I’ve spent the past three years of my life living in the North-West: 1 year in Liverpool and now almost two years in Manchester. Whilst moving between the two cities I’ve missed out the large town in the middle: Warrington. In fact, I had only ever stepped foot in the town once in my life; that was on my way to watch Swansea play Burnley at Turf Moor and because of train disruptions we had to dismount at Warrington Central and walk across town to Warrington Bank Quay station to complete the rest of our journey to Burnley. Despite the two large cities either side of the town being football mad, Warrington is considered very much a rugby town. The town’s rugby league team, Warrington Wolves, get attendances upwards of 10,000 at times for their Super League fixtures. Warrington is now the largest town in the country without a Football League club with football generally being swept under the carpet – or is it? There are figures to suggest that thousands upon thousands of the 200,000 people that populate Warrington leave the town every Saturday to watch Premier League or Football League games in the towns and cities surrounding it. Perhaps a club in the Football League, or at least a team competing to get into the league, is all the town of Warrington needs to become a two sport town.
This is where the ambitious owners and board behind Warrington Town FC, who currently play their football in the Northern Premier League First Division North, come into play. In no uncertain terms, the club have made it clear that their long term vision is to get the club into the Football League as part of their ten year plan and there is certainly money being pumped into the club to achieve this. Only last month the club’s chief executive Richard Sutton unveiled plans for a new 5-6,000 seater stadium for the club to be built on an old air base site in Burtonwood; the stadium will also become a focal point for the community with an array of facilities including a library, surgery, several 3G pitches, an Education Unit and facilities to accommodate concerts and exhibitions and much more. The ambitious plans for the new ground are being helped along by Robson Sports, the sports consultancy company overseen by former Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson. However, for now, Cantilever Park (or the Abacus Community Solicitors Stadium to give it its commercially inspired name) is very much the home of Warrington Town FC and it was here I would be spending my Saturday afternoon in mid-February. Even today’s league fixture of Warrington v Wakefield sounded more like a rugby league fixture than a football match.
I arrived into Warrington Central station just after 11 o’clock and having not had any caffeine to fire me up for the day, I went in search of coffee in the town centre (via a quick stroll up the road from the station to see the Halliwell Jones Stadium, the home of Warrington Wolves). I’d forgotten how nice Warrington Town centre actually is and there has clearly been a lot of renovation to the town over recent years. I ignored the several traditional looking pubs I past in the town centre and eventually got my caffeine fix from a coffee shop called Rhodes Island Coffee. Unfortunately, Warrington’s ground is not situated near the town centre, a real shame as some of the pubs in town were certainly appealing. Instead, I headed to the bus station and jumped on the number 6 bus to Stockton Heath, just ten minutes south of the town centre.
By 11:30 I had arrived at Stockton Heath and was sitting with a pint in the first pub I had seen, the Red Inn. The pub was fairly nice inside with all the locals discussing the rugby league game between Warrington and Wigan from the night before – I learnt that they had drawn 17-17, but I didn’t really care. With a simple pint of Fosters costing £3.10, I decided that I should move on.
Joining me for today’s football were two residents of Warrington and experts of non-league football in the North West: Aaron, who I had first met at Radcliffe and who I’d gone along with to Curzon Ashton (who are managed by Aaron’s Dad) and Atherton Collieries during the summer months, and Lewis Dunwoody, Warrington’s ‘media man’. After Aaron’s recommendation, we decided to meet in the Mulberry Tree Inn, which I conveniently realised was directly opposite the Red Inn.
Only seconds after walking through the doors into the Mulberry Tree, Aaron walked in behind me and not long after we were joined by Lewis. I have to say, the Mulberry Tree was a great pub – it was huge! We had a few beers, watched the Spurs v Newcastle (I was fairly reserved in my adoration for Gareth Bale for a change) and I listened to Aaron and Lewis chat in depth about certain non-league topics whilst pretending to know what they were on about. We left the Mulberry Tree with the clock past 2 o’clock and I was told that there was a 15-20 minute walk ahead of us to Cantilever Park.
After crossing the Manchester Ship Canal and heading through the quiet suburban streets of Warrington, we were soon at the yellow and blue coloured turnstiles of Cantilever Park (no ticket issues this week after the whole ticket kerfuffle at West Ham last week) and after paying my £8 entry, I was into the ground.
‘The Wire’ (the club’s nickname because of the local wire-pulling industry in the town) have played at Cantilever Park since 1965, four years after the club changed their name from Stockton Heath Albion to Warrington Town. The ground can hold approximately 3,500 spectators and on entering the ground it is very obvious where the name of the ground comes from: the main backdrop to the ground is the towering Cantilever Bridge, a high bridge that goes over the Manchester Ship Canal which the ground sits on the north bank of.
Behind the far goals stands a sheltered standing terrace with the opposite goal having two small caged football pitches behind it, where there were a host of young children having a kickabout on this Saturday afternoon. On the one side of the pitch is a small sheltered seating stand with the side of the pitch we had entered on having another small sheltered seating area, the clubhouse, snack hut and another building containing the press box and changing rooms. It was outside this building that I first encountered Warrington’s manager Shaun Reid, brother of Peter. As I was having my photo with him I made the quite patronising comment of: “This means I’ve met the brothers of John Sheridan, Ryan Giggs and now Peter Reid this season.” Shaun fortunately saw the funny side and made an amusing comment about Rhodri Giggs which I don’t think I can publish on here. More from Shaun later.
The doors of the clubhouse were shut from in the ground ( I learned later that to get in you had to walk back outside the ground) so I headed to the snack hut for my customary pie. Today’s menu was offering meat and potato or a more interesting sound ‘chunky steak pie’; of course, I opted for the chunky steak which was thoroughly enjoyable (not so enjoyable was the ramshackled toilets, complete with piss filled urinal, I visited before purchasing my pie).
Aaron got chatting to some of his referee friends before kick off and it turned out that the referee for today’s game was apparently one of the top linesmen in the Football League, hence the small crowd of officials spectating today’s game. I actually thought the ref had missed a trick as the teams came out with there being a slight kit clash, as Warrington wore their yellow shirt with blue shorts and today’s opponent’s Wakelfield wore blue shirts with yellow shorts. However, as the game got underway there seemed to be no real issues with the kits. Obviously, the referee knows best.
Warrington started the game the better team and they were playing some neat, tidy football, although they were lacking a slight bit of cutting edge. The main entertainment from the first half hour came from Shaun Reid (complete with Armani jeans) on the touchline. The man is a ball of energy and passion on the touchline, constantly screaming instructions to his team, reprimanding silly mistakes but also vigorously praising his players’ clever play.
After 27 minutes, John Miles, a former Liverpool academy player, tricked his way into the box from the left wing and past Wakefield’s Keenan Ratcliffe, who subsequently brought him down in the box. Penalty to Warrington. Wakefield’s goalkeeper Neil Bennett had made one excellent save to deny Ciaran Kilheeney already in the game, but this time the Warrington striker placed his penalty right into the corner and completely unreachable for Bennett. 1-0 to Warrington and certainly deserved.
Then in a blink of an eye, it was 1-1. Almost directly from the restart, Wakefield sent the ball towards the Warrington box with the loose ball being collected by Caldon Hanson to finish under Andy Robertson in the Warrington goal. The sucker punch had taken the wind out of the Warrington sails and the remainder of the half was largely uneventful.
Half time was spent in Warrington’s large, modern looking clubhouse. The clubhouse had clearly undergone some recent renonvations and the place is one of the neatest looking clubhouses I’ve been in at this level of football.
During the opening stages of the second half, I made my usual lap of the pitch taking photos of the ground before rejoining Lewis at our standing spot behind the dugouts (Aaron had gone off with his referee pals somewhere). Warrington had come flying out of the traps and were playing some excellent football in the early stages of the second half. A goal looked inevitable and it came whilst I was on the final stretch of my lap around the ground. Just as I made it behind the Wakefield goal, Miles swung in a corner for centre back James McCarten to header in unmarked via a slight deflection.
Shortly after, the score was 3-1, this time courtesy of a Ronaldinho style finish…no, not one of his overhead kicks or brilliant solo efforts, but a looping free kick from John Miles that lobbed Bennett from 25 yards out à la the Brazilian’s lob over David Seaman in the 2002 World Cup. Did he mean it or not? Only Miles will know.
One of the highlights of the game would come shortly after the third goal. After one of Wakfield’s players was booked for a late tackle and then a Warrington player escaped a yellow card for a similar tackle, Wakefield’s manager Paul Lines demonstrated his anger by launching into a four letter tirade and finished by referring to the Warrington player as a’knob’ (or it may have been a ‘dick’, I can’t really remember). Reidy did not take kindly to this. Reid headed just outside his technical area red-faced and screaming at the Wakefield coach and finished by referring to him as a “blonde-haired twat!”. It really was brilliant as the Wakefield coach looked utterly shellshocked. He plucked up enough courage to whisper under his breath “grey haired twat” for only people nearby him to hear.
Warrington wrapped up a comprehensive win thanks to a simple finish by Kilheeney. The assist came from Warrington Town’s young right back Phil Davies, who for me was the best player on the pitch by some distance and was easily Man of the Match. The right back had a superb first touch, every pass he made was incisive and precise and for such a young player, his decision making seemed spot on. From what I had seen over the 90 mintues, Davies could certainly play at a higher level than this in my opinion.
Final score 4-1 to Warrington. A crucial three points for the Wire as they continue to mount a promotion challenge.
Following the game we returned to the clubhouse and settled down with Aaron’s refereeing committee to watch the full time scores on BBC (I was celebrating Swansea’s 4-1 win over QPR). We said our goodbyes to Lewis who had to go home and me and Aaron decided we would leave after one more pint. That was until we got chatting to Reidy, who was enjoying some celebratory red wine by the bar, and our chat with Warrington’s ‘gaffer’ led to us staying for a couple more drinks. Shaun was great company and clearly a man very much in love with football as we covered a range of topics; he even knew my pal Larry, Rochdale’s chief scout who I’d befriended at Birmingham New Street station after my trip to St. Andrews.
Overall, a great day at the Wire and I hope they continue their push for promotion and keep pushing their ambition onwards.
Highlights: the Mulberry Tree pub, nice clubhouse, decent pie, good game of football, Shaun Reid’s touchline antics and our post match analysis with him, the performance of Phil Davies.
Low Points: ground away from town centre, pitch not the greatest.