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
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The Independent Online
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.