The Challenge Cup Final day is my favourite day of the year. I like it more than Christmas or my birthday. Seriously. I’ve watched every Challenge Cup Final since I can remember. Probably about 86 or 87 was the first one and I’m sure I’ve seen every one since then.
In the early days it was men in short shorts with half a jock stop hanging out the backside. Henderson Gill smiling, Kevin and Tony Iro smashing people up and *that* Martin Offiah try against Leeds.
Yep, it was pretty much Wigan, Wigan, Wigan in the early days.
As I grew up, I heard stories of the blokes from my club and their legendary tours to London to watch the game. I still believe what goes on tour stays on tour, but nudity in the glass lift of a fancy hotel, a brawl with Snoop Dogg’s entourage and buckets of piss being chucked out of moving vehicles were stories from those days in the 1990s.
Moving away from the rugby league heartlands to go to uni didn’t stop me watching the final. I dragged as many people as possible round to Jarvis Towers to watch the final, usually with chicken and beer. A winning day in late spring.
I was gutted when the final moved to August, it felt like they’d sold Christmas for the sake of TV and forgotten about tradition. I am, however, pleased to say that the move to August has help boost the Challenge Cup Final and the big day out in London is as special as ever.
Why am I running over all this old ground? Well, the Cup Final is a special day for me and one that stirs up memories of my childhood and great days in Bradford, Newcastle and London. And the thing that signals the start of the day for me is the singalong before the players come out on to the pitch. In short, Cup Final day isn’t Cup Final day until one thing happens: Abide With Me is belted out at Wembley by the crowd and a brass band.
Known as the rugby league hymn, it’s a song that makes me well up most years. All those memories of watching the Cup Final – with my mum and brothers with cans of pop and bags of crisps; or watching Robbie Paul score a hat trick and lose; or of beer and chicken with Big O in Gosforth; or those cherished memories of old players and friends who went to London every year and aren’t with us any more – they all come flooding back when Abide With Me starts.
Usually just the first and last verses are sang on Cup Final Day – well, the fans usually just sing the first and last three words! – they are:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
It’s a beautiful but sad song. Written by Henry Lyte in 1847, he knew he was dying from TB and penned it as his final days drew ever closer. The title is drawn from Lyte’s plea for the Lord to stay with him as his life comes to an end – “fast falls the eventide”. It’s heart-breaking and could bring a tear to a glass eye. It has me reaching for the tissue every year.
This year, well, that trickle of tears was a flood. As Mark Chapman stated in his excellent commentary on the BBC, “the rugby league family is a very close one”. Everyone who has ever pulled on a shirt – from pub team to Great Britain international – felt for the family of Wales and Keighley’s Danny Jones when he suffered a cardiac arrest and died during a game against London Skolars earlier this year.
If that wasn’t tragic enough, he left behind his wife, Lizzie, and recently born twins, Bobby and Phoebe. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in rugby league was affected by it in some small way.
Credit to the RFL (or whoever was behind it) for asking Lizzie Jones, a professional singer, to perform Abide With Me at Wembley this year. How she did it I’ll never know. In the 30ish years I’ve been watching the final, I can’t remember a more emotional performance of the great hymn and I don’t think I’ll see another in the next 30. The crowd, all 70,000 of them, didn’t quite know if they should sing, clap or cry… So they did all three, simultaneously. It was a beautiful moment.
That was last week.
This week I spotted on Twitter that the recording of the performance has been released as a single and was climbing the charts. It costs 79p. I bought it. I think you should too.
At last view, it had just made the UK top 40. I hope it makes the top 20, then the top 10. Not just because I love it, but because of the story. Because of the fundraising that’s taking place for the twins, to ensure they have a secure future. And because of the story of hope and bravery of Lizzie Jones to walk out at Wembley, on national TV, to sing in memory of her loving husband.
Go on, it’s not even a quid.
Download Abide With Me on iTunes now. It should be on Google Play and Spotfiy soon.
You can donate to the Just Giving page set up by the RFL Benevolent Fund to help Lizzie Jones and her family here. You can also follow Lizzie on Twitter.