Leigh v Leeds: Greatest Cup upset was child's play

When Leigh and Leeds meet in the Challenge Cup tonight, it is 'world champions v the bankrupts'. But 40 years ago, the underdogs had their day

More than four decades on, Wembley's biggest upset still has the power to raise hackles, raise a laugh or prompt a knowing wink. In 1971, Leigh beat Leeds in what still stands – despite Sheffield's win over Wigan in 1998 – as the most memorable shock in Challenge Cup history.

The two clubs have gone their different ways in the succeeding 41 years, but they come together again tonight in a Cup quarter-final – and Alex Murphy knows what that means.

"Everyone wants to talk about '71, how we won when nobody gave us a chance – and, of course, Sid Hynes getting sent off," he says.

Murphy was Leigh's player-coach that day, the scorer of two drop goals in a 24-7 victory and winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, but he is remembered most of all for his manner of leaving the game. In the second half, he was carried off on a stretcher and the Leeds captain, Syd Hynes, sent off – the first man to suffer that fate at Wembley – after an incident (an alleged off-the-ball headbutt) that still stirs controversy after all these years.

Hynes has always denied making any contact – and there are those who claim to have seen Murphy wink conspiratorially to his team-mates as he was carried off. "I can only say what I've always said. The first thing I remember is waking up in the dressing room," he says. "People have never stopped talking about it and Syd has made it worse by saying he never touched me. Well, someone did. I've come to the conclusion that, if it wasn't Syd, it must have been Billy Thompson." Thompson was the referee that day.

The legend, however, refuses to lie down. When a panel met last week – in Leeds, incidentally – to discuss who should be the rugby league player immortalised by a statue at Wembley, Murphy, with his record of steering three different clubs to victory there, inevitably figured prominently in the debate. One mischievous suggestion was that he should be depicted on the stretcher, with an electronically controlled flashing eye. Sadly, that seems unlikely to be the final decision.

For all its historic baggage, meeting Leeds again at this juncture is important for Leigh's present and future. Although Leigh were a respectable side in the old First Division in 1971, there was a big gap between their resources and those of Leeds, who had 14 internationals in their squad and were unbackable 1-9 favourites.

In many ways, that gap is much bigger now. Leeds won the Super League Grand Final last season and the World Club Challenge at the start of this, while Leigh almost went out of business over unpaid bills during the winter. This tie is effectively the world champions versus the bankrupts.

Murphy, who coached Leigh no fewer than six times, believes they will pull through. "If they get their finances sorted out, this club will be all right," he says. "This is a great opportunity for the town and the people to get behind them, with a big crowd at the Leigh Sports Village."

Leigh's new home has not been full yet, with crowds of a measly couple of thousand the rule, despite an encouraging start to the season in the Championship. But Murphy sees potential in the current crop, under the coaching of the former Leigh hooker, Paul Rowley, whose appointment this winter he applauds. "He's a young, up-and-coming coach and he's got good ideas."

Rowley himself is careful not to get sucked into nostalgia. As a Leigh lad and son of a Leigh player, he grew up on stories of the Wembley heroes. "I'm not going to make any rash statements," he says. "I'm not going to start singing 'Here we go' and saying it's '71 all over again. We just want to put on a performance and play as well as we can."

Leigh would have had a better chance of doing that if their scrum-half and captain, John Duffy, had not dislocated his shoulder two weeks ago. Having already decided to retire at the end of the season, that denies him one last big game and he is, predictably, "gutted... I would have loved to play against the quality of player Leeds have got".

His absence, however, gives a chance to Ryan Brierley, a teenager from nearby Westhoughton who is on loan from Castleford. He is one of a number of promising young players Leigh must hope will not freeze on the big occasion. "There's no pressure on them, because nobody's giving them any chance," says Murphy. "But nobody gave us any chance in 1971 either."

That is the message he will be hammering home to the players when he accepts an invitation to speak to them before tonight's game. You always have a chance if you believe, he will tell them; and that is not the stuff of fairy tales.