Wigan CEO Kris Radlinski shares emotional family journey and St Helens rivalry ahead of Good Friday

Alex Spink
Kris Radlinski

Left: Kris Radlinski in action for Wigan Warriors as a teenager in 1997; Right: Wigan CEO Kris Radlinski lifts the Challenge Cup aloft with club captain Liam Farrell in 2022 - Alamy

When Kris Radlinski gets in his car to make the short derby trip down to St Helens, his thoughts will turn to a marble gravestone in Warsaw.

His love affair with Wigan can be traced back over 322 appearances as an all-time great of the club before taking charge as chief executive.

From the Christmas he unwrapped his first Cherry and White hooped jersey through countless meetings with Saints in a fixture he dubs a ‘jewel in the crown’ of British sport: ‘because it never disappoints’.

But the flame was lit, he says, not by one particular moment in his extraordinary playing career. Rather by the warmth Wiganers showed his family before he was even born when the Radlinskis moved to the town from Poland at the end of the Second World War.

“That’s why I’m here now, 100 per cent,” he says. “The affection my nan and granddad felt for the town. But for that, who knows what my journey would have been.

“I feel emotional just talking about it. Everything happens for a reason. Me playing for Wigan and now working for Wigan, that’s my journey. But it started with them.”

Radlinski, 47, will get on to discussing this Good Friday clash, which has all the ingredients for a classic given Wigan are reigning Super League champions and Saints winners of the previous four finals.

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He will tell of his deep-rooted respect for the club the other side of Billinge Hill, one he initially joined as a schoolboy before Wigan came calling.

And for the first time he will reveal how close England rugby union star and longtime national captain Owen Farrell came to switching codes and pulling on a Warriors jersey.

But not before opening his heart on the voyage of discovery taken by him and dad John to track down the resting place of Jan Radlinski of the Polish Special Forces.

“Finding my granddad is a moment that will live with me forever,” says the Wigan chief. “My dad had searched for years to track him down, without any success.”

Kris Radlinski, Wigan Warriors
Chief Kris Radlinski celebrates on the pitch with Wigan Warriors players including Jai Field following their 2022 Challenge Cup final victory – Alamy

Radlinski’s understanding is that Jan had returned to Poland on military duty a few years after the war, leaving his wife in Wigan with three children including Kris’ dad.

“My granddad lost contact with his family and we assumed he had died,” continues Kris. “Then in 2006, out of the blue, we get a letter from the pensions department in Poland.

“The letter confirmed he had passed away, actually the year I was born, 1976, and gave us the location of his grave in Warsaw. Me and dad jumped straight on a plane and when we got there made our way to this massive cemetery.

“Dad never thought he would find him and even now thinking of that moment, we pulled back branches and weeds that had grown over the gravestone to reveal his name, sends a tingle up my spine.

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“It was the sort of thing you see in films or read about.”

History still plays a big part in Radlinski’s life today, namely Wigan Warriors’ illustrious past and it’s bearing on the present.

“Being chief exec here comes with a lot of pressure,” he says. “Firstly, I pinch myself every day that I’ve gone from wanting a Wigan jersey as a kid to playing in one, to actually having a say in its design, as I do now.

“It’s a real privilege and one I’ll never take for granted, but it does come with a lot of pressure. This is a very demanding town. Our rugby history has paved a difficult path for us to follow.”

Perhaps, but it appears to inspire rather than burden, Matt Peet’s men having won the world club challenge and currently standing proud as Super League’s last unbeaten side.

Now for the real test, a challenge Peet reckons is tougher even than the one posed by Australian champions Penrith at the DW last month.

“This is a fierce rivalry,” says Radlinski. “We are two towns separated by a hill, eight miles apart. There are people from St Helens who work in Wigan and vice versa. Families with divided loyalties.

“But I genuinely believe the rivalry comes from a place of deep, deep respect because we drag the best out of each other. What Saints have done over the last four years has, ultimately, made us better.

“We’ve had to look internally and ask what we need to do to get to the levels they’re at. There’s a professional respect. You’ll see it at the final whistle when the players embrace.”

Ever since Owen Farrell’s schoolboy days playing league for St Patrick’s there has been hope in Wigan that England’s record international points scorer would return from union to join dad Andy’s old club.

It has never happened, with Farrell confirming in January he will leave Saracens for French club Racing 92 on a two-year deal this summer.

But Radlinski has revealed to Love Rugby League how close he believes Warriors came to securing his signature last year.

“Owen’s been part of my life for 20 years,” he starts. “He’s always been around our club and our training, from a young kid and I’ve always posed the question, ‘Do you ever want to play for Wigan?’

“Those most recent conversations might only have been six or seven months ago when his future was uncertain at Saracens and he had a decision to make. That’s probably the closest we came.

“We were right in the mix, right at the party.”

Radlinski and Farrell will be united in cheering on Warriors on Friday, but the former is now resigned to the latter not actually playing for the club.

“Could it still happen? I probably think it’s one contract too far now,” says Radlinski. “Owen is going overseas for a couple of years.

“If you’re going to come back and play a new sport – which it would be, even though he grew up with it – it’s difficult to pick up at that stage of your career.”

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