I’ve always felt sorry for anyone who’s never lived in sight of a stadium. From my back bedroom in Latchford, Warrington, just beyond a railway embankment, towered the tatty, powder blue corrugated iron of Wilderspool. The first thing my eye would be drawn to when the curtains opened; on matchdays, roars and awws pipping the local radio in relaying how things were going.
Shortly before I attended my first game, aged 10, came Warrington’s own Pistols At The Lesser Free Trade Hall – a Stones Bitter Championship game hundreds have spent the past 32 years pretending they were at. The Wire’s coach, Tony Barrow, dubbed the rain-sodden New Year’s Day 1988 game “World War Three”.
The ball had barely landed in Warrington’s half from kick-off when the first punches were thrown: Wigan’s Kiwi prop Adrian Shelford swinging at Brian Johnson as the Australian full-back went down in the opening tackle. By tackle No 2 Johnson’s compatriot Les Boyd was seeking Shelford out with his left jab. The game was 12 seconds old. Most heavyweight bouts go deeper before seeing any arm movements of note.
Boyd was gloriously talented, a member of his country’s Invincibles in 1982, but a noted shaman of shithousery – Darryl Brohman’s jaw can attest to that. Though the match was already bad-tempered, eight minutes in he stepped things up.
Taking a forward pass yards from Wigan’s line, Boyd simultaneously cocked his right fist towards Andy Gregory. A shirt-tweak from Kevin Iro was seemingly his final straw, grounds for warfare so thin even Tony Blair might admire the audacity. Gregory – the diminutive former Warrington player – merrily windmilled back. Everyone else found a score to settle of their own, with Shelford and Warrington’s Tony Humphries eventually sent off, and Boyd sent to the sin-bin.
Ten minutes later, Andy Goodway was sent off for a flying forearm smash to the back of Paul Cullen’s head, leaving the Wire centre face-down in the dirt. And off he trotted, straight over Cullen’s fingers. Adrenalised, the Warrington man leaped to his feet and clattered his attacker turfwards from behind, just in front of the dugouts. It took almost half the Warrington team to drag Goodway clear of the melee.
From there, 11 v 11 pandemonium, plus one outstanding try. Ellery Hanley sold two dummies in midfield to open a path to the right wing, with just Johnson to beat. The Warrington man was carried along for the final 20 metres to the corner in an almost Lomu-esque display of pace and power: 4-0 Wigan.
Boyd broke to set up his side’s reply, offloading a (forward) pass to Billy McGinty, who bounced over. Try given. Boyd again sent Wire away for their second, dived in by Johnson. Two Woods conversions and a drop-goal made it 13-4 at half-time.
After the break, Gregory came to the fore, skying a kick into the left corner where Steve Hampson leaped over Des Drummond to touch down. Iro converted. Hanley was then released by Gregory to skip through on the right: 13-14 Wigan.
A Woods penalty regained the lead, but the closing moments were all Wigan. In the shadow of the posts with two minutes remaining, Gregory stabbed a drop goal over to level at 15-15.
There would be no winning score but few went home disappointed. Except perhaps Cullen, who spoke with the Great Britain coach Mal Reilly soon after: “Whatever international prospects I had at that time finished there and then.” He would, however, later coach his club.
Hanley ultimately replaced Reilly in the GB role, with Goodway following in 1997. Johnson succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in 2016 aged 59, while Shelford, who sustained a career-ending knee injury at 27, died aged 39 following a heart attack.
After the hooter, a parka-clad lad darted for halfway with a foolscap pad and a pen hunting for autographs. He looked the sort of age I was at the time. I hope he still has them.