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  1. Diary
1 June 2024

Wigan’s underdog spirit

A northern takeover of Wembley, a D-Day tribute, and the greatest try ever.

By Kris Radlinski

As the final whistle blew on a sunny afternoon in Doncaster, signalling the end of the Rugby League Challenge Cup semi-final, my initial euphoria as Wigan Warriors’ chief executive swiftly turned into a realisation of the monumental task ahead. The responsibility of mobilising more than 10,000 Wiganers to our capital city for the cup final on 8 June fell squarely on my shoulders. Tickets, trains, dress codes, hotels, merchandise, guest invitations – the list seemed endless. Not to mention ensuring my wife had a new dress for the occasion. With just two weeks to orchestrate this, the workload was daunting, yet the answer to whether it’s worth it is a resounding yes.

The allure of Wembley endures for every Wiganer, especially for me. Fond memories of the Eighties and Nineties, with regular pilgrimages to the capital to watch my heroes, have shaped who I am today. This history has paved a difficult road for us to follow, but it is one we must cherish. We have come to understand that pressure is a privilege.

Sunburn and souvenirs

At our club, the first words players see when they enter the training facility each day are: “Dream big, work hard, stay humble.” This simple mantra serves as a daily reminder of the people we represent – the hard-working folks of Wigan. Next weekend, they will spend their hard-earned money making the trip down south, buying souvenirs, packing lunches and singing throughout the journey. Yes, they will grumble about the price of a pint, but they will still pay for it, say thank you, sup it, and come back for more. Wembley will be full of 70,000 northerners with not a policeman in sight as fans from many teams rub shoulders on rugby league’s big day out. Banter will be high – as will the sunburn factor.

There’s something about Wigan

There’s something special in the water in Wigan, and I’ve spent years trying to pinpoint what it is. This small town has produced remarkable individuals and sporting moments that deserve celebration and scrutiny. Consider the likes of Andrew Farrell, head coach of Ireland and the British Lions in rugby union; Shaun Edwards, the most decorated rugby league player and now French rugby union defensive coach; Keely Hodgkinson, the record-breaking runner; Paul Deacon, head coach of Sale Sharks; and Mark Bitcon, head of performance at Southampton FC, who just helped them return to the Premier League. Paul Winstanley from Wigan is tasked with finding Chelsea’s next manager, while Shaun Wane is the England rugby league head coach. Top football referee Paul Tierney also hails from our town. We have not even mentioned Owen Farrell! And then there’s Matt Peet, our own head coach, who will face the superstar coach Sam Burgess of the Warrington Wolves in the cup final.

What is it about Wigan that breeds such talent? My theory is that it’s the underdog spirit. We approach life as if we have something to prove. Even after achieving success, we swiftly move on to the next challenge, always asking, “What’s next?” I guess the modern term is imposter syndrome. I constantly remind people: when you walk into a room, stand tall with your shoulders back – you are from Wigan.

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A moment to pause

On 7 June, the eve of the cup final, London will come to a standstill around the Cenotaph as rugby league pays tribute to our fallen heroes. This year, the commemoration is even more poignant as we mark 80 years since the D-Day landings. As “The Last Post” sounds, we will take a deep breath and give thanks. At the cup final itself, the sport will honour those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Lessons in humility

This Challenge Cup final also marks 30 years since Martin Offiah’s incredible length-of-the-field try, a moment that transcended sport and is etched in many minds. Since that try, Martin has provided us with many memorable moments on Strictly Come Dancing, Can’t Cook Won’t Cook and Hunted. But it’s for his iconic Wembley moment that he will be remembered for eternity. On cup final day, Martin will be the guest of honour to celebrate this milestone. Truthfully, I don’t need a reminder of it – it feels like he has reminded me of it every day for 30 years. I don’t know if Martin has ever mentioned it, but he actually has a statue at Wembley. Dream big, work hard, stay humble (or not so humble in Martin’s case; he knows I love him).

The extra mile

So what wins cup finals? If I knew the answer, I’d be a rich man. “Marginal gains” is a term often used in professional sport. But where are those 1 per cent gains? We will do things to inspire the players. When they check in to their hotel rooms, a picture of their family will already be on the bedside table, reminding them of their “why”. Letters from family members and messages from the head coach will be handed to the players. These small gestures mean a lot, but they’re not enough.

Cup competition formats often ensure that the best teams reach the final. The team that wins is usually made up of players willing to go that extra mile. When their lungs are screaming and their legs are burning, they still get up to make the line. These unselfish efforts go unnoticed by the thousands in the stadium but make all the difference.

As I sit here a week out from the game, writing this note, my nerves quiver at the thought of these heroic efforts. Who will be the next legend? Over to you, lads.

May the best man win

My final word is for our respected rivals in the final, the Warrington Wolves. We look forward to a famous contest. It’s a pleasure to share the field with you. Let battle commence.

[See also: Even now, I still fantasise about being a footballer]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024