Geoff Gunney MBE

28th June 2018

The entry in my Lett’s Schoolboys Diary for Monday 28th March 1966 was typically succinct:

School. Went to see Hunslet 25 Batley 2. Got the autographs of Brian Gabbitas, Bernard Prior, Geoff Gunney and Ken Eyre. Bed 9.20”.

The diary will probably not be a hugely significant source for future historians, notwithstanding such entries as “Went to town. Bought Five Go Down To The Sea” (5th April) or “The number of threepenny bits that I have saved is now 67” (15th April). However, it does reveal what my 11-year old self thought were the important events of each day and there could have been no doubt that the rich haul of the autographs of four members of the Hunslet RLFC 1965 Challenge Cup final team fell into that category.

By this time, I was in my fifth season of supporting the team that my father had followed since he had been a boy. I was familiar with the career histories of all the players – not least Geoff Gunney, arguably Hunslet’s greatest-ever. In An Ordinary Spectator, I recalled my initial impression of him after seeing my first games in the autumn of 1961:

“…Hunslet’s best known player… had toured Australasia with the Great Britain team in 1954 and had played in the 1957 Rugby League World Cup in Australia. Although he had been sought by bigger and wealthier clubs – notably Wigan – he had stayed loyal to Hunslet… At the time of my first visits to Parkside, he stood out as a big powerful man, equally adept at tackling and running, with a sledgehammer hand-off. When Hunslet were awarded a penalty, and if it was outside [Billy] Langton’s range to the goalposts, Gunney took the punts into touch: big booming kicks, delivered with a slow run up and a graceful swing of the leg”.

Geoff Gunney made his debut for Hunslet in September 1951 and played in a total of 579 games for the club over 23 seasons, including the Championship Final against St Helens in 1959 and the Challenge Cup Final against Wigan at Wembley in 1965. He represented Great Britain on 11 occasions and also played 9 times for Yorkshire.

By the early 1970s, the Hunslet club was in disarray. The 1965 Wembley side had quickly broken up – through transfers, injuries and retirements – and the club finished bottom of the 30-team league in 1971 and 1972. The board of directors sold the Parkside ground – the home since 1888 – to a property development company and the club was wound up. The final home match, in April 1973, was poignantly described in Les Hoole and Mike Green’s The Parksiders: A Brief History of Hunslet RLFC, 1883-1973:

“Geoff Gunney led his team on to the pitch for the last time. Despite a special effort, the young Hunslet side lost to York. Gunney was the last man to leave the field”.

Geoff Gunney’s efforts for rugby league in Hunslet did not end there, however. He was a key figure in the reformation of the club as New Hunslet for the start of the 1973-74 season, being involved with coaching, fund-raising and securing the Elland Road Greyhound Stadium as a temporary home ground. (Indeed, he also played in a couple of the new club’s matches in October 1973 – away to Workington Town and home to Doncaster – shortly before his 40th birthday).

The new club took root and, within four years, had been promoted to the league’s First Division. The legacy has been carried through to the present Hunslet RLFC club at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton.

Geoff Gunney was renowned as a gentleman on and off the pitch. In October 2014, I met him at the opening of the “Hunslet Rugby League Remembered” Heritage Room at the Garden Gate public house in South Leeds, to which I had been invited by Peter Todd, the then General Manager of the Hunslet Hawks RLFC. He was sitting at a table in one of the small bars when I made my nervous approach: “Hello. My name is John Rigg. My dad brought me to watch Hunslet play at Parkside when I was a small boy”. “Hello, John” he replied, with a firm handshake and a warm smile. We chatted for a few precious minutes. It is a fond memory.

Both An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator contain several references to Geoff Gunney, including his powerful displays in matches against Wakefield Trinity in the Challenge Cup semi-final of 1965 and Castleford in that year’s Yorkshire Cup, his shock dismissal in another encounter with Wakefield and our rather improbable joint membership of the Leeds Sports Council in 1973 (at a meeting of which I took the opportunity to discuss a Hunslet-Leeds match that had taken place a few days earlier).

There is one other Hunslet match to mention here. The last game of the 1970-71 season was an away fixture against Rochdale Hornets at the Athletic Grounds. The side, having floundered badly in the league and certain of finishing bottom of the table, was further depleted through injury and suspension. The lone survivor of the 1965 side, Gunney was easing towards retirement, having only played in four matches towards the tail-end of the season. However, at the age of 37 and following a 20 year career as a rampaging second-row forward, he offered to turn out at full-back. My father and I tuned into the early Saturday evening sports results fearing the worst.

The scores duly came on the screen. Hunslet had won 16-8. This was not a cup semi-final or final; it was a low-key league match played at the end of a traumatic season. I don’t know why it was so difficult to hold back the emotions when I saw the result. (Later, I learned that a neat circle had been completed: Gunney had turned out with some distinction as a makeshift full-back for Great Britain on the Australasian tour of 1954).

Geoff Gunney died earlier this month at the age of 84. Another link with my youth and adolescence has been broken, prompting the now familiar response of pause and reflection. The poet AE Housman – a lad of Shropshire, rather than Yorkshire – captured it best, I think, when referring to his Land of Lost Content: “The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again”.

As noted, Geoff Gunney’s penultimate match was for Hunslet away at WorkingtonTown. As it happens, that same fixture is in the schedule for next weekend. I had been vaguely wondering about going to the match, as I have not previously visited DerwentPark. Somehow, there now seems to be no excuse at all not to go.

Geoff Gunney MBE, 1933-2018. RIP

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