First published in Rugby League World, Issue 367 (Nov 2011)
Game: Carnegie Challenge Cup Final
Date: Saturday 26 August 2011
On most days of the year, I would be taken aback to see a Rugby League shirt on the streets of London. Today is different but it takes a while to get used to it. When I get off the train at Kings Cross, I am still startled at the first League top I see in the queue for tube tickets. Seconds later a Leeds fan acknowledges my choice of obscure Wembley-related shirt. Within a couple of minutes my brain stops being surprised and is merely chuffed. Nothing beats Challenge Cup Final day for feeling great about being a Rugby League fan.
The problem with Wembley is the same now as it was when the Empire Stadium opened in 1923: it’s in Wembley. Among London’s least attractive suburbs, Wembley is close to a whole network of railways and motorways but can still be a pain to get to. The superb new Wembley Park tube station copes wonderfully delivering the vast majority of the crowd, and fast trains from Euston and Kings Cross make it easy for northern visitors. Many first go to Baker Street to quench their thirst but the wise head to Finchley Road instead, just one stop on the Metropolitan Line from the twin towers – sorry, great arch. The lunchtime clientele in Wetherspoons is typical of Challenge Cup final day: a friendly mix of Hull FC and Kingston Rovers shirts on one table; a middle-aged Leeds couple; a group of Quins fans; a twenty-something proudly wearing his Whitehaven chocolate, blue & gold; a gang of Leigh lads, and a stray Gateshead Thunder representative. It’s a celebration of our game and a defiant show of allegiance and faith.
Unless you’re a VIP guest or on a coach, don’t drive to Wembley. At £25 a pop in the stadium car park, someone else has to be picking up the tab. The price is designed to put everyone off – and it works. Probably the nearest street parking these days is around Canons Park station, five minutes on the tube from Wembley Park.
Walking down Wembley Way is part of the great ritual and always gets me going, but the RFL spend considerably less than other match organisers on ‘dressing’ the stadium and the visual approach is underwhelming compared to, say, the NFL games here. The stewards were friendly and bag searches were minimal – Mum even sneaked her bottle of water in: a triumph over The Man! She then regretted it wasn’t G&T. The patronising bloke on the PA drives me nuts every year: he welcomed us exuberantly then kept reminding us (via an excruciating screech) where we were, what we were there for and, at the end, who had won, just in case anyone had fallen asleep for the last two hours. Give it a rest pal – we hadn’t drunk that much… yet.
Thanks to the wonders of the RFL’s booking system, I was able to buy the same four seats as last year. We had our own little row above a stairwell towards the back of the bottom tier. The seats had plenty of legroom, and the view from behind the sticks was totally clear and our half of the pitch was close enough. But when play went down the Leeds end, most eyes automatically lifted to the big screen as it was difficult to tell who anyone was way down there. It’s an unavoidable problem in any stadium of this size – in some spots the action is too far away for the human eye.
The Black Dyke Band are grand and rousing but when the fireworks go off as the teams walk onto the pitch at 2.30pm, there can be fewer better places to be in world sport. It’s magnificent. Being a neutral in the Wigan end, I’m delighted that the first 20 minutes suggests I am going to be surrounded by sheer joy (after sitting among miserable Leeds and Huddersfield fans in the last two years). But I’m in the gents with Batman and a posse of Red Indians in the 28th minute as a roar erupts and the concrete above our head bounces. We’ve missed one of the great Wembley tries by Joel Tomkins. We all sigh with despair. Gutted.
In some years, the RFL have attempted to pay tribute to our Challenge Cup Final history but there was little sign of it this time. At least Wigan’s heritage is there in flesh: Martin Offiah and Ellery Hanley in the Royal Box makes the cup presentation even more special. I do like the roll of honour above the Ring of Indifference (Club Wembley), which acknowledges every club’s debut appearance in the final and gives nearly everyone in the ground the chance to point and say ‘There we are’ and feel a part of it. But I could find just one Rugby League picture among the dozens of iconic Wembley moments on the concourse beneath us: the Watersplash Final. This should be ‘our’ national stadium, too. Playing an international here every year would help hugely and surely the 2013 World Cup Final will find it’s home at Wembley too?
The merchandise stall is all but deserted – no wonder when closer inspection reveals you can buy expensive England and Exiles shirts and Wembley T-shirts and hats but nothing for Leeds or Wigan! Who would buy a Wembley t-shirt on a chilly and occasionally wet day like this? Bizarre. You would think the RFL would be working with the clubs to flog cup final gear like there’s no tomorrow. The RFL push the Cup Final as best they can in the RL world but they should market this amazing day to the general sporting public in the capital. They would love it. Wigan packed half the ground but why did Leeds not shift another 10,000 tickets? Was last year’s lay-down-and-die performance the only reason for the non-attendance?
Two soldiers walking onto the pitch with the Challenge Cup to the accompaniment of a brass band and a few dozen children with a giant flag may sound like the lamest pre-match ceremony imaginable. Instead, it’s dramatic and kick-starts a glorious five minutes: an epic rendition of Abide With Me led by the surprisingly impressive former X Factor contestant Rhydian Roberts gets my eyes moist as usual, the teams enter like gladiators, and the National Anthem is belted out. It’s exhilarating and rousing. Hats off to Rugby League: we do this marriage of modernity and tradition better than anyone else. But the best entertainment comes from the players and the 78,000 fans surrounding them. A cherry & white-clad lady in her sixties, wearing three earrings and relying in a crutch to hobble downstairs to the loo, cries out to anyone who will listen: “I wish she’d stop screaming. Someone should tell her they can’t hear her.” We don’t know who she’s on about, but it’s pure Alan Bennett.
PLAYER INTERACTION 1/10
With security as it is, it’s no surprise that player interaction is virtually nil at Wembley. The players do reappear in the hospitality rooms after the game where several hundred lucky freeloaders (including me on previous visits but not today on ‘secret speccie’ duty) see them reunited with their friends and families, battered and exhausted – the players, that is. We stick around for Wigan’s lap of honour and it’s heartening to see so many staff on the pitch: anyone working with the team must have been encouraged to share their glory. There is clearly a close bond between team and fans but it’s a shame the usual mass of iconic WRLFC flags are absent as they’re not allowed inside the stadium these days (apart from one – the Peoples Republic of Wigan – on a tunnel below us). Wigan show off the trophy while Depeche Mode’s electro anthem Just Can’t Get Enough plays to possibly its biggest audience since an Austrian Europop festival in 1984.
VALUE FOR MONEY 6/10
Controversial view, but I think Wembley is not as much of a rip-off as it could be. My seat cost £31 but was booked months ago and upgraded but you could get seats in the top tier for £25: the same as some Super League grounds. Programme sales must have been severely limited by the £6 price tag – extortionate, despite being full of fascinating articles (although ludicrously missing pen portraits of the players) and nearly nine quid for burger, chips and a soft drink meant the queues were shorter than at London Skolars’ real ale bar the night before. Paying £4.50 a pint is OTT but it was only a quid less in the local pubs, and £2 for a cup of tea was steep but not outrageous.
Credit to Leeds for a gutsy fightback that silenced the Wigan masses for half an hour and made the game gripping for us neutrals until Thomas Leuluai’s late 50/50 winner. My mate and I decide to investigate the uninspiring local bar scene before heading to the maelstrom of Baker Street. It is a surreal experience: dozens of immaculately dressed West Indian families walk from a church service through crowds of disconsolate Leeds fans dressed as nuns. In the Wembley Tavern, a group of middle-aged men dressed from Tommy Cooper Fez on head to silk slipper-shod toe are proudly representing the Isle of Wight Wigan Supporters Club. Only at the Challenge Cup Final. I loved it.
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 6