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Sir Edwin Airey

 

Sir Edwin Airey masterminded Headingley's development as one of rugby league's greatest venues and the world's only dual Test arena.

But he also achieved the unique feat of scoring a try for Leeds at the famous stadium, despite never being registered as a player. The Leeds chairman, who was also the city's Lord Mayor, was given the honour of kicking off Joe Brittain's benefit match against York in February 1924.

As the Yorkshire Evening Post reported at the time: 'After kicking off, he regained the ball and ran over for a try. The opposition was negligible.' Leeds went on to lose the game 20-18 and Sir Edwin's touchdown didn't count in the final scoreline.

A leading Leeds businessman and charity worker, Sir Edwin was chairman of Leeds Cricket, Football and Athletic Company from 1923 to 1955, when ground improvements included the paving of St Michael's Lane, at the club's expense, and the building of the world-famous South Stand, which opened on 29 August 1931. But one of the biggest projects was inspired by his wife Edith, who suggested building a new tier above the original section of the main stand, to accommodate an extra 1,000 fans for the 1926 cricket Test against Australia.

The Lady Airey Stand burned down during a game against Halifax on Good Friday, 1932, but Airey's company, William Airey and Sons, were responsible for replacing it with the existing North Stand, which is still the world's only back-to-back rugby and cricket terrace.

The short-lived re-naming of the ground as Bass Headingley in the 1980s would have had Sir Edwin spinning in his grave. In 1931 he told a clube general meeting: 'I am not in favour of advertisements being displayed on sports grounds and do not think it worthwhile spoiling the grounds for the sake of the revenue received by the company from such a source.'

The transformation of Headingley into one of the world's most famous sporting homes was the lasting legacy of Sir Edwin's thirty-two-year reign as Leeds chairman. But the club also prospered on the field during his time at the helm. The Challenge Cup was lifted on five occasions and Leeds also won the Yorkshire League eight times and the Yorkshire Cup six times.

Sadly for Sir Edwin, who also had a spell as chairman of the Rugby Football League Council, the greatest prize eluded him. Four times during his chairmanship Leeds reached the Championship final and on each occasion they returned to Headingley as losers.

Away from rugby, Airey, who was knighted in 1922, was well repsected for his work with the government ministries of munitions and health during the First World War. He was involved in relieving housing problems in Great Britain and France after the First World War, was a long-serving member of Leeds City Council and spent a year as High Sheriff of Yorkshire.

Following his death in 1955, his rugby league commitments rated just one sentence in his local newspaper obituary.

 

Originally published in '100 Greats Leeds Rugby League Football Club' by Phil Caplan and Peter Smith.

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Memory added on November 27, 2012

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