Seamus McCallion: Halifax's 1987 Challenge Cup winning 'band of renegades'
|Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Round 5: Whitehaven v Halifax|
|Venue: Recreation Ground Date: Sunday, 23 April Kick-off: 15:00 BST Coverage: Live streaming on the BBC Sport website|
They drank hard, they played hard, they worked hard, and they won hard too.
For five remarkable years, the West Yorkshire town of Halifax was home to a champion rugby league team.
Between 1984 and 1988, Fax climbed out of the Second Division, won the First Division championship, reached a Premiership final and won the Challenge Cup, and were only denied back-to-back Wembley wins by the new force in the sport – Wigan.
Hooker Seamus McCallion was the youngest member of the team having joined the club in 1984, just as the rapid ascent began.
“We didn’t do too bad for a bunch of renegades,” McCallion told BBC Sport. “Crazy guys who liked to go out for a beer and have a bit of fun.
“When you’re successful, you tend to get a lot of free drinks. The team spirit was created by spirit itself you could say, we were drinking a lot – too much I’d say when I look back.
“It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. David Brook bought the Australians over and they made the difference, the level of the game moved onwards and upwards.
“Once we got the balance, once the British guys could master the craft, we didn’t look back.”
It was a stellar list, Australia Test players Graham Eadie and Chris Anderson – named player-coach, Queensland stars Cavill Heugh and Joe Kilroy, plus props Keith Neller and Geoff Robinson were all part of the Championship season in 1986.
Added to the mix at Thrum Hall were a couple of additions from a little closer to home that completed the set.
“We had great signings from Wigan in Gary Stephens, Mick Scott, Brian Juliff, Colin Whitfield, and one of the best players I’ve played with in John Pendlebury,” McCallion added.
“What a player. I think having all those plus young lads like Paul Dixon, brought that mixture of youth and experience which added to Chris [Anderson]’s basic game plan, it brought a great combination.”
‘A privileged hobby’
Fax pipped Wigan by a point to win their 1986 title, a success that prompted a week off work to celebrate for McCallion and his team-mates.
It was a far different time for the ‘professionals’ of rugby league, whose time on the pitch amounted to little more than an extremely privileged hobby.
“You just got your match fees and bonuses,” he recalls. “At the time I was a maintenance engineer, and I lost my job. It was the 1980s, there weren’t many jobs so I ended up working at Ben Shaw’s pop factory for a year.
“The only good thing about it was – apart from having a great laugh, I had fun there – the physical work of lifting crates and loading wagons and going down cellar steps was like a massive training session. I haven’t been as fit ever in my life.”
While the Super League Grand Final has arguably wrestled the attention of the public away from the Challenge Cup final, in 1987 – it was still the main event.
Anderson’s team started out on their road to Wembley with a trip to Fulham, a “lucky” success as remembered by McCallion, and passed Hunslet, Hull KR and Widnes to set up a showpiece final with St Helens.
The trip down to London was an experience, as was the preparation for the game.
“Once we eliminated Widnes, Saints were in our path and we just thought – let’s go for it,” McCallion said. “Even the night before, some players had more beer than others and that was the night before the game.
“It’s quite incredible that you can do that, but you can’t turn around to Graham Eadie, who liked a beer, who’s been a legend of the game in Australia, and here, and say ‘I don’t want you to have any beer tonight – before this final’, when he’s done that all his life. Why change anything? He had his beers.”
‘The roar was deafening’
The walk out of the tunnel is often the most vivid memory for most players, whether winners or losers at the national stadium, where sight, sound and smell senses are all bombarded.
“Mick Scott had already been there with Wigan and he said: ‘Take everything in’. So I thought ‘right, I’m going to enjoy this’,” McCallion added. “I went out and the roar was deafening. I knew where my family were, they had banners and flags and scarves, so I waved to them. It was fantastic.
“Then we were standing there waiting for the Duke of Edinburgh to come out, but as soon as the whistle goes, you could be at Thrum Hall. You could be anywhere. I’ve never played on anything as good as that. It was like a carpet. That particular year it was prime. It was beautiful.”
That finely-tended patch of grass provided the Belfast-born hooker with perhaps his most famous moment in rugby league, crashing over to score the second try for Fax after Wilf George had crossed for the first.
“My children take the mickey out of me, saying ‘Oh yeah, you scored a try’,” he quipped. “I say, ‘Yeah, I beat about four people, down the wing, side-stepped inside…’ Ha. I actually was a metre out on the fifth tackle, they expected the ball to go out and I should have passed really.
“But, I knew I could get through because that’s my distance. I’m proud I’m from Ireland, I think I’m the only Irishman to score a try in a Wembley Challenge Cup final. So I’m very proud.”
Clinging on…then glory
Despite a third Fax try from Eadie and a Pendlebury drop goal giving the Blue and Whites a cushion, St Helens’ late fightback almost denied them their first cup since 1939.
Mark Elia had already scored one, followed by Great Britain centre Paul Loughlin and Paul Round who crossed to bring the Red Vee within a point.
With time running out, New Zealand three-quarter Elia found the line beckoning for a second try that would have won it.
“John Pendlebury knocked the ball out of Mark’s hand. that’s how good the guy is,” McCallion said. “Elia was going over the line to score, and he can score with his full body weight diving, but John launched himself and punched the ball out of his hand.
“Him saving that try is the biggest thing which sticks in my mind, and he also got the drop goal. So he should have been man of the match.
“To have a bloke like that in your side, he was only about 12 and a half stone, but he would throw his body into every tackle, he could offload, everything in the game a player needs and a super bloke as well.”
There was another positive offshoot to the 19-18 win for McCallion on a personal level.
“After the win, I left Ben Shaw’s and didn’t go back to work,” he said. “I thought stuff that, I’m going to have a week off to celebrate.
“I took the trophy down to where I used to work at the Yorkshire Water Authority, and they said there’s a job going. So as it happens I got my old job back. It was meant to be.”
Defeat after losing kingpin
Having gone 31 years without a Wembley appearance, Halifax managed to make it two trips to Wembley in as many years, returning as holders the following season where they met the full force of an expensively-recruited Wigan side.
Defeat brought to an end the short, glorious period of success for the now-Championship club, and two years later relegation and financial difficulties had set in. It was fun while it lasted though for those involved.
“I still think we could have beaten them but we lost our main kingpin when Les Holliday ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and he was carried off after 10 minutes,” McCallion recalled.
“The fact I won one softens it a bit, but at the time I was very, very disappointed.
“It was just good to be there to be honest, Wigan were full time, we were working and playing, and they were all internationals. The cream of the crop. We didn’t do too bad.”