Rugby League: Lydon at home wearing a variety of hats: With 'Slow Joe' fast on the uptake, Wigan are looking to head down a familiar road to Wembley. Dave Hadfield reports

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JOE LYDON is unique among his Wigan team-mates. He knows he will be earning a wage on Cup final day. Whatever happens in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup semi-final against Castleford today, Lydon will be gainfully employed at Wembley on 30 April. He is not only a versatile back of enduring star quality who has frequently got Wigan out of trouble during their 34-match winning run in the competition, he is also the new voice of the game.

If Lydon is not on the pitch for Wigan in seven weeks' time, he will be behind a microphone for the BBC summarising the action. Throw in some after-dinner speaking, the likelihood of a prominent role in the new players' union being mooted and his general presentability and the man they call, still with irony, 'Slow Joe' is fast becoming something of a renaissance man of rugby league.

Lydon won his BBC job in a competitive audition against five other figures in the game. Bizarrely, the match on which he had to commentate was one he had played in himself - last year's Challenge Cup final - which could have produced some interesting results, but Lydon came through unruffled.

'He was very good from the start,' said Ray French, the veteran commentator, who will work alongside Lydon on the big day - unless, of course, Lydon has a prior engagement.

'He picked up the technical side of it very quickly, but then he is a very intelligent lad, with A- levels and a degree. The first of a new breed of players in many ways.'

French, a former dual rugby international himself, says that Lydon has already overcome the first pitfall of wearing the two hats of player and pundit. 'A lot of players would be loathe to comment on and criticise other players and teams,' he said. 'But Joe can carry it off. He is held in high enough esteem in the game to get away with it. He's seen as one of the more mature players.'

It was not always like that. For a good slice of what is now a long and eventful career, Lydon could have been described as a clever lad who did daft things. Using his head once meant an accusation that he had butted a spectator at St Helens, and there was a messy incident in a night-club that also led to court. If his namesake, John Lydon, was Johnny Rotten, he occasionally came across as Joe Reckless.

Lydon always liked the high life, there was no secret about that, and he generally lived it with a style that attracted more admiration than reproach. Graham Lowe, the New Zealand coach who came to Wigan six months after Lydon's transfer from Widnes in 1986, had him as a particular favourite, enjoying his relish for life in the fast lane.

Lowe's successor - and, co-incidentally, Lydon's predecessor as the BBC's first-choice summariser - was John Monie and he was sometimes less indulgent. There came a stage when he gave it to him straight: he either started to put in a lot more effort or he could start looking for a new club.

Lydon's response was a mature application and a surge of form that unexpectedly won him a place on his third Great Britain tour, to Australia in 1992. While he was away, his first child was born, meaning that life in future would tend to run along the middle rather than the outside lane.

Lydon is 30 and has been playing at the top level for 13 years. He faces competition now for the Wigan full- back job from Paul Atcheson and might even start on the substitutes' bench today. But he has always had the happy knack, whenever his form has seemed to be slipping, of coming up with a big performance at the right time.

Allied to that has been his repeated ability to pull Wigan out of the fire. Right back in the mists of history, at the start of the club's unprecedented run of Challenge Cup success, it was his goal that secured the 2-0 victory over Bradford Northern in the first round in 1988.

More memorably, it was his

61-yard drop goal that broke Warrington's resistance in the semi-final the following year, and another of his drop goals that beat Halifax 19-18 in last season's competition.

If the clock is ticking towards 4.30 this afternoon and Wigan are in the jeopardy that many expect them to be, past experience suggests Lydon as a likely rescuer.

But should their run, and eventually his own tenure in the side, come to an end, he will not find himself unemployed. Apart from the television role that would keep him occupied at Wembley and his degree in graphic design, Lydon is in increasing demand as a speaker. 'He is a new voice, one that appeals to younger people,' French said, 'but he already has a good fund of stories.'

Lydon was also the first player approached to be chairman of the players' union that is on the point of being re-established.

'He would have been perfect,' Alan McColm, the agent and main mover behind the idea, 'because he is so comfortable in front of the camera. He will be very actively involved, but he has too many other commitments to be chairman.'

This afternoon will decide the nature of those commitments on 30 April.

(Photograph omitted)