RAY French has experienced the full gamut of emotions thrown up by rugby league’s showpiece at Wembley in more than 70 years as a supporter, player and commentator.

The magic and mystery, the mirth and misery – no place stirs memories of players, games and events of the past than events played out at the national stadium.

The Twin Towers may have been toppled and old Wembley razed to the ground but everyone remembers where they watched Vollenhoven go full length with Ken Large in 61, where Derek Noonan dropped the ball in 78 and when Bobbie Goulding lofted those bombs in 96.

And some of the key events Ray’s life in rugby have been played out at one of the world’s most famous sporting theatre.

From the young boy sitting on the cold terrace steps crying after seeing his favourites beaten by Huddersfield to waking up the steps after leading the pack to victory over Wigan 13 years later, Ray’s lucid recollections illustrate just why Wembley is so strongly interwoven into the Saints timeline.

St Helens Star:

Steve Llewellyn scoring a Wembley try in ‘53. Ray was in the stands as a supporter 

Ray’s love of rugby league had been growing in the years after the war, playing tackle rugby in the streets of old Eccleston in the shadow of the old Knowsley Road ground.

He explains: “I was born and lived in McFarlane Avenue which is 500 yards below the Saints ground, off Ellison Drive, from the ages of five and six we were playing rugby in the street and used to tie handkerchiefs around your knees so you didn’t scrape them badly because we all wore short pants in those days.

“We played from one gas lamp to another. We very rarely played on the field, because we had a problem because a chap who looked after the congregational fields near to where we lived used to chase us out with an air pistol.

“As kids we would all go up to watch Saints play on a Saturday and even went up to training on a Tuesday and a Thursday to get autographs.

“I was into the game at five, six and seven and my dad had played amateur rugby with UGB. He had captained them for a long while.”

Saints had a talented team in 1952-53 and had finished well clear at the top of the old Championship table and had beaten Warrington to reach Wembley for the first time since 1930.

It sent more than a ripple of excitement across the town – especially in the French family and three generations made the pilgrimage south.

“1953 was tremendously exciting because other than going to Scarborough for my holiday I had never been out of St Helens really.

“We went down on a coach with UGB – where my dad worked – and all the factories and companies in town used to get coaches up. All the lads and girls from the street would be there – it was an occasion. Even different streets would book coaches or book whole carriages on a train from Shaw Street,” he said.

Wembley had a very different look back then and both ends behind the goal were open, but it was still the place to be.

Ray recalls what it was like as a 13-year-old approaching the ground amidst the explosion of colour and hubbub of noise.

“My first impression was the walk up Wembley Way – it was tremendous.

“And it was lovely day – you saw this horde walking up to this big stadium before our eyes. I had never seen a stadium like it in my life.

“In those days it was just going to Wembley was the big thing. Yes, it was a cup final, but it was Wembley where you wanted to go,” he said.

It was a tight game. Nip and tuck with tries from George Langfield and Steve Lewellyn, a Langfield drop goal tied it up at 10-10 with eight minutes remaining.

But five minutes from time Ramsden, who would be the youngest player to win the Lance Todd, scored his second to break Saints hearts.

“Everyone tipped Saints to win because they had had such a wonderful season,” Ray said.

“It was the beginning, actually, of the great era that has been here post war.

“1952-53 was the real start of the modern day Saints – no question about it.

“There were some really good players in that side - Llewellyn, Greenall, Gullick, McCormick was a terrific three-quarter line.

“Steve Llewellyn, a Welshman who I knew well later in life as a teacher, was a great lad and he would dive in at the corner from six yards out.

“Stan McCormick could sidestep on a three-penny but was a real character, who could have done well on the stage as a comic, he was so good.

“Duggy Greenall was as hard as nails and a good footballer. They were behind a good pack led by Alan Prescott.

“They were absolutely raving favourites – but that is the beauty of sport, you never quite know who will win.

“That Huddersfield team were a very good side at that time – New Zealand wingman Peter Henderson, and Australian Pat Deverey, loose forward Dave Valentine was a cracker of a player and man of the match Peter Ramsden.

“They had a far better side than everyone had thought in St Helens at the time.

“After the war they were the first to bring over overseas players.

“But I remember crying my eyes out and my grandad said, ‘Don’t worry Ray, you’ll be here when they win….don’t worry. And I was.”

A week later Saints beat Huddersfield in the Championship semi-final 46-0 at Knowsley Road and they went on to beat Halifax in the final at Manchester City’s Maine Road.

“I was on the Edington End with my mates, with my red and white scarf on and a rattle that must have been two foot long. Everyone had them then and you shake them over your head.

“But I remember the game – they humiliated Huddersfield, but in the end Huddersfield had still won the cup.”

St Helens Star:

Checking out his medal in 1966 (far left)

Saints did go on to win at Wembley beating Halifax in 1956 and Ray was down there as a spectator and again in 1961 but by that time he was a fully-fledged England rugby union international, signing for his hometown club later that year.

In the first four seasons after joining Saints did not get a sniff of Wembley – but Ray took it in his stride.

“We kept getting beat, even though we were heavy favourites virtually every season.

“That was because there were more clubs – at least 20 – who were capable of getting themselves to Wembley.

“There was a bigger spread of talent – I am not saying they were more talented – but they were spread across the game and more people playing the game professionally than there are now.

“It meant if you went to Hunslet or Dewsbury on a bad afternoon, you could get beat – and that is what happened.

“I took each season as it came – if I played at Wembley great, but if not, so be it.

“But I was glad that we did and you could not get a better final than Saints v Wigan, with 99,000 on – a record.”

St Helens Star: St Helens Star:

Down memory lane with pictures of the open top bus parade in 1966

If Wembley was a fantastic experience, Ray recalls the camaraderie of the week before in the loosely named training camp up at Southport.

“The week before we basically had a holiday. I was teaching at Cowley at the time and they let me have the week off.

“We went to Southport – I am not sure whether this was really preparation for Wembley because we were in Southport open air swimming pool, on the beach, rowing on the lakes and tipping boats over and even going to nightclubs – all before the game.

“There was a tremendous spirit in that team, we were lifelong friends and we were up to all sorts.

“I was rooming with John Warlow in the big hotel on the seas front and I had been asleep for an hour when there was banging at the window and ghost noises.

“Given we are four storeys up in the hotel, it seemed odd to say the least.

“So I pulled back the curtains and who was there but Cliff Watson – he had climbed up the drainpipe and walked a pretty fair way across a ledge.

“We did do some training of King George V Grammar School but it was unbelievable really,” he said.

That team would go down in history as the four cups Saints, winning the clean sweep of the big honours.

A look down the teamsheet would explain why it was so successful.

He said: “The strengths of the team, apart from everyone of them having talent and everyone being able to win a game on their own individually, was the team spirit.

“I have never played in a team like it in league or in union.

“Everyone was friends, there was no cliques, we were all Saints together and knocked about together.

“There was a great camaraderie – as well as talent. It was a laugh a minute, playing tricks on each other all the time. It was a pleasure to go up there and train.

“It really was a quality side.”

There had been adjustments to that team, with Tommy Bishop and Peter Harvey operating in the halves, meaning skipper Alex Murphy moved to the centres.

Ray explained: “Alec did well in the centre and was a winner there, even though he didn’t want to play there, because he had more room.

“I can picture him now beating men and putting Tommy Voll away. He was a great character –

“Joe Coan was a very good coach. People would say how can a coach a team when he had never done rugby league in his life, but he did not need to.

“All the rugby league was in the players – joe just got them fit and we were half an hour fitter than any other team in the game. That was the key to St Helens’ success.”

Had it not been for Len Killeen’s finish and goalkicking, French was many a second pick for  the Lance Todd, such was his workrate that afternoon.

He tackled everything with gusto.

“I enjoyed the game – Murph was the captain and I was vice captain and I was leading the pack.

“You had to be at the front when you are leading something and had to do it.

“I always relished tackling – and it gets you in the game straight away.

“The pack was tremendous.”

Much has been made of Wigan being marmalised in the scrums because they were without suspended hooker Colin Clarke, but Frenchie was having none of it.

“We would have beat them Colin Clarke or no Colin Clarke and it would have been the same score. Or could have been more.

“Saints had a side that was out of the ordinary, no question about that. The pack could take on anybody – however the opposition wanted it.

“If they wanted it rough they would get it tough back, if they wanted it rugby wise we would respond. It had everything – and then Murphy, Bishop, Vollenhoven, Harvey and Killeen, and solid home town lads like Frankie Barrow and Billy Benyon, it was a tremendous mix. It was the atmosphere the pitch that made that team. They were your best mates,” he said.

In terms of his playing – Wembley was the pinnacle, but Ray did put another experience on a par…the Sydney Cricket Ground.

“Wembley was the place to play – every schoolboy’s ambition was to play at Wembley and lift the cup.

“The only other time I would put on a par with Wembley was the first time I played for Great Britain at Sydney Cricket Ground. I loved cricket – and still do – and to walk in the footsteps of Don Bradman, getting changed in the cricket changing rooms and walking out through the wicker work gate.

“As I walked out all I kept thinking was ‘Bradman walked down here…and Harvey and Miller.’

“That was special too.”

St Helens Star:

Ray was part of the victorious squad that included Alex Murphy, the team-mates went on to be colleagues in the commentary box

Long after Ray had hung up his boots and become a commentator he stepped into the seat vacated by one of the television’s household names – Eddie Waring.

Ray said: “Eddie was a character – he took a lot of unfair criticism.

“He was a very nice man and I was alongside him for a couple of years. He was a very generous man.

“A lot of people enjoyed him – and in those days you were entertaining millions, including plenty who knew nothing about rugby league.

“They just wanted to be entertained. You had to be amusing and throw in a few jokes. You had to bring those people in.

“Keith Phillips was in charge then and he told me that we don’t want another Eddie Waring, just be yourself and do what you want and you will be all right. Nobody ever bothered me again for about 30 odd years.”

And in the box he was reacquainted with one of his teammates from 1966 Wembley – Alex Murphy, and they made a good double act.

He said: “I had a good rapport with Alec and we would argue.

“He was very good as a summariser and could spot something straight away or see a trend in the game or identify a player who was going to be a match winner.

“He had a cheeky sense of humour and loved working with him and a few others too.”

And he recalls his first Wembley from the commentary box for the drama off the field and the sense of anti-climax on it.

In an all black and white final Widnes met Hull FC in May 1982 – at a time when all eyes were on the Falkland Island, which has weeks earlier been invaded by Argentina

It was in the middle of the Falklands conflict and during the coverage I had to stop because there had been a significant newsflash, as the airfields at Goose Green and Port Stanley being cratered by British jets. It was a big moment in the war after the islands had been captured.

“I was given an instruction to stop commentating after 30 seconds to make way for the news bulletin….. and then straight back into the game.”

The game itself was tight, but ended as a 14-14 draw, the first since 1954.

Ray explains his feeling about the way it unfolded.

“It was a non-event the draw. It fizzled out.

“You need a presentation – you need a cup – a captain sat up there on someone’s shoulders with the trophy.

“That is the climax. Even as a commentator I was deflated. All we could do was announce the replay.

“Eddie Cunningham had defied a bad back and scored twice to win the Lance Todd and Stuart Wright had gone the full length of the field, but the whole thing was like a balloon being let down.

“You want it settled on the big day out – not up in Manchester or Leeds.”

He had plenty more of enthralling ones to cover though, in a long career at the mic the shock win for Fev in 1983, the 85 classic and the Ultimate comeback of 1996.

For Ray, Wembley will always be special – and key to the Challenge Cup’s place in the game.

“The cup has to be something special.

“Even if it is a poor match, those players who played in it and the spectators who went to the game will talk about it as part of their life.

“I don’t think you could have it anywhere else – it commands national and international attention,” he said..