Time Machine: A crossroads Challenge Cup final between two great clubs 40 years ago

It might not have been apparent to too many at the time. But the Challenge Cup final of 1983-84 marked the beginning of the end of a great period for the winners, and the start of the resurgence – and how! – of the runners-up.

Wembley was almost a second home to Widnes, who were playing in their seventh showpiece in ten years in 1984 – and lifted the trophy for the fourth time in that spell and seventh in all.

But the fallen giants have been back just twice since, defeated on both occasions and one of those in the 1895 Cup, for sides outside the top flight.

That’s a habitat which 40 years ago, would have have seemed unthinkable for the legion of black and white-clad fans who headed to the capital to cheer on Vince Karalius’ Chemics (this was well before the Vikings sailed into the town).

Widnes supporters have been through the mill in more recent years, with their beloved club dropping out of Super League amid financial strife in 2018 and struggling to make any meaningful impact in the Championship, something current coach Allan Coleman is working hard to put right.

So it’s understandable they are organising a special event to mark the anniversary of the 19-6 triumph over Wigan in front of 80,116 beneath the old Twin Towers (it’s at the DCBL Stadium on Friday, 10th May, the big 1984 match having taken place on Saturday, 5th May).

The weekend after Widnes look back to a time when the DCBL was Naughton Park, Matt Peet’s Wigan will attempt to see off Hull KR and so seal a 34th appearance in the final of a competition they have won a record 20 times, with eight of those successes coming consecutively between 1987-88 and 1994-95.

The Cherry and Whites were also league champions seven times running between 1989-90 and the last winter season of 1995-96, the kind of domination which back in 1984, must have seemed only possible in a dream.

For their last Challenge Cup final appearance had been in 1969-70, when they were beaten by Castleford, and as that decade progressed, the Central Park club’s fortunes declined to the extent that in 1979-80, they were relegated.

The catalyst to the subsequent upturn was a boardroom change, with the old regime bought out by a group including former player Jack Hilton, who became chairman, and local bookmaker and businessman Maurice Lindsay.

With a much more aggressive approach to marketing, the appointment of Alex Murphy as coach and significant investment in the playing squad, Wigan slowly but surely embarked on their new era of success.

And Lindsay later revealed how his disappointment at the Wembley defeat served to strengthen his determination to drive the club right to the top.

While Wigan went into the game having been limited to five final victories since winning the Challenge Cup in 1964-65 (in the Lancashire Cup in 1966-67, 1971-72 and 1973-74, BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in 1968-69 and John Player (later Regal) Trophy in 1982-83), Widnes were known as the ‘Cup Kings’.

That was due to lifting 14 trophies since 1974-75 (as well as winning the league title in 1977-78, something Wigan hadn’t achieved since 1959-60).

After Widnes lost in the finals of that season’s Lancashire Cup (to Barrow) and John Player Trophy (to Leeds), trophy number 15 duly came in the first Challenge Cup showpiece to be played since the introduction of four rather than three points for a try.

Eight of Widnes’ 19 points were through 20-year-old centre Joe Lydon, who came from Wigan and was later to join his hometown club in the game’s first £100,000 deal.

The Lance Todd Trophy winner scored with two sizzling interceptions, on 30 then 70 minutes, after a try by stand-off Keiron O’Loughlin (27 minutes), to go with two conversions and a penalty-goal from fullback Mick Burke and a field-goal by ex-Wigan prop Steve O’Neill.

Wigan had struck first through centre Colin Whitfield’s penalty-goal, but thereafter, were limited to prop Kerry Hemsley’s late try.

Along with stand-off Mark Cannon, hooker Howie Tamati (whose cousin Kevin Tamati played prop for Widnes), second row and captain (and future Wigan and Widnes coach) Graeme West and substitute forward Wayne Elvin, Hemsley was one of five Australasians on duty for the beaten finalists.

After a twelve-match run of appearances up to the end of January, when he returned Down Under for the Aussie season, the Balmain Tigers player had been flown back to Britain for a one-off outing.

And Lindsay later recalled: “I had been into the dressing room to commiserate with the players, and as I came out, Eric Hughes (the Widnes centre and captain, who was about to become coach and later took charge of Wigan) was returning to their dressing room and came across to speak to me.

“He said: ‘Your star is on the way up and Wigan will be back, but next time, leave your emotion until after the game. Wigan came to enjoy the final, but Widnes came to win the match’.

“What Eric said really made me think. I recalled the meal at the hotel the day before the final when Kerry Hemsley ordered a bottle of claret to go with his food, and I realised that we had to become more professional. We knew what had to be done as we walked out of Wembley that night.”

There were still memorable highs to come for Widnes, who were league champions in both 1987-88 and 1988-89, and after the second success, beat Canberra Raiders at Old Trafford in the World Club Challenge.

But Wigan were on the rise, and in 1992-93, avenged their final defeat of nine seasons earlier by beating Widnes 20-14 back at Wembley.

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

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