AFTER scoring a hat-trick on both of his two previous appearances in the Second Division Premiership final, Daryl Powell could have been forgiven for being blase ahead of the 1995 showpiece occasion for clubs outside the top-flight.
The former Great Britain international insists, however, that the injustice felt in Keighley at Cougars being denied their rightful place in the top-flight ensured that the Old Trafford meeting with Huddersfield meant just as much as his triumphs with Sheffield Eagles in 1989 and 1992.
A month earlier, Keighley had been crowned champions of rugby league’s second tier – an achievement that, since the advent of two divisions 22 years earlier, had been enough to earn promotion.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, 1995 turned out to be very different due to the RFL having just announced that a European Super League was on its way and that London Broncos, who had finished seven points and three places behind Phil Larder’s side, were the only representative of Division Two invited.
Powell, who had signed for a club-record £135,000 from Sheffield Eagles just a week before the bombshell news about Super League broke, was left as stunned as anyone.
So, when Cougars, after sweeping aside Hull KR and, most satisfyingly of all, London to reach the final, walked out at the home of Manchester United on May 21, he was in determined mood.
Now coach of Featherstone Rovers, the 45-year-old recalls: “I had played in two Premiership finals for Sheffield, a club where I had a lot of history, and they were both very, very special. But the one with Keighley stands out equally in my mind.
“I had only been there six or seven weeks but I’d quickly got into the fabric of the club. Keighley was a really special place to be at the time and that is why the 1995 final in no way pales compared to the two with Sheffield.
“What had happened with Super League had rocked everyone but the players had responded well to finish top of the division. We wanted the Premiership trophy to cap the season off.”
The thousands of Keighley fans who headed over the Pennines for the club’s first appearance in a final since 1951 felt the same.
Just four years earlier, the town’s rugby league club had been the very epitome of moribund. Lawkholme Lane, Keighley’s home ground, had looked every one of its 106 years with weed-infested terraces looking out at a grandstand where all but the front couple of rows were closed off for safety reasons.
The team was in a similarly neglected state, the nadir having come the previous year when Nottingham City, a side in such dire straits that local amateurs would often be drafted in to make up the numbers, inflicted a 29-22 defeat just a week after Ryedale-York had won 70-8 at Lawkholme.
Two local businessmen made good, Mick O’Neill and Mike Smith, arriving on the board proved the catalyst for change as the name ‘Cougars’ was adopted during a summer of 1991 that also saw plenty of bold talk emanating from the newly-christened Cougar Park.
An opening day 41-12 defeat at Bramley – a thrashing so comprehensive it led to the following week’s Keighley News declaring, ‘After the hype...tripe!’ – soon put a dent in any hopes of winning promotion but, before long, success was heading Keighley’s way.
The Division Three title, clinched amid a Good Friday downpour in 1993, was followed two years later by the lifting of the Second Division championship.
The deserved prize of promotion may have been wrestled from the Cougars’ grasp but that still left the Premiership trophy up for grabs, Huddersfield providing the opposition in Keighley’s first final since 1951.
Powell recalls: “We had some really good players at Keighley. Guys such as Jason Ramshaw, Martin Wood, Simon Irving and Nick Pinkney.
“We also had Ian Gately up front and Steve Hall. All special blokes.
“The first half of the final was quite even but we pulled away from Huddersfield after half-time and won quite convincingly in the end.
“It was a great occasion for the club. Keighley were well supported at the time but quite a few of the lads had never played in a crowd as big as Old Trafford before.
“It was a real shame Keighley weren’t allowed to go up that year.
“I only arrived at the back end of the season but a lot of hard work had gone in and the players deserved some reward.
“So did the fans, who created such a great atmosphere wherever we went.
“People often ask me what it was like at Keighley after what happened to us with Super League. They seem to expect me to regret the move but I always say I really enjoyed my time.
“There was something special about Keighley Cougars as a club and all of us were fortunate to be a part of that.”