It’s been an interesting journey over the last
25 years–restoring the fortunes of the team and the club
Gary Hetherington is the CEO of Leeds Rhinos. He joined the Leeds Rugby League Club in 1996, and in 1997 he and Paul Caddick relaunched the club as Leeds Rhinos. Gary steered the Rhinos to huge success. Under his watch, the club has won 8 Super League Grand Finals, 3 Challenge Cups and 3 World Club Challenges. Now Leeds Rhinos encompasses several rugby teams, netball teams - and much more. The Leeds Rhinos Foundation is the official charity of the club and does a huge amount in the community to promote health and well-being through sport.
Gary grew up in Castleford in the 1950s. He swapped the pit to the pitch and became a professional rugby league player, making his debut for Wakefield Trinity in 1973. After a 10-year playing career, he moved into managing. Gary and his wife founded a new rugby club, the Sheffield Eagles, in 1982. After a life in rugby, Gary Hetherington seems to be going from strength to strength, with no sign he is slowing down. We spoke to him earlier this summer to find out more.
I don’t think about age as
anything but a number,
but I do recognise that as
we are getting older, we all need to remain involved in things
As we speak, you’re about to welcome fans back to Headingley. How are you feeling?
We’ll be attracting a crowd for the first time in 16 months. A limited crowd – only 4000 – but at least it’s a step in the right direction. People have really missed it. The players have missed it – having to play in an empty stadium. We’ve all missed it, not least the impact it’s had on us financially. Our business has been closed down, effectively, for 16 months. We are a people’s sport – we’re all fans. And we’re all connected in a big way. For fans not to be able to meet up in the stadium has been tough for everybody. The games haven’t been any different, in terms of results. But all the players will tell you that the effect of the crowd is quite significant. It’s theatre. Players are playing for a crowd, they play to entertain – it’s that sort of sport. We’ve certainly missed the crowd, the atmosphere and the ambience.
To go back to the beginning, were you sporty as a child?
I wasn’t brought up in a sporting family. I was brought up in Castleford in the 1960s. I reckon that was the last era of proper community living. I grew up in a mining community. My father and all his brothers worked in the coal mines. It was a small place, around 30,000 people. Everybody got a job – there were so many industries in the town. And there were no real sporting connections on either side of the family. Apart from one. I had an Uncle Tom – my mother’s younger brother. Uncle Tom was a keen sports fan, in particular Castleford rugby league. From about the age of 7 or 8 I used to go along with him to the games. I quickly became fascinated by the sport – the players, the teams, the grounds, the stadium, everything. It gripped me. I played rugby at school. I used to organise the teams. So, it became a big part of my life.
Growing up in Castleford in the 1960s, if you weren’t academic, you were destined for a life in the pits. My father was the manager of one of the 8 pits in the area. Sometimes, on a Sunday, when the pit wasn’t working, I’d go down the shaft with him. I’d be around 8 or 9. I remember thinking, “how do people spend a third of their lives working underground?” I made a strategic decision at a very young age to say, “this is not for me”. So, I was going to have to get good at something else – and rugby was the thing. I decided I wanted to be a professional rugby player. That was the origins of my life in rugby.
You achieved that ambition, didn’t you?
I started at Wakefield Trinity, made my first team debut in 1972. In those days, it was semi-professional. Players usually had other jobs. But a winning bonus was the equivalent to a week’s wages. So, some players made all their money through rugby. It was before contracts, guaranteed payments, all that – so you had to have another job. I actually loved school. I wasn’t mechanically minded – so I went to teacher training college and became a teacher.
Playing rugby as a professional was a big thing for me. And it provided a social life too. We used to look forward to training on a Tuesday or Thursday night and going for a drink afterwards. We’d play every Saturday or Sunday, then meet up with all the players afterwards. It was a really good, social environment. I enjoyed my playing career with a number of different clubs. From a young age – around 19 or 20 – I really wanted to coach. Players normally start thinking about that at the end of their careers.
Tell us why you started the Sheffield Eagles?
I was only in my late 20s when my wife and I created our own club. One reason was that I was never going to get a job myself. A few years earlier I’d been part of creating a players’ union. We were linked to a trade union, and I was president. This was the early 1980s, the height of unionism. I got labelled as a bit of a revolutionary, so nobody would give me a job!
Fortunately, my wife is from a sporting and rugby league background too, so we took the bold step of creating our own club. We thought Sheffield was a good place to do it. Sheffield Eagles started completely from scratch, in a city that hadn’t had a rugby league club before. The city didn’t know rugby – no history, no heritage, no real passion for the sport. It was a real struggle to get it up and running. It turned out to be a successful team and a strong club.
And then you moved over to Leeds?
I’d played for Leeds in the late 70s. I recognised just how special Leeds was as a club – and how special Headingley was too. This was the complete opposite to Sheffield. In Leeds we did have the history, the heritage – big support. Rugby league was a big part of the city’s culture. However, it was in trouble. Me and Paul Caddick came together and took ownership of Headingley and what was then Leeds Rugby League Club. It’s been an interesting journey over the last 25 years – restoring the fortunes of the team and the club – and the stadium.
Where did the Leeds Rhinos name come from?
We wanted to rebrand the team. Retain and showcase the rich history but also look to the future. We looked at a number of possible rebrands. We had competitions in the local media, tried to engage the fans and the public. In the end we plumped for the Rhinos. I have to say, it wasn’t popular! People don’t always like change. It had been Leeds Rugby League for a hundred years, so why change it? But we were convinced it would work. Ronnie the Rhino became the mascot. It was something special and it turned out to be a good move.
How has rugby changed?
Rugby has changed, for sure. And it’s changed for the better. The game is better. 25 years ago Leeds was a rugby club that played at the weekend, and that was the only time people came into Headingley, to watch the team. Now we’re engaged 7 days a week. And we go out into the community through the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, which is our charitable trust. Our mantra is to use sport to change lives. To touch the lives of all sorts of people – disadvantaged people, for example. Engaging with older people is one of our key objectives. A lot of other clubs have done the same. So, the club becomes a big part of the community. We’re able to put all our expertise, our facilities – including our players – at the disposal of the community. We encourage people to come and use our facilities every day of the week. We’re now part of Leeds Beckett University campus, so we have students in here every day. We’re engaging schoolchildren all the time. There’s so much expansion, so much growth, so much positivity.
How does it feel to have been part of the Golden Era of Leeds Rhinos?
Very proud. To be a significant part of that - very proud. Of course, there are so many people, of all whom have made their own contribution in the success that we have been able to enjoy. Right at the outset, we had 4 key objectives. One of them was to create a team that the city could be proud of. A successful rugby team, not just in terms of winning games and trophies, but a team full of role model players who could make everybody proud. We also wanted to restore the facilities at Headingley. It’s got such a rich history, both cricket and rugby. It was crumbling and falling down. So, we wanted to get it back to be an international sporting venue. Our third one was to create a sustainable business. The business had been losing a significant amount of money each year and no business can survive losses like that. We had to turn the tide. The 4th objective was to become part of the community and make a difference. That’s what led to the creation of the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, which is a dedicated resource for the community. We’re very proud of the difference that it’s making to people’s lives.
Why have you stayed in the North?
I live in Pontefract. I’m from Castleford and my wife is from Featherstone - Pontefract is nestled in the middle. We’ve been there for the last 40 years. So, whilst I never lived in Leeds, I know the city really well. I’ve got a real pride in Yorkshire. We are all connected in one way or another, whether it’s in a small town or a big city. I love Yorkshire – I’ve had no reason to move away!
How do you feel about getting older?
Age has never been a thing for me. Although, as a sportsman, you do get reminded of it quite often. As you get to about 30, you start to ask questions about your fitness! But it’s never really occurred to me – until I got to 60. A lot of my friends who had got to 60 told me, it puts a slightly different perspective on things, thinking about where you’re going – your mortality. I have found that, but it’s not changed my attitude in any way. I have a very active lifestyle and want that to continue. I don’t harbour any thoughts of retiring. I want to remain as active as I can for as long as I can, both physically and mentally. I have been very fortunate – a lot of my friends of a similar age can’t run any more. But I can run! Though age does remind you that if you do get a needle or a strain, it does take a lot longer to recover than it used to do. Even climbing steps. My wife reminded me the other day about somewhere we visit that has a lot of stairs – we won’t be able to climb them forever!
I don’t think about age as anything but a number, but I do recognise that as we are getting older, we all need to remain involved in things. This may change over the years, but all of us keeping active is important. I do think that Leeds Rhinos can provide a small part of the solution to some older people. Coming along to a sports club, being part of a fanbase, making friends at games – that’s something we can help with. Sport can deliver a small part of engaging older people and making sure they are involved with communities. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in the 1960s, as I say, that was proper community living. Every street had a shop on the corner and everybody knew everybody else. People looked after everybody – we didn’t really have social services in those days. Families looked after their elderly. Some of the answers to the problems we have lie in the past. We have to rely more on volunteers – running libraries and services. Each community has got engaged and capable people to help out and run services. We should be looking at a society that puts more into volunteers, especially as people get older. People tend to have more time on their hands so why not put that time to good use?
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
It’s an ever-changing world! We’re just coming through Covid – who could ever have planned for that? We’re looking at growing and expanding all the time, increasing our reach. We want to be as good as we can be, both on and off the field. We’re always striving for excellence, in how we relate to our fans. The kind of environment we’re providing for our players, the youngsters aspiring to be players. There are all sorts of ongoing day-to-day challenges and aspirations. But we want to continue being an asset to the city and the community. We want to play our part in making life better for everyone with sport. And I think we can do that! We’ve got a willingness to engage. Rugby league was a game that was born out of the community and we’re still very much a part of that community. We’re very proud of that. As for me, I have no plans to retire, so I’ll keep at it!
The Leeds Rhinos Foundation are actively involved in many communities in Leeds. They currently provide a monthly service for people living with dementia, in partnership with Leeds Peer Support Service. The group meet at Headingley Stadium enjoy afternoons of reliving fond memories of Rugby League.
For all the information on the work Leeds Rhinos does with older people see www.leedsrhinosfoundation.org