WHEN Castleford and Leeds last faced each other in a final to decide the league champions nearly half-a-century ago, unusually, both the clubs’ current chief executives were “heartbroken”.
The West Yorkshire rivals meet in the Super League Grand Final on Saturday, the first time they have ever squared up in the competition’s showpiece.
Storied Leeds have won seven since 2004 but Castleford’s last similar occasion was in 1969 when the Loiners were their opponents in an infamously brutal Championship final.
“We’ve been talking about it this week but ironically me and Gary (Hetherington) were both there,” Castleford’s chief executive Steve Gill told The Yorkshire Post, regarding the 16-14 defeat.
“I was only a youngster – 10, I think – and I’d gone over to Odsal that day. It absolutely threw it down and there was a load of sand on the pitch.
“We’d played at Wembley the Saturday before (beating Salford in the Challenge Cup final) and hoped to do the double.
Me and Gary were both heartbroken that day – unfortunately one of us will be again Saturday.Castleford’s Steve Gill
“Me and Gary were both heartbroken that day – unfortunately one of us will be again Saturday.”
Hetherington, of course, has been at the helm of Leeds Rhinos for 21 years, overseeing their rise into the dominant force of the summer era, but, like good friend Gill, he grew up in Castleford supporting his hometown club.
That day 48 years ago is still the closest they have got to lifting an elusive league title; Castleford’s only other Championship final was a loss against Salford in 1939.
However, undoubtedly, this is their greatest chance yet of at last ending a 91-year wait for glory.
Electric Castleford finished top for the first time, a record 10 points clear of second-placed Leeds, thrilling crowds.
Fittingly, having also provided the Man of Steel (Luke Gale) and Coach of the Year (Daryl Powell) in Super League’s annual awards night on Tuesday, Gill also took to the stage in Manchester to receive the Club of the Year gong.
A place in next season’s World Club Series secured, too, it is not a bad return for a perennially struggling club; when Gill answered benevolent chairman Jack Fulton’s SOS in 2013, Tigers were close to administration.
Gill, a former miner who operated the club scoreboard as a child and was head of youth before his surprise elevation, has overseen a refreshing turn in fortunes on and off the field.
He recalled: “Jack rang me up one day and said ‘Gilly, can you come and see me?’.
“He asked if I could stand in and I said ‘mate, it’s not for me this, this is not my thing’.
“But he said I either did it or he was pulling the plug. That’s where we were at; the wolves were at the door and there was a lot of money to fork out but he stood by us.
“With the help of Mark Grattan and the sponsors of the club, we turned it around. From July 2013 we haven’t had a penny put in; we’ve done everything ourselves,
“I think February/March 2013 were probably the darkest times. And that year took its toll. But this (Club of the Year) is just reward now for all those dark days.”
At the age of 83, Fulton died two years ago, his wife Bridie soon after, but Gill admitted: “To say we’re the top club in Super League given where we’ve come from over the last five years is unbelievable.
“It’s real testament to Jack and Bridie who are no longer with us but put their heart and soul into this club. I’m sure they’d have been really proud as Ian and Janet – their siblings – were on Tuesday accepting the award. It’s a really proud moment for me.”
On the prospect of seeing Castleford play in front of an expected sell-out crowd of 74,000, Gill continued: “I remember 866 people came to watch one day when I was working the scoreboard. We’ve come a long way since.
“I’ve been to a lot of Grand Finals and always wished just one day to see Cas there – whether as a fan, sat in the stands or sat where I’ll be on Saturday – just to see our colours swamp the Stretford End.
“That’d be a dream come true. It’s a thank you to all the fans really and everyone who’s stood by us – sponsors, volunteers – throughout the years when it was tough.”
If Castleford do prosper on Saturday, Gill knows how he will mark the achievement.
“We’d be back down at The Jungle with the fans on Sunday if we do it so they can celebrate, but then I’ll probably play a few Bruce Springsteen records and have a pot of tea! That’d be it for me.”