Wembley’s Oldest Hero is No Ordinary Joe

Sixty one years may have elapsed since he stepped out on to the famous Wembley turf but the memories of the 1948 Challenge Cup Final still bring a twinkle to the eyes of Joe Egan.

Now 90, Egan has emerged as Rugby League’s oldest surviving Wembley hero following his match-winning performance as captain of Wigan in the 1948 final against Bradford Northern.

The RFL launched an appeal earlier this year to find the player who played in the earliest Wembley final and after an exhaustive search which tracked down players across the world, Egan has proved to be the most senior Challenge Cup hero.

“I’m a little surprised and in a way it’s a little bit sad that there are no players around who played at Wembley before I did,” said Egan.

“A lot of years have passed since I played at Wembley but I remember the match as if it were yesterday. It was a wonderful experience and something I’ll never forget.

“Wigan hadn’t won the Cup since 1929 so to go to Wembley as a Wigan-born player and lead the team up the steps to the Royal Box to get the trophy was very special.”

Wigan’s previous Challenge Cup Final had come in the first match staged at Wembley when the legendary Jim Sullivan led the cherry and whites to a 13-2 defeat of Dewsbury.

Egan was the first Rugby League player to receive the Challenge Cup from the reigning monarch, King George VI in a match which was the first to be televised, albeit to a much smaller audience than will tune in to BBC1 to watch Huddersfield Giants face Warrington Wolves in this year’s final.

“That was lovely moment for me, meeting the King, but the whole experience at Wembley and the homecoming at Wigan are memories I’ll always treasure,” said Egan.

“The Cup run was wonderful. As a player you’re aware how hard you had to work to reach Wembley and I loved everything about it.

“My only regret is that I only got to play at Wembley the once.”

Egan would have played at Wembley for Wigan against Wakefield in the 1946 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley had he not been aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable with the Great Britain Lions bound for Australia and New Zealand.

He is one of only two survivors of the 1946 tour – Bryn Knowelden of Barrow is the other – and the 1948 final saw him go up against a handful of his fellow tourists, including Eric Batten, Ernest Ward and Trevor Foster.

“Bradford were a big team but we were never overawed,” recalled Egan. “Although Bradford were the holders we were slight favourites and went on to win 8-3 by sticking to our game plan.

“Some people said it wasn’t a great final but we felt differently!”

A former Wigan St Patricks junior, Egan left Wigan in 1950 when he joined Leigh for a then world record transfer fee of £5,000, the only occasion a hooker has been the world’s most expensive player.

He toured again in 1950 before retiring in 1956, when he moved into coaching to enjoy some success with Wigan and Widnes.

The search for the oldest Wembley hero has tracked down two survivors of the 1953 Huddersfield team that defeated St Helens 15-10 – Australian Pat Devery, who lives in Portland, Oregon, USA, and New Zealander Peter Henderson – as well as George Parsons and Glyn Moses, who played for Saints in the same match

The search also revealed a handful of players who were involved in earlier finals, including Tommy Sale and Colin Hutton, who both played for Widnes against Warrington in 1950, and Paddy Reid, a 1949 finalist with Halifax who lives in Limerick, Ireland.

“The Challenge Cup was the greatest competition to be involved in and it still is,” said Egan. “Playing at Wembley brings out the best in great players and I’m more than a little envious of the Huddersfield and Warrington players who will play in this year’s final.”

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