Wembley memories

After experiencing a severe downturn in the mid 1960s, the fortunes of Halifax Rugby League club were revived in the 1980s. The on field improvement began at the start of the decade when, under the guidance coach Maurice Bamford, the club won promotion to the first division in 1980. But the success could not be sustained as consecutive relegation and promotion followed in each of the next 4 years. The sequence was ended when dynamic locally born businessman David Brook joined the board. He injected a wealth of established talent into the side by recruiting a number of Australian players whilst accompanying the Great Britain touring side in 1984. Amongst the first to guest for the club during the following Australian off-season were Mike Hagan, Martin Bella, Tony Anderson and Paul Langmack, who all went on to have successful careers in the game.

Halfway through 1984-85 season, however, former test winger Chris Anderson was brought in as player coach to replace Colin Dixon and the appointment proved to be a masterstroke. Anderson, who went onto win just about every honour the domestic and international game has to offer in either hemisphere as a coach, switched positions to play at stand off half and by the 1985/86 season had recruited Cavill Heugh, Joe Kilroy and Geoff Robinson. Along with himself and namesake Tony, they filled the newly established overseas player quota. After the number of Australians at the club had reached double figures in the previous season, this left a gap which was filled by a number of established British players. Former Halifax man Mick Scott was amongst the first to arrive and he was joined by, amongst others, former international scrum half Gary Stephens, Paul Dixon, from Huddersfield, Neil James, from Castleford, former Welsh Rugby Union player Brian Juliff and Colin Whitfield, from Wigan.

The extensive and costly recruitment drive required a more professional culture throughout the club and increased in income was raised from sources such as new sponsorship deals.
But the richest rewards were reaped on the field of play. By the last game of that season only a draw with Featherstone was needed to secure the championship. On an incredibly tense afternoon at Thrum Hall the match seemed won when Halifax led 11-1 at half time. But Featherstone, who needed a point themselves to ensure survival in the top flight, fought back to draw level as Halifax hung on to win the title.

The title success came 21 years after the clubs last championship victory and an even longer wait was ended in the following season as Halifax won the Challenge cup for the first time since 1939. The 1940s and 1950s saw the club endure agonising defeats in the final of the competition on 5 occasions. But Anderson’s team, which was now captained by Australian legend Graham Eadie, who had replaced the mercurial Joe Kilroy at full back, came out 19-18 winners against favourites St Helens at Wembley.

Halifax reached the final after beating Widnes 12-8 in tense semi final at Headingley and the Wembley decider was an equally nail biting affair. The crucial moment came after 72 minutes when New Zealand winger Mark Elia broke clear and looked certain to score. However, after he crossed the line Halifax second forward John Pendlebury got back to knock the ball from his grasp whilst making a desperate last ditch tackle and Halifax survived. The club returned to Wembley in the next season suffering a 32-12 defeat as Wigan began their record 8 year winning streak.