The West Yorkshire club Leeds were the only side in history to appear in a Challenge Cup final for three successive years between 1941-43. They had won the Cup in 1941 and 1942 but eventually lost out by a point in 1943 to Dewsbury over two matches. They hadn't played at Wembley due to the War, so Odsall was a favoured venue for their two Cup successes. No team had ever won the Cup three times in a row and it was Wigan's mission to set the record straight in the 1989/90 campaign. In the off-season, Wigan had lost their popular coach Graham Lowe to Manly in a rather dubious manner. Maurice Lindsay, the Wigan Chairman, had suggested that Lowe was 'tapped up' by a visiting Australian representative but Lowe it seemed was ready to go home anyway such was his inflated profile gained by his exploits with Wigan. The door was open for a new coach, someone to continue Wigan's rise to power. The answer lied in Australia. The Wigan club knew that no Englishman could be on a par with any Antipodean at the time so Wigan went hunting.
Parramatta currently had a coach in John Monie who, it was widely rumoured, would be retiring from the game. Parramatta and Wigan had a bit of history with players such as Steve Ella and Brett Kenny floating between the two clubs in the recent past so links were still active between Central Park and the Western Sydney club. After much begging and salesmanship, Lindsay got his man. Monie signed a two year contract at Central Park and was seen as the perfect coach to bring further success to the club and to control the dressing room. The playing staff were almost as you were. The old timers such as Shaun Wane, Henderson Gill and Nicky Kiss were still there only to be used when necessary. Graeme West was still knocking about and only managed to make one appearance in this season. The youngsters such as Denis Betts, David Marshall, Bobbie Goulding and Phil Clarke were increasingly eager to break into the first team and pushing through. Unpopular names such as Ian Gildart, Ian Lucas and Ged Byrne started roughly thirty matches a piece and it showed that Wigan didn't really need to spend big money to bring in success. A key absentee for the 1989/90 campaign was Tony Iro who had signed to play with Manly-Warringah.
Mark Preston kept his place on the wing for almost every match whilst the other flank looked like it had a rotation system on it. Vying for a place in the number two jersey was David Marshall, Henderson Gill and even Ged Byrne. It seemed that there were areas of improvement still in the Wigan club but with such strength in depth, Monie felt that by rotating the squad now and again would do nobody any harm at all, despite the seeming uproar a season earlier and the Gregory saga. Denis Betts and Martin Dermott had now seemed to call their shirts their own. Even Hanley was sharing with Andy Goodway during parts of the year but of course, injuries didn't help their cause. Steve Hampson was still going strong at fullback and even though Joe Lydon didn't have a shirt to call his own, his usefulness in any back position made him a key utility player. Shaun Edwards and Andy Gregory resumed their pact of torment in the middle whilst helping youngster Bobbie Goulding from time to time.
With the town still buzzing from the now legendary 27-0 win over St Helens it was time to go around again. The Double was again on the agenda but with a seeming lack of business in the transfer market and a new coach in Monie who hadn't won much with Parramatta, few doubts (only a few) were raised. Again, the Double had eluded every club and Wigan could have got it a few months earlier had it not been for one Martin Offiah at Widnes. Wigan were knocking on the door yet again only this time their cries were louder than ever. It wasn't going to be an easy ride as the likes of Widnes and Leeds were still strong.
Wigan started the season in typical fashion: by losing to Widnes in the Charity game played at Anfield. It was ok though, the league season was a week away and a tasty tie against Warrington at home would surely get Wigan off to a flying start in the league campaign. 14,741 witnessed a Warrington win. Not a good start then and with Monie picking exactly the same 15 names for both losses, almost immediately people were questioning what qualities this guy from Parramatta actually brought to Wigan. Wigan then had the chance to make up for their mistake by beating Leigh at Hilton Park but Monie stuck to what he believed in and the same side turned out for the third successive game. Those who made the short journey to East Wigan via Hindley would surely have been wondering without any sort of team change would newly promoted Leigh cause an upset and claim local bragging rights. Wigan won 44-7. Mark Preston grabbed a hat trick of tries, his fourth in two league games and was off to a flyer of a start.
One man who wasn't off to a flyer was Ellery Hanley, Wigan's crown jewel. Over the summer he was paid silly money to appear Down Under with Western Suburbs and in the process ended up getting injured with a groin injury, much to the annoyance of the club doctor and of course Maurice Lindsay. In fact, Ellery had only managed to make his first appearance a couple of days before Christmas against Leeds. Wigan up until that point didn't really need Hanley in the side. Andy Goodway had already scored 13 tries from loose forward and Wigan had only lost once in the League since their opening day kitters - and that was only by 2 points. But, call it fate, Goodway had an injury just as Hanley had returned... so all was well heading into the New Year and the smell of another Wembley run was in the frozen air.
Three in a row? Why not? In time it had seemed like something a silly man would suggest but it had been on the cards before. Leeds as mentioned tried and failed, just, in the 1940s and the Great Huddersfield and Wakefield sides had come close too, along with Widnes in the not-too-distant past. Ellery Hanley was officially over his injury in the Regal Trophy Final against Halifax in mid-January... he only scored a hat trick on that occasion. That performance against a plucky Halifax side, coached by a future Wigan coach John Dorahy, nailed down Wigan's intentions to the rest of the rugby world that they were on form and hungry for more. Early season had seen John Monie taking a step back and seeing what players he had at his disposal. Wigan weren't ready for Warrington on their opening day and with numerous team changes taking place and the return of Hanley, Monie had finally sorted his team out. All teams through to the Challenge Cup first round were dreading being picked to play Wigan as it meant that their Challenge Cup run was over for another year. Hull Kingston Rovers were the lucky winners of this accolade in a game to be played on the 28th January.
Game 11: Sunday 28th January 1990. Challenge Cup Round 1 v. Hull K.R. @ New Craven Park, Hull. 6-4. att: 8,473
Sunday came along and how cold it was too! I still remember soup freezing in its flask to this day! The conditions were terrible and the North Sea wind was on top form. A bitingly cold muddy pitch welcomed the Central Park outfit that day. Andy Gregory missed the match and so John Monie move Hanley into the halves to partner Shaun Edwards. It was probably a simple move but a move which would benefit Wigan. With the pitch conditions so dire, Andy Goodway could be used in the forwards for his strength and workrate whilst Hanley's skill could prove to be a potential match winner elsewhere on the field.
The game was as anyone would expect it to be, tight and up the middle. Hull KR repeatedly used the howling wind to pin Wigan deep into their own half with the reason being that Wigan's kickers wouldn't get any distance and hence a better chance of scoring. This duly happened, well, half of it. Ged Byrne and Shaun Edwards could not get any distance whatsoever on their drop outs and this proved to be a problem. Joe Lydon had gone off injured but coach Monie had decided to send him back on simply to get some distance on the kicks to help relieve pressure. Perhaps the only happy Wigan player would have been Andy Gregory, watching in his thick warm coat from the sidelines. It took a kick and luck of the mud to gift Wigan their sole try from David Marshall. Shaun Edwards had kicked deep into the in-goal area which luckily for Wigan was very deep. The mud helped settle the ball and Dave Marshall was all too happy to get a touch on it. Joe Lydon successfully converted to give Wigan their only points of the game. A hard fought tie but the result that mattered was that Wigan were in the hat for Round 2. Even more important was the heating in the car on the way home was thankfully working! Things you remember as a kid eh!?
Game 12: Sunday 11th February 1990. Challenge Cup Round 2 v. Dewsbury @ Central Park, Wigan. 30-6. att: 11,113
At a warmer Central Park that day turned up 11,113 punters which was a good gate for a 'certain win'. Shaun Edwards crossed twice with Kevin Iro, Ian Lucas and Denis Betts scoring also. Dean Bell managed to get on the scoresheet before being sent off. Andy Gregory started the game on the bench, returning from a small injury with Hanley moving to the centres and young Bobbie Goulding partnering Edwards in the middle. The game will probably only be remembered for Bell's loss of temper and the sending off in a straight forward win. The only thing that mattered to the Wigan public was that they were through and through with a smile as the Quarter Final draw set up a tie with Wakefield Trinity away at Belle Vue to be played two weeks later.
Game 13: Saturday 24th February 1990. Challenge Cup Round Quarter-Final v. Wakefield Trinity @ Belle Vue, Wakefield. 30-14. att: 8,033
Still with a job to do in the League, John Monie didn't rest any major players when Wigan faced Salford in the League game between the Challenge Cup ties. Wigan welcomed back Steve Hampson at fullback, a man who surely was beginning to think he would miss yet another Wembley Final due to injury. Salford were battling for their lives and weren't having any sort of luck in the league but they gave Wigan a game 32-26 loss at Central Park, a game that should have easily been won. The paranoia again crept into the minds of fans... how can they struggle to beat Salford with a near full strength side? Wakefield were going better and surely a Semi-Final place isn't going to be taken away from the now expectant Wigan army.
Wigan again had Mr. Campbell as referee, the same chap who had sent off Bell in the previous round and was roundly booed during his warm up pre-match by the travelling Wigan contingent. Although the game was on telly, Cherry and White hoardes were seen crossing the Pennines in great numbers. The gate was just over 8,000 which meant Wigan took a fare few and also the 'Wigan Factor' meant that locals turned up not to see Wakefield play but to see Wigan's talent. Kevin Iro demonstrated this with a fine long range effort of a try. It wasn't plain sailing for Wigan as one would expect, this is the Cup. Wigan had already beaten Wakefield at home in the League in September but anything could have happened that day. It was a tough game and even though Wakefield lost they could hold their heads high and say they gave a performance to make their fans happy which in a way could be argued that this game helped them give belief to stay in the top division and not be relegated. Shaun Edwards grabbed two tries along with the customary Ellery Hanley try. Wigan were without Dean Bell of course, so fate played its hand once again as when one leaves, another comes along. Steve Hampson retained his place and Joe Lydon, the World's Best Utility Player (official award), filled in at centre.
Questions however were starting to be asked of Mark Preston, Wigans wingman. He started the season in fine form, scoring for fun with a ridiculous games/tries ratio which sent him straight to the top of the try scoring charts. He had now only scored twice since late December and people were beginning to ask what was going on. Traditionally Wigan had always had a star man on the wing: Miller, Ring, Nordgren, Boston, Gill... he wasn't performing to the standards he personally set. The picture meant that it didn't really matter because Wigan could score from anywhere on the field whenever they wanted, but to start to have a winger with a drought was a waste of a player it was beginning to seem. Anyway, Wigan left Belle Vue safely with a win and were in the draw for the Semi Final.
Game 14: Saturday 10th March 1990. Challenge Cup Semi-Final v. St. Helens @ Old Trafford, Manchester. 20-14. att. 26,489
Hull K.R. had given Wigan a fight, but when the draw was made they knew it would be their only appearance in the Cup that year. The same can be said of Wakefield and Dewsbury. Wigan were easily the best team in the league by the time the Semi-Final draw came out. They had only lost once since October (to Hull FC) and coach Monie's team selections were starting to settle down. Wigan it seemed now had strength in depth when a star player was injured, another player was ready and waiting to play in the team. This sort of hunger had driven Wigan to a bit of healthy competitiveness within the camp. Bobbie Goulding had shown promise when given the chance in the halves and Denis Betts had now cemented his first team place in the second row. Youngster Phil Clarke had been given a few opportunities at loose forward, no mean feat when he had Andy Goodway and Ellery Hanley ahead of him in the queue. Kevin Iro was still showing that he still had something to give, along with Mark Preston who, although his scoring was becoming less, was still lethal when given the opportunity.
All was well then, Wigan were invincible and were on their march towards the Double. That was until they were drawn to play St. Helens in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup that was. You can win every game under the sun and have the megastars in your squad but that doesn't matter when you play your arch-rivals. Form goes out of the window. To any Wigan fan, the Ultimate is beating St. Helens at Wembley (with beating Saints to get to Wembley and winning on Good Friday coming in joint-second). 27-0 they thought, what would the score be this time? 37-0? 47-0? Of course, St. Helens were comepletely humiliated barely eleven months previous at Wembley and wanted to set the record straight for their fans, and for themselves. St. Helens were a talented side so to nil them again would have been funny, but unlikely. In the League, the Saints were battling for second place alongside Bradford Northern, Widnes and Leeds. Wigan had won their traditional Boxing Day clash 38-6 in front of a healthy 27,000 at Central Park earlier in the season so it was no surprise that the bookies made Wigan favourites to reach Wembley.
The trains were packed full of cherry and white jerseys when they left Wigan Wallgate and St Helens stations on that saturday. The Derby was on the road and the stakes couldn't have been any higher. Wembley was now 80 minutes away and it seemed that Wigan were 80 minutes away from making the Double a reality. A week earlier, Wigan had warmed up for the semi with a tough match at Headingley against Leeds in front of 23,500 spectators. It took a great deal of kicks to finally put Leeds at bay but it didn't matter as Wigan won (of course) but no injuries or suspensions were handed out. John Monie had kept the same side at Leeds which had played in the quarter-final a week earlier. Now, for the third straight game, the same 15 men were due to face St Helens. Hanley was at loose forward with Goodway in the second row. Steve Hampson (glad to be fit and hoping to stay fit if he beat St Helens) kept his place at fullback with Ged Byrne deputising well for the still suspended Dean Bell in place on the wing.
Old Trafford was near full to capacity as 26,500 turned up (Old Trafford had just begun redevelopment to what it is today then, hence the low capacity compared to today's standards) to watch the two great rivals slog it out. The first ten minutes was what most expected, the two teams neutralised eachother both in attack and defence. The first points came from Steve Hampson in the corner after a solid run through the middle by Kevin Iro initially. The Kiwi gained ground with a barnstorming run towards the Saints line to give Wigan a good chance to apply pressure. After a few tackles, Andy Gregory accepts a bullet pass and dodges around a Saints defender, twists and dummies the ball like he's at a mad dance and manages to brush off Saints' large loose forward Shane Cooper... Gregory then Kevin Iro on the left. Iro advances and before being hauled down under desperate tackling, manages to get a pass to Hampson who goes in at the corner. Fantastic play by little Andy Gregory.
A few minutes later, St. Helens managed to pressurise Wigan until a looping pass out wide found it's way to Joe Lydon who collects and races down the line, Henderson Gill style towards the St. Helens corner flag. It looked a certainty for a try with only one man to beat. That was young fullback Gary Connolly, who despite being humiliated at Wembley, produced a textbook and world class tackle on Lydon which prevented a try... Connolly just did enough to allow Lydon to ground the ball shorts of the line and force a knock on. The game was, as expected, a close encounter. Saints had welcomed a penalty to make the score 4-2 shortly after Connolly's morale-boosting heroics. Morale was boosted even further after the half-hour mark when little East Wiganer (Leigh) Shaun Devine dodged his way through sloppy Wigan defence to score at the posts to give St Helens an 8-4 lead. The commentator Ray French called him a "Wriggling Eel". Wigan pulled a penalty back shortly afterward but the last laugh of the half was reserved for St. Helens as their winger Les Quirk scored a fantastic try before the hooter. Getting the ball on his own 20, Quirk scoots around Joe Lydon and runs into open space mid-field. Steve Hampson, last man on guard, shuts the door on him going towards the posts so now it was a straight fight to the corner flag between Quirk and Hampson. Hampson makes a tackle attempt but Quirk was too fast and his legs slide through the grasp of Hampo to score in at the corner. Just a shame it was scored by St Helens!
Coming out after half-time 12-6 down, Wigan needed to improve. St. Helens were perhaps the biggest threat in now three years of Wigan's domination of the Cup and for the fans, it was bad enough losing in a Cup semi-final but losing to St. Helens? Unimaginable. Two Joe Lydon penalties had pegged Wigan back to a 12-10 scoreline but it was an odl fashioned defensive display from both sides that neutralised any attack thrown at them. A classic game of rugby league. It wasn't until the last quarter of the match had ticked by when Wigan found their breakthrough. Steve Hampson, wanting to play at Wembley for only his second time was thirsty. With ball and about 30 metres out, he throws out a pass, which ignores Ellery Hanley, to Andy Goodway who, simply, draws in the Saints defender to gift Ged Byrne a chance to run in at the corner. Despite Gary Connolly sliding across to cover, Byrne gets low easy and evades the tackle to score in at the corner to make the score, ultimately, 14-12 to Wigan.
St Helens did manage to level the score yet again via a penalty when Wigan made the mistake of being stupid in a silly position. A kick at goal it seemed was prescious in this tight game and on the 78th minute, the score was deadlocked at 14-a-piece and heading for a mid-week replay. Nails were being bitten. Man of the Match Paul Groves, of St. Helens on the last tackle tried his luck with a chip over the top but it failed. Wigan now had possession midway into their own half as the clock ticked down to the final minute. Steve Hampson, desperate for Wembley, scoots from dummy half and gains ground up field at pace until eventually being hauled down over the half way line. Rather comically on the next play, Wigan prop Andy Platt runs towards the touchline and fails to try and evade a tackle, falling to the ground in slow motion like he had been theatrically shot. He was probably knackered. Edwards then finds his best mate Andy Gregory who simply twisted his body and threw the ball to Ellery Hanley. Now, with Wembley at stake, scores tied heading for a replay etc etc... it's times like these that the big guns shine. "LONG LIVE THE KING!" Hanley powers forward and bounces off a would-be tackle with ease, runs around Man of the Match Groves and dummies his way around panicking Saints defenders. He finds Andy Goodway in support and offloads just in time for Goodway to run in under the sticks without a finger laid upon him to win the match and send Wigan to Wembley yet again! Jubilation from the Wigan crowd as the try made it 18-14 with no time left for St. Helens to score a late winner of their own. Joe Lydon accepts the 2 point gift to make it 20-14. The Double was on but more importantly, Saints were beaten (which is first) and Wembley was on the cards again (which is second priority).
St. Helens had made more than enough of a show against Wigan to eliniate their humilty barely a year previous during their 27-0 loss in front of the whole world. The game could have gone either way, with Wigan being pushed all the way. It took a moment of magic from the Black Pearl Hanley to unlock the defence in the most entertaining fashion at a supreme moment. Wigan fans, if they hadn't already, were now booking the coach tickets yet again that Saturday evening as they could now look forward to a Final tie against Warrington.
In the run up to the Final, Wigan had the usual loss to Widnes to contend with, along with a blip against Castleford in the League. It wasn't too much of a worry as Monie decided to rest a few players with some representing Great Britain against France. Phil Clarke made the most of his first team appearances (even at centre) in the mean time and a cameo appearance by Graeme West against Castleford was one for the pub quizes. Dean Bell then made a welcome return to the Wigan lineup after his fisty-cuffs against Leeds in the League game at Central Park in front of a healthy 24,462 and with the League all but wrapped up by now after this win, Wigan could look forward to a Final against Warrington. What better way to warm up for a Challenge Cup Final against Warrington than playing Warrington a week before playing Warrington? Wigan found themselves in this situation a week before Wembley in a Premiership clash at Central Park in front of a low 10,000. Many Wiganers had probably spent their money on coach and match tickets to bother going to an extra game but Wigan managed to win 28-26. Bobbie Goulding shone as the likes of Andy Platt (sub), Lydon, Iro, Edwards, Gregory and Hanley were rested for the Final a week later. All eyes on Wembley!
Game 15: Saturday 28th April 1990. Challenge Cup Final v. Warrington @ Wembley Stadium, London. 36-14. att. 77,729
The weather at last was perfect in North London, a blazing 32C and more was enjoyed by all that day. For the second year running, Lancashire had emptied two-towns for the day and Warrington sent an army of Primrose and Blue as this was their first appearance at Wembley since 1975. Wigan were of course the favourites to win the Cup for a record breaking third time in a row and who could blame anyone who installed them as favourites? Hampson, Lydon, Edwards, Gregory, Hanley, Dermott, Platt, Betts, Goodway were all GB internationals with Kevin Iro, Bell, Shelford and Preston making the numbers up. A team full of World Class superstars. Mark Preston had managed to keep his place in the Wigan team and Kevin Iro was hoping to score two more tries for the third year in succession to create his own bit of history. Youngster Bobbie Goulding had done enough to convince John Monie to give him a spot on the subs bench, with the #15 jersey being awarded to a happy Ian Gildart. Despite Graeme West's sole appearance earlier in the season, it wasn't enough to grant him a trip to Wembley as a player.