Not many occasions are engrained on to the memories of Wigan Rugby supporters quite as important as Wembley appearances. Manly and Brisbane of course, recent Grand Final triumphs or numerous battles at Wilderspool in the 1980s would usually crop up in conversation to this day amongst the elder generations.
We have here an occasion which enters into the realm of myth and legend: The 1929 Challenge Cup Final. Let us have a look at why this game has been soo important to the Wigan Rugby League Club over the years.
Wigan started their quest for their second Cup win against Batley on February 9th with a routine 25-0 home win. Plus, a routine Johnny Ring brace of tries whilst Jim Sullivan was 100% with the boot. In the second round, Hunslet were the visitors to Central Park as Wigan again ground out quite a comfortable 16-0 victory to advance to the quarter final stage.
St Helens were the hosts at Knowsley Road on March 9, the result ending in a 2-all draw. The replay, however on the following Wednesday at Central Park left those in attendance no doubt as to the clear victors after 160 minutes play. Benny Davidson, who had scored himself against Batley and Hunslet managed to outshine Johnny Ring. A 25-5 victory and a double by Davidson and Tommy Parker meant that Wigan easily progressed to a semi final tie against the St. Helens Recreation club, scheduled a month later for April 6th at Station Road, Swinton.
Nearly 25,000 spectators had made their way to the new Station Road ground in Swinton or the tie and many of them left not knowing who would reach Wembley. A 7-7 score line meant another replay for Wigan the following Wednesday night at Mather Lane, Leigh. Despite being a Wednesday (half-day working hours back then), a crowd in excess of 20,000 descended upon Leigh town to witness another tight encounter. Despite an 8-0 lead at the break, the Recs managed to get back into the game after Wigan's Len Mason was sent off. Wigan held on despite the numerical advantage of the Recs and booked their place at Wembley.
I am sure the 1929 Cup run will be explained further on these pages but that's just a snapshot of how Wigan reached the Empire Stadium.
Mr. John Crawshaw, a farrier, of Hallgate, presented captain Jim Sullivan with a silver horseshoe made by himself as an 'omen' of good luck for the final at Wembley. Wigan were of course favourites for the Cup over Dewsbury. Wigan had the big name players from all corners of the rugby world whereas Dewsbury were mostly all local lads. Despite being favourites, excitement grew, especially in Yorkshire, on the big trip to the Metropolis. Newspapers "down south" were sceptical whether this breakaway code 'propaganda' would work in London. Column inches were filled on the rule differences between League and Union to try and inform the locals what this sideshow was all about.
In the lead up to the Final, the Wigan players met at Central Park at 9.30 a.m. each day, and the training included country walks, and an occasional round on the putting green in Mesnes Park.
Dewsbury in training for the Final. Bland feeding the ball to Layhe, Hirst and Westmore. (Leeds Mercury, May 1, 1929)
There was a general feeling of optimism that Wigan would win. A large following supported the club on their trip to London. Many excursions were snapped up, with many of those leaving on the Friday morning. Several motor coaches also took enthusiasts on the Saturday morning of the Final. It's like memories of waiting for Shearings Coaches at Aspull Fingerpost at 7am for me!
Large numbers of firms in both Wigan and Dewsbury decided to close Friday to Monday to enable workers to go to Wembley, and the Mayor and Councillors of both towns also made the trip down.
The Final would also be the first rugby league match broadcast live on television. As for the match itself, anticipation had grown on match day. Fully 20,000 Northerners had descended upon London for the day. Despite these seemingly small numbers, their voices were well heard o every sidewalk of the capital. Bot the Wigan and Dewsbury clubs laid wreaths on the Cenotaph. With half an hour before kick-off, estimates suggested that around 40,000 spectators were in the Wembley enclosure.
Dewsbury were the first team to enter the field and were given a reet Yorkshire welcome. A minute later, James Sullivan marched his men onto the battlefield. The wind was blowing from goal to goal which the Dewsbury captain duly noted as he won the toss, he decided to play with the wind.
Only four minutes had passed when Wigan took the lead via a Sullivan penalty in front of the Dewsbury goal. Bland, of Dewsbury, had been caught offside. Accounts suggest that both sets of players had found their new surroundings intimidating, or at least unsettling. This was shown in the play of both teams - mistakes were aplenty. Dewsbury could have levelled the scoring after Wigan's Len Mason was in an offside position, but despite the favourable angle, Joe Lyman, the Dewsbury kicker, missed his attempt.
After another scrappy couple of minutes, the breakthrough cam for Wigan. A move which started in the Wigan half resulted in a try. Bennett, securing possession, passed to Parker, who set Abram on his way to the line. The Wigan half back showed a surprising turn of speed and outpaced the Dewsbury defence. He completed the effort with a clever individual try at the corner. As hard as it was, Sullivan failed at the conversion. Shocking stuff. Here is the story of Syd Abram and that try.
Syd Abram proudly wearing his 1929-79 memorial Blazer
Syd Abram played for Wigan between 1926-1932, appearing 171 times for the Cherry and Whites whilst scoring 48 tries and a solitary goal. Syd played at stand-off or centre in an immortal Wigan team that included Jim Sullivan, Johnny Ring, Tom Parker, Lou Brown and Wilf Hodder. Mr. Abram's claim to fame is that he scored the first ever Wembley try in the Cup Final against Dewsbury on May 4th 1929, at around 3.15pm. Wigan scrum-half Arthur Binks (who later was awarded the MOM) sent Abram away on a 40 yards dash but Syd was blocked trying to find Lou Brown. Abram then cleverly skipped around Dewsbury fullback Jack Davies to score in the corner and claim the first ever Wembley try. Jim Sullivan missed the conversion.
Syd played stand off that day but Syd nearly didn't get the chance to play for Wigan - he thought he wasn't good enough! In 1925 he signed on for Salford aged 19 but here came the twist. Syd had played in the Intermediate Section of the Wigan Junior League and the Wigan club had first claim on lads who play in this section. A rugby referee Frank Fairhurst told Wigan not to miss Abram, so after three weeks' stay at Salford, Syd came to Central Park, signing on in September 1925, as a stand-off.
For about a season and a half Syd played in the Wigan "A" team until the day came for his call up. Tommy Howley, a main-stay in the Wigan squad got injured so Syd made his first appearance with the senior team as partner to Johnny Ring, of all people. Not at all daunting for a young lad. The opposition was Widnes at Naughton Park yet it was a good debut as Wigan won 35-2. Syd scored his first try on debut! Johnny Ring scored a hat-trick so not bad setting up Ring and scoring on debut! He went on to make 19 appearances that season, scoring 4 tries. After only making 8 appearances in the 1927/28 season, it was in the 1928/29 where Abram cemented his place in the Wigan first team. He made 40 appearances, scoring 10 tries, including his famous Wembley try. He once scored a hat-trick in 1929 against Broughton Rangers in a season where he made 43 appearances, scoring 13 times.
Syd began his career in Hindley, playing for Hindley St. Peters boys' team, and captained the Wigan Old Schoolboys when they lowered the colours of the unbeaten Hunslet Old Boys, beating them at Hunslet, on Easter Monday 1924 - The first bit of rugby Syd came to be proud of.
Fast forward to Syd's greatest moment and we're back at Wembley, 1929. The Wigan team only had 3 Wiganers in it: that of Syd Abram himself, John Bennett and Jack Sherrington. Dewsbury, on the other hand had a team full of local lads. Syd recalled many years later that great day:
"Our forwards mauled for the ball - the play-the-ball was different in those days - just around the centre line. A pass came to me and I simply started to run. I kept on going, all the time expecting to be challenged. I thought I may have to pass the ball but suddenly there was a gap. Lou Brown kept shouting "Keep going Syd" and then there was the line. One of their players just arrived to tackle me but it was too late, I was over.
"There was no kissing and cuddling like there is now. I just ran back towards our half and as I did one of our players shouted "Good lad Syd, the first man to score a try at Wembley and he comes from Wigan!"
Despite Wigan's breakthrough, Dewsbury now saw the run of play firmly in their hands. Great defensive work by Dewsbury's Joe Lyman made sure Johnny Ring was clattered into touch when a possible try looked to be on the cards. From the scrimmages, Dewsbury were the more successful and the more aggressive up until half time. With the score line in Wigan's favour, one would be surprised that Dewsbury were not the ones bothering the scoreboard operators. Dewsbury were very much on top.
Another penalty to Wigan was given as half-time approached when a foul was awarded when Binks was trying to regain possession of the ball. Sullivan opted for goal and made an error of judgement when he failed to gauge the strength of the wind, the ball falling short.
A drop goal by Dewsbury reduced the deficit and it could have been more had it not had been for the stubborn defence of Wigan on their line, led by the will of Sullivan. Jim was inspired by his own defensive skills, rush after rush by the Dewsbury forwards were always thwarted. He would not let them pass. The lads from Crown Flatt could have ended the first half in the lead after Lyman and Malkin dribbled the ball into the Wigan half. An awkward bounce of the ball spoiled Malkin from having a great opportunity to score a try.
The wind was now with Wigan for the second half, which would have pleased Sullivan with regards the kicking department. Davies, the Dewsbury fullback, was equal to anything Sullivan did in the kicking department. With the Dewsbury attack seemingly on top in the first half, it appeared that Lady Luck was with Wigan. Soon after the restart, Dewsbury found themselves having another grand opportunity. The Wigan defence seemed to be beaten as Lyman set off towards the Wigan line. He threw a pass inside towards Malkin. Had he caught it, the scores would have been level but he missed and another chance went begging for the Yorkshiremen.
Wigan had by now started to at last find their way in the game and chances were starting to be created. Binks managed a 'delightful' dribble which eventually saw Abram being in possession of the ball. Running out of options, his pass found Ring but Davies and Coates stopped Johnny from progressing as he approached the line.
Wigan's second try came about after a great movement by Bunks, Abram, Kinnear and Brown. Luck again as the final pass by Kinnear seemed to be of the 'forward' variety, yet the referee allowed the try to stand. Sullivan yet again failed at goal, the ball bouncing off the crossbar and away from the score. A 6-point gap stood between Wigan and Dewsbury with a quarter of the game remaining.
With around 65 minutes on the clock, Binks dispossessed a Dewsbury defender and sent out a wide pass to Roy Kinnear. The Wigan centre (above, photo Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, May 11, 1929) threw off a challenge by the fullback Davies an scored near the posts. This time, Jim Sullivan, the Great Jim Sullivan, couldn't miss the conversion attempt as the score reached 13-2.
Let us leave the final words with Syd Abram:
"It was the first RL Final to be played at Wembley and we all thought it was very strange. We couldn't understand why it had to be played down South when all the fans had to travel from the North (5,000 Wiganers turned up). But once we settled down we thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.
When Syd returned home to Hindley after the Cup win he was met off the tram by cheering crowds. "They carried me shoulder high down Liverpool Road and as we passed the Bridgewater public houses everyone threw their caps in the air and raised their beer mugs. It was a wonderful day. We each got £3.15s winning money and a £7 bonus. But the pack got ten bob less - the Club thought they didn't earn as much as the rest of the team!"
Syd was the youngest player that day, aged just 22. Amongst the three Wiganers, there were five Welshmen (Jim Sullivan, Johnny Ring, Tommy Parker, Wilf Hodder and Frank Stevens) a Scotsman (Roy Kinnear), and two New Zealanders (Lou's Brown & Mason)
The thing is, most people have never heard of Syd, or know that he scored the first ever Wembley try unless you look into it. Does that matter? Of course it does. It isn't just the Jim Sullivan's or Johnny Rings, names that roll off the tongue, that matter to Wigan's history, it is the team. If the great Tommy Howley didn't get injured then who knows what would have happened. Many people don't remember Mick Cassidy in the 1994 Wembley Cup Final against Leeds, but without his run, would Offiah have scored his second sensational, memorable try? Syd Abram matters to Wigan RL, so too does Lou Brown, Jim Slevin, Jimmy Birts... Syd wrote his name into the history books, Tommy Martyn knows how that feels scoring the last try at Central Park.