|On Wembley way|
As Hull FC travelled further down their challenge cup path this year, it was as if someone had opened up the book of sod's law and decided to start applying random rules to me. Just before the semi-final against Wigan, I realised that I was down to work the weekend of the final. Did I tempt fate and try to change it, or wait to see if we beat Wigan? I decided to wait. Very soon after the win at the Keepmoat that put us in to the final, I started frantically trying to change my shifts. While I was worrying away about all this, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture just above my left ankle. So now I was in the a boot (visible in the picture above) and on crutches. How the hell would I get up the steps to my seat? In the event, I was only on crutches for 2 weeks so I would only have the boot to contend with at Wembley, thankfully. At least I didn't need to get my shift changed now as I would be on sick at the time of the final.
Not since 1983 have Hull been the favourites going in to a CC final, in fact, they've been big underdogs. And being the underdogs, I approached each of the finals in the same way, with no expectations of a win, I just went to enjoy the day regardless of the result. But this year it was different. We were favourites. We sit deservedly top of super league having beaten 2nd team Warrington twice this season in tight games. We had beaten Saints, Cats and Wigan to reach the final, a very tough, all super league route against top 8 sides. This year, we really could do it and for the first time, I was actually nervous before a final. Friday evening before the match was very, very long and I whiled away my time watching old videos of challenge cup memories on line.
And now some background. I started going to Hull FC games in 1983 aged 8 and the very first game I ever saw them lose was the 1983 cup final at Wembley, beaten by Featherstone Rovers who were the biggest betting underdogs of all time at the time, until Sheffield Eagles played Wigan in 1998, who also overturned the massive odds.
Since then Hull have returned to the final in 1985, 2005, 2008 and 2013 winning only once in 2005 at the millennium stadium in Cardiff. All told, Hull FC had lost 8 times at Wembley without ever winning. Speaking of which......
Now imagine, if you will, that you are a small rugby league club managing to punch a little above your weight and that across the city is a much bigger club. The bigger have won more derby games, more leagues, more cups, more challenge cup finals and have a lot more fans. If you were a fan of that little club, you might clutch at any straw you could and the straw that Hull Kingston Rover's fans have been clutching at for the past 36 years is that they won their solitary challenge cup victory at Wembley against Hull. The Rover's fans even sing their own version of Hull's anthem "Old Faithful" changing the lyrics to "You'll never win at Wembley" Now I am yet to meet a Hull FC fan who gave a crap about where Hull FC's 3 challenge cup wins happened, the only reason it became important is because of those clutched straws in the sweaty palms of the desperate Rovers fans. But in the end, the city of Hull has to face it, both teams are massive under-achievers in the grand scheme of rugby league but as bad as Hull's record is, Rover's is much worse. And if, in 140 years, your team had only won the cup once, and that was 36 years ago, you'd think that you probably wouldn't want to bring attention to that fact, but that's Rovers fans for you.
This year, the "Wembley hoodoo" talk reached a crescendo. Not mentioned all that much in previous cup finals for Hull, this year the press picked up on it much more and it was constantly mentioned. Breaking with tradition Hull's coach, Lee Radford talked about it a lot in the lead up to the final. He really wanted to shut up those Rover's fans and was using it as motivation to the squad.
And so in 2016, it had come to pass, that the 2 top teams in super league would battle it out in the cup final, the most eagerly awaited final for many years by most neutrals, never mind the fans of the 2 clubs. It was mouth-watering. Super league's 1 v 2, Yorkshire v Lancashire. Too close for most pundits to call. Two big packs promising to deliver a battering, bruising match and they delivered in spades.
Sophia and I arrived in Stanmore after a 3 hour drive and managed to park about a 5 minute limp from the station. We caught the train to Wembley park and by the time we arrived, the boot was rubbing the crap out of my shin as I limped along, but the view down Wembley way has a way of making you forget all about such things. The Hull fans were turning it into a sea of Black and White.
The lead up to kick off is full of pomp with a red carpet line-up and a rendition of "Abide with me" before the national anthem with all 76000 fans on their feet.
The first half was a brutal affair with huge collisions from both sides. I doubt many people would have predicted that it would take until the 34th minute before the first points would be on the board. Neither team had looked like scoring with defences on top until a pass from a very tired looking Frank Pritchard was intercepted by Chris Sandow who went the best part of 90 metres. Amazingly he was hauled down by Jamie Shaul who had set off after him like an Exocet missile. It only delayed the inevitable as Warrington scored with the next play. 6-0 to the Wire at half time and it was probably a fair reflection of a close, hard-fought 1st half.
I wasn't worried at all at half time, Hull have been a second half team all season coming from behind many times to win games. The most significant probably being the semi final v Wigan. In a lot of those matches, around 50 minutes in to the game, Hull had come alive, blasted out 3 or 4 quick tries and killed off the game. When we hit the 62 minute mark and it was 10-0 to Warrington, I definitely WAS worried.
Now, unfortunately a quick mention of the referee before we can get back to talking about the rugby. He was terrible. Truly awful. At my count he made 4 of the worst decisions ever seen in a cup final. "Letting the game flow" is all very well and something most fans would generally like to see in a cup final but failing to give blindingly obvious penalties is not ok. I have now watched the match again on TV to verify what I thought I had seen in the stadium, after all, I was a long way away in the stands and it is easy to see something different from so far away in the heat of the moment, but the TV footage was on my side. So here's his top "hits"
Failing to give a GIGANTIC knock on from a kick off against Wire. The player turned towards his own posts and pulled the ball towards himself. A blatant knock on, somehow, the ref seemed to think this was backwards. Even if it was backwards (it wasn't), these types of drops have been given as knock-ons for seasons now. Not that I think that that is right, but you can't suddenly change it now, in the middle of a cup final.
No 2: Minichello gave out a pass with Hull on the attack, a Wire hand knocked it down and we regathered and set off up the field. Incredibly, the ref managed to miss this. He clearly hadn't seen what had happened but saw fit to give a none-existent knock on against Hull. The touch judge had to come on to put him right. It wouldn't have been so bad if the ref had realised he was un-sighted and requested the touch judge, but that isn't what happened. Even though the right decision was eventually made (No thanks to the ref) it had stopped Hull's momentum and gave Wire a chance to regather their defence that they didn't deserve.
Only a few seconds later, the ref made another horrendous gaff. A Wire player clearly took out a Hull player in an obvious obstruction and once again waved it off. This wasn't marginal, it wasn't a maybe, it was massive.
There were other terrible decisions he made (like giving another knock on against Minichello when he managed to regather the ball and knock it backwards without it hitting the ground or a Wire player) but those were his worst ones.
A referee who makes such huge bad decisions in a final clearly isn't fit to officiate and needs to be kicked out of super league until he improves by a vast amount.
Now we have that over with, we can get back to the action that we SHOULD be talking about instead of crap, inconsistent refs.
With 20 minutes to go, Hull looked down and out. Both teams were out on their feet and Hull's energy levels looked as low as they come. Then came the moment of magic, the pivotal point, the game changer that will be talked about by fans for years to come....
Marc Sneyd, Hull's scrum half caught the ball on the fifth tackle with the team still pinned back in their own half. Warrington players were bearing down on him, he had a split second to get rid of the ball before he would be crunched. He took only two steps and drilled an incredible, inch-perfect kick. It bounced once, then again on the touchline before dribbling in to touch coming to a halt only a few feet later. A 40-20 kick in the nick of time. Hull had a full set of 6 deep in Wire's half. A couple of tackles later Sneyd put up an excellent kick in to the corner and I tell you, Mahe Fonua soared higher and farther than any Hull fan in a grey place dares to dream (TM The Shawshank Redemption 1994) He landed just before the line and had the presence of mind to stretch out and plant the ball down. Hull were back in the game with 18 minutes to play and when Sneyd landed the difficult touch line kick he piled on the pressure to the beleaguered Wire.
Wire were out on their feet but Hull looked like they didn't have much left either. The barrage on both team's defences carried on. Players were hitting the floor all around and the blood was flowing from many of them, not least from Kurt Gidley, Wire's iconic Australian import who was forced from the field with his injuries which was quite some blow for Warrington.
It was coming down to who wanted it most, pure grit and determination. 7 Hull born and bred players took the field for Hull FC that day, and no one wanted the win more than them.
Around 72 minutes, Hull looked to have gone in front when a fantastic grubber into the corner again by Sneyd was stopping perfectly in the in goal area with Michaels flying in. Unfortunately the ball was pushed out by Ratchford a split second before Michaels would have touched down for Hull. The video confirmed how close it was. It was beginning to look like it was too late for Hull when.............
with 5 minutes to go Hull forced their way deep in to Wire's half. Sneyd put up a poor chip kick in to the corner. It was landing close to the touch line and on the 10 metre mark in the middle of a pack of players, but once again, Fonua took to the air above everyone else and tipped the ball back to Sneyd who gave an immediate pass to the screaming Jamie Shaul who was clear through. Shaul made sure he put the ball down under the posts to make the kick all but a foregone conclusion. There was to be no "poor lad" moment as Sneyd went through his usual lengthy kicking routine, coming from around a sharp corner to chip the ball over the posts. 6 minutes for Hull to hold on to a 2 point lead. In the stands, the tension was unbearable. My heart pounded like a 90's rave track.
Warrington were desperate now. Only 10 minutes previous they had had a 10 point lead and were cruising to a win. Most of the players on both sides were visibly shattered but Westerman still had energy and his jinking runs and side-stepping were causing FC bottoms to squeak. Hull were defending out the game, 4 or 5 drives then a hoof as far down the field as possible and it felt too early, it felt like there was enough time for Wire to win it. Time and again the players forced their way forward with herculean efforts, as tired as they were the Hull forwards took in battering drives. At times, with the ball in Warrington hands it became like a 7 aside match with Wire throwing the ball around, not moving forward and Hull holding their defensive line, happy to watch Wire going no where. Then, with 2 minutes to go Wire had forced their way on to Hull's line and suddenly Currie had the ball with a seemingly clear run to the line, certain to score. Danny Houghton came in from nowhere with a miracle tackle, his 52nd of the match. Currie crashed to the turf inches short and the impact dragged the ball out of his grasp a split second before he slid over the try line. Watching it time and again, I cannot for the life of me see how he managed to drop it. The look on his face was pure anguish.
Wire threw the ball around like the harlem globe trotters and made mini breaks and with less than a minute to go they were breaking down the right. A bullet pass came out and it looked like Wire had a big overlap. In yet another miracle tackle, Watts launched himself from the floor at the Warrington player, forcing him to drop his intended pass short and Minichello landed on the ball. The game was over. Hull had their Wembley win.
In the stands there was a barely a dry eye. Players littered the pitch like a battle field. The relief and release washed over us supporters. Finally.
The steps to the royal box were climbed, the cup lifted, the champagne sprayed, the pictures taken, Old faithful sung, tears cried and fireworks, erm, fired.
|That's the Warrington terraces were looking at, hence them being a bit empty|
I hopped down the stairs at Wembley feeling amazing but with my right foot (the one that ISN'T broken) hurting more and more as I limped on to. After 24 hours of nervous energy I was now exhausted and feeling quite breathless, something the heat in the train didn't help.
4 hours later we arrived home and had a quiet drink in the local to celebrate followed by prosecco, before heading home to watch the replay.
I collapsed in to bed gone 1am knowing that in the morning, I would have to remind myself that it had really happened.