In 2003, Leeds Rhinos possessed one of the most exciting young teams Super League has ever seen. Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Matt Diskin all became mainstays in the side at the age of 20, Kevin Sinfield, 22, was already club captain and a fresh-faced Daryl Powell was in his third year as head coach.
The squad had some experience to guide the young heads, notably Gary Connolly, Francis Cummins and Barrie McDermott, while Australian duo Matt Adamson and David Furner added reliability from the back-row. In the end silverware would evade this unlikely blend of talent, but 2003 was a year that laid the platform for future successes as a new culture was built at the club.
One of those who helped create that was the aforementioned Adamson, with the former Penrith Panthers star witnessing unrest and divisions in the camp on his arrival in 2002. At 30 and with vast NRL experience, he worked closely with Gary Hetherington on the club’s international recruitment and became a natural leader within the squad.
Adamson was full of ideas, he was an innovator who saw beyond the 80 minutes on the pitch. He had a vision for what this young Rhinos team could become and was keen to ensure they remained grounded following a strong start to the season. So with this in mind, the towering Aussie set out on a mission to arrange one of the unlikeliest meet-ups in professional sport.
“I penned a letter to Sir Alex Ferguson saying how I really wanted to establish a strong culture at the Rhinos,” Adamson explained. “I wanted to spend a day where we could listen, look and learn how people behave in that professional environment down at Carrington where Manchester United train.
“I went to Gary Hetherington and asked if I could try organise it and see if I could take the guys down there as a bit of a surprise. He said yeah and to just check with Daryl, who was fine with it, so I wrote the letter to Sir Alex.
“I’ll never forget because it was only about two days later when I came home and the wife asked me ‘Who’s Alex?’ She said that there was a message on the family email from Alex and I said ‘I don’t have a clue who Alex is, you tell me.’
“So I went on the computer and there is this letter from Alex Ferguson saying we would love to have another professional sporting team come down. He put me in touch with their operations manager Clive Snell and said he will take charge of everything.
“Sir Alex said you can’t obviously train with us but you can listen, learn and tour the stadium, so I went to Daryl and Gary and said ‘I’ve got everything going but can we tell the boys we are going go-carting?’ We wanted to make it a bit of a surprise.”
With plenty of home-grown talent in the Rhinos squad at the time, there were a number of Leeds United fans within the playing group, which ensured Adamson’s surprise received a mixed reaction as the squad travelled to Manchester on the team coach.
“I’ll never forget it, big Barrie McDermott said ‘bloody hell Adamson what we going to Manchester for, there is go-carting in Pontefract!’ Some of the lads were really excited for go-carting but as the trip wore on down the M62, you could feel the tension on the bus and some of the lads were questioning what the hell what was happening.
“I said to Daryl that when we get close I will get up and make the announcement because as soon as we turned in towards Carrington they were going to smell a rat. So we are about 20 minutes away, I got up and said ‘sorry boys I have told you a bit of a furphy, I just want to let you know we are not going go-carting today, we’re off to spend the day with Manchester United.’
“Well the boys went berserk, I’ll never forget Danny McGuire and Robbie Burrow were big Leeds United fans and the whole bus just starts going nuts. Then we turn up at the training ground and of course the first thing you see is all their cars, the boys weren’t even worried about going to look at the training centre, they just wanted to look at the cars.”
At the time, Manchester United were in their prime and storming to yet another Premier League title. Their star-studded squad included the club’s class of 92, a group of players who had come through the academy and achieved greatness, something the Rhinos young squad were looking to emulate.
The day was even more special for Adamson though who was a lifelong Man Utd fan, having watched them from a young age in Australia, his experience would soon become very surreal as the squad made their way into the training complex.
“There was all the introductions and we went in the cafeteria and Sir Alex was in there,” Adamson recalls. “He welcomed me in and took me into his office. He said ‘I really take my hat off to you for taking the initiative and trying to improve your club.’ He just made me feel like a million dollars and you could see why people love playing for him because that’s how he made you feel.
“We went out into the training area where the boys were and out they all came, and they were all great. The likes of Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, they all stopped and had a yarn with us and David Beckham was there at the time too. It was just an incredible experience and the players were just like us, they were just blokes who had a craft and did their job. We hung out afterwards as well, it was a great day for the club.”
The best part of it all would come weeks later for Adamson though who endured a tough period in Leeds run to the Challenge Cup Final. A head clash with Dean Britt early in the semi-final against St Helens saw the Rhinos second-rower suffer a broken jaw and cheekbone, and he headed for the final in Cardiff just days later with three titanium plates in his face. It proved to be a nightmare weekend all round for Adamson, that is until he got back to Leeds.
“My wife and daughter had come down [for the final] and my eldest daughter Charlotte, who is now 20, fell off the bed and broke her arm. She had a green-stick fracture so had to have surgery and that was the day of the game. She was only two at the time. I’m in the operating theatre and they had to put gas on her, that knocked her out unconscious so they could do the operation.
“She then got put in a police escort travelling back to the hotel, I got straight on the team bus and went to the game. In the match I got bashed up because they knew I had the surgery on my face, so every time I got the ball Stuart Fielden just kept punching me. I came off the ground bloody and black-eyed and looking like I had been in a ring with Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali.
“We lost the game, got back to Leeds and there on the door step of my house was Roy Keane’s Manchester United jersey, signed, wishing me good luck in the final. I’m a mad Roy Keane fan, I love him and admire him to death. I still watch old videos of him playing football because of his competitiveness and fierceness. That [shirt] still hangs pride and place in my home, so it was a pretty great experience, except we lost, but I felt honoured.”
Listen to Matt Adamson on the Club Trev Podcast.