First and foremost I have to say I really do not like Wigan Athletic Football Club. I have to be very careful not to turn this into a massive rant at a club that pillaged my club just over two and half years ago and I’d like to think I’ve done this fairly successfully.
My first ever visit to the DW Stadium would be in October 2010 as Swansea, still residing in the Championship at the time, had been drawn against Rugby…..I mean Premiership “giants” Wigan. The game would be Swansea’s first encounter with a man who was worshipped amongst the Swansea masses for the previous two and half seasons, Roberto Martinez. The fixture happened to fall on a Tuesday night in the middle of most school’s half term (convenient for myself as I was in the middle of my teacher training in Liverpool) and tickets were ridiculously cheap at £10 a ticket and, more ridiculously, with a buy one, get one free offer attached. Wigan have to be respected for their stance on ticket pricing, as they recognise that the club is engulfed in Rugby League country; they combat this with the cheapest tickets of any Premiership club. More amazingly, Wigan have the 6th cheapest season ticket price (£295 for Premiership football) out of the whole 92 Football League clubs – that’s cheaper than clubs such as Macclesfield, Shrewsbury and Northampton who lurk in the basement division of the Football League. Cheap tickets; half term; Swansea fans wanting to hurl abuse at their previous ‘Messiah’ meant that a bumper away support would be attending the game at the DW Stadium with some even predicting that the away fans could even outnumber the home fans (this wasn’t to be the case).
Wigan spent the first 67 years of their existence playing at Springfield Park before moving to the DW Stadium in 1999. The stadium was originally known as the JJB Stadium after Chairman Dave Whelan’s sport shop chain JJB Sports. When Whelan started a new venture of fitness clubs in 2009, DWSportsfitness, the stadium was renamed the DW Stadium in line with the stadium’s new sponsor. Wigan’s fortunes have improved dramatically since their move to the DW Stadium in 1999 with promotion to Division One in 2003, as Division Two champions and then they secured promotion to the Premier League in 2006; both promotions were gained under the management of Paul Jewell. The club share the stadium with their Rugby League neighbours Wigan Warriors. As is highlighted regularly by fans and the media, Wigan is historically a rugby league town, which impacts on the attendance of the football club. However, since their first season at their new stadium to their escalation to Premier League football, Wigan’s average attendances have almost trebled from 6,881 in 2000/01 to around 18,000 last season.
Having left for the match not too long before kick-off that night, there was little chance to sample the wonders of Wigan. We parked on the nearby retail park and headed to the Red Robin pub near the stadium – pretty much the only pub in sight. The place was rammed to the rafters as the Jack Army had arrived in Wigan in large numbers. After a lengthy queue we finally got a drink and headed out towards the boisterous and extremely loud singing coming from the beer garden. It was clear that the Jack Army had brought their voices with them tonight, more than likely to launch a tirade of abuse at Martinez, although the most bizarre chant of the night involved previous manager, Paulo Sousa, ‘his Portuguese tan’ and ‘Madeline McCann’.
As alluded to earlier, there is very little around the DW apart from the shops/fast food chains on the retail parks, so after a Burger King (which was served remarkably quickly) we headed to the ground where I learned that the police in Wigan condone littering, after telling me to throw my Burger King wrappers/drink on the floor by a large pile the police seemed to be building up. They were less impressed by my comment of “Sorry, didn’t want to litter in case it pissed Mr. Whelan off.” I quickly scuttled into the ground to avoid their angry glares.
From the outside the DW was far from breath-taking but on getting into the ground I began to find it much more impressive. A very generously sized concourse, which didn’t get cramped, decently priced food/drink and really friendly stewards. After a quick drink we headed up to our seats to be greeted by a huge swarm of Swansea fans; a staggering 4,500 fans had made their way up to Wigan, very impressive for a Tuesday night Carling Cup game. Rodgers showed his attitude towards the Carling Cup by naming a largely second string XI. Rodgers was greeted warmly to the arena by the Swansea fans, but there was only one man who the fans were waiting to emerge from the tunnel. As soon as Martinez’s brown shoes came into sight, the Swansea crowd erupted into boos and shouts of “Judas” which were also accompanied by “El Judas” signs.
The game was largely uneventful, but the Jack Army were immense, singing their hearts out for the majority of the game, intimidating the empty seats around the ground (in all fairness to Wigan, it was a Carling Cup game against a Championship side). Wigan went on to win the game 2-0 following a penalty by Ben Watson and, embarrassingly, a goal from their £6million Argentinian flop, Mario Boselli.
There was very little to be learnt about the place that night as it felt like a quick dart up the road from Liverpool (my home at the time) and then a quick dart back down the road following the game. I didn’t even get to try one of Wigan’s famous pies. Fortunately I’m writing this the day after attending my 2nd Wigan v Swansea game at the DW Stadium, this time in the Premier League where Swansea now stand above Wigan in the league. I arrived in Wigan 3 hours before kick off, so on this occasion I got to experience the ‘real’ Wigan.
In regards to the build-up to the game, the whole ‘Swansea v Martinez’ has now died down dramatically since the anger-tinged trip to Wigan in the Carling Cup the season before; it was almost as if the game acted as a cathartic release for many fans to demonstrate their extreme annoyance at ‘Football’s Most Loyal Manager’. The signs that Swans fans have got bored with Roberto-baiting came in Swansea’s first home Premiership fixture against Wigan, where the reception for Martinez was generally quite warm with many fans politely clapping him. I for one had barely thought about the fact that we would up against Roberto in the build-up to the away fixture at Wigan and had only really thought about how important it was that the Swans picked up some points before quite a tricky run of fixtures.
Arriving at Wigan Wallgate station you emerge into the town centre of Wigan, which I found surprisingly pleasant. There are numerous pubs, some with charming Tudor wooden frameworks, around the station but we opted for the Moon Under Water, a Wetherspoons pub about a 2 minute walk away from the station. The pub was dominated by Swans fans, who all seemed very optimistic about claiming a victory over bottom of the table Wigan. After a couple of pints we headed to the ground where I was hoping to finally sample a Wigan pie. On a side note, I learned from Oliver Norwood’s strange uncle, who I met in Accrington, that ‘Wiganers’are not known as ‘pie eaters’ for their reputation of fine pies or their love of eating them. In fact, the name dates back to the 1926 General Strike, when all the pits in Wigan and Leigh went on strike. The Wiganers were the first to break the strike and went back to working in the pits. The ‘Leythers’ remained on strike and as a result secured better pay and working conditions, thus they claimed that the people of Wigan had to “eat humble-pie”.
Having been told the ground was over a half hour walk, we opted for a taxi to the ground. The taxi driver educated us on a shortcut to the ground through a nearby industrial estate, which cut the walk to the ground to about 15 minutes – we made a note of this for the walk back to the town.
We got to the ground with 20 minutes to spare, so alongside my pint I purchased a meat and potato pie. I had high expectations for this pie and it deliciously lived up to them, although I don’t think it quite hit the quality of the Delia-inspired pie that i had in Norwich earlier in the season.
This time Martinez was barely acknowledged as he entered his dugout, with the Jack Army focusing their choruses towards Brendan and the team. In regards to the game, I felt that Swansea were good, but far from their best. Fortunately, the Swans did not have to be, as Wigan were truly awful. I was more shocked by Wigan’s style of play than anything, as they spent the majority of the first half pumping long balls up to the ineffective Connor Sammon – a style of play I would not associate with a Martinez team. After a slow start the Swans began to play their much-lauded football and came close to scoring when Gylfi Sigurdsson played an inch perfect pass through to the onrushing Dyer who hit straight at the in-form Ali Al-Habsi. Then after a quick counter attack, Scott Sinclair took the ball around Ali Al-Habsi only to have his shot cleared off the line by James McCarthy.
Just as the fans were preparing for half time Steven Caulker played the ball into Gylfi Sigurdsson’s feet and with three touches he unleashed an unstoppable, dipping 25 yarder into the top corner. Gylfi had been the standout performer for me in the first half and thoroughly deserved his goal.
We headed for the concourse for a half-time pint. Although Wigan has got a very organised queuing system in place to avoid the free-for-all that goes on at most ground’s bar areas at half time, the queuing did take up most of the half time interval leading to a very rushed (basically down in 2 gulps) pint. Perhaps Wigan should think about getting more people working behind these bars to avoid the annoyance of away supporters.
The introduction of Victor Moses at the start of the 2nd half added a bit of spark to Wigan, but Swansea eaquickly took a hold of the game again with very little effort. On the 55th minute Dyer was first to a loose ball and was fouled 25 yards away from goal. Having discussed in the pub before the game how Sigurdsson came to the club with a reputation as a set piece specialist (check a couple of his efforts out here), he stepped up to bury this one into the far corner, leaving Al-Habsi wrong footed on his goal line. This looked to have killed off Wigan, but there was still a chance for Wigan.
Watching the game live I did not spot anything unusual (Gomez rolling on the floor is not very unusual) but as soon as I saw Andre Marriner running reaching for his cards I knew someone was getting sent off, but I wasn’t even sure for which side. The red card came out and was directed towards Nathan Dyer. Having watched the challenge he made on Gomez back after the game, I am appalled that football is getting to the stage where players cannot even raise their foot to win the ball when it is about a metre off the ground. Although Dyer did catch Gomez, contact was minimal and hardly ankle-shattering as Gomez began to roll around wheeling in pain before getting to his feet shortly after. As Ashley Williams stated on his Twitter page, ‘Gomez will always be Gomez’, in a dig at his former Swansea team mate. Alan Tate joined Williams in lambasting ex-Swan, Gomez, claiming that the team knew Gomez’s antics well enough from being on the same team as him. Add in the fact that Dyer has basically been assaulted by defenders throughout most of the season and it was very hard not to feel like sometimes we get a very raw deal from referees. I braced myself for a long 30 minutes, especially when our star man on the day, Sigurdsson, was substituted (probably rightly so considering the travelling he had done with Iceland midweek). This substitution did mean that club legend Alan Tate made his return to the fold for the first time since September’s defeat at Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup after that bizarre golf buggy incident, which lead to Tate breaking his leg.
After a nervous 5 minutes, it turned out that there was very little to fear, as even with ten men Wigan continued to show very little creative spark, bar a couple of half chances. I also felt much safer knowing that we had Vorm back between the posts after last week’s absence; Vorm had already made a couple of smart saves and had claimed anything that got near the box. After coming on for Danny Graham with 20 minutes left, I also thought Luke Moore did a great job for us wasting time and winning everything that came his way, although he did offer very little attacking prowess (I do still think he is very underrated though).
The rest of the game passed in a blur as we had to put up with watching a blunt Wigan attack try to get through Swansea’s stubborn defence, but to no avail. The full-time whistle blew and I had witnessed my 3rd away win of 2012, a great statistic since I rarely see Swans win on the road. I felt that the Swans were clearly superior to Wigan and did not have to work too hard for the win, although we were helped by the highly impressive Sigurdsson, who is fast becoming my favourite current Swansea player. We applauded the boys and Brendan off the pitch and headed for the exit.
The knowledge given to us by our taxi driver earlier was greatly appreciated with the walk back to the town centre taking about 15 minutes, as we winded our way through the roads of the nearby industrial estate. We decided to have one last drink in town before heading back. We entered a place called Little Fifteen where we were greeted by a stylish bar with unusual decor – it even had an area called the ‘Love Booth’. The place was brilliant although as expected a little bit pricey. We went in the ‘sitting room’ area of the bar with its lavish sofas, classical artwork and dim lighting to discuss the game and our day in Wigan.
Having seen very little of the place on my first visit, I think we were all in agreement that Wigan is, surprisingly, a brilliant away day. A nice town centre, a very good stadium, no trouble and really tasty pies. Also you have to praise the club for its amazing ticket prices. The fact that the Swans had won probably furthered my positivity towards the place as well. If you ever get a chance to go to a Wigan game, I highly recommend it – make sure you have a pie.
HIGHLIGHTS: Ticket prices, plenty of friendly pubs in the town centre, no trouble at all from Wigan fans creating a calm atmosphere, a very good stadium, the pies
LOW POINTS: Home support isn’t the best, long queues for bar, drinks were expensive in the ground