Thursday, 19 March 2020

8 in a Row: 1988/89

"This is the best club in the world, thankyou for having me as your coach"

Wigan had now shown the world that their lavish spending and mission to be the Greatest club side there had ever been (well, cementing their place) had gone off to a fantastic start with the Challenge Cup win in April 1988. The 1987/88 season had proved a huge success for the Central Park club with the trophy cabinet boasting a Lancashire Cup, Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge in an historic game against Manly Sea Eagles. Punters were streaming through the turnstiles to see superstars Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards and these Iro brothers play each week, with attendances normally coming in over 10,000. Wigan were now indeed on the up, but they had only just begun. Joe Lydon and Andy Gregory had been used to Wembley, it was commonplace for them to visit North London each year with Widnes and they started to believe that it was possible to do the same with Wigan. Shaun Edwards had been before of course, in 1984 and 1985 but there was a real hunger about the place. Great British internationals like Ellery Hanley and Andy Goodway had finally got their taste of a 90,000 crowd and were wanting more. More importantly I suppose, the Wigan fans now believed that another Golden Era was upon them. The older generations had grown up with the Great post-War sides of Joe Egan and Brian TcTigue and the Boston sides but the barren times during the 70s and early 80s had whetted their thirst to see the Twin Towers even more. The game of Rugby League was evolving at a great pace, especially Down Under and a younger generation of fan was coming back to the game... and what better way to enjoy than going to Wembley eh?
Andy Platt, against St Helens at Wembley signed for £140,000
The situation now at Wigan was that getting to Wembley was a necessity. Now the fans had waited a long time to go to Wembley, 2 Cup wins in 1985 and 1988 suddenly seemed to be nothing. People were now expecting Wigan to win everything. Anything but a Wembley win and League title was now a failure. Not to worry though. Maurice Lindsay's cheque book would normally answer any questions supporters may had had regarding ageing and retiring players. The answer was simple: Buy the best at any cost. The theory was that the club could spend a World Record sum, on anyone they liked, and recoup the money through increased numbers through the turnstiles. That was just one theory and in the end, you can make your own mind up if that really worked in principle. The supporters didn't have a care though (nor did the Board) as Central Park back then was a fabulous place to be at.
The summer was now over and after the usual rumour mill's in the press and public houses regarding summer signing's, the Central Park club was unusually quiet on the transfer front. Ready for the 1988/89 campaign were youngsters Denis Betts, Martin Dermott, Phil Clarke and Bobbie Goulding. Goulding had signed the previous year in a tug of war match with Widnes for his signature, such were his talents. It became apparent to head coach Graham Lowe that Wigan didn't need any more big name signings with youth coming through. The likes of Henderson Gill, Shaun Wane and Brian Case could still do a job, but mainly from the substitues bench. The Iro brothers and Mark Preston were adequate replacements for Gill whilst Martin Dermott was winning rave reviews at hooker. Yes, Wigan had spent silly money during the past few seasons but the team and club had come to a point where it was stable for once. Well, that was until Wigan signed Andy Platt from St Helens for £140,000.
Still, the League and Cup double had never been achieved before and it was a serious ask by all Wigan fans. On paper, it could be done. One obstacle however was Widnes. Dougie Laughton was still the coach and had signed Union starlets Alan Tait and Jonathon Davies to further boost their title credentials. If Wigan wanted to win the double, it would be a tough old ride to the final day. Alas, it started well! ... for Widnes. In a Charity match on the 21st August the two heavy weights on English rugby decended on the Isle of Man. Widnes took first blood winning 20-14 but of course it was only a friendly!
Payback would come in October where the two sides met in a Lancashire Cup semi final at Central Park. Old rugger Colin Tyrer's son Sean was useful with the boot that day, kicking five goals in a close 14-10 win. 1-1. But let's keep the score at 1-all for now. Wigan eventually beat Salford in what was a routine win in a close final to hand Wigan trophy number 1 of the season. Wigan went through Christmas and the New Year unbeaten, knocking up favourable wins against St Helens and Warrington on the way - always a crowd pleasing result in the traditional games. That set up a John Player Trophy Final against Widnes at Burnden Park, Bolton at the beginning of January. The score was 2-1 to Widnes in the result stakes with the Chemics securing a league win earlier in the campaign. Wigan duly made it 202 to give Cup number 2 to the ever smiling Maurice Lindsay. The Wigan public were happy of course, any trophy is seen as Gold in these parts, but what everyone was craving was a Challenge Cup run. Finally, it seemed, the Cup had come around again, which takes us nicely to Sunday 29th January 1989 in Doncaster and game #6 in the unbeaten run...

Game 6: Sunday 29th January 1989. Round 1 vs Doncaster @ Greyhound Stadium, Doncaster. 38-6, att: 5,274

It was a nothing game. A routine win for Wigan in the end. The only notable piece of news was that Joe Lydon crossed for four triesand that Andy Gregory had made an appearance - for half the match. At this time, Gregory had been dropped to the bench by Graham Lowe on a number of occasions, so naturally he had asked to be put on the transfer list. Lowe was trying to copy what was happening in Australia with squad rotations but this was met with uproar in the high profile Wigan dressing room. Gregory was still unhappy at being named as a subsititute with Ged Byrne being the favoured player to start (with Shaun Edwards filling in at #7). Apart from the four tries from Joe Lydon, Denis Betts, Tony Iro and Shaun Edwards also crossed and were routinely and safely in the hat for Round 2 where they were drawn to face Bradford Northern at Odsall.
Game 7: Sunday 12th February 1989. Round 2 vs Bradford Northern @ Odsall Stadium, Bradford. 17-4, att: 16,738
Bradford Northern were sitting mid-table by the time the Cherry and White hoardes decended upon Odsall Stadium for a Challenge Cup second round clash. The bookies made Wigan clear favourites even without Andy Gregory on the team sheet who was still upset about not starting regularly. Last season, the two teams met at Central Park in a 2-0 win in the mud for Wigan. This time there were to be more points on the board as the weather was remarkably better than 12 months previous. Earlier in the season, Wigan had beaten Bradford on the two occasions they had met: a close 20-17 at Central Park in the league and a slightly more convincing 16-5 win in the John Player Semi Final at Headingley. The result was never in doubt though, Wigan had only lost once since the end of November (to Hull) and were in good form. And so say all of us. The game itself was closer than the scoreline suggested. Wigan decided to play up the middle and to try and tire the Bradford forwards instead of running around using creative play. Luckily it worked as Edwards, Nicky Kiss and Ged Byrne crossed in a tough match. Byrne would have been delighted with his try - Gregory not so. Joe Lydon kicked a drop goal to make sure Wigan's name was in the hat for round three. with Wigan 16-4 up. Two tries could have tied the game late on but our Joe made sure of it. Steve Hampson must by now have been thinking about his maiden Wembley appearance somewhere in his mind. He had still not appeared at the famous old ground and as Wigan had been drawn away to Oldham in the quarter final, it must have made his eagerness to get there even more tense.
Game 8: Saturday 25th February 1989. Quarter Final vs Oldham @ Watersheddings, Oldham. 12-4, att: 9,402
Wigan were still on a good run of form. Two days after beating Bradford, they turned over Warrington at Wilderspool before beating Leeds at Central Park in front of nearly 20,000 spectators. Hanley scored on both occasions. The swell of the crowd could have been down to Cup fever. As Wigan were to be drawn away for the thrid sucessive round, the Central Park regulars needed their fix as their excitement that another Wembley trip was only 160 minutes away. Oldham had dumped Wigan out of the Cup two years previous and at a snow covered Watersheddings ground, there was a chance it could happen again. The two sides had only met once so far in the season, the first game of the season with Wigan winning comfortably by 40-18. Oldham struggled that season and were looking like a dying giant of the game as they were languishing around the relegation zone by the time the Riversiders turned up for the Cup game. Plus, the matchday programme went up by 10p on previous rounds!
Andy Gregory had now been restored to the starting line up a week earlier against Leeds, much to the delight of everyone save Graham Lowe whose pride may have taken a slight knock. If it was to be a day of shocks on Oldham's part it didn't start that way. The shock came by way of Wigan as, on a snow covered pitch, they donned their white away jersey - not many times can one say that a team clashes with the pitch! It didn't take a scientist to work out that conditions were to be harsh and a slog of a match was on the cards. The first try came from Shaun Edwards. Andy gregory made a neat chip over the top mid-way in Wigan's half and proceeded to kick the ball all the way to the Oldham try line. Edwards, ever does he, supported well and slide over to score. The first half remained 6-0 and soon turned into a narrow 6-4 lead as constant pressure from Oldham eanred them a score in the corner. By now the snow had turned into icy mud. Tit for tat and fingernails bit in the shovering cold. It took a moment of skill firstly from Andy Gregory and the Shaun Edwards to find an opening in the Oldham defence. Gregory switched the play to his right side and found Edwards supporting (as ever). With the defence closing and Edwards about to hit the deck, he flicks out a looping pass to find Tony Iro in open space, with support if he needed it, to open up an 6 point gap with the kick to come. Lydon missed on that occasion but duly converted a penalty moments later which meant Oldham somehow had to score twice with time running out. Wigan held on to book their place in the semi final - this year against Warrington at Manchester City's Maine Road ground at the end of March.
Game 9: Saturday 25th March 1989. Semi Final vs Warrington @ Maine Road, Manchester. 13-6 att: 26,529
80 minutes away from Wembley. Whatever year it is or whatever club you support it is always a nerveracking experience. The Wigan fans by now had Wembley on their minds AS WELL AS a league title. It had never been achieved before but who could argue against them? Wigan were still on a fine winning streak, with their only loss coming against Hull in January, and that meant that it was a straight battle between Widnes and Wigan for top spot. Widnes themselves had eyes on the double as they had reached the other semi final and were drawn against unfancied St helens in a game to be played at Central Park. Its a small world and a world which becomes smaller at the end of the next few paragraphs... So, everything was going well for the Pies. The forward pack of Shelford, Lucas, Platt, Betts and Potter were working fine and grinding out the hard work. Gregory was in the starting line up. Hampson was still injury free and feeling like a kid on Christmas morning believing that this could finally be his year. Shaun Edwards and Ellery Hanley were scoring when they felt like it. For instance, Hanley was on a fine scoring run scoring in 9 of the past eleven league games. Ironically, it was only the Cup games that he failed to find the tryline in thus far.
That brings us to Maine Road and a semi final against the men from Wilderspool, Warrington. The Wire, like Oldham were struggling in the league and were flirting with relegation but had some quality players in their ranks such as speedster Des Drummond and Aussie Test forward Les Boyd. A large crowd was expected and 26,529 of them made the short trip to Manchester to witness a hard fought and memorable Cup semi. Being a Cup semi final it would always be a tough old affair. Wigan had the upper hand in the league, beating Warrington twice home and away but form goes out of the window in games like this. And so it proved. Joe Lydon was arguably the star of the show in the end. The game had been level for most of the match, even with a try and conversion by Lydon. Many of the crowd were treated to heroic displays of power and brute force and last ditch tackling. It was nip and tuck for seventy minutes as neither side wanted to miss an opportunity to reach Wembley. Wigan, of course were as hungry as anyone to get their again, but Warrington's last appearance was in 1975 when they lost out to Widnes. It would take a moment of magic to reach Wembley by this point and magic it was!
With the scores locked at 6 a piece and ten minutes left on the clock, Joe Lydon finds himself 61 yards away from the Warrington goal line. He then casually, without anyfear of a charge down, takes aim and has a drop goal attempt which sails comfortably through the sticks to make it 7-6. It was a monster of a kick! Under no pressure at all, it seemed that there was only one man who knew what the next play would be and that was Lydon. Calling for the ball to be passed back deep, Nicky Kiss drills the ball back to Lydon from dummy half and casually takes a step or two and goes for goal. He later said "I just hit it and hoped, I was going to kick for touch, but Hampo shouted to go for goal, and I thought, what the hell". Jaw's dropped in the stands and heads dropped on the pitch. Despite Warrington's best efforts the wind was finally taken out of them. There was plenty of time still, of course, to grab a winner but after doing so much and got so close, Wigan had the sucker punch - or kick - to make sure Wembley was on the agenda yet again. Shaun Edwards grabbed a late try to officially start the party, after a cross field kick from none other than Ellery Hanley had given Edwards an opportunity to score. A tough tough game, remembered today by one kick.
Wigan were at Wembley again and their Double was still alive. Technically, a quadruple was on the cards as the Lancashire Cup and JPS Trophy were still being polished at Central Park. The only thing to stop their quest was now St Helens. A day earlier, Wigan's arch rivals had ended Widnes' dreams of a double by winning the other semi final 16-14 at Central Park. Richie Eyres had been sent off early in the game for Widnes and form then the Chemics were up against it. Widnes could have made it to Wembley had it not been for a bit of future fate, if you could call it that. Martin Offiah, forever scoring at will had the chance to win it late on when he rushed in to what looked like to be a certain signature Offiah try. It was left to 17-year old St Helens fullback Gary Connolly to produce a stunning try saving tackle to prevent a score. The irony here is that Offiah and Connolly would later form one of the best back partnerships the game had ever seen - at Wigan! But let's not jump the gun, especially in this section. Wigan were to play St Helens at Wembley -The Ultimate! Oh, and the matchday programme went up another 20p to 80p! cashing in.
Game 10: Saturday 29th April 1989. Challenge Cup Final vs St Helens @ Wembley, London. 27-0, att: 78,000
Since the final whistle and the victory over Warrington in the semi-final, everyone from both sides of Billinge Hill had one thing on their minds: A Wigan v Saints Wembley final. Nothing else mattered, or should matter - apart from Wigan's double assault. If all went well in the league, a victory over St Helens would be sweet. The two famous old clubs had only met in the Final twice in the whole history of the Cup. Both times, St Helens humiliated Wigan. In 1961, St Helens won 12-6. 1966 was worse for a Wigan fan, St Helens managed a 21-2 victory. It had been a long wait for another chance to put the record straight, an eternity it seemed for Wigan fans. Both towns were mad for the Cup. The first rule of being a Wigan player is that you make sure you beat St Helens - that's number 1. The second is that you get to Wembley. Wigan now had reached rule number two but not number one (if you're with me) and now there is a chance of the Ultimate: To beat St Helens at Wembley! Eighty minutes stood between Wigan and history...
On the double front meanwhile, Wigan continued their assault on the first part of their Double crusade by winning the next four league games after the semi final. Oldham, Featherstone, Castleford and Salford were duly taken care of before a Cup dress rehearsal against St Helens at Central Park attracted 21,000 punters. Wigan won 14-7 thanks to a customary try by Ellery Hanley (who was still scoring it seemed in every match he played) and five goals by Steve Hampson who by now had only one more game to stay fit before his maiden Wembley appearance, finally! Those 21,000 were treated to a fine display of derby nerves and big hits in a tight match. The win meant that Wigan were rightly installed as favourites to retain their Challenge Cup in two weeks times, but also meant that whoever won in the match against Widnes and Wigan would be crowned League Champions. Fate had decided that Wigan's last game of the season was to be against Widnes at Naughton Park, a week before the Challenge Cup Final. A poor start to the season meant that Wigan were in catch up mode. They still had only lost once since the end of November, with win after win eating away into Widnes' lead in the table. One point seperated the teams so it was winner takes all. 17,323 people crammed into every available space at Widnes that day. To cut a long story short, Widnes won, ending Wigan's dreams of the Double. The star of the show was Martin Offiah who further enhanced his stock price by scoring a hat trick and with it, winning the title for Widnes in a 32-18 title gaining win. His third try (and title clinching try) was as good as any he or possibly anyone had ever scored. He seemed to take on most of the Wigan team with a trademark jinking run from his own half ending up in the corner. The obvious thing now was that Maurice Lindsay would make him a priority signing, at whatever cost as soon as possible... but that would have to wait.
Maybe Wigan had one eye on the final, or didn't have the experience to grind out a vital win given what the stakes were, but the loss to Widnes was another lesson during Wigan's dominant era as it had been in the 1984 final. The double didn't matter now, the only thing that did matter was Wembley and the small matter of St Helens. Both towns emptied as 78,000 fans headed to North London to witness what had the makings of a classic. The attendance was lower than previous years due to the Hillsbrough Stadium disater which meant ground and stadium regulations had to come into force - meaning a lower capacity at Wembley. Tickets could have sold twice over for this fixture though!

Families are torn, even a village is torn (Billinge) between St Helens and Wigan. If you lose it is literally the end of the world. The only people who understand this are the people of St Helens and Wigan. Win or nothing. Rule number one: Beat St Helens and we're happy. On another note, the Double had gone, thanks to Martin Offiah, but Wigan could be in an elite band of teams who have successfully defended a Challenge Cup: Only six times in Cup history have a team successfully defended their title, Leeds had done it twice and Wigan once, but that was past. Saturday 29th April 1989 will always live in the memory for Wigan fans as they atoned for their 1960's defeats at the hands of St Helens, this time winning 27-0. Nil! Twenty Seven to NIL. What a dream! St Helens had become the first team in 38 years to not score at Wembley. They simply did not turn up. Their 'influentual' coach Alex Murphy was for once speechless, for a time. But first, a week earlier saw a dress rehearsal for the Final with a Premiership first round tie between the teo sides. The score finished 4-2 to St Helens in front of 17,542 at Central Park but the Wiganers weren't bothered by the defeat, the only thing that mattered ws to gain information from their opponents and to stay healthy and fit for the Final. Steve Hampson must have been on edge all match, despite kicking a goal! Wigan however did rest the halfback pairing of Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards which meant a rare start for Bobbie Goulding.

However, at Wembley, the game was even for a time. 3 minutes to be precise. Heroic fullback Gary Connolly, being 17 years of age, was like a rabbit in headlights. He was cruely exposed time and time again. His early knock on and subsequent Saints drop out created a play for Hanley. Ellery, newly crowned Man of Steel in the week, took a pass from Steve Hampson (glad to be playing) and charged towards the Saints defence. He then drew in defenders and created space for Kevin Iro to score whilst bulldozing his way through three remaining Saints players. From then on it was game over. Today was now meant for Ellery Hanley. The twenty fifth minute saw the Black Pearl turn on the style. From forty yards out he collects the ball at speed and runs into a box of St Helens defenders. One hand off takes care of one would be tackler and a jink to his right takes care of the rest. Anyone else would have been tackled but this is Hanley in the game of his life. His sheer power, drive and strength made that try for him and is still etched into many Wiganers memory to this day. Despite Wigan's dominance, they headed in 12-0 up at half time. Fearing a St Helens revival in the second half, Andy Gregory kicked a drop goal at the first opportunity he had to put further distance between the two rivals and make it 13-0 just after half time. Along with Hanley's solo effort, Kevin Iro's second was equally as memorable. The ball seemed to pass at speed through an advancing Wigan attack ending up in Iro's hands. His strength and power carried him over the line in the corner to make it 17-0 and a man on a hat trick at Wembley. A year earlier he scored twice and missed out on a hat trick, something that had never been done before. He was on one this year. With 15 minutes left on the clock Saints still had to score four times, but now it was all but over as Wigan sealed it after a sidestep by Edwards found himself in open space and advancing towards the Saints line until a last ditch tackle halted his progress. Luckily, Andy Gregory was at hand and a nice offload saw the little man score under the posts. It's usually Edwards backing up Gregory not the other way round! The 76th minute and it got better for Wigan. Of all the poeple on the pitch that day, nobody deserved a try more than Steve Hampson. After a strong run and good play from Andy Platt, he found Ellery Hanley who made a break down the right, eventually being hauled to the ground 20 yards from goal on the right touchline. The ball is then thrown to the other side of the pitch faster than St helens can shuffle across and finds itself into the hands of Steve Hampson on the left wing to race in and score. 27-0. Hanley won the Lance Todd trophy for his troubles and Wigan had won their second successive Challenge Cup. As the hooter sounded, boo's roared around the ground from angry and shamed Saints fans. They had been humiliated of the highest order. Wigan had set the record straight and were even with their losses in the sixties. Now for the next season!

Sadly, coach Graham Lowe was to leave Wigan after Wembley. His three years at Wigan had brought many a highlight: 27-0, Manly, Lancashire and John Player Trophies as well as two Challenge Cups and League titles. Manly Sea Eagles, ironically, were calling and wanting his services. He did not refuse, he had made history at Wigan and won everything there was to win. At the homecoming celebrations he said "This is the best club in the world, thankyou for having me as your coach!". Thankyou Graham Lowe.

(Alot of information of this story and quotes adapted from Paul Wilsons book The Best Years of Our Lives, 1996, Mainstream Publishing)

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