Wigan returned to Rugby League Club to Wembley this Saturday for the final of the competition they were synonymous with for most of the 90s. 17 times winners of the Challenge Cup this, amazingly, was their first Wembley final for 13 years.
It wasn’t always the case. They used to be rubbish when I started watching them in 1980. By the time they took part in what’s widely regarded as the greatest final of all time five years later versus Hull FC they were on the up, although still a few years away from the arrogant trophy winning machine that made them the most despised club in the history of the game. Hull, by contrast, had made 3 out of the previous 5 finals, the last one in 1983 when the odds were upset by a bunch of donkey jacket wearing pitmen from Featherstone. Wigan had also made the final the year before against Widnes but local lad and son of my old dinner lady Joe Lydon royally took the piss, twice going the length of the pitch then flicking the V’s at his fellow townsfolk in celebration.
I knew we weren’t going to lose that day. The weekend had got off to a flyer and could only get better, because that’s what happened when you were 15 years old. I’d managed to get served with half a Labatts the previous night – without the aid of the obligatory “getting in pubs tache” I might add – then scored a furtive fumble off a girl I knew was babysitting because her parents were sat at the next table. Better still we managed to claim the back seat of the coach the following day, sticking our union jack – freshly liberated from a local builder’s yard with “Wigan” proudly emblazoned across the middle in cream non drip gloss - in the rear window where it remained untroubled save for bouts of sporadic mooning or the occasional arson attempt with a stray fag. We followed the same routine a few weeks later when we visited Wembley again for the Freight Rover Final v Brentford. You did that in those days – supported both. The great divide had yet to happen and you’d see the same faces on a Sunday that you’d seen the day before, especially if the opponents were Warrington, Saints, Leeds or anyone else whose number included similar minded gentlemen up for a frank exchange of views followed by a spot of rough and tumble.
David Stephenson – Centre : Chain smoking, swarthy looking chap from Blackpool . Slipped a peach of a pass to Henderson Gill for Wigan’s third try just before half time.
The journey down was good but the game was better. 99,801 fat Northerners shoehorned themselves in to see an Airlie Birds line up that blended Kiwi stars Gary Kemble, James Leuluai, Dane O’Hara and the fantastically named Fred Ah Kuoi with good old fashioned Yorkshire shithouses like Lee Crooks and Steve “Knocker” Norton. Then there were the Aussies, namely Paramatta half backs Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling, who’d helped the Kangaroos wipe the floor with Great Britain in 1982. This time they were on opposing sides, Sterling playing for Hull, Kenny for Wigan. 10 tries were shared equally with only Wigan’s twin goal kicking machine of Gill and Stephenson proving the difference in the end. Hull fans bitterly regretted flamboyant cigar chomping supremo Arthur Bunting’s decision to leave teenage prodigy Garry Schofield, who could also kick a bit, on the bench. Despite trailing 22 – 8 then 28 – 12 Hull made it 28 – 24 with just 4 minutes to go thanks to tries from Gary Divorty and a brace from the spectacularly ugly James Leuluai, the second involving the sweetest sidestep I’ve ever seen to leave a teenage Shaun Edwards on his arse. However, Wigan just about managed to cling on and lift the cup for the first time since 1965, a wait in relative sporting terms that made City’s 35 year quest for silverware seem like indecent haste.
Here’s how Wigan lined up that historic day :
1. Shaun Edwards – Full Back : Enigmatic. Handsome. Eloquent. All words I’ve never heard associated with Edwards. The lad could play a bit though and went on to win a couple of medals before retiring to teach southerners how to tackle, shag popstars and take offence at Irish folk songs on the Welsh team bus.
2. John Ferguson – Winger : Older than Roger Milla and Kanu combined. Scored 24 tries in 25 appearances, including a length of the field effort in this game just moments after wise old sage Alex Murphy declared on TV that his leg injury was so bad he’d have to come off.
3. David Stephenson – Centre : Chain smoking, swarthy looking chap from Blackpool . Slipped a peach of a pass to Henderson Gill for Wigan’s third try just before half time.
4. Steve Donlan – Centre : Moustachioed classy old fashioned ball handler all the way from Leigh. Ended up playing for Wigan’s “other” club Springfield Borough in the short lived ill fated experiment that famously ended up with Maurice Lindsay banning rugby Demi God Billy Boston from Central Park.
5. Henderson Gill – Wing : Blessed with a centre of gravity that made an ice skating chimp seem unstable and a gait that would fail to stop a pig in an alley, the man was a legend. A proper one, not one like Tim Lovejoy. Scored a 75 yard try in this game then launched a career as a rapper cum DJ cum IT lecturer.
Even more of a journeyman than Neil Courtney as I cannot recall a single fact about Brian Dunn and Google is less than helpful. Possibly had curly hair. Possibly not.
6. Brett Kenny – Stand Off : The coolest man in the world whose hands in pocket antics made Bjorn Borg look like John Terry psyching himself up for a World Cup final. Integral in three first half Wigan tries and sealed the Man of the Match with a solo effort that saw him arc through the Hull defence without a single finger being laid on him. Years later, Peter Sterling was asked about Kenny’s demeanour : ““He did get criticism for being a bit too laid back about the whole occasion,” remembered Sterling, “but that’s just him all over. I was more worried seeing him that relaxed before the game thinking, ‘Shit, we’re in trouble here’.”
7. Mike Ford – Scrum Half : Decent enough but in a position crying out for an Andy Gregory / Bobbie Goulding type roustabout he always struck me as a little bit, well, soft . Like the bloke in “Slapshot” who just stands there while Paul Newman and the lads in specs wade in. Post Wigan, followed a similar career path to Edwards, minus the medals, popstars and team bus antics.
8. Neil Courtney – Prop : A rotund journeyman in a team awash with journeymen forwards. To this day I still don’t know how we competed with a Hull pack containing Crooks, Norton, Muggleton and Rose.
9. Nicky Kiss – Hooker : Another Gill style folk hero, famed for his unkempt appearance, ball stealing skills and ear rings. Claimed to be of Hungarian gypsy stock but as his Rothmans Yearbook listing cited his career as “joiner” rather than “tar macadam operative” we’ll take that with a pinch of salt.
10. Brian Case – Prop : Similar in appearance to the great Kevin Ward but not quite as hard. More than capable of doing a bit though, especially against fellow Warrington lunatics Alan Rathbone and Paul Cullen.
11. Graeme West – Second Row : Captain. Genial giant who, for me, was the most important figure in Wigan’s climb to success. Now drives a taxi round town and will happily turn the meter off if you’ve arrived home before he finishes telling you how Alex Murphy lamped Maurice Lindsay with a telephone.
12. Brian Dunn – Second Row : Even more of a journeyman than Neil Courtney as I cannot recall a single fact about Brian Dunn and Google is less than helpful. Possibly had curly hair. Possibly not.
13. Ian Potter – Loose Forward : Another signing from Leigh who cost a whopping £50,000, then a club record. Solid as opposed to spectacular but good enough to win 8 caps for Great Britain. Had a moustache.
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