Peter Smith: Two-decade plan turning Emerald Headingley into a sparkling reality

Leeds Rhinos fans in the temporary stand at Headingley.
Leeds Rhinos fans in the temporary stand at Headingley.
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BEFORE CHRISTMAS it looked as though Leeds Rhinos might have bitten off more than they can chew, in terms of the Emerald Headingley redevelopment.

The massive £40m project has been a long time in the making, way back to the old winter rugby days, before 1996, when plans for redeveloping the North and South Stands were being considered.

But since the bulldozers actually moved in, work has progressed incredibly rapidly. The former South Stand hosted its final spectators last August, when Rhinos faced St Helens and the first fans set foot on the new terrace a week ago, for the clash with Hull.

The scale and speed of the project makes every day at Headingley unique. Early in the rugby union season, when both stands had been demolished, it was possible to look from the rugby side’s southern touchline right across to the pavillion on the far side of the cricket ground.

That was a view never before seen and which has now gone forever.

At that stage, the prospect of the stadium being ready to stage a rugby league game in front of more than 11,000 fans in early March seemed a very tall order.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

There was a false start when the scheduled return to Headingley, against Catalans Dragons on March 2, fell victim to the Beast from the East.

That may have been a blessing in disguise as it gave everyone involved – the builders and Rhinos staff – an extra week to prepare.

When Leeds awoke to a blizzard last Friday morning, it seemed like the Headingley homecoming would be delayed again, but hard work by the groundstaff and others ensured the game went ahead. It may not have been Rhinos’ best performance on the field, but it was a remarkable effort off it. The partially-built South Stand is already an impressive structure and the temporary North Stand – basically a large marquee with seats – proved more than adequate.

Fans on the front few rows will get wet when it rains, but that was the case for paddock seats in the old building.

Leeds may not be the most popular club among fans of rival sides, but when it comes to the crunch, the vast majority of the time they are a model of how to do things on and off the pitch.

Peter Smith

It took a while for fans to filter out after the match, but everything appeared to run smoothly and Rhinos deserve huge congratulations for an outstanding job.

Leeds may not be the most popular club among fans of rival sides, but when it comes to the crunch, the vast majority of the time they are a model of how to do things on and off the pitch.

The alternative to hosting a game in a building site would have been to move elsewhere for a season.

Rhinos are staging two games this year – last month’s clash with Hull KR and the derby against Castleford Tigers in eight days’ time – at Elland Road, but that would not have been a popular long-term solution.

Elland Road is an iconic stadium, but for Rhinos fans it’s not home.

The capacity of the South Stand will be increased as the year goes on and it should be fully open by the end of the season.

Work has already begun on the other side of the ground and the joint stand, shared with Yorkshire County Cricket Club, is due to be completed next year.

The former South Stand will be missed, but it had had its day. The redevelopment will improve facilities for corporate fans, but the standing area should also mean the stadium’s character is retained.

The atmosphere against Hull was muted, which was understandable in the circumstances, and there are concerns about the height of the roof, which may dissipate some of the crowd noise, but as Rhinos stalwart Jamie Jones-Buchanan has pointed out, while the old structure may have gone, its occupants remain and that should ensure Headingley retains its famous ambience.

When the work is completed, Rhinos will again have a stadium to match any in the sport. Unfortunately, away fans will continue to face the worst of the elements on the uncovered Western Terrace.

Ideally, that would be brought into line with the rest of the ground, but lack of space and the houses overlooking the terrace prevent that.

A makeshift solution, like the North Stand roof at Wakefield, would be worth exploring, but overall, the indications are all the disruption will be worthwhile in the end.