Fax’s Wembley cup heartbreak: Thrum Hallers triumphed in 1987 – but faced mighty Wigan in ‘88

Halifax RLFC players and oficials leave Thrum Hall for Wembley, 1988
Halifax RLFC players and oficials leave Thrum Hall for Wembley, 1988

Just 25 years ago Halifax Rugby League Football Club were at Wembley for the second year in a row to defend the Challenge Cup they had lifted in remarkable style against St Helens the year before.

It was a purple period for Fax, having been rugby league champions in 1986, the year before that Wembley triumph by the narrowest of margins, 19-18, against the Saints.

Halifax RLFC fans leave Halifax station for Wembley, 1988

Halifax RLFC fans leave Halifax station for Wembley, 1988

But Fax were lucky to be at Wembley again. They weren’t the side they’d been in the previous two years, winning only 12 of their 26 league matches and finishing eighth behind new champions Widnes.

In the cup Fax had had an easy start, beating amateurs Heworth 60-4 at York in the first round and following up with a routine 30-6 win against lowly Rochdale at Thrum Hall.

Fax had a hard-fought win, 26-4 at Hull KR’s windy New Craven Park but then came perhaps two of the most nailbiting games Fax fans can remember.

In the semi-final at Headingley in front of 20,000 fans Halifax and Hull achieved a rare nil-nil draw in a game in which both sides had late chances to drop a goal for a 1-0 win which neither took.

Halifax RLFC at Wembley, 1988

Halifax RLFC at Wembley, 1988

The replay took place four days later in front of 25,117 supporters at Leeds United’s ground, Elland Road. It was another tight battle, which Hull eventually led 3-0 through a drop goal and penalty by Gary Pearce. With 15 minutes to go Fax snatched victory when centre Tony Anderson raced to beat Hull fullback Paul Fletcher by a fraction of a second to touch down a loose ball over the Hull try line for a 4-3 win.

In the final it was a very different story. Fax were up against Wigan, the previous year’s rugby league champions, who were developing into one of the greatest rugby teams of all time.

Led by playmaking halfbacks Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards, Fax were never in the game, and especially after the Thrum Hallers’ star loose forward, Les Holliday, limped off after 19 minutes with torn knee ligaments.

In a disastrous spell before and after the interval Wigan scored six tries and Fax were torn apart by man-of-the-match Gregory’s stupendous ball distribution. The final score before a Wembley crowd of 94,237, who had paid £1.1 million to see the game, was 32-12.

Wigan also had two borderline tries disallowed and missed most of their kicks at goal and commentators who called the game the most one-sided Challenge Cup final in years said Wigan could have had a record score.

Tony Anderson and Neil James scored tries for Halifax and Colin Whitfield kicked two goals. The match was the last for Aussie Chris Anderson as Halifax coach; as a player he had been one of the stars of the previous year’s Wembley triumph.

Disappointed Fax fans who had made the journey in their thousands to support their heroes for the second year nevertheless returned home and lined the route from Thrum Hall to to cheer the team to a civic reception at Halifax Town Hall.

But Fax were in decline. The following season the club was relegated to the second division and then failed to return at the first attempt as financial problems began to squeeze the club.

For Wigan the defeat of Halifax was the first of an astonishing eight Challenge Cup victories in a row in a period which also saw the Central Park club lift the championship trophy seven times on the trot and nine times in 13 seasons.

The Halifax team was: Graham Eadie, Martin Meredith, Tony Anderson, Ian Wilkinson, Colin Whitfield, Bob Grogan, Steve Robinson, Neil James, Seamus McCallion, Keith Neller, Les Holliday, Paul Dixon and John Pendlebury. Subs: Mick Scott and Dick Fairbank.

Wigan: Joe Lydon; Tony Iro; Kevin Iro; Dean Bell; Henderson Gill; Shaun Edwards; Andy Gregory; Brian Case; Nicky Kiss; Adrian Shelford; Andy Goodway; Ian Potter; Ellery Hanley; Subs: Ged Byrne and Shaun Wane.