IT WAS a remarkable feat. In modern rugby league circles people speak in awe of how the Leeds Rhinos have won the last two Super League titles from fifth position. But in that season of 1972/73 small-town Dewsbury didn’t so much as upset the formbook, as tear it up and use the bits for confetti, for their own tickertape parade. DANNY LOCKWOOD reports.
IT WAS the last season that one-division rugby would exist, and the last time play-offs would feature until the advent of Super League some 25 years later.
But in a competition featuring 30 teams Dewsbury’s regular-season eighth-placed finish, after 34 gruelling games, was only half of the story.
They had reached the Yorkshire Cup Final at Odsal, where they were overawed by the ‘rich boys’ from Leeds and thrashed 36-9.
There had been the Players No. 6 Trophy as well (Leeds won that, too) and the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy (Leigh beating Widnes 5-0 in the final).
But the team under Mick Stephenson, and with an array of talents bound by a brothers-in-arms attitude, were growing as a force in the game.
In the iconic Challenge Cup, in a semi final played at Headingley, Dewsbury were actually the favourites, facing a Bradford Northern side that would finish a disappointing – almost unbelievable – 23rd in the league.
Expectations were high, but crushing disappointment was to follow.
Bradford bullied the footballing Dewsbury team out of the cup, agonisingly short of a Wembley appearance.
Time was running out on the season and after a World Cup-winning campaign the previous October and November, the sharp eyes of the ambitious Australian clubs were running the rule over upstart Dewsbury’s electrifying hooker, ‘Mick Stivvy’.
In an age when hookers tended to be flat-nosed beasts, famed mostly for their immunity to pain and an ability to win ball in the fiercely-contested scrums, the Savile Town lad, via Thornhill, was a revelation.
Here was a player who was revolutionising the hooker’s role. Not content with simple left and right passes, Stephenson would terrify lax defences with his darts from dummy half.
He would pass and run-around, to take up involvement in midfield.
He was the kingpin of some bewildering, intricate movements, surrounded as he was by consummate footballers in Alan Bates, Allan Agar, Nigel Stephenson – no relation – and company.
But could Dewsbury get themselves back up from the soul-destroying defeat to Bradford? To prevail in the play-offs would mean an immense effort. Ninth-placed Oldham would visit Crown Flatt, but what was to follow was an odyssey of pain.
Warrington under the mercurial Alex Murphy had topped the league standings, a full 10 points above Dewsbury.
Even to get to them they had to travel to Post Office Road first and face eventual Challenge Cup winners, second-placed Featherstone.
And if there was anything left in the tank, third-placed Leeds awaited again, back at Odsal. And what’s more, Dewsbury were far from certain of having their inspirational leader at the helm. Mick Stivvy was laid up with bronchitis.
But he dragged himself from his sick bed for what would be his final, glorious game in the red amber and black.
Dewsbury would sell him at season’s end to Penrith for a world record fee of £20,000. But a career-defining 80 minutes awaited.
Mick Stivvy – Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson – takes up the remarkable story…
‘THAT Dewsbury team developed over five or six years. We were good, a very well-balanced team, a good combination of team spirit and talent.
“And we had a good combination of coaches in Tommy Smales and Keith Goulding, who he brought over from Featherstone. They were two guys who really worked hard. Keith was a freak on set pattern moves and over the period of two years with Tommy, who was an adventurous coach, we developed a really effective style of attack.
“It was more than a structure. Sometimes myself and the lads would sit in amazement and thought ‘this won’t work’.
“We had about 10-12 different moves, we had alternatives. There would be two blokes on a criss-cross, a third as well, maybe Allan Agar coming late or Nigel late out wide, Adrian Rushton coming into the line.
“People keep saying that you don’t need a coach and team spirit isn’t important, but it was to us.
“We got to the semi-final of the Challenge Cup at Headingley against Bradford who I think were way down the table, in about 17th. We were favourites to get to Wembley.
“But they just battered us. They just walked out and bulldozed us. I remember Tommy Smales saying ‘they can’t beat us with skill, so don’t get sucked in, don’t show they have hurt you, even if they hit you with a 10lb hammer’.
“It taught us a lesson. This was a big semi, and they got to us with hard work, hard yakka. We got back into it briefly in the second half, I sneaked over, but the moves weren’t coming off. That was a bitter disappointment.
“Billy Mann was on the committee and he had a nightclub in town, My Place. He was planning a big celebration. It was like a funeral.
“I said to Tommy Smales, ‘I know it’s a bad day for us’. We were embarrassed, we had let ourselves down, our families, our fans. We should have been going to Wembley.
“Then we got to the play-offs where we played Oldham at home and beat them comfortably, 29-14, before having to go to Featherstone.
“At Featherstone, who had already got to Wembley, within the first 10 minutes we’d put about seven moves on and scored two tries. We beat them with our superior skill factors – the score was 26-7 and we were full of it then. We were playing well.
“Then it was Warrington where Alex Murphy was the player-coach. I can remember shaking hands with him before the toss-up at Wilderspool. He said ‘I don’t know why you have bothered turning up’ but that was Alex. I knew what he was all about. We knew that we just had to keep calm.
“I think he’d said in the press that he was going to ‘bomb’ our winger Greg Ashcroft to death. Now, even Greg would admit that he didn’t have the safest pair of hands in the world, but he did the job that day. Alec must have put 15 kicks at him and he did not drop a single one.”
It was a dogfight of a game, but Dewsbury prevailed 12-7.
Stevo continues: “Tommy Smales was very explicit after that win. He said ‘we have made the final but we are still the underdogs’.
“We knew that Leeds had also made it to the final (they beat St Helens 7-2 in their semi). At Odsal in the Yorkshire Cup Final earlier in the season they were too good for us, they were too strong.
“But that defeat to Bradford had set us up, without a doubt. Nothing had to be said. We knew we had blown it once. We weren’t going to do it again.
“Tommy said ‘we can beat them if we put the moves together’ and indeed most of the tries came from set moves, the only one that wasn’t was where I went on a curving run from dummy half.
“We were pumped up. You suffer so much disappointment in life and you look at yourselves and determine to do better.
“This was the only consolation there could be for us.
“This was probably the finest all around team effort I have ever seen in any sport. Every single player played to his maximum.
“Joe Whittington covered so much ground – I got two tries and the Man of the Match but it would not have bothered me one iota if it had gone to Joe. He was magnificent.
“You have got to understand that I was the only international in that team. Nigel, the Bates brothers and Jeff Grayshon would go on to be internationals, but they weren’t at that point. Leeds fielded about 10 internationals.
“It was the greatest example of what team spirit can do. Adrian Rushton played his heart out that day.
“Jeff Grayshon came through from the amateur game as a full-back. I remember the club secretary Tom Clark saying ‘we are so low on forwards we are having to put that full-back Grayshon in the second row and he’s only 10 stone wet through’.
“Well Jeff not only showed he could eat a bit but he could play a bit too, as his fantastic record proved. He’s fully deserved all of his accolades.
“Our team had speed, Greg Ashcroft the Welsh lad was a real flyer – although I was the second fastest, at least over 20 or 30 yards. I’d be puffing a bit if it got to 50 or 60!
“I didn’t train once before the final. I had terrible bronchitis and the club told me to stay away because they didn’t want any of the lads catching anything. The doctor said I was only 50-50 to be able to play, though I did go on the Friday just to run through a bit of ball work. There was no way on earth I was missing that match.
“We did not have to make any speeches, just look at each other and remember the semi.
“I have never been as confident about winning a game in my life.
“As we walked down from the changing rooms at the top of Odsal I gave our trainer Jim Greenall my false teeth, wrapped up in a hanky. I said ‘I want to look smart with my teeth in when I go up for that trophy’.”
Terry Clawson’s penalty put Leeds briefly in front before the Dewsbury skipper opened their scoring backing up for a trademark try, then Allan Agar crossed and Nigel Stephenson converted both and a penalty, against a two-point drop goal from Syd Hynes. The underdogs led 12-4 at half-time.
Leeds fans pointed to the sending off of their skipper Alan Hardisty for his high tackle on John Bates after 25 minutes as a turning point, but on the day Dewsbury were superior in all departments.
Mick Stephenson scored another try four minutes after the break, and again it was improved by Nigel and though Leeds showed their pride in grabbing tries through second-row pair Graham Eccles and Phil Cookson, Nigel Stephenson soothed nerves and wrapped things up with a try which he also converted. There was just time for a late consolation score from Les Dyl. Final score – Dewsbury 22, Leeds 13.
Stevo continues: “As it happened, Dewsbury fans came running on the field at the end and I can remember Jim holding up my teeth about 25 yards away.
“He couldn’t get to me for the fans and the stewards. The police made us go up for the trophy, me without my teeth.
“But if you look at the photos, I kept my mouth closed – I might not have shut it since, but I kept it closed that afternoon!
“That was my last game for Dewsbury. The Headingley 7s were the week after but I was laid up in bed for the next week with bronchitis. Penrith came in for me and offered a figure the club couldn’t refuse.
“I was cheated out of my share of the transfer fee by Dewsbury by the way, but nothing can detract from what we achieved.
“It was a day I will always remember – a great bunch of blokes.
“We occasionally say in life ‘who would you like in the trenches to be at your shoulder’?
“Everyone involved that day, that’s who I’d pick. They were the guys that I’d select, an amazing team, every man a hero, from 1 to 15.
“Adrian at the back, Greg Ashcroft and Terry Day, John Clarke and Nigel. Allan Agar had great positional sense and a superb kicking game.
“Alan Bates? You could throw Alan in a bear pit and you know who’d be the one walking out of there.
“In the pack Dick Lowe was solid as rock, reliable. Big Harry Bev? They talk about people who could hurt the opposition but no one looked forward to tackling Harry the way he ran with those high knees.
“In the second row, Jeff and John Bates – what a runner John was. Then Joe Whit at the back of the scrum who played the greatest game of his entire career. Joe always reminds me when I see him! Then there was Brian Taylor and Stevie Lee on the bench.
“But the win was also for blokes like Kevin Osborne and Brian Firth – it was the culmination of a lot of things, a great few years in my career. Magnificent.”
Because he’s working for Sky on the night of Dewsbury’s 40-year reunion, there will be a massive presence missing next week.
But in spirit at least, the skipper will always be there.