Weekend Interview: Ifs, buts and maybes that haunt Lee Crooks

IF things had been just a little different, Lee Crooks could have won three times at Wembley with Hull FC and spared everyone the same number of decades misery.

Lee Crooks, who played for Hull FC in the 1982, 83 and 85 Challenge Cup finals, pictured at Glasshoughton

If only he had been selected from the start in 1982, if only they had not worn those embarrassing suits the following year, if only he had not missed those four goals against Wigan in 1985...

Unfortunately, life, and sport, does not work like that and so it stands his beloved club journey south once more today looking to win there for the first time at the ninth attempt.

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Crooks, the ball-handling forward who would later become the world’s most expensive player, avoided their most famous Challenge Cup final defeat against city rivals Hull KR as he was just taking his first steps in the professional game.

“Even if we beat Warrington on Saturday, they’ll still keep going on about 1980 across the road so you can’t win can you?” he joked, when asked if it would be nice to finally silence Rovers’ persistent ‘You’ll never win at Wembley’ chant.

“But I do think we just need to get this monkey off our back for the club, more than anything.

“We’ve been going over 150 years now, are a great club but have still never won at Wembley. It needs to be sorted. And I think this is the team to sort it.”

Lee Radford’s side are not massive favourites – far from it – like Hull were in 1983 when shocked by comparative minnows Featherstone Rovers but you see Crooks’ point; they are a superb team, top of Super League, seemingly reaching the peak of their powers with an improved mentality, too.

“I watch this side every week and come to games filled with confidence – that hasn’t always been the case before,” said former Great Britain international Crooks, who now commentates for the club radio station and speaks to hospitality guests on match nights.

“It’s just about whether they turn up. That’s all I’m bothered about.

“If they turn up with the right attitude at Wembley I can see them going into the club’s folklore.”

Hull have won the Challenge Cup three times but, instead of at its traditional home, did so in Halifax near the start of last century, Elland Road in 1982 and Cardiff in 2005.

The ‘82 game was, of course, a replay at Leeds United’s ground after Sammy Lloyd’s missed kick left their Wembley date with Widnes level 14-14.

Hull-born Crooks, a fine kicker himself, had started on the bench and wasn’t considered for the task by coach Arthur Bunting.

“There’s so many ifs and buts,” recalled the 52-year-old.

“Sammy’s adamant that kick went over; to this day, he still says it did.

“Would we have won there if I’d have started the game? I don’t know.

“Arthur was honest with me. He purely thought Sammy had more experience and would probably handle the kicking better.

“And I was cacking myself on the bench. When I ran on the pitch just felt like sponge. But I got into the game really quickly, put Dane (O’Hara) over for a try and played well in the Premiership final the week after to get my place in the replay where I scored and, this time, we did win.

“Probably the most disappointing was ‘83.

“The way we approached the game was not what it should have been. We deserved what we got.

“It was a little to do with the players but more the club itself.

“I’m not being disrespectful to anyone but we went there in lime green suits and white shoes. Now...that tells its own story.

“It put us in the wrong frame of mind as I think everyone, apart from Featherstone’s players, thought we were going to win.

“To be fair, they came straight out and got stuck into us and before we could get a grip on the match it was over.

“We should have won comfortably – if we’d have approached in the right frame of mind.”

Which is where he feels this Hull side, with inspirational captain Gareth Ellis, homegrown prop Scott Taylor – currently drawing comparisons with Crooks – and prolific half-back Marc Sneyd, will be different.

“The games we’ve got beaten in at Wembley have all been about psychological issues not tactical or technical,” he said.

“We’ve not had the right attitude or we’ve been naive 
but I’ve more confidence in this side.

“Radders drives these players; they have a unity and bond now, a self-belief they are a good team, and the fans love seeing it all especially when Scott Taylor does something great or one of the other local lads.

“Ask any of the players, Radders is a hard taskmaster; he can be in your face and horrible.

“I’d have thrived on that as I’d always want to prove him wrong but that’s how Radders played the game and that’s how he coaches.

“The one team in the competition as good as us is Warrington but I still think we’re better. What frightens me more than anything else is the occasion as I’ve seen that just totally ruin people so many times.

“I don’t know what it is. Honestly, I don’t. But people who are great players can go out there and freeze.”

His own son Ben suffered that nightmare for Peter Gentle’s Hull in their last Wembley outing, the abysmal 16-0 defeat to Wigan three years ago.

Admittedly, it was his first game back after a foot injury and Crooks senior recalled: “He was fully fit but wasn’t match fit.

“He’d not played for six weeks. The tactics on the day didn’t help that situation either.

“They had him defending at centre but running back for kicks.

“He switched with the winger Jason Crookes as they didn’t think Crookes could handle the high ball.

“Then (Wigan coach) Shaun Wane just peppered him. I thought Liam Farrell was ‘our Ben’s’ love child. He kept running on him and he was knackered.

“It was a gamble to play him but Radders shouldn’t have any such problems on Saturday. He’s picking from strength, a great position to be in.

“This team is a lot better than ‘13 and from one to 17 are all playing very, very well.

“You’ve people like Jamie Shaul, Sneyd, Liam Watts, Danny Houghton and Taylor all in England contention and Hull have not had that for a long time.

“Then there’s Ellis and Mark Minichiello who are absolutely phenomenal every week, upping the ante when we need it.

“Daz Clark gets Warrington going. Hull need to tie him down at dummy-half.

“I think it’ll be one hell of a game and Hull must come up with their best performance yet. If they don’t they won’t win.”

And there will be more ifs, buts and maybes, the only thing certain being that song will be sung again.

The Lee Crooks story...

1963: Born Sept 18, Hull.

1980: Makes Hull debut, first of 220 games for the club.

1982: Plays in 14-14 Challenge Cup final draw with Widnes, scoring in replay win at Elland Road. At just 19, becomes youngest ever Great Britain Test forward, first of 19 caps. On losing side at Wembley as Hull stunned 14-12 defeat by Featherstone Rovers.

1983: Part of the Hull side that wins the league – the last to do so – but suffers a third successive final defeat.

1985: Heartache again as Hull lose epic Challenge Cup final 28-24 against Brett Kenny-inspired Wigan.

1987: Joins Leeds for world record fee of £150,000.

1988: Wins Yorkshire Cup against Castleford, only silverware with Leeds.

1990: Signs for Castleford, losing 1992 Challenge Cup final to Wigan.

1997: Retires from playing.