Crooks broke Hull’s hearts by leading Castleford to Cup final

FLASHBACK: Lee Crooks lead Castleford Tigers to a 8-4 Challenge Cup semi-final win over his beloved Hull FC back in 1992, the last time the West Yorkshire club reached Wembley.
FLASHBACK: Lee Crooks lead Castleford Tigers to a 8-4 Challenge Cup semi-final win over his beloved Hull FC back in 1992, the last time the West Yorkshire club reached Wembley.
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AS surreal as it sounds, the last captain to lead Castleford to Wembley admits he did not feel jubilant at the point of victory.

There was good reason for that, however, as Lee Crooks had done so at the expense of his beloved Hull FC, his hometown club with whom he had such vivid memories in the Challenge Cup competition.

Granted, by 1992 the Great Britain prop had long since left the Boulevard, arriving at Wheldon Road towards the twilight of his career from Leeds where he had been a world-record signing.

But Hull supporters were still dismayed when his trusty right boot helped kick two crucial goals in a keenly-fought 8-4 victory more than 20 years ago.

“It was a strange one,” Crooks recalled to The Yorkshire Post, with Castleford hoping to return to Wembley for the first time since when they face Widnes Vikings in the semis on Sunday.

“We played at Headingley and Cas had suffered defeat in three different semis to Hull during that time.

“There was a lot of hoo-ha about whether they could finally go one better.

“Obviously, it was a really tight game. We managed to get in front at the back end, Mike Ford getting our only try, but they did nearly score just before the final hooter.

“Graham Steadman dropped a bomb and they shoved it across to their right wing where we just managed to bundle Paul Eastwood into touch.

“There was a huge Hull support there that day and I remember their fans running onto the pitch and screaming “What have you done?” at me.

“I just kept saying “What do you mean – I haven’t done owt!”

“As much as it meant a lot to get to Wembley, though, being a Hull lad, I didn’t celebrate as much as I would have done if it had been any other team.

“I’d have been jumping around all over the place but I was happy rather than euphoric with the realisation we’d got there.”

Castleford, of course, could not complete the job, losing to the merciless star-studded Wigan side who were five seasons into their incredible eight-year winning run at Wembley.

They have lost some semi-finals since, too, most painfully going down in extra-time to unfancied London Broncos in 1999.

Given their stellar form this season – Daryl Powell’s side are just two points behind leaders St Helens – come Sunday they hope to finally banish that memory, as well as another extra-time defeat to Leeds just three years ago.

The West Yorkshire club’s preparations have been hit with the double suspension of leading try-scorer Justin Carney and their dynamic second-row Weller Hauraki but they remain slight favourites heading into the match at Leigh.

Crooks, who won the Challenge Cup with Hull in 1982 but was a beaten finalist the following year and again in 1985, said: “Carney will be a miss but I think Hauraki will probably be an even bigger loss.

“He’s just got better and better as the weeks have gone on.

“Though Carney is a massive threat, Hauraki does a lot of work people don’t tend to see and I think they’ll miss him most.

“They’re also without Grant Millington but Cas have been playing some outstanding rugby league and they have a very, very close-knit squad.

“It’s very similar to the one we had there and others that have done exceptionally well in the past.

“Daryl has probably looked at all those and realised, because it’s a family-orientated club, he had to get everyone involved, not just the players but all the other staff, too, and everyone becomes part of that family.

“I can see the club has got a bounce in its step again after being through the mill the last two or three years.”

Crooks, who succeeded ex-Wakefield Trinity coach Andy Kelly as the RFL’s England Regional Performance Coach for the North East earlier this year, added: “It will be tough.

“Widnes have been up and down this year but they’ve just had a great win over Hull KR.

“They will be buoyed by that as it almost makes them safe in the eight.

“If you were a betting man you’d probably still go with Cas – a team currently fourth – over a side in eighth but I don’t think it will be easy.”

Closing down Kevin Brown, the former Huddersfield Giants and England stand-off who is currently delivering Man of Steel form, will be key to Castleford’s chances.

“He’s a class player and ultimately if you can stop him playing you’re on your way,” said Crooks.

“The way you do that is by nullifying the forwards’ threat.

“Close them down and the half-backs have less time and space on the ball. Cas need to be really strong up front and they do have the forward power to do that.”

Crooks is excited, though, by the ability of his former side’s own half-back, Marc Sneyd, who has been brilliant during a season-long loan from Salford Red Devils.

“He comes up with little plays that you just don’t expect,” he continued.

“They are quite unorthodox at times and Sneyd is very much an old-fashioned half-back,” explained Crooks.

“He likes his chips over the top and Cas do probably have more threats across the park than Widnes.

“Michael Shenton’s on fire, Daryl Clark is terrific at hooker and there’s others, too, but they do have to dampen down Brown’s influence.”

The 50-year-old added: “I’d love to see a Cas v Leeds final – that would be magnificent for obvious reasons.

“It’s really tough to call their semi-final with Warrington though.

“Anything could happen in that game – there are so many class players involved.”