League Grand Finals and the positive reach of Rhinos – now one of the sport’s best run businesses and three-times World Club champions – goes deep into the community, across the city and beyond.
Moreover, as part of the deal made on October 29, 1996, Hetherington and Caddick also took on Headingley and helped restore it to a world-class venue for both international rugby league and cricket.
It has been a “terrific journey” and, even at the age of 67, Hetherington is showing no signs of slowing up.
Having been a player, coach, manager and administrator in rugby league, his drive to take Rhinos further and make them better still is plain to see.
“I’ve still got my drive and have never not had it; for me, this is not a job – it’s a lifestyle,” said Hetherington.
“I always say to the staff here, if you find a job you love, you’ve never done a day’s work in your life. I’ve always been addicted to rugby league. I started going to watch Castleford with my uncle Tom as there was no real history in my family of sports.
“It was my mum’s brother who took me from the age of six or seven – the early ‘60s – and I found myself indoctrinated, not just by the game but the people and the clubs. I wrote match reports on games at school and was fascinated by it. But every match report would have the attendance and say something like ‘364 less than last year.’
“I used to record the gate receipts as well so I had a real interest in the game as a whole, not just playing.”
In many ways, it can be traced back to a childhood visit down one of the mines in his home town more than half-a- century ago.
“My dad was manager of Wheldale Pit opposite Castleford Rugby League club,” explained Hetherington earlier this week, in a hospitality box in Emerald Headingley’s dazzling £45m North Stand.
“So, as a youngster, when I was about eight or nine, he took me down the shaft with him.
“And I thought people spend a third of their life down here..?
“If you grew up in Castleford in the late 1950s or 1960s, if you weren’t academic, you were destined for a life in the pits. I wasn’t academic. And I thought I’m not going down there! Rugby league actually created an escape.
“There was never any doubt that I was going to be a player. I never even considered I might not be good enough.”
Hetherington did, indeed, play almost 300 games for Wakefield Trinity, York, Leeds and Huddersfield but, it is safe to say, he will be remembered more for his work off the field than on it.
“Ever since I’d been about 19 I actually wanted to coach and manage,” he admitted.
“I felt like every club I played for I fell out with; I fell out with the coach, I fell out with the board. That’s why I moved around quite a bit.
“I never found what I was looking for. I was never quite sure what I was even looking for.
“With coaching, though, I knew there was a better way.
“But I’d been chairman of the players union. I just knew I wouldn’t get a chance anywhere as no-one would give me a job.
“I applied for the coaching job at York when I was 27. I’d played for them. I got down to the last two – me and Alan Hardisty, of all people. My hero from Castleford.
“I went for the interview at the old boardroom at Wigginton Road. York had some potential. I was explaining what they needed to do and how we could improve things and grow the club and the business and all these old fellas were there just looking at me.
“I drove home to Pontefract and I knew they wouldn’t offer me the job. Even if they did, I told (wife) Kath I wouldn’t take it and we’d have to start our own club.”
That, of course, crucially signalled Sheffield Eagles’ formation in 1984 with Hetherington as owner, general manager, player and team manager – and showing the first signs of the business acumen that would impress Caddick.
Recalling the decision to invest in Leeds, Hetherington said: “We had four key objectives. One, to ultimately give the city a team to be proud of – but also have players who are respected and seen as role models even if you’re not a rugby league fan. Two was trying to restore Headingley to its former eminence as an international sports arena as it was falling down in ’96. There has been over £100m spent on the site since then.
“Three was about building a sustainable business and this is where my experience at Sheffield Eagles came in useful.
“The fourth goal was to be a big part of the community and a big brand within the city. When we first arrived, the stadium was only ever open on match-days, so we completely reversed that.
“At the same time, all the players and coaches got engaged in going out in the community and coaching, which led to the Leeds Rhinos Foundation.”
Hetherington added: “Paul and I are from very similar backgrounds in Castleford. In many ways, it’s been a perfect partnership. Right at the outset, we basically said ‘I’m not Paul’s boss, he’s not my boss’.
“We knew what each other could do. I’d never offer him advice on how to build something and he wouldn’t tell me about how to run a rugby operation.”
Some admirers would like to see Hetherington run the RFL but he has no desire for that – “you are a servant to the clubs” – nor Super League – “Robert Elstone had an impossible task getting 12 clubs to agree” – and he remains happy at Leeds.
There was one temptation, though. He said: “Australia has been an attraction and I’ve had offers from NRL clubs, but the two clubs I’ve worked at I’ve also owned – Sheffield and Leeds.
“All my life, I’ve been master of my own destiny. But I’ve been to Australia 39 times. The game is so big there. This is the first year I’ve not been for a long time.”
Inevitably, Hetherington is asked if Leeds Rhinos are the biggest club in Super League?
“I’d be more pleased if half-a- dozen clubs were above us and we were still trying to compete with them,” he said.
“I’m pleased with the growth we’ve experienced, but I’d like to see the whole entity grow.
“I’m not envious of anybody else. I’m really pleased with what has happened at Hull KR because they’re a club who are starting to realise their potential.”
Hetherington certainly knows about that.