It was a bit of a struggle for two middle-aged men to climb the dozens of narrow steps to the top of the twin towers of Wembley stadium. One of them was John Wilson, who had been appointed RFL secretary in 1920. A Scotsman, he had been involved with Hull Kingston Rovers before World War One, but had made his name as a cyclist and rode in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. His companion on the journey to the top of Wembley was Fred Kennedy, a Manchester builders’ merchant who was chair of Broughton Rangers and, for the 1928-29 season, of the RFL.
When they finally hauled themselves, sweating and somewhat breathless, to the top of the steps, both men realised it had been worth it. They looked out over the vast expanse of grass and terraces, and marvelled at the sheer magnificence of the stadium. They agreed there and then that this was the only place that the Rugby League Challenge Cup could be played. They returned to Leeds, and a week later the RFL Council made the historic decision that the 1929 Challenge Cup final would be played at Wembley.
It was the culmination of a debate that was begun by the Reverend Frank Chambers, now retired but still the game’s most famous referee, who proposed moving the cup final to London during a meeting of the Yorkshire Society of Referees in 1928. He pointed to the tremendous excitement in his home town of Huddersfield caused by Huddersfield Town’s impending visit to Wembley for that year’s FA Cup final, the first by a soccer side in a rugby league area. Later that year, the RFL’s annual general meeting agreed in principle to move the final to London. A new era had begun for rugby league.
Originally built for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, the stadium was the pet project of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, who told the 1921 Imperial Conference of Dominions’ prime ministers that the exhibition would house a ‘great national sports ground’ which the F.A. was considering for the home of the Cup Final. The exhibition itself lost around £10 million and the stadium became a white elephant. However, its image changed dramatically with the first soccer match held there: the 1923 ‘White Horse’ F.A. Cup Final when 200,000 people crammed into the stadium and were seemingly controlled by a single policeman on a white horse.
As first Wembley final approached, the RFL was determined ‘to make it an annual event in the sporting calendar’. It wrote to all clubs to encourage them to form savings clubs to help supporters save-up to go to London. Posters and leaflets were produced for clubs to distribute and speakers arranged for public meetings. In the south, adverts were placed in local newspapers and 15,000 leaflets cheekily distributed at England’s rugby union matches against Wales and Ireland at Twickenham. The minimum admission cost was set at a bargain two shillings, while the best seats were priced at ten shillings and sixpence. All matches were cancelled on Cup Final day so that everyone was free to make the historic journey south.
In 1929 a trip to London was still a rarity for most northerners, and did not fail to generate a sense of excitement. 20,000 people travelled south to see Dewsbury play Wigan in a Challenge Cup final which symbolised the state rugby league in 1929. The cosmopolitan all-stars of Wigan included five Welshmen, two New Zealanders, a Scot and just three Lancastrians. Their opponents Dewsbury had just one player not born in Yorkshire. Wigan won by 13 points to 2, and despite not being a memorable game, the first Wembley final drew a crowd of 41,500, and was universally acclaimed a success.
Although the 1929 crowd of 41,500 was surpassed only once before 1936, the national profile Wembley gave to the Challenge Cup final meant that the RFL decided almost immediately to repeat the experiment in 1930. In 1931 it signed a five year agreement with Wembley, although the 1932 final was played at Wigan because Wembley hosted England’s soccer match against Scotland on cup final day. At the RFL’s 1930 annual general meeting only one person opposed going to Wembley and, although Warrington argued in 1937 that Blackpool should be investigated as a cup final venue, there was little serious opposition in the 1930s. This was because of the national prominence that Wembley gave the cup final. To move back north would be seen as weakness: ’it would indicate that the Northerner was losing his grit,’ argued Oldham’s James Parkinson.
The move to Wembley stirred strong and often conflicting emotions, but there was no doubting its success. For once, the RFL had made a controversial decision which, unusually, had pleased both the vast majority of the game’s supporters and raised the game’s national profile, at least for one day of the year.
This is an extract from Tony Collins’ new book ‘Rugby League: A People’s History’ which will be published on 29 August by Scratching shed Publications. You can order a copy here and follow the author on Twitter via @collinstony.