Challenge Cup: Joe Lydon's love affair with Widnes & Wigan

 

Challenge Cup quarter-final: Wigan v Widnes

  • Venue: DW Stadium
  • Date: Monday, 15 July
  • Kick-off: 20:00 BST

Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Merseyside

Some players have a special Challenge Cup moment... Joe Lydon has a catalogue of them.

Whether it was in the black and white of Widnes, or the cherry and white of Wigan, Lydon became part of cup folklore, finishing with six winners' medals and a host of memories.

"It's a very special competition. Wembley and the Challenge Cup is a fantastic opportunity," Lydon told BBC Sport.

Although a staunch Wiganer whose first taste of the big day out was with the town's schoolboys in 1975, it was with Widnes that the 49-year-old would first lift the famous old trophy.

He signed professional terms at Widnes at a time when Dougie Laughton's side were regular finalists, a lure too great for the then-teenager to resist.

Famous Lydon cup moments

Joe Lydon

1984 Challenge Cup final: Widnes 16-9 Wigan

Lydon collected an offload from Les Gorley deep inside his own half and sprinted 75m to light up the final at Wembley. He repeated the feat soon afterwards to pick up the Lance Todd Trophy in a thrilling Widnes win.

1988 Challenge Cup final: Wigan 32-12 Halifax

Halifax restarted after Tony Iro's try and Wigan's kick return saw Lydon streak through a gap and run 60 yards before passing to Ellery Hanley on the inside. The Great Britain loose forward had the pace to get over the line for the Cherry and Whites. Sublime rugby league.

1989 Challenge Cup semi-final: Wigan 13-6 Warrington

With scores tied at 6-6 at a muddy Maine Road with around eight minutes remaining, Wigan's hold on the Challenge Cup was in the balance, but a moment of magic from Lydon got them on the way. Nicky Kiss, at dummy half, whipped a pass back and Lydon kicked a 61-yard drop goal that edged Wigan ahead. It made the Guinness Book of Records.

1993 Challenge Cup quarter-final: Halifax 18-19 Wigan

Halifax came as close as anyone to ending the Wigan winning streak during their eight-season dominance at a snowy Thrum Hall, but again Lydon's accuracy with the boot ensured progress - another drop goal proving the difference and continuing the cup tradition.

"It was almost a promise - join Widnes and you'd go to Wembley. In 1984 I got there, playing against Wigan," he said.

If there was any sentiment, it never showed. The Chemics won 16-9 against Alex Murphy's Wigan, with Lydon scoring two tries and picking up the Lance Todd Trophy for his efforts.

"It was difficult. Myself, Andy Gregory and Keiron O'Loughlin - who also scored in that final - we took an awful lot of stick for playing against our home-town team," Lydon continued.

"We wanted to prove a point as Wiganers, probably wrongly on reflection.

"It was a fabulous occasion, and the tries, like the game, came and went so quickly. The whole occasion that surrounded it was phenomenal."

The 1984 season proved to be the making of Lydon who played in several positions, including full-back and centre. He won Man of Steel in addition to Player and Young Player of the Year awards, and forged a regular place in the Great Britain side.

It did not please everybody, however, with the loyalties of those close to him tested.

"My mother wasn't a rugby league follower - she was just happy that her son was at Wembley - but the rest of the family had mixed emotions to a degree, although a large degree of loyalty to me, I hope," he said.

"It was the friends I took most of the stick from, those who were die-hard Cherry and White and had been most of their lives.

"There were some people who found it hard to forgive that I was going to play against them, even more so when we came back with the silverware and Wigan didn't."

His form at Naughton Park led to a dream move, with Wigan paying £100,000 for his services in 1986.

However, it would be two years before he would finally achieve his dream of representing the Cherry and Whites in the Challenge Cup final.

"I knew how much it meant to the Wigan public, being born and bred there, but we failed (to get there) against Castleford (the 1986 winners) and Oldham (in 1987)," he added.

Lydon on team-mates

Shaun Edwards holds the Challenge Cup aloft in 1988

"There were so many internationals who were household names but there were also players who I consider special, cornerstones of most teams who don't get the recognition.

"There was Andy Gregory, Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah, as well as leaders like Dean Bell, Gene Miles, Andrew Farrar - real solid players who you looked at in the tunnel alongside whoever the opposition were and thought: 'I'm in the right team here.'

"It didn't matter what way the game went or how the opposition thought they wanted to play it, we had the ability to counter it, and that's special.

"We had the confidence, not an arrogance, that we had a special group of people who knew what it takes to win."

Success in the 1987 Premiership final and a famous World Club Challenge win against Australian champions Manly that same year gave Wigan the platform for a cup tilt, and they responded by reaching the 1988 final against Halifax.

Their West Yorkshire opponents went into the final as cup holders, but Wigan, packed with talent such as Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley and the Iro brothers Tony and Kevin, were too strong.

"It was a fabulous occasion, made more special in that arena in front of a crowd that could be generated at that time in Wembley," Lydon said.

"Most importantly, most teams and people who have played at Wembley will know this, it's about the team spirit.

"Yes, memories are fantastic, of winning the trophy, the silverware and the medal, but it's the camaraderie, the friendship that goes along with it, and the changing room stories, the quirks of humour make it a special place.

"It was special to win my first Challenge Cup medal with Widnes, but knowing how much it means to the Wigan public, knowing I'm going to play for my home town, standing there just before kick-off unsure of what was going to happen but knowing we had some great players, was very special."

Between 1988 and defeat by Salford in February 1996, no-one could touch the men from Central Park, who recorded 43 consecutive victories as they won the cup eight times in a row.

"I heard criticism that Wigan were 'spoiling the game', that we were too dominant. Rubbish, it was fantastic to be part of," he said.

"You didn't want to be in the team that let it go. I go back to a game against Hull where were 22-0 down at half-time at the Boulevard, our captain Dean Bell came in and said if we didn't pull our socks up, we could lose this.

"Not that we will lose it - we could. Basically it was up to us to sort it out and Andy Farrell eventually scored the try that took us through to the next round.

"People realised how special it was to go and wanted to make sure they were in the team that went back."

Schoolboy dream

"My first taste was with Wigan schoolboys against Widnes schoolboys in 1975; I played in the curtain-raiser at Wembley, a game we lost 8-0.

"I played against a certain David Hulme, not realising we'd be playing in the same team some years in the future.

"When I look back at it now, I have a vivid memory not just of the game, but everything surrounding it.

"We went into the Widnes changing room afterwards and met the players, and bizarrely some 10 years later I'd be playing alongside some of them."

Lydon's last Challenge Cup final appearance came in the 1993 victory against Widnes, while Wigan would go on to win another two - both against Leeds - before their streak finished.

Now, 20 years on from that success, his two former clubs again go head to head bidding for a place in the last four of the 2013 competition.

Although Wigan have re-established themselves at the top of the modern Super League and lifted their 18th Challenge Cup as recently as 2011 with victory against Leeds, Widnes only returned to the top tier in 2012 after relegation in 2005.

The game also pits two of Lydon's former team-mates together in Shaun Wane and current Widnes coach Denis Betts, two winners with history on their side.

"It's possible for Widnes, and if I know anything about Denis then it is that he knows how to win," said Lydon who is set to take on a post as head of international player development for the Rugby Football Union when his notice with the Welsh Rugby Union is served.

"It's knock-out rugby and it's the Challenge Cup. Many people wouldn't have given Sheffield Eagles any chance at all against Wigan in 1998 and there have been massive upsets.

"He may not have the ability to transfer that on the day, however, because Shaun will be trying equally hard to stop him and to progress in this round.

"But the beauty of cup football is the underdogs do on occasions win."