#ThrowbackThursday – Kirkbride’s Champions of 81
By Oli Breslin
Thirty-seven years ago, York RL kicked off their Slalom Lager Second Division campaign at Clarence Street against Wigan. It was to be a triumphant season for Bill Kirkbride’s men as they were crowned champions of the division and gained promotion to the top flight.
The 1980-81 season looked to be starting out in defeat for York, however. They trailed the Cherry and Whites and needed to score twice in the final five minutes to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat on the opening day. That they did to win the game 22-17 and pick up two league points against their title rivals that would prove to be crucial come the end of the campaign. One interested spectator at Clarence Street that day was Paul McDermott, who would later join the club and play an integral part in the team’s success. “I had no intention of signing for York,” says McDermott. “I only went to watch them play Wigan in the first game of the season as I didn’t want to be rude because Mr Magson had invited me personally, and in those days it was on landline so he spoke to my dad before he spoke to me.” The York faithful certainly took to McDermott, as he earned the coveted Supporters Player of the Year gong at the end of the season.
York went on to win their opening five games of the campaign, suffering their first defeat to away at Huddersfield in October. At the end of that month they were beaten again, this time in the Capital against Fulham – via a brief detour as Dave Dunkerley recalls: “When we were going down on the bus to Fulham, we pulled into Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Football Club’s ground, we had to reverse out and go find Fulham.” The prop-forward had another reason to remember that particular game as well; “I got elbowed and cut my head, but played on. I had blood all over my shirt, you wouldn’t be allowed to play on like that now. Nobody told me how much blood there was though. I had to go for stitches in the medical room after the game. I worked at St James’ Hospital too at the time, so I would regularly go their after games and have a cup of tea while I got patched up.” McDermott also suffered a serious injury in that game, fracturing his cheekbone in a 23-5 defeat.
Then followed a run of six straight league victories over Huyton, Blackpool, Dewsbury, Rochdale, Swinton and Bramley. Second-rower Brendan White explained the secret behind the side’s success; “Bill Kirkbride made some brilliant signings, especially Les Sheard. We managed to keep the same team for most of the season and developed into a good defensive side and knew the pattern of play inside-out. Dave Dunkerley and Allan Wardell did the hard graft and Kev Harkin, along with Les putting on the moves in attack. It was a good team effort.”
A successful and entertaining side ensured that fans flocked to Clarence Street in their droves; a crowd of over 5,000 enjoyed a 26-17 win over Swinton three days after Christmas, while 8,000 fans saw York avenge their defeat to Fulham with a 15-10 victory at the end of March.
Stand-off John Crossley made the most of playing in a winning side, finishing the season with 35 tries, setting a new Division Two record for most tries in a season, and beating the previous record for most tries for York in a season, edging out Geoff Smith who notched up 34 tries in the 1962/63 campaign. Crossley would go on to score 59 tries in 107 appearances for the club.
“We all played together,” says Dunkerley, who made 183 appearances for York. “We mostly kept the same side, Crossley got 35 tries and we played good rugby, we were all confident.”
Defeat away at Wigan came at the end of January as the title race began to heat up, but that was followed up with another half-dozen wins on the spin as the season was reaching its climax in April 1981.
York finished the campaign with two away games: Doncaster and Whitehaven. With promotion already assured, York travelled to Tattersfield on April 17th, Good Friday, knowing that a victory would clinch the title. However, with that game not kicking off until 6:45pm, championship rivals Wigan suffered a shock 17-12 defeat at Central Park to Swinton earlier that afternoon, meaning that York were crowned champions before kick off in South Yorkshire. “The Donny game was closer than it should have been,” says Dunkerley. “Knowing that we’d won the league already took the edge off the game. If we hadn’t known we’d have probably beaten them by more.” White added; “I remember a great crowd came to watch us – oh and the quiet drinks afterwards!!”
Just three days later York finished their campaign with a surprise heavy defeat in Cumbria, a loss that still irks Dunkerley: “We let the fans down against Whitehaven, they came out in their numbers and we didn’t perform. Our attitude was all wrong, they’d travelled a long way and we let the fans down as a team. It was done and dusted, you need to be on edge and in right frame of mind to play good rugby.”
And the Hall of famer, who won that season’s Player’s Player of the Year award, still watches the Knights now, and was impressed with their recent historic triumph over Toronto Wolfpack; “I’ve been to watch the Knights a couple times this year. They played very well against Toronto, they played as a team deserved to win.”
York City Knights’ current crop continue their own promotion push this Sunday with a tough Kingstone Press League 1 Super 8s Round 6 match at third placed Whitehaven at the Recre, kick off 3pm.