Locations of League: Wembley

Our journey around the villages, towns and cities that have rugby league running through their veins reaches the home of the Challenge Cup Final.

QUE sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley…

The place has become synonymous with the Challenge Cup final, which this year will be played on Saturday, June 8th.

In the 95 years since it was first played there, the showpiece has only been moved elsewhere due to the Second World War, occasions on which Wembley was unavailable, including the period from 2000 to 2006 as the stadium was being rebuilt, and on the two times final replays were needed before the arrival of golden point, by which Leigh lifted the trophy last season.

We’re gearing up for the 81st Wembley Challenge Cup showdown, now of course, part of a feast of rugby league which also takes in the finals of the 1895 Cup and Women’s Challenge Cup and a schools showpiece.

So it’s interesting to reflect that when the plan to move the big match to London was given the go-ahead in 1928, after Swinton edged out Warrington at Wigan – and this being rugby league, it was far from unanimous – Wembley, now a sporting institution known all over the world, but then a six-year-old arena which was just one of a number of huge stadia in the city, wasn’t the only contender for the plum fixture.

Central Park was one of ten venues across the North of England to have hosted the final, the first of which took place at Headingley in Leeds in 1897, when Batley beat St Helens in front of around 13,500.

By the 1920s, as the country emerged from the First World War, attendances were growing significantly (some spectators in a crowd officially recorded as 41,831 overflowed onto the pitch at Rochdale’s Athletic Grounds as Wigan beat Oldham in 1924).

Transport systems were improving and becoming more affordable, making it easier and cheaper for large numbers of people to move around.

But there were still those who couldn’t see the potential value, both in monetary and missionary terms, of taking the Challenge Cup final to a bigger arena than either Lancashire or Yorkshire could muster.

The expansionists argued that an annual match in the metropolis, with the accompanying greater media coverage, would do much more to popularise the game nationally than the occasional internationals which had taken place at a variety of football venues in the capital since the Northern Union (effectively Great Britain) were beaten by the touring New Zealanders at Stamford Bridge, home of the then-fledgeling Chelsea, before 14,000 in 1908.

Perhaps it was telling that it was a representative from outside the heartlands, Welshman John L Leake, who at the Rugby Football League’s annual conference in late 1928, moved “that the final tie for the Challenge Cup be played each year in London”.

While seconded by Hunslet, the vote was close, but at 13-10, was passed, and the process to pick a host stadium was started.

The owners of Crystal Palace (the old venue in South London, not the current football club), which had staged the FA Cup final from 1895 until 1914, were keen.

So was Brigadier-General AC Critchley, who had recently acquired the equally-vast White City in West London, originally built for the 1908 Olympic Games and visited in number 14 of this series in the Rugby League World issue of March 2023.

While First World War flying veteran Critchley was to become the pioneer of a rugby league club based in the capital, via the short-lived London Highfield in 1933-34, he lost out in 1928 as the deal was sealed by Arthur Elvin, who ran Wembley Stadium in the North London suburb of that name (it was then owned by a private company, not as now, the Football Association).

Just as White City had been built as part of the site for the Franco-British Exhibition, staged in 1908 to showcase the industrial and cultural achievements of the two nations, Wembley was the centrepiece of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25, a project which aimed to enhance the country’s reputation following the 1914-18 War and provide much-needed jobs for returning soldiers.

Certainly in engineering terms, what was officially the Empire Stadium was the most advanced in Britain, and architects John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton claimed it was the largest monumental building of reinforced concrete in the world.

Use of that material enabled swift construction between January 1922 and April 1923, at a cost of £750,000, which is around £53m today (the ‘new’ stadium took four-and-a-half years and cost £789m, which is now around 1.3bn).

The focal point was the grand entrance, bookended by the Twin Towers, 126ft-high, topped by domes complete with flagpoles, and to become a symbol of the old Wembley, just as the 440ft arch is of the current version.

Originally both ends were open, with the only sections roofed the two containing a combined 25,000 seats out of a total capacity of 127,000.

However, at least 240,000, were estimated to be inside the stadium for the first match there, the 1923 FA Cup final, with spectators famously cleared off the pitch by mounted police to allow the match, in which Bolton beat West Ham 2-0, to go ahead.

Despite the attraction of that event (which, in hindsight, should have been made all-ticket), the stadium was for a time in financial trouble, and might have been demolished.

But the owners persevered, and Wembley became a regular venue for the booming sport of greyhound racing, with Elvin eager to maximise its use, hence his interest in the Challenge Cup final, first played there in 1929, when Wigan beat Dewsbury 13-2.

The attendance was 41,500, leading those who opposed the switch, to brand it a failure, and it wasn’t until 1936 (Leeds 18 Warrington 2) that the figure topped 50,000.

However Wembley retained the gig, and as attendances at sporting events in general boomed after the Second World War, gates of more than 90,000 were regularly achieved, with the Wembley final record of 98,536 set when St Helens beat Wigan 21-2 in 1966, just months before England won football’s World Cup there.

Wembley hosted rugby league’s World Cup final in both 1992 and 1995. 

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 496 (May 2024)

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