Wigan: it’s bloody brilliant! Bear with me, I’m being serious. My preconceptions of the place before I visited for the first time over 3 years ago, were of a simpleton, pie-loving town – now I think of it as…well kind of the same but I bloody love it! Genuinely. My original negative perception of the place was perhaps forged from the bitterness I held towards Wigan Athletic for snatching my beloved Roberto Martinez (no longer beloved by the way) away from Swansea. The fact that Swansea lost 2-1 to them on my first visit to the DW Stadium probably didn’t help either. However, since then I have made another 2 visits to the town for football, which have both been hugely enjoyable. Yes, so Swansea won both times, but the trips, with even football as an aside, have genuinely been brilliant – especially the trip at the end of last season when Swansea won 3-2; that game/evening in fact probably ranks as one of my all time favourite away trips. Why? Because like I said at the start Wigan is great – I wasn’t joking. Only a couple of months ago I even visited the town for a real night out. Guess what? That was also great. Well done Wigan. So, with me indecisive this Tuesday afternoon where to go watch some football, I thought, why not Wigan? I think it’s great after all.
However, today’s itinerary did not include the Premier…oops, I mean Championship club Wigan Athletic, but instead their non-league next door neighbours Wigan Robin Park FC. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say ‘next door neighbours’ either. Wigan Robin Park Arena – unsurprisingly the home of Wigan Robin Park FC – sits directly alongside the DW Stadium, a bit like how the Mini Estadi sits alongside the Nou Camp at Barcelona; although, of course, neither Robin Park or the DW are quite as glamorous as either – neither is Wigan quite as glamorous as Barcelona.
Wigan Robin Park are a relatively new club having been formed in 2005, beginning their life in the Manchester League before moving up to the NWCFL Division One, a league they won in 2011/12 earning them promotion to the NWCFL Premier Division.
As with any trip to a town that lurks in the depths of Lancashire, I boarded the train from Salford Crescent (still undergoing renovation) to Wigan Wallgate and by 16:15 I was alighting in the town centre of the home of the pie-eaters. There is only one place to go on arriving in Wigan: Galloways – the best pie shop around. I was gasping for a pie after being denied on my last two football trips and my chunky steak pie (bargain at £1.30) went down beautifully. It really was perfect.
After a quick peruse of Wigan’s town centre I decided to ignore my usual Wigan pub stop of the The Moon Under Water (one of my favourite Wetherespoons) and instead try some new places. Although I didn’t visit on today’s trip I should also give a special mention to The Anvil – a brilliant pub by Wigan bus station which I think features in the CAMRA good pub guide. Recommended pub.
First up on today’s wander of Wigan pubs was The Raven with its old fashion decor and dark rooms – it wasn’t bad in there though, although it was practically empty.
Next on my crawl down the high street of Wigan was Harry’s Bar (or Clarence Hotel) – one of the more eventful pub visits of my life. The bar was an odd one to say the least. There were two standard ‘pubby’ rooms either side as I entered until I arrived at the bar with a wooden floor running alongside it, resembling a narrow dancefloor.
“Hello there, young man!” said a slurring and stumbling middle-aged, balding local.
I’m used to attracting and befriending strange folk, so I just prepared myself for the usual trying to keep a straight face whilst chatting to the odd Wiganer. He enquired what I was doing in the pub – “going to watch football – I write a football blog” – he clearly didn’t like football which was fine by me, but I should have known things were going astray when he began asking did I want to dance with him. I politely declined. My new friend was soon asking for my name and having somehow spotted the flat cap on my head through his drunken squinted eyes he dubbed me “Matt with the Hat” as well as introducing himself as George. Soon his mate began circling nearby.
“I’m gay you see Matt with the Hat. Is that OK?”
I replied that I had no problem with gay people. Although I had begun to notice that George’s mate clearly had a problem with me. In a banter-ish manner, George repeatedly berated his mate calling him “ugly” and “a horrible man” just before his mate approached him and suddenly began kissing him. This was clearly George’s boyfriend. I now felt extremely awkward. I thought it was time to start drinking my pint quickly and get out.
“He’s here to apologise to you,” said George dragging his boyfriend along.
“OK. I’m not sure what for but apology accepted.” I replied in my haste to escape.
It soon transpired that George’s boyfriend was not happy with the attention George was paying me and made a derogatory comment about me, which didn’t go down too well with my new pal George who demanded he apologise to me. This was too much for me. Drink downed. Hands shaken. And I was gone. Bloody Wigan! There are some strange folk. Somehow, my desire to try a new pub had resulted in a gay couple fighting over me. I wonder how I do it sometimes.
I escaped to the much more pleasant Berkeley across the road for a quick pint before heading to a pub I had penciled in from the start of my trip: The Orwell – named after one of my favourite writers, George Orwell. Orwell wrote “The Road to Wigan Pier” a critique on 19th century Northern England and the working class, which I had read (a bit of) during my uni years and it was perhaps unsurprising to find The Orwell pub on Wigan Pier. Sadly, my desire to have a drink in the Orwell was curtailed by the fact that the pub appeared to be closed down. Nevermind, onwards towards the ground.
I made the walk down Stadium Way down the side of the canal and soon the familiar shape of the DW Stadium formed ahead of me with the roof of Robin Park just poking over the fence of trees alongside the opposite bank of the River Dougles. For now, I decided to leave Robin Park and navigate my way around the DW Stadium towards the Red Robin – a Harvester style pub which I had visited once before. It was a lot more crowded on my last visit though.
My last visit to the Red Robin came in October 2010 before Swansea’s Carling Cup clash against Wigan. Swansea had brought a huge gathering that night, mainly to slaughter a man the fans claimed was ‘Judas’ – Roberto Martinez, and the pub was packed to the rafters with Jacks singing anti-Martinez songs (and one bizarre song about Paulo Sousa and Madeline McCann if I recall correctly). Tonight was perhaps not quite as fun, but my visit was much more peaceful. It is a great pub compared to the usual crappy pubs you find housed on retail parks.
Shortly after 19:00 I arrived at the doorstep of Wigan Robin Park and it soon occurred to me that there wasn’t a turnstile to enter the ground. A peculiarity indeed. I walked through the reception of the sports centre and I could immediately see the pitch down the tunnel in front of me. There was clearly someone watching out for confused people like me and I was soon approached by a member of the Wigan Robin Park staff who very gratuitously welcomed me and informed me that tonight’s entry fee was £3. I was then given the option of proceeding down the tunnel or going upstairs to the bar area. Of course, I chose the bar area.
On getting to the top of the stairs the ground opened out in front of me and it really was a great view of the ‘arena’ from up there. The ground only consists of the one large stand, which houses within it gyms, sports halls and the usual variety of fitness suites and changing rooms. It also occurred to me that this would be the first game I’ve ever seen with a running track surrounding the pitch. There were even runners still doing their laps of the tracks despite the public address system (‘tannoy’ is a brand name isn’t it Alan Partridge?) informing to go away as there was a football match due to start shortly.
I’d been deceived! The bar was closed. I walk out of the doors and onto the back row of the stand where I spotted Rich, an ardent Salford fans who has not missed a game in years (254 consecutive games at the time of writing) and who I had met on my first ever visit to Salford’s home, Moor Lane. Just as I was chatting to Rich we spotted the shutter go up on the small food/drink hatch and we both made a beeline for it. No beer taps here so instead I had to settle for a can of Carling for £2.
On returning to our perch at the back of the Wigan Robin Park stand we were soon joined by one of the first ladies of non-league football, Laura Flint – a big Salford City fan who runs the club’s Twitter account. Last to join our little band of Salford fans (I was considering myself one again tonight, as they are my local team after all) was Andrew and soon the teams were making the long walk from the tunnel, across the running track and onto the pitch – Salford in their green away shirt; Wigan Robin park in their red and white stripe shirts.
The game was a very scrappy affair at first, but Salford, who play one division above Wigan Robin Park, were having the better of the first half action and were playing some nice passing football at times. Salford have had a massive squad overhaul over the summer with a new manager coming in and today provided my accompanying Salford fans a chance to look at their new crop of players.
Salford eventually took the lead in the 24th minute as Wes Bancroft was put through on goal to neatly lob the ball over the on rushing goalkeeper. The goal was definitely deserved and Salford should really have added more to their tally before half-time with several decent chances. The away team had had the better of the first half and went in at half time 1-0 up.
After having a piss in a toilet with no lights on (I conveniently found a light switch on the way out) I headed back to the little hatch for another can of Carling an a hot dog for a measly £1. Nothing to write home about really but it did the job.
The second half was actually a fairly entertaining display of football without a cart load of chances though. Wigan were slowly but surely coming into the game and beginning to force themselves into the game against their loftier opponents. Eventually Wigan grabbed an equaliser with a very similar goal to Salford’s first: ball through the middle, striker dinking over onrushing goalie. 1-1.
It was actually quite hard to work out who the manager of Wigan actually was with four men in the technical area barking orders, as well as two men a few rows ahead of us looking all important and shouting orders down to pitch side; fairplay, it was impressive shouting – it’s a long way to shout to that pitch. Thanks largely to this ability to shout really loud, I decided that the man in the stand had to be the head honcho.
The game petered out with talk in the stands amongst Salford’s small ‘Tangerine Army’ turning to the big cup final on Saturday: the annual Salford Advertiser Cup between Irlam and Salford, this year being hosted at Irlam’s Silver Street – a game I also plan to attend.
Full time: Wigan Robin Park 1 – 1 Salford City. Not a bad game really.
Wigan Robin Park is certainly not your classic football ground, but for some strange reason I quite liked it. Yes, it is a little soulless and unorthodox, but I think for whatever reason I enjoyed the uniqueness. It’s one of those grounds where I couldn’t really put my finger on why I quite liked watching football there.
Highlights: visiting good old Wigan, plenty of pubs, Galloways, decent game of football (especially for preseason), quite liked the ground.
Low Points: Harry’s Bar and my new ‘friend’ George – terrifying stuff, not being able to visit the Orwell, the ground is a bit soulless.