Leigh Centurions: Journey from despair to Super League delight

By Matt NewsumBBC Sport
SLS2: Leigh's return to Super League

Leigh's return to Super League after an 11-year absence is a classic tale of success being achieved after overcoming adversity.

Their Championship opponents might not agree, having seen the Centurions lift the past three league titles, and lose just three games in that time - not to mention an outlay on players few, if any, of them could match.

However, it has not always been such a glorious story in the league-mad town.

BBC Sport outlines Leigh's journey from the depths to delight in the space of seven years.

Hometown hero

Micky Higham
Micky Higham won Challenge Cup and Grand Final honours at St Helens and Warrington

Leigh demolished their Championship rivals in 2016, finishing top of the table - and they have gone on to win all five games so far in the Super 8s Qualifiers.

Not even top-flight teams such as Huddersfield and Hull KR have been able to bar their path to the Super League, with both despatched en route to securing promotion with two games to spare.

No-one is prouder than captain Micky Higham, who arrived at the Sports Village in 2015 for a record fee to guide his hometown team back to the top flight.

"It's the club I grew up watching as a kid and I'm a hometown boy," he told BBC Sport.

"It is a special moment in my career and up there with one of the best. I'm ecstatic that we've finally done it because the club have been knocking on the door for a while and to do it is a special effort.

"Credit to (owner) Derek Beaumont for backing the club and making it what it is today."

The dark days

Mike Morrison runs at Wakefield for Leigh
Mike Morrison carts the ball forward for Leigh in a Challenge Cup tie against Wakefield

There was certainly little to cheer about back in 2009.

Just four years after the team had graced Super League, Ian Millward's side contemplated life at the bottom of the ladder after relegation from the Championship.

Players such as England international Chris Hill, Martyn Ridyard and Adam Higson, were part of the squad that was condemned to the drop by Gateshead Thunder's 56-0 victory against Doncaster on the final day.

However, Thunder brought about a reprieve for Leigh when owner Steven Garside withdrew funding, winding up the holding company and in turn relegating the north-east club instead.

"I remember it was a real dark place," Higham said. "I was leaving Wigan for Warrington at the time, but as a Leigh lad, given the potential of going down, it was a real stroke of luck.

"It must have just re-galvanised them, made everyone realise we need to push on here and they have done."

Shoots of recovery

Martyn Ridyard and Ian Millward with the Northern Rail Cup
Leigh bounced back from their 2009 nadir, winning the Northern Rail Cup in 2011

Leigh took their second chance at Championship level in 2010 and have not finished any lower than fourth since, posting two runners-up placings in addition to their recent hat-trick of titles.

While Hill was lured away to Super League with Warrington - winning young player of the year and an England call-up after a phenomenal opening campaign - Leigh continued to develop.

Initially Millward took the team on, and Paul Rowley then took charge in 2012 before long-term assistant Neil Jukes was given control on the eve of this season.

"Rowls put in the foundations and the building blocks," Higham added. "The abrupt end came before the first game, it was a shock to everybody and it really rattled us.

"We went to Batley and lost our first game and Neil was under the pump.

"They way he's taken it on and handled it, we were a big club in the Championship, and he took it on every week.

"Players like him, they respect him, he's got good staff behind him now with Paul Anderson and Paul Cooke. I am made up for Jukesy as he is a great bloke."

Harnessing the passion

Leeds meeting evokes Leigh memories

The passion for rugby league in Leigh is as rich as the flavours of local delicacy 'lobby'external-link, with John Woods, Alex Murphy, David Eckersley and Des Drummond among the Leythers' heroes of the past.

Leigh's class of 2016 have joined that pantheon of club greats, having brought the excitement of Super League back to their part of Greater Manchester.

"It's a rugby league town," Higham continued. "There is not really a football team in the area - it's just about rugby and the crowds are coming back now.

"They have been starved of that top league for a few years and there is a real buzz about the place. This one is for the fans - they've been through thick and thin."

Reducing the gap

Kay scores 'breathtaking' try

Leigh's investment in personnel stepped up a notch in 2015, when longer-term talents such as Ridyard, Higson, Gregg McNally, Bob Beswick and Ryan Brierley were recruited along with internationals such as Fuifui Moimoi and Gareth Hock.

Challenge Cup victories over Salford and Wakefield that season were not backed up amid huge expectations in the Qualifiers - with just one win in seven games.

Although Brierley left the club, further imports followed in 2016 with Dayne Weston, Willie Tonga and Matty Dawson finally helping Leigh over the line and into the top flight.

"What's changed it is having the salary cap opened up," owner Derek Beaumont told BBC Radio Manchester.

"That was the biggest difference, allowing us to spend the same as Super League clubs, we had Super League and NRL players in our squad."

The next step

Promotion is just the start for Beaumont, who says his ambitions have grown from just getting to Super League to wanting to win silverware.

Four new players are set to arrive for next season to bolster the squad, with "three or four" further additions still being considered.

The existing squad are also keen to take on the big guns, having come up against Warrington, Salford, Hull KR and Wakefield in recent campaigns.

"We just want to consolidate our place in Super League," Higham added. "We don't want to be a one hit wonder. We want to go up and perform and push towards the top eight.

"I think the challenge for us now is to back up the intensity. You play Wigan one week, then it could be Leeds, Hull, St Helens - there is no respite."

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