Leicester City’s recent triumph in football’s Barclay’s Premier League against odds of 5000/1 has been hailed in many quarters as the greatest upset in the history of English sport. But back in 1973, Dewsbury’s rugby league team enjoyed a similarly improbable triumph when they carried off what, to date, remains their only Championship triumph. Here, we look back on that memorable campaign…
OF THE 23 clubs who have been crowned champions of the Rugby Football League Championship in its various guises since 1895, seven of them have the solitary title to their name.
Manningham and Bradford – no relation to the present day Bulls – were both crowned champions in the early years of the Northern Union before switching to football, while Broughton Rangers’ 1901 triumph came during their brief period as one of the league’s foremost clubs.
The same was true for Workington Town in 1951, while Featherstone Rovers’ 1977 First Division win was sandwiched by two Challenge Cup triumphs.
Batley’s team of 1924 may therefore lay claim to being the most surprising league champions, with their victory coming some years after their era of regularly contending for honours at the turn of the Century.
But it is their Heavy Woollen District rivals Dewsbury who, arguably, should take that mantle for their 1973 title triumph, which culminated in a victory over massive odds-on favourites Leeds in the Championship final at Odsal.
Consider, for example, that after a gruelling 34-game regular season, the side which finished just eighth in the standings and then had to navigate their way through a 16-team play-off for the title.
Coupled with that were runs to the final of the Yorkshire Cup and the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup – and all of this coming in an era where all of the players were part-time.
It was a period, too, where rugby league was finally being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. In for the 1972-73 season came the six-tackle rule – up from four – and timekeepers, while the following year would see the unwieldy 30-team Championship split into two divisions and the abolition of the play-offs.
And although Dewsbury would be relegated just three years after their triumph, it remains one of rugby league’s great underdog stories.
ASIDE from a Challenge Cup win in 1912 and two Yorkshire Cup wins in the 1920s, Dewsbury’s heyday had been during the Second World War after a former typewriter salesman by the name of Eddie Waring – exempted military service on medical grounds – had been appointed general manager.
Waring, who would later find fame as the BBC’s ‘voice of rugby league’, was able to recruit players stationed at the nearby military bases and built a team which won the Wartime Emergency League, the Challenge Cup and the County Cup during the War years.
It was another future television personality who would play a big part in Dewsbury’s 1973 Championship win as well, with Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson being one of the finest hookers of his era prior to going on to form his well-known commentary partnership with Eddie Hemmings.
“That Championship side was best the bunch of friends I’ve ever had,” Stephenson, who joined his hometown club from amateur side Shaw Cross in 1966, told Loverugbyleague.com some years later.
“I always dreamed of playing for my country and it was a dream to win the World Cup and score that try, but when it comes down to deep personal satisfaction, seeing the Dewsbury lads run around with that trophy – you can’t beat that.
“Four or five years before 1973 we were written off as not having the guts and the skills, but we knew something was coming good.”
The man pulling the strings behind the scenes at Crown Flatt was coach Tommy Smales. The former loose forward had joined the club four years earlier to coach the A team before replacing Dave Cox following his departure from the same role with the senior side.
It was Smales who devised the style of play which Dewsbury’s 1973 side became renowned for, with Stephenson calling pre-determined plays from dummy half and the opposition defences being overwhelmed by the sheer number of runners.
Watching the highlights of the 1973 Championship final win over Leeds shows just how far ahead of his time Smales was in the way his team played, although the coach always insisted there was more to it than that.
“No one gave us much of a chance, but we liked it that way,” Smales told the Yorkshire Post in 2005. “I know a lot was made about our tactics in the final, but the key to it all was the team spirit at Dewsbury.
“We got straight up in their face from the kick-off and played at our peak from start to finish. Leeds didn’t know what had hit them.”
Part of that team spirit was forged from the 36-9 hammering Leeds had dished out to Dewsbury in the Yorkshire Cup final at Odsal in October 1972, with man of the match John Holmes running in a hat-trick of tries.
A loss to Bradford Northern in the Challenge Cup semi-finals further strengthened the bond between the players, although even they did not share Smales belief going into the play-offs after only managing an eight-place finish in the league standings.
“We were red-hot favourites to go to Wembley but Bradford duffed us up,” recalled Stephenson. “I’ve got no problems with saying that was a turning point – it was.
“We were so confident before that semi-final that the club had arranged a celebration at a nightclub in Dewsbury.
“You can imagine what that was like after we lost. It was shocking. We just stared at each other and said ‘what a stupid bunch of blokes we are’. We’d blown it.”
A 29-14 win at home to Oldham set up a play-off quarter-final showdown against second-placed Featherstone Rovers at Post Office Road, but Dewsbury again eased through with a 26-7 victory.
That meant a trip to Wilderspool to take on table-toppers Warrington for a place in the final, yet once again Smales’ men defied the odds and edged to a 12-7 triumph to seal a return to Odsal for a final.
Opponents Leeds went into the match on the back of an equally-close semi-final, having seen off St Helens 7-2 after comfortable wins over Bramley and Castleford, and were rated as massive 1/10 favourites to defeat Dewsbury.
Perhaps appropriately, it was Stephenson who opened the scoring with a converted try – taking the final pass from namesake Nigel Stephenson, who added a drop goal soon after.
Leeds’ task was then made even harder when captain Alan Hardisty was dismissed by the referee for a high tackle on John Bates and a further converted try from Allan Agar saw Dewsbury lead 12-4 at half time.
Mike and Nigel Stephenson both managed further tries after the break, and although the 12 men of Leeds hit back with scores from Graham Eccles, Phil Cookson and Les Dyl, the men from the town of just over 50,000 people had done enough to clinch glory.
“Our big thing was that we had all these complicated set moves,” said Stephenson. “We had about 15 of them with blokes running all over the place.
“Come the final, we knew we couldn’t match them if we played tough – so Tommy just said ‘use the moves’.
“We stunned them with so many moves, it was incredible. At times I thought I’d disappeared up my own backside! It was quite ludicrous.”
Stephenson would depart for Australian side Penrith that summer, with Dewsbury receiving the equivalent of around £141,818 in 2015 as a transfer fee for his services.
However, Smales found himself at odds with the club’s board over what to do with the money, which contributed to him leaving Dewsbury the following season and the team being unable to recapture their former glory.
“I think we got something like £13,000 from Penrith for Stevo, which was a lot of money at the time,” said Smales. “I put it to the committee that we ought to draw up a rolling five-year plan and use the money to secure the club’s long-term success.
“They said ‘no’. They had already decided they wanted to put the money in the Halifax Building Society and use the interest to keep the team we already had going.
“It was only then that I realised they hadn’t a clue and that I was banging my head against a brick wall.”
Dewsbury have yet to hit those heights again, but their miracle men of 1973 showed that anything can happen in sport – and, just occasionally, it does.