It must be quite amazing for modern rugby league fans to consider the importance previously attached to the Challenge Cup competition in England.
In the current era, disappointing crowds for Cup ties, including even the previously revered Wembley Stadium Final, have become more common. The competition continues to struggle for an appropriate time slot in a crowded Super League calendar, and fans, media and players alike seem to have formed the view that the Super League competition has precedence over the glorious uncertainty of the sudden death football produced by the Challenge Cup. Certainly it is a phenomenon also experienced by soccer in England, where the FA Cup competition has similarly been surpassed in lustre by the Premier League (and indeed the UEFA Champions League).
The extent to which the Challenge Cup competition in rugby league has dropped in importance is well illustrated by a quick review of some of the quite remarkable crowds which have attended the semi-finals of the competition since it commenced in 1895 – particularly in the glory period for attendances between 1920 – 1965.
Consider that at Bradford’s Odsal Stadium, the smallest semi-final attendance between 1939 – 1953 (even allowing for the intervention of the Second World War) was 57,459, with an amazing 70,198 initially recorded at the 1950 semi-final between Leeds and Warrington.
While Odsal certainly represented the biggest available capacity at rugby league grounds in the north of England for these ties, other noted capacity crowds for Challenge Cup semi-finals included 44,621 at Swinton’s Station Road in 1951 (again played between Leeds and Warrington), 44,731 at Wigan’s Central Park (1956 semi-final replay St Helens v Barrow), 31,212 at Rochdale’s Athletic Grounds (1939 – Salford v Wigan), 35,136 at Huddersfield’s Fartown (1947 – Wakefield Trinity v Leeds), 40,038 at Leeds’ Headingley (1937, Keighley and Wakefield) and 37,906 at Wakefield’s Belle Vue for Huddersfield v Leeds in 1936. The atmosphere at some of these matches can only be imagined, as the bulk are stadia where the stands literally hug the pitch and the singing and chanting English fans are right on top of the action.
What this list of capacity crowds shows is that the comparative lustre of the competition has dimmed since the glory days of the 1930s – 1950s. Of course, many other competing factors exist in relation to the general attendances at all sport since that period. Again in making a direct comparison with soccer, the English Premier League football competition today (despite all of its exposure and position as the number one attended spectator sport in England) does not see attendances comparable with those in this nominated period.
By 1939, the size of attendances for Challenge Cup semi-finals, played in the north of England (rugby league’s UK heartland), had eclipsed the attendances for the Final itself – played at London’s Wembley Stadium, barring war time and occasional unavailability, since 1929. Indeed, the 1939 semi-final between Leeds-Halifax drew 66,308 to Odsal, while the Wembley Final attendance was a “mere” 55,453.
But prior to the war, the size of available stadia clearly limited attendances for Challenge Cup semi-finals. (Indeed, it could be argued this applied even to earlier stages of the Challenge Cup when one considers the massive attendance at Bradford Northern’s third round Challenge Cup-tie against Huddersfield at Odsal in 1953 – a remarkable 69,429.)
Press commentary in the 1930s made it clear that the available rugby league grounds for these types of fixtures were too small. In 1936, Wigan’s Central Park was heaving with 41,538 inside for the first semi-final; and as we have seen, a dangerously large crowd of 37,906 was jammed into Wakefield’s boutique Belle Vue ground for the second. The 1938 season demonstrated the value in using bigger capacity football stadia, even if this involved paying a percentage of rent to the football club or council that owned the particular stadium that was utilised. The 1938 Championship Final, originally scheduled for the smaller Belle Vue venue, was moved to Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. The result was a record attendance of 54,112 (a ground record that lasted at the stadium until 1967), with many thousands more locked out many hours prior to kick-off. The governing body, the Rugby Football League (RFL), recognised the benefit of playing this particular match at soccer grounds (ie. The Championship Final), as every Championship Final between 1939 and 1956 (11 in total) were then played at soccer stadia.
Regrettably, the RFL does not appear to have twigged to the obvious conclusion arising from this example: to have played Challenge Cup semi-finals at the largest football grounds in the country (in some cases, invariably, access would have been refused – the thought of more than the occasional one off game no doubt proving anathema to many soccer clubs).
This was a shame as the smaller rugby league stadia often groaned with the sheer volume of spectators wanting to view the biggest matches and fans were regularly locked out on these occasions.
Even to this day, the need for a major ground of its own for English rugby league (and Australian rugby league for that matter) remains alive. Rugby league administrators in both countries have continually taken the view that there is no need for such stadia while other grounds can be used as required, despite the patent lack of prestige that comes from having nowhere of your own to call “home”.
Whether this remains the case into the future, or whether rugby league bodies at last grasp the utility of owning their own major central stadia, remains to be seen.
by Lyle Beaton
Photo: Stu Forster