Five Alternative Sports Played At The Home Of Leeds United

It's not just football you know.
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It's not just football you know.

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Boxing

Boxing

Elland Road has a history of staging significant bouts including the recent resurgence in charity exhibitions and title fights that have been well-supported in the Centenary Pavilion and previously the Banqueting Suite.

Probably the most high profile Boxing to take place at Elland Road was the bill that included British title fights for both Henry Wharton, from York but a Leeds fan, and Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham from Sheffield. On a Wednesday night, 23rd September 1992 a ring was set up in the corner of the ground in front of the West Stand and South Stand and a bill of six title fights took place.

Second on the bill was the British middleweight title fight between the unorthodox Graham and Frank Grant from Bradford. Given Henry Wharton’s following were predominantly Leeds fans, the presence of a following from Bradford for such an event inevitably lead to tensions amongst the crowd on the evening, particularly when Grant knocked out Graham in the ninth round to take the title amid jubilant scenes.

Next up and top of the bill was Henry Wharton’s British and Commonwealth super-middleweight title fight against Sheffield’s Fidel ‘Castro’ Smith. Wharton was considered something of a brutish fighter, rather than a skilful boxer, though he approached the fight undefeated, and in his career would only lose three fights to illustrious opposition in Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Robin Reid.

Wharton won the middle of the fight but was unanimously out-boxed at the beginning and the end, and it was in controversial circumstances that the fight was awarded to Wharton when most observers expected Smith to comfortably win the points decision.

The fight was quite an event and many of the Leeds United first team squad were in attendance, including Gary Speed and Eric Cantona.

More recently, on 27th September 2013, Leeds fan Josh Warrington defended his English Featherweight title with a unanimous points victory over Ian Bailey, and with Warrington having added Commonwealth and European belts to his name since, there is talk of a possible world title bout at Elland Road in the near future.

Rugby League

Rugby League

Love it, loath it or just simply tolerate it, the influence of the sport of rugby league on Elland Road is far reaching.

Leeds and the West Riding in general was a rugby stronghold long before football had any prominence in the area. As Leeds City and the early formation of Leeds United struggled to achieve a tangible progression in stature, they struggled to compete for public interest with the more traditional success story of Leeds RL, plus rival rugby union and cricket attentions. It was not until the Revie era that Leeds United truly became the major sporting institution in the city.

While Headingley has always been the home of Leeds RL/Rhinos, the traditional element of the stadium has limited their expansion plans. Since the early 1980s many major rugby league games have therefore been held in Leeds, but at Elland Road rather than Headingley, due to the facilities and access, plus the ability and capacity to deal with larger crowds.

Elland Road also has a rich history of hosting major games going back as far as 1938, when some argue the Championship Final between Hunslet and Leeds RL on 30th April drew Elland Road’s biggest ever attendance. It is officially recorded as 54,112. But as ever with high profile games held at Elland Road, and indeed elsewhere around that time, this doesn’t account for the chaotic scenes that such occasions descended into and the ‘unofficial’ entry by scores of opportunist fans.

During Leeds United’s peak years of success under Don Revie rugby league rarely encroached on the Elland Road arena. But in the 1980s, particularly when the ground was sold to Leeds City Council who were anxious to explore additional revenue opportunities, Elland Road became the venue for John Player Special Cup Finals, Challenge Cup Semi-Finals and Challenge Cup Final Replays as well as tri-nation international matches between Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, Hunslet RL also took permanent residency on the pitch for the beginning of their 1982/83 season when they had to leave the nearby greyhound stadium, and when Leeds United were still the owners of Elland Road. With Leeds United having just been relegated and in need of financial support, and with Hunslet homeless and with some history at the ground, it was thought to be a reciprocal arrangement all-round despite concerns over the pitch. With Leeds United reserves to consider, Elland Road would be regularly hosting three games a week.

In recent years Elland Road has only been used for World Club Challenge games where, on four occasions, Leeds Rhinos as English champions have faced their Australian counterparts before 30,000 plus crowds.

Cricket

H

With a perfectly respected and established cricket ground on its doorstep between 1901 and 1962, the sport of cricket was never likely to feature strongly at Elland Road itself. When the Holbeck Cricket Club was disbanded in 1962 their New Peacock Ground pitch was soon taken over by local football teams, but still Elland Road never echoed lustily to the sound of leather on willow. That was until cricket made a brief and one-off visit to Elland Road on Saturday 30th August 1986.

Leeds United had just lost 1-0 at home to Sheffield United in the early stages of the epic 1986/87 season when the pitch was very quickly transformed to stage the ‘Ringways Floodlit Test’ between a Yorkshire Xl and a Barbados Xl. The 25 overs-per-side game started at 8.30pm and featured the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Geoff Boycott, Joel Garner, David Bairstow, Gordon Greenidge, Martyn Moxon, Desmond Haynes and Viv Richards.

Football grounds have never leant themselves well to the game of cricket, with the inevitability of short boundaries rendering the game somewhat farcical, not to mention the fact that the pitch had hosted a professional football game just hours earlier. As Ian Baird slid in studs-first on an opposition defender, I dare say he cared little for ensuring Joel Garner’s run-up was left divot-free. Stephen Reynolds recalls the game which his dad, long-standing groundsman John Reynolds, will have adopted new techniques to prepare for: “I think Viv Richards put a ball through the South Stand roof when he hit a six” was his over-riding memory.

Some 23 years later a Twenty20 friendly exhibition game was scheduled for Elland Road on 31st July 2009 and was billed as a warm-up event for the Ashes Test Match at Headingley the following week. This was to be between a Leeds United Xl and a Lashings World Xl. However, just two weeks before the event Leeds United had to cancel the game as they couldn’t secure a suitable artificial playing surface to create the wicket.

Speedway

Speedway

It is not hard to find Leeds United fans with memories of the thriving greyhound stadium further down Elland Road, as events are still fresh for many who passed the dog track on the way to the match or even went to the meetings themselves.

However, finding any Leeds United fan who recalls speedway meetings also taking place on Elland Road, and completing the sporting metropolis the area quite briefly was, definitely proves a little more challenging. For a brief ten year period between 1928 and 1938 Elland Road was the go-to place for sporting entertainment, a bustling quarter offering thrills of varying description including the intriguing glamour of speedway, with crowds ranging from 10-12,000 attending the meetings.

Located on Fullerton Park between the railway line and the football ground, the track had hosted greyhound racing very briefly the year before speedway took over. A first greyhound meeting was held on 4th October 1927, but when a legal wrangle between two rival associations erupted amid a battle to establish greyhound racing in the area, the track on the south side of Elland Road evidently won it and Fullerton Park took its attentions elsewhere. The first speedway meeting at Elland Road was a practice session on 8th October 1928, with the first official meeting held on 13th October.

The speedway track itself was built at a diagonal to the road, with the track made up of a solid clay base followed by a mixture of hard-rolled clinkers, cinders and coarse yellow sand on top. While the speedway stadium was locally referred to as simply the ‘dirt track’ it was a stadium of some prominence. There was space for people to stand around the entire perimeter of the track and there were three small covered stands situated at equi-distant points on the Elland Road side.

The Leeds Lions team was formed to compete in the northern section of the Provincial League against giants of the sport in Belle Vue, New Cross and Sheffield. Leeds attracted some high quality riders such as the Langton brothers Oliver and Eric, who later opened a motorbike shop on Call Lane in central Leeds, Jack Brett, George Greenwood, Ray Barraclough and Max Grosskreutz; all genuine national stars in the halcyon days of speedway’s most prominent era between the two wars.

The final league meeting was on October 13th 1938, exactly ten years to the day after the first. Fittingly Leeds lost it, a Northern Cup Challenge against Newcastle, by four points. For a short period greyhound racing took place on the track as a rival association again attempted to compete with the well-established greyhound track on the opposite side of Elland Road. Predictably this did not last long and soon the site was demolished and left derelict, as many buildings were during the Second World War.

American Football

Gridiron

Fledgling TV station Channel Four’s decision to broadcast American Football direct from the NFL in 1982 triggered a tidal wave of interest in the UK, as if the game had never existed before. Within months the crazed obsession with the sport peaked with fully-fledged teams sprouting up around the country to form a UK League.

The city of Leeds didn’t escape the entrancing phenomenon and inevitably a team was formed called the Leeds Cougars. In 1986 Elland Road was owned by Leeds City Council, and financially-stricken Leeds United were struggling to maintain anything vaguely resembling a promotion challenge in the old Division Two. On the Leeds United board at the time was a council representative Malcolm Bedford who was also chairman of the Sports Council in Leeds. He was keen to promote family-orientated entertainment at Elland Road and championed a move to welcome the Leeds Cougars and American Football to the ground.

Stung by the need to find additional income streams, which meant the pitch condition was pretty much a non-issue, the council offered Elland Road to Leeds Cougars for the 1986 season, although fixture clashes with Leeds United lead to only five games actually being played on the sacred but already threadbare turf.

The first Cougars game at Elland Road was against the Tyneside Trojans, which Leeds won 40-6, but head groundsman John Reynolds faced yet another challenge to his adaptable skills in preparing the markings and posts for American Football. John’s son Stephen recalls the Gridiron experiment: “We went down to watch it and it was horrible. The most boring afternoon I’ve ever known. I think one of the board of directors was big into it, thought it was the ‘future’. I was only young and it didn’t interest me one little bit.”

Not surprisingly with hordes of heavily-armoured men shuffling in formation on the bare pitch for sometimes upwards of three hours, the move didn’t win many friends with the overall hierarchy of Leeds United, and whilst they were powerless to stop it, they made their feelings known. It was planned to stage a further five games in the 1987 season, but council bosses relented and agreed that American Football wasn’t helping Leeds United’s cause in playing attractive football on an already stricken and rutted, grassless plot of a pitch. The Leeds Cougars’ first game of the 1987 season was swiftly switched to Throstle Nest, home of Farsley Celtic.

This is an extract from Jon Howe's new book 'The Only Place For Us - An A-Z History Of Elland Road'

Follow Jon @jonhowe1971