It might have been past its sell-by date, but I loved the old Wembley.
The walk from the changing rooms to the pitch was sensational. It was up a long, dark tunnel and you emerged into the bright light and noise as you reached pitch level – rather like being born.
We had a call, “98” to signify it was going to be our year. As we were lining up alongside Wigan, Johnny Lawless was screaming “98” at their players.
They must have been wondering ‘what’s this demented little bloke doing’?
It wound all our lads up and showed Wigan we weren’t scared of them and we were prepared to stand toe to toe and eye to eye with them, which was how we played.
We knew we’d have to be at the very top of our game and would need Wigan to be a bit below their best, which is how it turned out.
Mark Aston won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, and deservedly so.
He carried out our planned kicking game to perfection. Wigan’s right winger was Mark Bell, a tall, rangy fella who wasn’t the most agile when turning to collect the ball.
On the other flank was Jason Robinson, one of the most effective wingers in the world, so you don’t need to be a master coach to figure out you are better kicking to Bell when you are kicking from distance.
That’s what Tubby – Mark Aston’s nickname – did, time after time.
Then when we got in their 20 the plan was to grubber into the in-goal if we were kicking to our left, which was Bell’s side. If we were kicking to Robinson we would try and sit it on his head.
Four minutes into the game we were camped in their 20, Tubby kicked to our right and Nick Pinkney timed his run to perfection, plucking the ball out of the air and touching down.
It was like a switch had been flicked: that successful move showed the players – and coaching staff – that our game plan would work and we did have what it would take to win the game.
The performance over the full game was sensational; it was 33 minutes before we made an error, which is incredible in a Challenge Cup final, especially the players’ first one.
With about seven minutes left Henry Paul lost possession. He came out from dummy-half, looked one way and tried to pass the other, but knocked-on.
We were 17-8 up at the time and they had thrown everything except the kitchen sink at us.
They’d scored one try and then Andy Farrell had got over the line for what might have been another, but Tubby got underneath and held him up, preventing him grounding the ball. It was one of the best defensive plays I have ever seen.
When Henry lost the ball, Johnny Lawless was really smart. He didn’t dive on it, he was happy to waste some time and let the Wigan man pick the ball up.
Henry reacted quite angrily, along the lines of ‘what are you doing, you upstarts’? Johnny told him: “We’ve got you” and that was the moment I knew the game was in the bag.
One thing happened in the build-up to the Cup final which I have never spoken about before and which I am pretty sure the players, to this day, are unaware of.
I almost missed the game after being taken ill two days before, at our London hotel.
We travelled to the capital on the Thursday and went out 10-pin bowling and then for a Chinese meal in the evening. I had an allergic reaction to something I ate and at one stage I was quite seriously poorly. I was in real discomfort and could hardly see.
We went back to the hotel after the meal and by the time I got to my room I was beginning to itch. I came out in hives, all over my body. I got into a cold shower, as I thought that would help, but it made no difference. I rang the team doctor, Janet Hornbuckle. She rushed to my room and fortunately she had some Piriton, which is an allergy cure, with her.
That settled everything down, but at one stage my eyes had swollen up so much they were starting to close and she was on the point of taking me to a hospital. We kept it from the players and the only people who knew were me, the physio and the doctor
The medicine cured the problem, but before that kicked in I was beginning to panic because I was convinced I was going to miss the biggest game of my life.
I was desperate to be there and to be part of it and it looked like it might be taken away from me. I will always be grateful to the Doc for getting me through.
John Kear will be signing copies of Coaching is Chaos on: December 1, Waterstone’s, Hull (1pm); December 5, Waterstone’s, Orchard Square, Sheffield (5.30pm); December 8, Waterstone’s, Wakefield (12.30pm); December 19, Philip Howard Books, Street Lane, Roundhay, Leeds (5pm, with Adrian Morley).