Can you believe it? No neither can I! As I sit here on the train travelling back home on Sunday morning with a happy heart, a smile on my face and a raging hangover, I’m absolutely bursting with pride and I’m so, so pleased for everyone who is in any way connected to our quite amazing rugby club. However, I’m particularly thrilled for our soon to retire Captain, (seen above in a wonderful pose) because that win made it official; Superman really does wear Gareth Ellis pyjamas!!!
As another chorus of ‘Mark Sneyd’s on Fire’ rings around the train, how can I really explain just how honoured and indeed privileged we are as a generation of fans to watch a team that despite spluttering and stuttering at times this season, has probably more spirit, heart and will to win in such big matches, than any other Hull FC team in our clubs glorious 152-year history. Well, certainly, no other team can have had more spirit and wanting can they? Some will talk of the early 80’s and quite rightly so, but remember, back then, there were more cups to win and we were the big spenders and like it or not we bought a team. Now, with the salary cap we’re all equal and so it’s down to tactics, coaches, recruitment, the level of team spirit and the will to win of the team.
We’ve got all that right and these are for all of us who have suffered so long, very special times indeed!
That Final, a credit to the game and the two teams that played in it, was a contest of brutish strength, gargantuan effort, feisty fracas, acrobatic catches and personal sacrifice and you simply couldn’t take your eyes off the action for a moment. These guys really are the heroes, these are the history boys and these are fast becoming the FC ‘Hall of Famers’ that will be remembered forever as we say, “I was there” and of whom future generations will say, “I wish I’d seen that team!”.
We all know dozens of family and friends who have over the years died wondering about winning at Wembley, but we haven’t and our generation is just so lucky, for we have seen it done twice in successive years. I’m just so pleased that I have been spared to stick around on this mortal coil long enough to witness history being made in such an unbelievable fashion.
Sat writing this on Hull Trains on a hazy, headachy Sunday morning it’s pretty hard to believe even now that it actually happened. It was such a great moment, which was, once again, all gone much too quickly. For once we actually got the breaks, and that bit of luck that so often alluded us in the past, we were undoubtedly the best team and our reward was to taste sweet success once more and to do it on another baking hot August afternoon, when all the rugby league world stopped to watch. Anyone who wasn’t there missed a real treat and another seminal milestone in the Radford/Pearson revolution. For all of us lot, it was simply a must be there moment …again!
We all knew that there would never be another 2016 Final, for that was the ultimate instance for all of us, that was our time and it is now etched on the hearts and minds of every Hull FC fan who witnessed that epic win, but last Saturday ran it pretty damn close and I’m so, so proud to be a Hull supporter this weekend. Does it get any better? Some will tell us it will, but for this fan the answer to that one has to be, probably not!
Firstly, let me say that this diary has been hard to write. I know it shouldn’t be because the alcoholic haze that has followed me around over the last two days has put paid to any sort of rational thinking I might have had and so I could quite easily and happily, just waffle on forever. However quite frankly when you stand back from it all the magnitude of what we have witnessed these last 12 months, simply beggar’s belief.
You know if I’m honest, after all the tension, fretting, pressure and angst of the 2016 Final, this time around somehow I have spent the last few days in a sort of bubble, because somehow nothing seems totally real at all. I have to admit to wondering a time or two, if I was about to wake up at home in bed. I had at least expected at some time to see the return of the all-consuming stress and anxiety that I have over the years felt at such pinnacles of my Clubs history, but after last year it’s all been so much more laid back and, if you like, all a bit ‘as you were’. Of course I was in bits again in those last few minutes as I thought we had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but that soon passed and I guess looking back I probably just loved every minute of it all and enjoyed the experience so much more than I had ever enjoyed a trip to Wembley before.
So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that if ever anything proved that last year lifted all the shackles and liberated us as a group of fans, then this weekend was it. However, as the Cup is back on the shelf in the Trophy Cabinet and Lee Radford and Adam Pearson jostle for positions on the New Year’s honours list, here I’ve tried to collect my thought and pass them on for your enjoyment …or otherwise! It’ll all still a bit of a jumble for me this week, but anyway, here goes.
First up, just in case you should ever forget it, just dwell on this picture for a minute or two and have another look at the try that all the RL world marvelled at last Saturday afternoon.
You know if I’m brutally honest, for old timers like me, hearing the coach and the owner going on about the Grand Final being the ultimate prize is all quite understandable, but believe me as probably the only bit of history and heritage that Sky TV and the RL have allowed to be left in our great game (for between them they have stripped it of all its tradition and replace it with nothing short of a catalogue of gimmicks) the Challenge Cup is the pot of gold and the ultimate prize. For me and I’m sure many of you reading this, that wonderful Trophy, the trip to London, the gathering of the RL family with its many meetings and the whole jamboree of the day, ensures that actually winning that trophy in London provides the seminal prize in the game. All over the globe people get up in the middle of the night to watch it and great players become dewy eyed as they remember how they sat there at home with their Dads when they were small, taking it all in. That’s how big it is and boy oh boy we’ve won it twice on the trot now and that’s pretty unbelievable.
The build up to the final had, for me at least, undoubtedly been a lot different to last year. We went down at tea time on Friday but there didn’t seem to be the pressure on us, as all around on the train there was a party atmosphere and it was more like a ‘Jolly boys outing’ with the lads than another date with destiny under the sacred arch of Wembley. At that point, I have to admit to feeling, for the first time all week, a twinge or two of anxiety, but once sat on the train with a couple of bottles of Bud I was sorted and true to what I said in the Wembley Special edition, I remained relatively relaxed right up to the game. Comfortably numb was how I described it to the dozens of ‘well-wishers’ who text and e-mailed to ask if I was ‘Panicking Yet?’ I must come across as a right old ‘worret bag’ at times, but that is of course just how it gets you.
This time it was different and I kept telling myself that we had fulfilled our life time ambition last year and now we could all die happy, so there was really nothing more to do other than enjoy the day as just another part of this incredible journey Adam Pearson and Lee Radford are taking us on.
Superstition wise it all started so well too, as after not seeing the bloke since we passed him on the way to Cardiff pushing his bike along the A63 we passed the infamous bag man again on Friday tea time on the way to Brough Station, pushing his bike loaded with plastic bags up the hill at High Hunsley. Could it be an omen? Well, we like our ‘lucky mascots’ don’t we and although we all think they are phooey, we daren’t dispense of them just in case they aren’t. So the lucky underpants, scarves and hats were everywhere and coincidence and superstition reigned, as they ranged from who you bumped into on Wembley Way and who you saw in the pub, to us finally beating Wigan by four, (the same margin as they beat us in the famous 1985 Final) and then Tommy Leuluai following in his Dads footsteps to receive a loser’s medal after being beaten by the same score as the legendary James was that year. It’s all just part of the Wembley tradition really.
Once down there in London you just got sucked into it all and our little band soon realised that we weren’t the only ones who felt the pressure was off, as there were smiling faces, optimistic predictions and fancy dress everywhere. There was Superman, the Hulk, Batman, loads of Snow Whites and her obligatory virtually challenged compatriots (I’m being politically correct there) and of course, it’s all good fun, but by the same rule I guess you must feel pretty daft dressed as Bugs Bunny if you lose! However, one of the funniest moments of my weekend surrounded fancy dress and was when I fell in behind 14 guys all decked out immaculately as nuns, following a Mother Superior with a cross.
They all sat in the same seats as we did and queued in front of us for the bag check by the stewards. When they got to the bit where you were body searched the official looked them up and down and said. “Are you male or female, I don’t know which queue to put you in?” Priceless really!
There also seemed to be a lot of snarky faced Dobbins about the place too. One sat on the row behind us said to his mate “Bloody hell there’s a lot of fc fans here” to which his mate replied “We’re taking ten coaches to Featherstone” Really, I though, before this banner soon shut them two up!
We stayed at the Novotel on Wembley way with ‘Lucky Joe’ (of book fame) who remained by my side through-out and at the game we sat in the Hull end, but for the first time it was in the Club Wembley seats, which I have to say were ace. We had an absolute brilliant view and the bars facilities and padded seats were absolutely first class. However, although I’d survived pretty well through the week, by I got through the short tunnel and out into the sunlit seated area the party atmosphere was quelled somewhat as the reality and the magnitude of the task ahead began to bite. As I marvelled at the amazing turn out from the FC fans and mused on the fact that there were without doubt a lot of people there who had made a lot of financial sacrifices just to attend, I was so proud as we seemed to outnumber ‘The Pies’ three to one and boy did the ‘Old Faithful’ make some noise. If ever there were a group of fans deserving of that win it was those passionate pilgrims that made the trek down to the capital last weekend.
Much was made of the gate and there was the usual wringing of hands from the powers that be at the swathes of empty red seats around the stadium, but at least there really were 68,525 folks there. That was a genuine attendance figure, unlike the last 10 years when the 15,000 pre-sold Club Wembley seats were counted but were mostly empty on the day. This year, the RFL did well to sell the majority of that previous “ring of indifference” and instead left the top tier almost deserted. It certainly did look better on TV anyway. It is generally agreed as I go to print that the actual attendance was probably slightly larger than in recent years and although the numbers are yet to be confirmed, there were thousands more FC fans there when compared with what Wigan brought to the party.
On the field it was a tough game for ‘Radders’ to prepare his charges for, but it was also a match in which Mahe Fonua went from the much maligned ‘Dick Fingers’ to getting 9 Lance Todd Trophy votes, (the only person besides Sneyd to get any), which proved once again, just how much we are going to miss the big guy. Our Tongan international was forced to walk around the National Stadium on Friday in a pink t-shirt with that uncomplimentary nickname as punishment for his last performance. In fact, Coach Lee Radford later admitted that his toughest decision was whether to keep him in the team at all, or to include Aussie winger Steve Michaels. Thank goodness in the end our coach stuck with Fonua – as for the second year running the 24-year-old produced a crucial contribution.
Mahe told the Sunday Mirror afterwards, “At the Club you have to wear a pink top for a week in training and it goes on how many errors you made in the last game. I didn’t want to wear it on Friday as there was loads of media there and I didn’t want people to know I was that person – I tried to hide it as much as I could! But I’m really grateful to Lee Radford for keeping his faith in me. The last few weeks I haven’t been showing form and I really needed to repay him. I just went back to basics, simplified my game and I hope he’s proud of what I’ve done.”
No doubt our coach was indeed proud of him, because we all certainly were. He was Radford’s only real doubt and Steve Michaels, who was a notable absentee from the celebrations in Victoria Square, came within a whisker of getting the nod, but Lee got it right, Mahe came good as he proved once again to be the big game player. But in a game that cried out for someone to grab it by the scruff of the neck, Sneyd was again the epitome of the consummate play maker as he rose to new heights and was so good that there simply wasn’t another player on the field that could come close to being considered for the Lance Todd Trophy.
His vision and kicking augmented by his obviously brilliant organisational ability, saw him head and shoulders above everyone else on the field. It’s hard to describe just how good he was and as you watch it back again and again he just gets better and better. One commentator stated that he conducted a ‘Half back clinic’ all afternoon and that 40/20 was as good a piece of skill as you will ever see on a rugby league field. It was a performance I guess many of us will remember for a long time and I was still singing, “Marc Sneyd’s on fire – your defence is terrified” along with the best of them, late into the night.
Talanoa did well and scored a great try and he is still a marvellous player and I hope we sort his contract out soon, because he had a fantastic game again and his try was simply amazing. Both centres played their part too and needed to slide wide a time or two to stop Wigan spreading the ball to the flanks early.
Danny Houghton again as always worked his absolute socks off and ran the whole acting half back area brilliantly, he’s so good that he actually flies under the radar at times when you’re watching the FC, because he’s just so effective around the play the ball. But, I guess looking back it was out on the wings where we had a big pull, as Lee Radford’s Bradfordesque preference for big wingers that can run, jump and catch, had Wigan in trouble time and again.
Perhaps it wasn’t a classic game of open flowing rugby but what final ever is? There is simply too much at stake for that. However, for the casual viewers watching in in their arm chairs around the world it was a really close absorbing encounter, whilst for us lot there, those last few minutes were purgatory to watch. Whether it was better than last year or not is debatable but it was another tremendous spectacle befitting of the final and it was one where we dominated throughout but still came perilously close to losing our grip on the trophy. We were the best team no doubt and most pundits agreed with that, but we couldn’t put them away and they kept coming back.
The Wigan defence made a good job of keeping Albo quiet, as far as breaks were concerned, but he was still on hand to give two great passes to set up tries and watching it back he had a hand in many of the good things that we produced with the ball. Of the decisive off load to get Fonua in for that acrobatic last try he said, “Danny Houghton’s long second-half pass landed in my hands on the right edge on the last, but a miss-communication meant I changed course and ran for the line. We actually stuffed that play up, but we sometimes wing it and it comes off and that one did”. He had a lot to say about the brilliance of Sneyd too, when after the game he commented, “He does get criticised but your best players should be criticised each game. It falls on him all the time because he’s the colonel – I’m his right hand man. He directed play and set everything on a platter.”
Talking of big game players though where did that performance from Green come from as he and Bowden came on and just as in the semi-final, they both again ensured the intensity and power set up by Taylor and Watts was not reduced for an instant. It was there in the forwards that the game was won as our back three of Mini, Manu and Ellis, just pummelled the Wigan six to get us up-field and out of our half. Ellis led us brilliantly while Mini was strong and dependable and Manu was just the animal he usually is!
It was a tough, tough encounter, when Hull FC, the hardest team in the competition to beat on their day, blasted Wigan through the middle after a nasty, cynical punch by Mcllorum on Ellis in the first tackle, set the tone for a brutal battle. Some talked and talked about that disallowed try of Clubbs and Wigan were probably hard done to with that, but that was just one of three or four debatable fifty/fifty calls that were evenly distributed between the two teams and how often in the past have such calls cost us dearly. Just before that incident a Wigan player was seen to step out over the dead ball line but allowed to play on and so it goes really, you make your luck and despite the fact that Shaun Wane had obviously prepared meticulously for the match and the opposition, we still came through magnificently to dominate the game for long periods, with the first twenty minutes of the second half particularly critical when you watch it back.
It’s always so hard to really appreciate such games first hand for you become so absorbed in it all that any sort of objectivity goes straight out of the window. But, surrounded by what was I think even more FC fans than last time, somehow we all got through and the final hooter brought ecstatic scenes that once again I’ll never forget.
That final passage of drama with the forward pass was followed by first Talanoa and then Watts breaking up-field after the hooter had gone to cries of, “Just drop on it” from across the Hull terraces. Luckily Watts didn’t try to force a pass to Albo and instead fell on the ball as the celebrations began. Once the hooter has gone what happens as the presentations are made is the stuff that fans dream of. The look on the faces of the Wigan players as they collected their medals said it all about Wembley not being a place for losers, but again for the second year running and after receiving a draw full of loser’s medals over the years, Hull FC weren’t the losers, we had won the trophy, we were the Cup Kings and history was made.
Nothing that happened in the week after I had produced the Wembley Special edition of the Diary, was anything but positive, as an assured and quiet confidence oozed from every player that was interviewed. However, by the end, as we watched through our fingers, and no doubt some viewing the game at home hid behind the settee, it was nerve janglingly tense at the end, but the lads got us home and a generation of the FC Faithful were blessed with witnessing something that is totally unprecedented in the history of the Club. That swing from gut wrenching tension to abject and ultimate relief is something that should be bottled because just as was the case last year it was a moment that you simply can’t describe in words. Mrs R turned to me and said, “Challenge Cup victories eh? They are just like buses, you can’t get one for love nor money, then two come along at once”
Afterwards we headed off to the Holiday Inn, where a tired but happy James Smailes popped down stairs to say hello after a really busy day for all the FC ‘press corps’ and he reflected on the fact that as teams go Hull FC never do it easily. We also mused on the similarities to the game last year which we all agreed were actually quite amazing. There was the part that Mahe played in the drama, that dramatic last ditch tackle by Shaul, Marc Sneyd receiving the Lance Todd Trophy, watching Gareth holding the Challenge Cup aloft and of course another absolutely unwatchable last minute, all of which had us agreeing that the 2017 Final certainly took us all back to our most glorious day a year earlier.
That was however where for me the similarity ended because in the stands and down on the pitch the feeling at the end was noticeably different. Last year’s final hooter wasn’t met so much with celebration as with a liberation and an unprecedented relief that embraced all the players and spread out across the terraces, as the witches curse of that place in London so long used as a tool with which the fools from the East wound us up, was shattered once and for all.
This year thousands of FC pilgrims headed south, but did it in a state of mind that I outlined in here last week, as we were all determined to enjoy the occasion without the shackles of last year that were released in the wake of years of disappointment. This time what awaited us all at the end were happy faces and tears, this time born not from abject relief, but from pure joy. It was a great day and I just hope that all of you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Of course once home it wasn’t over yet as on Monday we all made the pilgrimage to Victoria Square as 25,000 packed the Centre of the City to welcome home the lads after a fantastic weekend. Here is a picture that just shows how amazing the turnout was!
It was all the usual stuff really and a joyous occasion, although Albert Kelly probably stole the show with this bit of real class when he was introduced onto the balcony!
And, that was it really I went into the City Hall afterwards and as I always say there’s nothing quite like a good old fashioned Council bun fight to finish off such celebrations and this was a good old fashioned bun fight!!! I hung around for a while before retiring with Uppo and all the gang to The Blue Bell to continue doing what it seemed I’d already been doing for days.
What a Weekend what a team and What a Win! I’m pretty convinced it just doesn’t get any better than that!!
So to some odds and ends of other FC related matters as last week, despite all us being severely distracted by the Challenge Cup Final, brought some more news on signings from the junior ranks. First of all it was French Trialist Miloudi, who arrived at the FC earlier this season and who has now signed up on a two-year full-time deal.
A bit of a mystery when he first arrived, the former French Under-20s international was part of the youth system at Catalans Dragons and spent time with Carcassonne in the top flight of the French Premier Division. At 24 he is taking his chance a little later in life than you would expect, but he has shown up well in what reserves games we could arrange and I remember he got two tries in his debut at Brantingham. Then he was loaned out to gain some more experience and has featured of late in the Doncaster side managed by Richard Horne. Radford certainly has high hopes for the winger and full back, as he looks for some cover for Connor and Shaul and we could even see him getting a first team start next year. On signing Miloudi Lee Radford said: “Hakim came over originally on trial and really impressed in the two trial games he’s played in. He’s showed some really good signs and he’ll offer some great cover at full-back for next year. Jamie Shaul has more or less played every game this year and to have that cover next year with Jake as well is really important for us”.
I don’t know much more about Hakim but Downs has certainly impressed me when he has been called into the first team and you’ll remember that he made his senior debut in 2015 against St Helens. Since then he has gone on to make 13 Super League appearance, something that has seen him secure an extension for one year. The 21-year-old back rower was Captain of the Reserves side in 2016 and has been impressive in his first-team stints this season. Lee said of this signing, “Jack Downs is a very professional kid and has been putting in some good performances this year when he’s been called upon.
Meanwhile, Jack Sanderson, has signed up for two years and is a great prospect if only for what I saw of him when he first signed. I don’t go and watch the City of Hull Academy for obvious reasons, but he has trained all year with the first team as well as in that set up. On the news of Jacks signing Lee concluded, “Jack Sanderson has been a very strong performer for the City of Hull Academy and it’s good for him to be in and around the first-team again. He really excites me as a player, he’s a natural finisher and he’s got a good chance of breaking into the first-team next year”.
Now at the Wembley send-off I bumped into my old pal Steve Roberts as I have done traditional at all such occasions over the last few years. He was telling me about a great event that is taking place between Sunday 10th September and Thursday 14th September when the first ever Sammy Lloyd sponsored Wolds Way Walk from Filey to Hessle takes place. It’s a great event that is for a great cause in that the walk will raise funds for wounded Marine Sailors. Steve wanted to tell everyone that on the evening of 13th September, which is a Wednesday, the walkers will be stopping off in South Cave and as an enthusiastic Ukulele player Sammy is hosting a musical evening at the Bear Inn at 7-30pm which will feature The Barely Awake Ukulele Band led by Steve Robert himself. Steve told me he is keen to involve any local Uke players that want to come along. So be you players or not you are all invited to attend and enjoy a great musical evening in the company of the great Sammy Lloyd and help a very worthwhile Charity at the same time.
So we have I guess now to put all the excitement and joy of the past few days behind us and move on to more mundane things and a very difficult looking game at Leeds this Thursday. I hear that Garry Hetherington intimated to Adam after the Final that he was looking forward to ‘Seeing us at Headingley’ and I think that the Leeds Club feel that a win on Thursday will cement second place for them.
Of course it goes without saying that the scheduling of the fixture is a disgrace and shows absolutely no forethought by the RL with regard to Hull or indeed Leeds, both of whom were still in the Cup, when it was announced. One of the two teams were guaranteed to be involved in the Final just 5 days earlier, but of course TV comes first as always! Don’t they ever bloody think about anything? Adam said on the pitch at Wembley at the Captains run that we just ‘Had to get on with it’ but you could once again see our owner’s exasperation at yet another stupid RL decision, which means it will be darn near impossible for us to get up again for the match. Slowly but surely the owners are turning and getting together to sort the RL out, but while one or two suck up to Woody and Co that’s going to be a long process. But if ever there was a great indication of just how short sighted they are at Redhall, then it is certainly this week’s Thursday night game.
So that’s it and as I finish this rather jumbled offering I sit here wondering if I will ever get to write another Diary after such an auspicious and history making weekend as this one has been. We are all so very lucky to be around that team and our Club at such times and it will probably only be in years to come when we look back on the current decade that we will ever really appreciate just how good these last two years have been. Who knows I might be reporting in 5 weeks’ time about a big win at Old Trafford and then again, I might not, but for now who cares! For this old timer the Trophy we have just won is the pot of gold and I’ve loved the last year as we were referred to as, Challenge Cup Holders Hull FC. Thanks for all your great support and for sticking with this 5.9% proof edition of the weekly drivel. It was so good to see so many readers at the final. They were as usual just too numerous to mention, but I have to give a special shout out to reader ‘Steve the Scuba diver’ who I met on Saturday and who flew in from Dubai watched the game and then flew off back home again straight afterwards, something has done for all our recent finals and how good is that eh? I also have to mention good old Liam Anfield who, on one knee, proposed to his girlfriend Natalie at the very moment that Gareth lifted the Cup!
All good things have to come to an end but this one isn’t just yet because we won the Cup, its back on the shelf in the trophy cabinet and as fans we are so, so lucky!
Isn’t it great to be alive and to go about your business with a big smile on your face, for in the end life is only ever as good as the memories we make!
No need to keep believing this week!