Looking Back: When Leigh were top of the tree

As they continue to battle to try and find a way out of the sport’s second tier in the UK, it is sometimes tricky to remember that there was a time when they were genuinely top of the tree.

Leigh were the First Division league champions in 1982, topping the table then for the second, and so far, last time.

Coached by the irrepressible Alex Murphy, who had the peerless John Woods in his team, the Lancashire outfit were champions of a division which featured two very strong Hull sides plus a Widnes team which would win that season’s Premiership, and reach the Challenge Cup final, only to lose to Hull FC in a replay.

The season’s biggest home crowd for Leigh was 11,791 in round three of the Challenge Cup. The average home attendance was 6,361.

The highest home attendance in the league at Hilton Park that season was for the visit of Hull Kingston Rovers, one of the game’s true powerhouses at that time, with 9,550 fans trooping through the turnstiles to see the home side win 18-10 to set up a title clinching game the following week.

The Leythers would claim the title the following week in Cumbria, when they took an estimated 4,500 fans with them to Whitehaven.

A nerve-wracking encounter ended in a 13-4 victory, with Leigh overcoming a 4-1 half-time deficit thanks, the legend runs, to an inspiring team talk from Murphy.

The Leythers also won the Lancashire Cup that year and enjoyed a tremendous winning run which lasted from November 8, when they beat Featherstone Rovers 24-12 at home, until March 3 when they lost 8-4 at Hull in the league.

The run consisted of 12 league wins and also saw Leigh beat Warrington at home and Hull KR away in the Challenge Cup.

John Woods cemented his place in Leigh legend with his feats that season too.

He emerged from the 1981/82 campaign as the club’s top try scorer and top points scorer. He claimed 14 league tries and 109 league goals. His total tallies in all games for the season were 347 points and 18 tries.

Woods is, rightly, considered as possibly Leigh’s greatest ever player and plans to raise a statue to the peerless pivot are continuing to advance.

While the club’s greatest day took place at Wembley in 1971, when the beat the mighty Leeds to win the Challenge Cup, it could be argued that becoming champions is the club’s finest post-World War Two achievement.

Murphy would leave the club to become coach at Wigan in 1982.

Just three years later Leigh would be relegated to the Second Division as a ‘yo-yo’ period in their history began. They would win the Second Division in 1986, but be relegated once more in 1988 before winning the Second Division title again in 1989.

The true glory days of top tier rugby league football are yet to return to this corner of Lancashire, where rugby league is treated as a kind of combination of religion and tribal expression, and the club remains the main source of the town’s civic pride.

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