Mud, blood and memories of the day when 102,575 made history at Odsal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Roger Bannister's mile record of 3min 59.4sec was not the only indelible figure generated in British sport 50 years ago this week.

For the game of rugby league, 102,575 is a number that lives on in folk memory in much the same way.

On 5 May 1954, Halifax played Warrington at Odsal Stadium in Bradford in the replay of the Challenge Cup final, drawn 4-4 at Wembley less than two weeks earlier. Everyone knew there would be a big crowd at Odsal for the replay, but no one could have predicted what was to happen.

"There were a lot of people around the dressing rooms as we came out, but we just thought it would be the usual 60,000 for a big match at Odsal," recalls Ken Dean, who played stand-off for Halifax that day. "We reached the top of the steps that led down to the pitch and looked down. It was an amazing sight."

The north of England had converged on Odsal, with 102,575 counted in the stands and traffic jams stretching back over the Pennines to Oldham. Wendy Challinor, widow of the Warrington centre Jim Challinor, took three quarters of an hour to get from the turnstiles to her seat and missed her husband's opening try.

Of the 26 players who were on the field that day, 10 are still alive and eight of them were at Odsal yesterday to celebrate the half centenary of one of the game's great memories.

They each received a framed souvenir of the occasion and watched newsreel footage of the game that most of them have not seen since the week it was played.

"It brought back some memories," said the Halifax winger, Dai Bevan, the man who virtually marked his legendary namesake, Brian Bevan, out of both matches. "He never scored a try past me."

Among the relics on display was the ball used in the replay and the No 4 shirt worn for Warrington in the Wembley match by Arnold Stevens, who was dropped for the replay and missed the chance to be part of history. "It was like the bottom had dropped out of my world," said Stevens, whose unwashed shirt bears the mud and blood of the original occasion.

"I could have brought them a clean one if they'd asked," said Gerry Lowe, who played for the victorious Warrington side in the front row, and who has no doubt about his favourite memory of the match.

"It was when I saw Gerry Helme duck underneath Tuss Griffith's tackle and go over for that marvellous try and I knew we'd won," he says. They had, by 8-4, although that scoreline is less well remembered than the 102,575.

That figure could easily be an underestimation, however, because as kick-off time approached people came pouring in over walls and through gates without being counted. As Robert Gate's book on the match reveals in its title, There Were A Lot More Than That.

Avona the wife of the Halifax prop, John Thorley, one of the eight survivors at Odsal yesterday, will vouch for that.

"I could tell from where I was that it was something fantastic," she recalls. "And yet I didn't have the slightest qualm that it might be dangerous."

Indeed, there is no record of any injuries, despite people being crammed in in a way that would seem to spell certain disaster.

It was not the greatest game of rugby league ever played and it lost its world record status when Stadium Australia opened in Sydney in 1999. But in the folklore of the code, that Wednesday night in 1954 still occupies a unique place.