Rugby League: Laughton laughing at passing adversity: Dave Hadfield on the rugby league coach who is driving Leeds forward again

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POSTMEN in the Headingley area of Leeds have had a weight lifted from their shoulders. Doug Laughton's postbag has always been a barometer of the crisis at Leeds Rugby League club. At times over the past two and a half years, the unfortunate delivery man has arrived at the ground bent double with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of letters for Laughton.

Some were supportive, some abusive, most told him where he was going wrong in one of the most demanding jobs in the game. The postman always had to ring twice.

But a strange thing has happened. 'They've stopped writing,' Laughton says. 'Maybe they realise that the ship is heading in the right direction.'

It has not always looked that way this season. There have been times when it seemed they were going to have to man the lifeboats, but Leeds start out in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup at Rochdale on Sunday with one of their periodic gusts of optimism filling their sails.

The cup is the only competition realistically available to Leeds this season. A run of one win in eight matches before the turn of the year saw to it that even a place in the top four in the First Division is now virtually impossible.

For all that, Laughton is more cheerful than at any time since he took over in the summer of 1991. The cup will test whether the sense of fresh hope is justified.

'We are a good cup side now, for the simple reason that nobody is going to turn our pack over again,' Laughton says.

The purchase of Harvey Howard last month from his old club, Widnes, completed what amounts to his second rebuilding of the forwards. With similarly uncompromising characters like Richie Eyres and Gary Rose coming aboard this season, Leeds are now tougher up front that they have been for an age.

There have been successful signings in the backs as well. Alan Tait has maintained his Widnes form and Laughton is particularly pleased with the progress, before the foot injury that is currently keeping him out, of Craig Innes.

'He was my first rugby union signing here,' says a man whose raids on the other code have become legendary. 'A lot of people questioned whether he'd make it, but now Wigan would love to have him.'

There is something that gives him more pleasure than all this, however, and it is the progress made by the young players he has introduced into the first team this season.

'The scouting system was rubbish when I arrived here,' he says. 'And that was the first thing that had to be put right.'

Following up the recommendations of his scouts - he used to have one at Widnes he invariably referred to as 'Tonto' - Laughton spent much of his first two years ranging far and wide in search of young talent.

'I went to see Paul Cook and finished up signing both him and Marcus Vassilakopoulos. Graham Holroyd came to Headingley on a weekend course and stood out immediately.

'I saw Francis Cummins for 10 minutes and was able to go off to another game, because I already knew he was right.'

Cummins and Holroyd have become regulars in the first team and Laughton says: 'It will take a very good player to make me drop either of them.'

Despite famous cheque- book raids on rugby union, this is the aspect of the game Laughton enjoys most. 'I often think that we're at our best as human beings in our teens. It's life that sours us.

'I think I'm good with kids, because they're the ones that need me. Gary Mercer and Ellery Hanley don't need Doug Laughton, but some kid who's injured or been dropped does.'

He has needed all the self- confidence at his disposal during his time at a club that, for all his conviction that he is nearing his goal, remains the great under-achiever of the game.

The criticism of an unsuccessful Leeds coach can be savage and the rumours of his imminent replacement by any one of a dozen candidates have been legion. But, with the remaining weeks of his contract draining away and the Challenge Cup his last chance of a trophy, Laughton is planning ahead.

'Nothing has been said, but I've mapped out the summer training on the basis that I'm still going to be here,' he says.

That looks increasingly possible, even without the Wembley trip that traditionally makes everything all right. One theory is that he could become general manager, with Hanley, who has been softening his image just slightly with stunts like an appearance on Paula Yates' bed on The Big Breakfast, as first-team coach.

But a man who has sometimes looked likely to be kicked down the front steps at Headingley does not sound eager to be booted upstairs.

'I've had a few calls,' he says, 'asking me what I'm doing next season. I've told them I'll be coaching Leeds.'

(Photograph omitted)