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

1929

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

1934

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

1946

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

1949

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

1952

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

1954

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

1965

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

1971

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

1975

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

1988

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

1996

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

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?