Lost in…Leigh

Dinamo Bucharest v Hearts

Leigh Sports Village / Friendly / 8th July 2013

So the first trips of preseason, Flixton and Halifax, had been a blast, but the week following was to bring a whole new level of randomness to the preseason fixture list. Me and fellow groundhopper Gibbo were tipped off last week that Scottish club Hearts were going to take on Romanian club Dinamo Bucharest in the Greater Manchester suburb of Leigh – more specifically the recently built Leigh Sports Village. Surely not? After a very brief spot of internet research there was very little mention of the fixture, but enough investigating did unearth the odd mention of it and indeed it did very much appear that Hearts v Dinamo Bucharest was a genuine game, even featuring the first teams of both clubs. We finally had the fixture confirmed by the Leigh Sports Village Twitter account and it was decided that such a strange fixture in Greater Manchester could not be missed.

After a long day in the sweltering heat of work, I escaped Irlam and made my way to Manchester where I was meeting up with Gibbo, who was arriving back in Manchester from South Wales. We began our ascent up from the centre of Manchester to Gibbo’s hometown of Atherton (via Salford Crescent station) so he could drop his stuff off and then to travel to Atherton’s next door neighbour, Leigh.

A quick trip to Casa del Gibbo and we were off into Atherton to get the 582 bus to Leigh bus station. The North West was still consumed by a heatwave and we decided before hopping on the bus that we needed to quench our thirst with a pint in the Jolly Nailor. I knew I hadn’t visited the pub before (despite numerous trips to Atherton, I  had stepped never stepped foot in Atherton town centre proper until now), but yet the name was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where from. Then, as we stood at the bar, Gibbo pointed to a sign above the bar “Jolly Nailor proud sponsors of Atherton Collieries.” Of course! The pub’s name is brandished on the front of the mighty Colls’ shirts.

Following our swift pint in the Jolly Nailor, it was straight for the 582 bus to Leigh bus station. For us users of public transport, the bus was the only option into the town, as there is no train station in Leigh; in fact, I’m told that Leigh is supposedly the largest town in Europe without its own train station!

10 minutes after departing Atherton town centre, we were into the heart of Leigh and the town’s bus station. I’d seen very little to persuade me to hang around the town centre, so we headed straight towards Leigh Sports Village, which Gibbo informed was about a 10-15 minute walk away.

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En route through Leigh to the Leigh Sports Village

Like most new-build stadiums, I assumed that we would be walking towards some sort of retail or industrial park to find it, so it surprising when Gibbo led me through a residential area (complete with young children intimidating passing traffic) to the ground’s location. The first hint that we were near LSV came was the site of numerous rugby pitches in front of us. Leigh is very much a rugby town it seems – more than I realised beforehand. Even en route to the Sports Village we passed a pub covered in the colours and images of the town’s rugby league team claiming to be ‘Leigh’s number one rugby pub’.

Just as the ground came into sight we came across the town’s local rugby league team, Leigh Centurions, training on the pitch in front of us; Gibbo warned against crossing the rugby pitch after he once committed that very act and was greeted by the angry shouts of an Aussie rugby league player who was furious at someone breaching the perimeter of their training session.

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Leigh Centurions training with the Leigh Sports Village Stadium in the background

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The front of the Leigh Sports Village Stadium

Once we were passed the Centurions, we now had the grounds of Leigh Sports Village in front of us with the stadium and the running track dead ahead of us. First impressions: well, although the facilities were clearly very good, as far as a stadium goes it is very bland to say the least. The colour grey comes to mind. Admittedly, my first impression probably does the place a slight disservice.

Leigh Sports Village is one of the biggest sport developments in the North West in recent times with the £50 million multi-purpose sport facility being opened in December 2008.

The list of facilities is exhaustive and I can’t really be arsed to type them all out, so here’s a copy of the list of facilities taken from the Sports Village website.

The Sports Village contains:

  • 11,000 capacity stadium
  • Conference and banqueting facilities
  • Corporate hospitality boxes
  • Athletics stadium home to Leigh Harriers Amateur Athletics Club
  • 400m running track with covered sprinting area
  • Sports pavilion
  • Floodlit grass and third generation (3G) artificial sports pitches
  • Leigh Indoor Sports Centre, which includes a 25m pool, sports hall and Profiles gym
  • Leigh Sixth Form College
  • High quality, 135 room hotel at the Park Inn
  • Morrisons Leigh – Supermarket, petrol station and Cafe
  • Manor Pharmacy
  • Leisure and shopping facilities
  • Performance areas
  • Walking tracks
  • High tech offices
  • Open spaces
  • Bars
  • Restaurants
  • Free car parking

(And I’ll add on: a Harvester style pub called the Whistling Wren right next to to the ground)

As the people who actually bothered to read that list properly may have noticed, the Sports Village is not only home to general sports facilities, but is also a base for education, retail and residential facilities. And what’s a sports village without a branch of Morrisons?

The Village is largely used as the home for rugby league club Leigh Centurions and Swinton Lions, who play at the centrepiece of the whole village, the 11,000 capacity stadium. Football generally plays second fiddle to other sports on the village, especially after the demise of Leigh Genesis (formerly Leigh RMI) to the very bottom basement of  non-league football and their departure from the ground; although Blackburn Rovers reserves are currently calling Leigh Sports Village their home. Rugby League will be dominating the Village once again in November 2013 with the stadium playing host to the Rugby League World Cup clash between Tonga and the Cook Islands.

The Leigh Sports Village Stadium by itself is a multi-million pound project with state of the art surroundings. The stadium has the usual luxuries associated with a new-build stadium: an array of executive and corporate boxes, undersoil heating, plush changing rooms and director suites, but I particularly liked the sound of “High tech Desso Grassmaster playing surface” – sounds fancy!

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The North Stand – a bit grey

We walked down the side of the nondescript grey stand to the front of the stand and to the main reception, so that Gibbo could collect his fancy, big-time photographer pass (and jacket) for the game. The only particularly interesting feature of the stadium’s front was the large big screen placed above the entrance. Whilst Gibbo was collecting his jacket and chatting away to a steward, I spotted three Dinamo Bucharest players walking out of the Morrisons directly opposite the ground’s entrance and then sit on the bench to eat their Morrisons sandwiches – this was only 30 minutes from kick-off. A photo opportunity was seized.

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Gibbo posing in his photographer jacket with Aaron in his Sparta Prague shirt

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Lewis, me, Danny Wilson and Gibbo – we bumped into the former Liverpool and current Hearts captain outside the ground’s entrance

Soon Aaron and Lewis turned up just as we spotted former Liverpool player and current Hearts captain Danny Wilson also having a stroll outside the ground. After asking him for a photo, I informed him of how I had a Russian housemate who had ‘WILSON 22’ printed on the back of both his 2010/11 Liverpool home and away shirts – a choice I still don’t really understand to this day. Even Wilson seemed bemused. “All Russians are crazy,” Wilson declared in his strong Scottish accent, before Gibbo told him about his website and somehow pissed him off and sent the Scot scurrying away.

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Bit of effort has gone into this banner…

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…not so much this one.

There was still just over 20 minutes until kick-off, so we opted to go into the stadium’s Legends Bar for a quick drink – an extortionately expensive drink at that; for a round of two pints of lager and a coke it cost me £9! I’d already paid £15 for my ticket, a crazy price it felt for such a friendly, so the expensive drink prices were an unwelcome addition. It was also during our brief drink in the bar that I mentioned that Dinamo Bucharest’s captain was a former Championship Manager hero of mine, Catalin Munteanu. Realising I had no idea what my former hero from my early teens looked like, I decided to search for a picture for him on Google only to learn that he was the player I had had a photo with outside Morrison’s earlier! I didn’t even get the chance to tell him how amazing he was for me in my days managing out in Spain on Championship Manager in the early 2000s!

We were into the ground with ten minutes until kick off (me, Aaron and Lewis had gone in like any normal spectator whilst Gibbo lived it up by going in the ‘press entrance’) and we decided to go sit with the very small handful of people wearing Dinamo Bucharest/Romanian gear behind the Dinamo dugout. Also circling around near our seats were some sort of Romanian television crew who were filming tonight’s game.

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The teams come out for today’s game

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The North Stand standing terrace (with Gibbo snapping away)

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From our seats behind the Dinamo Bucharest dugout

The only stand open tonight was the imaginatively named West Stand, with the opposite stand (unsurprisingly the East Stand) and the South Stand also being all-seater stands with a large TV screen placed in the south-east corner. The North Stand, which was now home to several Hearts banners, is a standing terrace.

The game kicked off and it was apparent almost immediately that Dinamo were technically far superior to Hearts, who were playing without our new pal Danny Wilson. With 15 minutes on the clock Dinamo took the lead through Cosmin Matei’s rocket left-footed drive from 20 yards which flew into the top corner.

We were very entertained by the Dinamo’s coach constant angry shouting of “JOE!” towards the Dinamo striker, before delivering a series of passionate hand gestures to signal his displeasure at the striker’s efforts. We soon worked out that the coach was actually shouting “JOEL!” at the French front man Joel Thomas. Due to his clusmy play and the abuse he seemed to be getting from his coach, we instantly took Joel to our hearts and soon the Frenchman quietened his coach by making it 2-0 with an easy finish.

Dinamo continued their tidy passing game for the rest of the half, but the scored remained 2-0 as the ref’s whistle for half time blew. As soon as the whistle blew the TV cameras emerged on the small group of Dinamo fans and particularly focused on the most vocal fan. The Dinamo fan wearing a 2011 red Romanian national shirt had kept us entertained throughout the first half with his one man singing and chanting, the only noise to be heard in the stadium. You couldn’t fault his passion.

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The Dinamo fans being interviewed on TV

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The one man singing machine of Dinamo Bucharest

After enjoying a half time chicken tikka pie (priced £2.50 and generally very nice, but nothing truly spectacular) we headed back to our seats in the unofficial Dinamo end of the ground. The second half continued in a similar vein to the first. Dinamo’s third goal was a thing of beauty as quick passing around the Hearts box led to Matei being picked out unmarked to finish. Matei had impressed us all game and the 21-year old looks to be a real young talent to watch out for in the future.

The score was made 3-1 after Hearts won a penalty which was converted by James Hamill, someone who I thought was one of Hearts better players on the night. However, Dinamo soon had their 3 goal advantage back when Dorin Rotariu finished when one-on-one with the keeper.

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Match action from the North Stand, as Dinamo score their 4th goal (photo: Joseph Gibbons)

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The ground from the back row of the West Stand

Dinamo’s fifth goal was a joy to behold and as Aaron posted on Twitter, we may not see a better goal on our travels this season. A series of fast one touch passes (we think 9 in total) led to Ionel Danciulescu converting an easy one-on-one chance, but the buildup had been delightful to watch. “Romanian tiki-taka” as we dubbed it.

FT: Dinamo Bucharest 5 -1 Hearts.

Once our Dinamo friends had finished being interviewed by the TV crew, we could not leave without a photo and to congratulate them on a comfortable victory. The Dinamo fans were all very friendly and we decided to tell them that we’ll go over to Romania and visit them in the near future (Aaron was forecasting a Summer 2014 trip). The Dinamo fans even asked for the web address for this very blog, so if you are reading this Dinamo fans, make sure to say hello and drop a comment in the box at the bottom.

As always, on explaining I was a Swansea City fan the Dinamo fans declared their love for the Swans (like every other football fan outside of Cardiff it seems).

“You’re a Swansea fan!” declared the steward taking our photo.

“Yeah mate.”

“Ah. I’m a Cardiff City fan…” he replied. We brushed over our club’s animosity towards each other and instead embraced the fact that we were two South Walians exiled in the North West.

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Our new Dinamo Bucharest pals – see you next summer maybe!

On leaving the stadium, all the Dinamo and Hearts players were mingling with the fans just outside the entrance to the stadium which was nice to see. Me and Gibbo had to shoot off to get the last bus back to Atherton, but Aaron and Lewis hung around and Aaron even got interviewed by Romanian TV, as he spoke about the treasure that is Cosmin Matei. They then even met Matei himself! We’ve decided that you are not a true  ‘football hipster’ unless you are an admirer of Cosmin Matei.

All in all, Leigh Sports Village is not the most interesting places to watch football, but nonetheless we had a very enjoyable night. And when else are you ever going to get the chance to watch Hearts v Dinamo Bucharest in northern outposts of Greater Manchester? I’d like to say that this is as random as it is ever to get, but the next blog about Thursday’s Club Brugge v Otalel Galati game at Radcliffe Borough’s Stainton Park ground will not be topped for randomness. (It definitely was the most random! Read here).

Highlights: cheap pints at the sponsors of Atherton Colls, the Jolly Nailor, nice facilities at LSV, the Dinamo fans, Cosmin Matei’s performance, meeting Championship Manager hero Catalin Munteanu.

Low Points: a bland new-build stadium, expensive ticket for preseason friendly, expensive drink prices, a town that loves rugby league a bit too much for my liking.

13 thoughts on “Lost in…Leigh

  1. Good report. I was there too although down the “other” end. There was a bit of noise from a group of Mancunian Hibs supporters who guffawed at every Hearts error.
    As you say a good night out, a tad expensive, and thanks to Gibbo I got the team lists, without which I would have developed quite a twitch. 🙂
    I’m going to Radcliffe tonight too, so say hello if you see me – white hair and Wigan Athletic shirt.

    • Cheers George. Glad you enjoyed. Gibbo is useful for things like that 🙂

      See you at the game tonight – I’ll be in my new Ki-Sung Yeung Swansea tshirt.

  2. I live and work in Leigh Sports Village and I only found out about the Hearts game by accident. I’m actually a Dandie but my Dad was a Jambo so I’ve got a soft spot for Hearts – and everyone in the Sports Village knows I follow Scottish football. The publicity regarding the game was shocking. I even had to check with Mark Ridgers to confirm the game was definitely going ahead!

    • It was crazy the sheer lack of publicity for it. When we arrived we were still half expecting there to be no game. Shame there wasn’t much of a crowd as the game was fairly enjoyable in the end. Also thought the £15 a ticket was quite steep.

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