The Cherry and White army marched on Wembley last Saturday. Phil Wilkinson relives the Challenge Cup Final through their eyes...
They spill out the coaches, two hours before kick-off. Thousands of them.
Wearing the colours of their tribe – Cherry and White – they snake their way from the car-park to the front of the stadium.
It’s been four years since their last visit to the hallowed venue where the club they love became a household name.
Wembley – with its sprawling stands and high arch – hadn’t changed in that time, but the area around the venue has. Someone, somewhere, has found some vacant land between the hotels, bars and fashion outlet and the ground and – this being London – decided to build on it.
But as they walk past the unfinished construction work, they have more pressing concerns.
Like: Where’s the nearest toilet, where’s the nearest bar, where’s the nearest shop?
And then they spot a Sainsbury’s Local, and they pile in and fill their baskets with sandwiches and beers, and they moan at the length of the queue, which wraps all the way around to the cereal aisle.
Locals, doing their ‘big shop’ in a little shop, look at the fans and wonder: Who are these people?
They, in turn, look at the locals and think: Which idiots do their shopping in a Wembley Sainsbury’s on Challenge Cup Final day?
Even the residents should have known about the game; the signage, from Wembley Park station to the stadium itself, is big and bold and first-class. Good job, officials.
Stocked up, some fans risk the hot-dogs from the pop-up stands, others find space on the smart concourse area, slump to the ground and soak up the early-afternoon sun.
Other supporters head up towards the stadium, where an immortalised bronze Bobby Moore looks out towards Wembley Way.
Others amble over towards a new ‘fanzone’ area.
The name is naff – who uses ‘zone’ any more? – but the idea is good. Street-food, bars, bands. All good. Jamie Jones-Buchanan is talking through a microphone on stage; his thick Yorkshire tones are hard to understand, but they don’t care.
They chat or snapchat or check-in on Facebook or check-out the passers-by.
It gives it all a Magic Weekend feel and, you think: Has the May event taken over from the Challenge Cup Final as the place to go for neutrals?
There seem fewer shirts from other clubs than at finals-gone-by, but there are still a few; Hudderfield, St Helens, Leeds. Amateur tops, NRL colours, Toronto, too.
And then there are those in fancy-dress, including a group of friends all dressed as Mexicans, with one exception; one has a Donald Trump mask on and he’s yelling something about building a wall.
They spot a four-piece band, and shout, ‘Play a song’. So the band play a song, and the Mexicans and the President of America dance, and everyone is happy.
And then it’s nearly game-time. And so they file into the stadium, and take their places, and they wonder: Why are there so many empty seats at the top?
Before they find an answer to their question, a stirring rendition of Abide With Me sharpens their focus back to the occasion.
They have no idea who is going to win.
And then the teams walk out, Wigan led by Jack Johnson – the inspiration for the Joining Jack charity – and they line up, underneath huge, hanging banners emblazoned with the crests of these two great clubs.
Then special guest Ellery Hanley walks onto the pitch to meet the players, and they think: He looks fit enough to still be playing.
Someone give him a shirt!
Ellery spends time talking to the players. There’s George Williams and Thomas Leuluai and... Liam Marshall? Is he playing? And then news filters through that Tom Davies was withdrawn late on, poor kid, and the guests leave the pitch, and the red carpet is rolled away, and the game kicks-off.
Where did that come from? A nothing kick bounced into Anthony Gelling’s hands, and John Bateman is over.
They are out-numbered by the Hull fans but, at that moment, certainly not out-sung. But their celebrations are muted when the Black and Whites respond with two tries of their own, both by wingers, both from kicks, both from silly penalties, and some fans begin feeling nauseous.
Whether it’s the hot-dogs or the 12-6 scoreline, they feel sick. And then Oliver Gildart is over and it’s 12-10, and half-time, and still nobody has a damn clue who is going to win.
They clap as schoolboy players lap the pitch, and check their phones, and order more drinks, and get ready for the second-half.
Hull dominate from the restart. Fonua goes over again. Nice finish, too, from the big winger. Wigan try and again back into it, but they make mistakes.
And then more mistakes. Fonua goes over again but the video referee rules it out. Always liked James Child, they think. And then Tony Clubb crosses and they think: It’s a try!
And then it is ruled out and they think: I’ve never liked James Child.
Wigan’s biggest positive is the scoreline. Remarkably, they only trail by eight points, and so they will their team to improve.
And either by coincidence or some sort of Jedi mind trick, they do.
Joe Burgess over, try!
In the corner.
Which means George Williams can’t convert it, but it’s okay, because there are seven minutes left and only four points in it. Still they don’t know who’s going to win.
And then Burgess breaks again, and they think, ‘Thank God for, Budgie!’
And then he kicks ahead, on the second tackle, and they think, ‘For God’s sake, Budgie!’
Still, Wigan press on. Williams goes close, Sam crabs across the defence, Lockers loops long passes, Marshall makes up ground and Burgess breaks again!
And he’s in!
He’s scored, he’s levelled, it’s absolutely unbelievable, sensational and WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S FORWARD?!
And then the pass is replayed on the big screen and, begrudgingly, they admit Phil Bentham got the bloody decision right.
And then the siren goes, and Leuluai crashes to the ground.
But the referee hasn’t blown, and a Hull player breaks. He’s tracked back, and tackled, but it doesn’t matter.
Finally, they know who’s won.