The weekend internationals largely passed Salut! Sunderland by for Club vs Country reasons that have been explained before. Back to business this weekend, the game at Wigan giving us a chance to redeem ourselves after the two three-nils: last season’s abject surrender at the JJB and the more recent Man City debacle. We have a great Who Are They? in store from a Wigan fan, but first let’s allow Pete Sixsmith to go all soft over improbable Premier League survivors…
When I see the name of Wigan Athletic in the Premier League, I still have to give my head a real shake.
On their promotion – with us – in 2003, I confidently predicted that they would furnish us and most other clubs with a comfortable six points and that they would do well to avoid a real slide down the leagues after a chastening and embarrassing season with the big boys upstairs.
Shows how much I know about football, doesn’t it! Four years on, they are safely ensconced in the middle regions of the league with an English owner, an English manager and an absolute minimum of glory hunting supporters. Football as it should be!
For people of my generation, Wigan is synonymous with Rugby League. Growing up as a Leeds RLFC fan in the 50s, I looked forward most to the games against the Cherry and Whites from across the Pennines.
It was a chance to see great players like Billy Boston, Mick Sullivan, Eric Ashton, Dave Bolton and Brian McTigue and watch the likes of Don Robinson knock hell out of them while Lewis Jones skipped around them and scored numerous tries.
Football in Wigan was a minority sport, probably on a par with dressage in Jarrow, and it was not until the early 60s that I realised the town even had a team.
They had played in the Cheshire League and moved into the newly formed Northern Premier League before gaining Football League status at the expense of Southport in the late 70s.
This placed my brother in a dilemma as he lived in Southport but worked in Wigan. He solved it by taking absolutely no interest in either club.
My first visit to Wigan’s wreck of a ground at Springfield Park was in 1981 and a game against Halifax Town watched by the Sixsmith Boys and about 2,000 others. The game was instantly forgettable but the town was rather interesting.
I remember visiting a wonderful pub called the Park, one of those rabbit warren types of pub with bells to summon the waiters. For a couple of pence extra, they would take your order and bring forth foaming pints of Warrington-brewed Tetleys Bitter (inferior to the Leeds version but not a bad drink) which would be rapidly quaffed so you could ring the bell again to summon the white-coated staff and repeat your order.
No juke box or sound system or blaring TV just lots and lots of people discussing Rugby League, clogs and the deteriorating quality of local pies.
George Orwell gave the place a bad name with his description of Wigan in the 1930s (his account of the boarding house he stayed in still makes my stomach turn and encourages appreciation of Travelodges). But Wiganers are resilient folk, and there are many worse places to while away a couple of hours.
The Park is long gone but I would recommend the Swan and Railway, situated between the two railway stations.
I was in here when we played them in Division 3 (the day of the Great Mud Slide, of which more here on Wednesday). The pub was very busy with Sunderland and Athletic fans and a healthy contingent of RL fans making their way to a cup semi final at Bolton or somewhere.
The pub did food, and when you ordered you were given a ticket with a number on which was called out when the food was ready.
We were sat in the back room and the food turnover was pretty rapid as the landlady’s family all chipped in to help. Her teenage daughter entered the room and shouted in a loud voice “69 for anyone?”. There was a hush and the landlady dashed in and dragged her out with a look of sheer horror on her face. Nobody said anything – people from Wigan and Sunderland are as chivalrous as Sir Galahad and his mates – but once she had left, there was a great roar of laughter that lasted for minutes. I wonder where she is now………
I don’t really think that Wigan bring a great deal to the Premier League and they would not be a great miss if they were replaced by either Sheffield club or Wolves, who would bring lots of away fans and also create an atmosphere at home games which did not depend on the strength of the visiting contingent. Wigan v Fulham or Wigan v Bolton must be desperately quiet affairs.
However, if it’s a choice between good, honest Wigan and preening dandies like Crystal Palace and QPR or miserable, tight-fisted sods like Birmingham City, then give me Uncle Dave Whelan and his manger Mrs Doubtfire any day.
It is a sign of the changing times in sport that the RL Club have been told that they cannot play their play off game against Bradford at the JJB on Friday night but must go to Warrington or Widnes. Football taking precedence over Rugby League in Wigan; who’d have thought that possible 20 years ago?