Bolton Wanderers U21 V Wigan Athletic U21
County Ground / U21 Premier Cup / 12th December
I’ve compounded myself to the notion that this whole groundhopping malarkey can be a bit silly at times. I’ve gone past the stage of questioning my sanity and decided to just roll with it (it’s just ‘a phase’ I’ve been telling myself for a few years now). Rarely, do I ask myself ‘Why?’ anymore, but as my working day came to an end one Friday afternoon in Irlam, I did find myself ask that question. Why? More specifically, ‘Why was I rushing out of work, to head straight on the train to a fairly anonymous town in Lancashire, on a bitterly cold evening, to watch U21 Premier League Cup football?” ‘Why?’ indeed. The answer though was fairly obvious though: I wanted to.
The ‘anonymous town in Lancashire’ (bit harsh) in question was Leyland. The town sits just 6 miles south of Preston and with no football team above Step 7 residing in the town since the days of Leyland Motors FC, I thought I’d probably never set foot in the town. However, the town does accommodate the Lancashire FA. Leyland became the headquarters of the county’s football governing body back in 1998 when the LFA moved from Blackburn to the facility located on Thurston Road. This is also the site of the County Ground – the former home of Leyland Motors FC and now the headquarters for the LFA. More recently, thanks to the excellent all-weather pitch and other good facilities at the site, the ground has become the home of Bolton Wanderers U21 Development Squad and it was this team that would bring me to Leyland on this rainy Friday evening.
There was definitely a festive buzz in the air as I arrived on Deansgate from work with many workplaces in the area clearly heading out for their Christmas parties, as the clocks chimed past 4pm. I made a quick visit to the Knott bar, one of my favourite Mancunian bars, located just across the road from Deansgate station, before then hopping on the 16:33 to Barrow-in-Furness, which was heading there via Leyland.
By the time I had arrived in Leyland, the rain was icy cold and coming down rather heavily too. I headed for the town centre with no real expectations, but I was slightly intimidated by the four kebab shops I found with smashed windows on one street. Although if you do like greasy takeaway food, then Leyland is the place for you with numerous kebab shops, Indian and Chinese takeaways lining the street en route to the main high street.
Eventually I found myself in the Leyland Lion, the town’s Wetherspoons branch (another ticked off). Similar to Manchester, the Leyland Lion was abuzz with festive cheer, as the locals had come out in numbers with Christmas hats adorning their heads and wacky, oversized Christmas jumpers proudly hanging off them. Lager just didn’t feel right tonight, so instead I went all adventurous and enjoyed a pint of Ruddles Best bitter with its apparent ‘soft aroma of fruit notes.’ Not my usual cup of tea (well pint of beer), but pleasant enough nonetheless.
Just across the road from the Leyland Lion was the closed gate to Leyland Market and adjacent to this I found the Market Ale House. Essentially, this place is just a small room with a few wooden high tables and a bar, but for those real ale lovers out there, this rather modest establishment would be dreamy. The small bar was full of a diverse range of ales with a menu on the wall. Even the job vacancy sign behind the bar requested that it was compulsory for applicants to have a love and strong knowledge of ale. I opted for a pint of Prospect Gold Rush (‘an award winning pale refreshing beer with citrus and spicy notes alongside a light, refreshing taste’) and I have to say that it was utterly superb. As I sipped away at my beer, I found my eyes stumble upon a genius and very apt quote written upon one of the overhanging beams:
“Anyone can drink beer, but it takes intelligence to enjoy beer.”
Beautifully put. The quote was attributed to Steve Beaumont and a spot of Googling predictably revealed him to be a beer critic. What a job!
The time was now 18:40 so I decided to make the short walk down the road until I arrived at the gates of the home of the Lancashire FA. Through the turnstiles I went for the measly price of £3 and I was into the County Ground.
For such a cold, wet Friday night, there wasn’t actually too bad a gathering of fans tonight, although many were making a beeline for ‘Corner Flag Refreshments’ booth located….well, unsurprisingly in the corner of the ground. A coffee (50p) and a meat and potato pie (£2.50) were purchased and to warm me up on the sidelines, whilst the players warmed up on the pitch.
The ground consists of a small shelter next to the food hut behind the near goals, with the large red brick wall of the adjacent British Commercial Vehicle Museum looming over both. Down the one side of the pitch is one sheltered seating stand, which holds 500 seats and it was here where most people congregated for this evening’s game. The most blatant structure in the ground is easily the hub of the LFA itself – the large red-bricked building housing the offices of the LFA and various function rooms. The building even has a balcony overlooking the ground.
The two teams came out to the pitch with the playing surface, admittedly in great condition considering the weather, squelching under the players’ boots. There were no familiar names to me on the teamsheets being handed out, but that wasn’t to matter on this evening with the game itself being the highlight. I’ve regularly moaned this season about how I seem to repeatedly end up at mediocre games, but tonight was far from mediocre. This was a game with quality football, good goals, some tough, yet fair, tackles and a referee who I felt let everything flow brilliantly.
Within minutes of the game getting underway Wigan’s youngsters had the lead with Ryan Jennings controlling a long ball and then firing into the bottom corner.
The goal didn’t seem to unstable Bolton, who fought back with their pacey winger Sanmi Odelusi being particularly dangerous throughout the first half. A goal looked like it was coming for Odelusi, but the very vocal Lee Nicholls in the Wigan goal did well to keep him at bay.
By the time I had moved to the stand for a bit more shelter and warmth, it was to be the number 10, Georgi Illiev, who would bring Bolton an equaliser with a well hit shot, after turning on the edge of the box and then put the Trotters ahead by converting home following a corner.
Odelusi’s first half showing certainly deserved a goal and the winger grabbed one with an excellent first time volley from the edge of the box, after Wigan failed to clear their lines properly.
Despite Bolton’s dominance there was still time for Wigan to pull a goal back and make it 3-2 with Sam Cosgrove scoring tidily following some neat passing in the box.
Half-time: Bolton Wanderers U21 3 – 1 Wigan Athletic U21.
An excellent first half of football had taken my mind off the cold, but with no distraction on the pitch, more coffee was purchased to fight the freeze.
Wigan dominated the majority of the second half after looking fairly defeated at the end of the first 45. Thomas Rogen put the Latics back in contention with the first attack of the half and then ten minutes later it was 4-3 with Jennings dinking the ball into the net over the Bolton goalie for his second of the night.
The game was ebbing back and forth with both teams now giving their all, but both teams were failing to find a breakthrough. Arguably, Wigan were still on top, but with 5 minutes remaining it was to be Illiev again who popped up with another goal to secure his hatrick and to make it 4-4.
I was delighted with the haul of goals I had witnessed this evening, but then something hit me: this was a cup game and extra-time and penalties awaited. As much as I had enjoyed the game, I did want to go and so I found myself cheering on anyone who got near the goals in the closing stages of the game. No goal would come and another 45 minutes was needed.
Full-time: Bolton Wanderers U21 4 – 4 Wigan Athletic U21.
I moved from the stand to in front of the main building for extra-time and I started to speculate whether I had subconsciously opted to do that to be nearer the exit. I was too stubborn to leave though. There were virtually no chances and not much to report
Extra-time first half: Bolton Wanderers U21 4 – 4 Wigan Athletic.
Tiredness was really setting in now, but there was one moment of brilliance that almost made the whole trip worthwhile. Wigan defender Luke Burke hit a dipping 35 yard volley, which beat Fitzsimmons in the Bolton goal only for the ball to smash the crossbar.
After extra-time: Bolton Wanderers U21 4 – 4 Wigan Athletic U21.
Two saves from Fitzsimmons and Bolton scoring their opening two spot kicks gave the Wanderers a lead, which Wigan wouldn’t scupper back. The remaining penalties were scored by both teams meaning Bolton were to win the tie.
Penalties: Bolton Wanderers U21 4 – 1 Wigan Athletic U21.
Extra-time wasn’t too thrilling, but the rest of the tie was a thoroughly entertaining affair and a great advert for U21 football. Odelusi was great in the first half, but the lad who caught the eye the most for me was Bolton’s midfielder Tom Parker – he looks like he could be an excellent, marauding centre midfielder for Bolton in years to come with him demonstrating a knack of going on mazy dribbles throughout tonight’s game.
My toes were now numb, so I opted to have a jog back to the station, located about 10-15 minutes walk back from the ground. With a bit of time before my train back to Manchester, I headed into the Railway pub opposite the station. A strange place. The Railway is a large pub, so much so that it is almost divided into two separate places with a half pub/half nightclub vibe going on. The pub part was great, but I did find myself cringing a bit when a succession of the drunken, middle-aged men dad-danced their way over to the club part to dance with much younger girls. They all came back with their ale and disappointment smeared across their face.
Highlights: The Leyland Lion, The Market Ale House, great game of football.
Low Points: a fairly plain ground.