IF THINGS had taken a different turn, Wigan Warriors hooker Michael McIlorum could have been playing football at Wembley tomorrow rather than rugby league.
Known in the 13-man game for his aggressive style and no-nonsense approach, the England international had a similar pitbull attitude as a talented schoolboy footballer.
Such was his love for the sport that McIlorum freely admits he did not even care too much about the game which is now his profession.
“I didn’t really follow rugby that much,” said the feisty 25-year-old, who hails from Leeds.
“I was more into my football. All my mates were Leeds United fans and it’s a big football city.
“It was around the time of Tony Yeboah and players like that.
“I used to go now and again but I’m actually a Chelsea fan.
“I got a bit of stick for that growing up.
“I’ve been to see Chelsea a few times down at Elland Road, but I mainly just did it to wind my mates up as they used to hate them.
“I used to play for the Leeds City Schools team. All my mates played – only a couple play rugby – and I really enjoyed it.
“I was more of a football lad and played centre midfield, box-to-box, the engine of the team and definitely a bit more Roy Keane than Paul Gascoigne.”
Given that positional description it is perhaps, then, no surprise he evolved into such a competitive hooker – essentially rugby league’s equivalent – and so integral to a Wigan side that faces Hull FC in tomorrow’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup final.
The proud Yorkshireman – one of only two in Wigan’s ranks with ex-Hull KR prop Scott Taylor – recalls the moment he had to decide which career to follow.
“I can’t remember the guy’s name but when I played for Leeds City Boys he ended up coming around to my house,” said McIlorum.
“I was 14 or 15 and playing both sports but they’d ended up clashing. He said I’d have to pick one or the other and I told him I was going for rugby.
“I was just getting into the scholarship of Leeds Rhinos and had to make a choice.
“I just enjoyed it more and felt I had a bit more of a chance of making it at rugby league.
“I think I made the right decision. It’s turned out all right and, at times, a lot of football’s who you know and if your face fits you get picked.”
Although McIlorum, who had played his amateur rugby with the notoriously tough Queens club in Leeds, had opportunity to sign for his hometown club, he feels it was crucial he took up Wigan’s offer.
“I was in the Rhinos scholarship for a couple of years and eventually they offered me a contract,” he explained.
“But I was at Queens at the time and we played in the Lancashire League. Wigan scouts were at a game when we played Wigan St Pats and they offered me a deal at a similar time.
“I weighed them both up and just decided I wanted to move away from Leeds, away from my friends, have no distractions and just come play over here.
“I’ve no regrets. At the time I was looking at their (Rhinos) team and they had the likes of Matt Diskin in there.
“He was the stand-out at the time, and felt I’d just get more of a chance at Wigan and also it was important to get away from everyone so I could concentrate on my rugby.
“I hung around some not very classy places in Armley and messed around like you do as a young kid so I think going to Wigan helped my career.”
McIlorum, whose club-mates at Queens included Leeds Rhinos winger Ben Jones-Bishop and Salford City Reds flier Jodie Broughton, then worked his way up through the Wigan ranks.
He made his debut in 2007 and has now amassed nearly 150 Super League games for the Cherry and Whites.
He won a Grand Final in 2010, tasted success with Wigan in the Challenge Cup final the following year and is heavily tipped to be a part of Steve McNamara’s World Cup squad at the end of this campaign. However, he has extra reason for seeking victory at Wembley tomorrow.
“It would mean everything to win the Challenge Cup again,” he added. “I started on the bench against Leeds in 2011 and, personally I don’t think I contributed much to that game.
“I’m aiming to put that right when we face Hull.
“Hopefully, I’ll be starting and I want to put a good performance in and get another win.
“I’ve had a couple of injuries with my knee and had a clean-out this year. I’ve been trying to get that right. My form was a lot better last year and I’ve not been happy with it this time around. I want to put that right on Saturday.”
McIlorum was confirmed in Shaun Wane’s 19-man squad yesterday before they travelled down to London ahead of this morning’s traditional walkabout at Wembley. Captain Sean O’Loughlin (calf) is included with Darrell Goulding, the ex-England centre who was absent through injury in France last week.
Meanwhile, Wane has revealed he did not even keep his winners medal from Wigan’s 1985 final against Hull.
The prop missed the chance to represent his hometown club at Wembley, in what has become the most celebrated of all finals, because of a knee injury.
He could only watch as the Cherry and Whites repelled a stirring Hull fightback to emerge 28-24 winners and claim their first Challenge Cup in 20 years.
“I played in every round but then I got injured in the semi-final,” he said. “It was a great rugby league game, one of the best ever, but it was a bitter-sweet one for me.
“It was enjoyable as a game but I did feel a bit sorry for myself. I really wanted to play, it was really important to me.
“I got a medal but I didn’t want to keep it because I didn’t think I’d earned it. I gave it them back. It was a tough one to handle.
“Fortunately I got to play there and win against Halifax in 1988.
“I never thought I would get the chance to lead the club out at Wembley as coach and that’s a great achievement. It has got the makings of a fantastic weekend but it will only be enjoyable if we get the chance to win the cup.”
Wigan (19-man squad: Charnley, Crosby, Dudson, Farrell, Flower, Goulding, Green, Hansen, Hughes, McIlorum, Mossop, O’Loughlin, Richards, Smith, Taylor, Thornley, L Tomkins, S Tomkins, Tuson.