Rugby League: Finals that thrill the memory

Saturday's Rugby League Challenge Cup final will be the last at the `old' Wembley. Dave Hadfield remembers the best moments of the annual pilgrimage to London

JUST AS you have to start young to be a concert violinist, it is no use hanging about aimlessly in your youth if you want to become one of those old men who can boast about how many Wembleys they have seen.

I will never break any records, because I was 19 before the prospect of watching Leigh, the nearest thing to my local club, play there lured me for the first time.

My contemporaries had already been going there for years, blazing a trail. They had seen Wigan beat Hunslet in the classic of 1965, Don Fox's missed conversion that cost Wakefield the Cup in 1968, and Keith Hepworth's elbow take out Colin Tyrer in 1970.

But Leigh's Wembley was not a bad place to start. Less fancied against a thoroughbred Leeds in 1971 than London are on Saturday, less fancied than Sheffield were against Wigan last year, they won in a canter. Alex Murphy got Syd Hynes sent off, the Cup went to the town for the first time since 1921 and Leigh's winger Joe Walsh was arrested at the homecoming for climbing up a lamp-post and refusing to come down.

Old-timers told us that they could be relied on to win the Cup every 50 years, regular as clockwork. And, if you study the form carefully, you can see that they are already starting their charge for 2021.

There were 56 of us Leythers, and fellow-travellers, in half a student house in East Finchley that night. I woke up in the greenhouse and counted myself one of the very lucky ones. Surely it couldn't be like this every year.

It hasn't been. The house in East Finchley has long gone, to be succeeded by homes from home in Whitechapel, Camden Town and Highams Park, until middle age and upward mobility has brought my mate and his thriving seasonal trade in itinerant northerners to the relative luxury of Tower Hill. Nor is overcrowding a problem any more. In a bad year there can be as few as a dozen of us. Everyone gets, if not a bed, then at least their own bit of floor. Paradise, as our role models on Monty Python used to say.

This year, another overcrowded venue with antiquated facilities joins East Finchley on the condemned list. Wembley itself will be no more, at least not as generations of rugby league supporters have known it. There will be a stadium on roughly the same site, of course, but it will have usable toilets and, presumably, a decent view from most seats. It will be unrecognisable.

So this is the end of an era, but we have adapted to change before. Until the early Eighties, Wembley weekend also involved a game of our own on the Sunday morning, pitting what was left of our old team against whatever naive, pimply faced London opposition could be enlisted.

These matches followed a pattern. Nous and guile invariably gave us a healthy half-time advantage, before the years and the beers joined forces to leave us hanging on desperately to our lead, our dignity and our breakfasts in the second half. One year, we looked silently and exhausted at each other, after sneaking home by virtue of a dubious late penalty, and we knew that part of it was over.

The tribal element of the weekend remains, though. We'll gather on Friday from all corners of the globe - well, most corners of Leigh, at any rate - and know that for those few days several corners of London belong to us. It could be the corner under the stairs - known in perpetuity as Kiddo's Corner, because it used to be occupied by one of our number's younger brother, now a 40-something PE teacher; it could, if you're very unfortunate, be the corner that leads to the bathroom.

And, being northerners, when we reminisce about our lives and times involving this strange place in north London that is about to disappear, we will grumble happily about our privations and sufferings. But we will also reflect on some of the greatest rugby league ever played, none of it on a Sunday morning.

Counting down to 2021 we might be, but we've seen a few sideshows to keep us going: St Helens' Dad's Army battling through the 100 degree heat in 1976; Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling in matching flawless perfection in 1985; Robbie Paul dazzling in defeat in 1996.

Then there are the hardy annuals: the price of the beer and the gullibility of Londoners. More than a decade ago, one lad from Wigan was so spellbound by one bill from the weekend that he took it home and framed it. It read: "Four Pies: pounds 16."

Last year, I took my son to his first Wembley - my daughter wants to go this year, but only because 5ive are on - because, for reasons too obscure to explain, he supports Sheffield Eagles.

He sat with his flag and my mate from Leigh not many yards from the spot where I stood for my first final. He emerged glowing, if a little relieved, after hearing my war sagas, not to be sleeping 56 to a greenhouse in East Finchley.

No, we gave him Kiddo's Corner and he slept like someone going to their first Wembley and seeing their no-hope, no-account side win magnificently should sleep. It won't always be like this, I warned him. And after this year, it never will be again.

Challenge Cup's Wembley Milestones


Challenge Cup final goes to Wembley for first time. Wigan beat Dewsbury.


Widnes, who lose to Hunslet, remain only club to field 13 local players.


Billy Stott of Wakefield Trinity becomes first winner of Lance Todd Trophy.


First capacity crowd (95,050) as Bradford beat Halifax.


There is live national coverage on BBC television for the first time, as Workington beat Featherstone.


The first drawn final - and 102,569 turn out to watch the replay between Warrington and Halifax which takes place at Odsal.


The biggest-ever Wembley crowd (the total attendance is 98,536) see Wigan overwhelm Hunslet in an absolute classic.


Syd Hynes becomes the first man sent off at Wembley as Leigh upset Leeds.


The start of a Wembley institution - the schoolboy curtain-raiser.


Wigan start eight-year winning streak. Shaun Edwards plays in every tie.


Robbie Paul is first to score a hat-trick of tries, but Bradford lose to St Helens.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform