First published in Rugby League World, Issue 377 (Sept 2012)
Ground: Stobart Stadium
Game: v Castleford Tigers
Date: Monday 2 July 2012
As I approach Widnes from the south-east, Doves’ coruscating ‘Black and White Town’ aptly accompanying me along the M56, the relentless early July rain finally stops. Sun is trying to break through over Runcorn, glistening on the Mersey’s low tide at Weston Docks. The vast chemical works and the estuary are a spectacular and unusual site: this is rather different to Headingley or Twickenham. It’s my first Super League visit to Naughton Park – sorry, Halton Stadium. No, wrong again: Stobart Stadium. I am not sure what to expect.
Although it’s sitting on the edge of an urban housing estate, Stobart Stadium is just 15 minutes drive over The Bridge from the M56, something similar from the M62, and just 20 minutes or so from leafy Cheshire. It’s well-signposted once you reach the edge of town, brown signs guiding you all the way in. The bus depot is a minute from the ground but the last number 13 of the day passes me at 6.21pm! There are buses from Warrington but these stop too early for a night game and don’t run at all on Sundays. You could get one to Liverpool after the game but that’s about it. The ground, Super League’s second southernmost in England, is about a mile from Widnes station (as Paul Simon could tell you) and if you fancy flying in from Cork, Carcassonne or Kos, John Lennon Airport is a quick cab ride away.
The club car park is only big enough for officials and guests, but there are free car parks within a couple of minutes walk – such as Caldwell Street – and lots of street parking all around. Mind you, you might want to think twice about what car you take and what you leave on show: there are one or two dodgy looking lads milling about. The younger kids are more interested in throwing a rugby ball around the local playground, while one little redheaded boy practices his goal-kicking on the field down Lowerhouse Lane, where there are also a few more parking spots.
Arriving unfeasibly early I see Iestyn Harris arrive for media duty wearing an old sweatshirt, jeans and trainers, and carrying some timber. He looks like he’s come to fix a drain. It must be dress-down Monday. With half an hour to kill I go for a wander. The red brick semis and prefab walls of Kingsway council estate are not a glamorous setting and, with no offence to the no-doubt delightful residents, it is the first ground on this tour around which I have felt slightly ill at ease. I give up searching for Widnes Waterfront or the town centre, but admire the Victorian splendour of, erm, Victoria Square, which, along with most of Widnes, is deserted in that dead time between clocking off and going out (or watching Corrie).
I find a warmer welcome in the Cricketers Arms pub, a few yards from the ground, and less inappropriately named than you may think. Apparently, Widnes played cricket here when they formed in 1873. I’m greeted by a ‘Widnes World Champions’ sign as I walk in, and fathers and sons clad in replica jerseys play pool surrounded by team photos on the walls from the glory days.
This has been a bizarre return to the top flight for Widnes: in their last home game Huddersfield joined Wigan on their very short list of victims (fellow high-fliers St Helens and Catalans have been close to joining them). And yet they have been smashed in so many other games. Tonight the fans seem guardedly optimistic and create a supportive atmosphere in which Denis Betts’ men thrive. ‘Widnes, Widnes’ booms out from the popular North Stand opposite me, while roars of relief, then delight, greet each try. The Tigers, without Chase or Clark, are being fed to the lions.
Despite receiving a state education about as far geographically and culturally from Widnes as it is possible to get in England, me and a mate used to do Kurt Sorensen impressions around school: chest puffed up, chin down to meet it, and a bit of Waring/French commentary. We still rejoice in reviving the act every now and then, despite my mate now being a mover and shaker in Westminster these days. Note to Nigel Wood: this is what the BBC’s ‘reach’ can do. There may be no greats in the current squad but the club and fans put great value on their glorious past. There are tributes to the halcyon days in public and guest areas of the South Stand, while fans in The Stadium Sports Bar sit beneath splendid murals of Sorensen, Davies, Hulme, Offiah and Co. It is stirring stuff.
The Viking’s (their strange punctuation)Vixens cheerleaders wear bearskin hats on their feet - like upside down guards at Buckingham Palace – for the first half and re-emerge in alluring GI Jane skimpy camouflage outfits at half-time in honour of Armed Forces Day. They stand around looking pretty for most of the pre-match and half-time, seemingly not warned about Sky’s prolonged build-up before each half. By the end they have worked about as hard as Cas. The soldiers who brought the match ball on at kick-off handled it about as much as Rangi’s replacement Brett Ferres, too.
PLAYER INTERACTION 8/10
Vikings forward Frank Winterstein rolls up on his bike, in his flip-flops. I believe his home manor of Canterbury in Sydney is not too salubrious but I am still surprised any Widnes signing would choose to live within cycling distance of the ground. But this is a hands-on, low-key place with an emphasis on togetherness. All the staff are members of the Vikings Stronghold, the enlightened membership scheme that appears to have taken off: their hooped rugby shirts are by far and away the most common sight in the crowd. The impressive PA announcer informs us opening try-scorer Stefan Marsh is sponsored by Runcorn Vehicle Recycling. It is hard not to snigger. I had hoped to see winger Patrick Ah Van’s afro in full effect, reaching out so far that it brushed the face of a fan in the front row of seats on one side and his centre on the other. Disappointingly, he has opted for corn rows tonight, but also decides to put on one of his try-scoring, goal-kicking, man of the match performances, rather than his can’t catch, can’t tackle displays. There is dry wit too: when giant Kiwi prop Sione ‘John’ Kite returns to the bench soon after going on, one bloke shouts ‘Good eight minutes John’.
Although it is 15 years old now, much of the ground has been spruced up under Steve O’Connor’s reign. The south-east corner needs some TLC but the views are clear from everywhere, although you can only stand to watch from the back. The East and West Stands behind the posts were closed tonight but at least they have shiny new seats, spelling out the sponsor and the council’s names. The i-pitch looks neat and far less starkly ‘fake’ than it appears on TV. Seeing the Vikings’ points-against column this season, I expect a point-a-minute game of touch. Instead, it is a decent spectacle. Midway through the first half which Widnes dominate, I forget all about the pitch until appreciating that if this much rain fell on grass, it would be a mud-bath by now. I bet the kit man is happy, too.
The Vikings are busy: from their all-action website, to the Valhalla Foundation doing flash mob-style motivation days with local companies and Fit4Life sessions with schoolkids, there is a lot going on. You can even spend the day with the chairman Steve O’Connor and have lunch at his house for £150 + VAT. They got a bit carried away calling the club shop the ‘Vikings Superstore’ though. It’s a strangely-located few shelves and racks in the doorway of the Stadium Fitness sports centre, which also houses a dozen table tennis tables. The staff there are chatting away in what sounds like Nordic – well, we are at the Vikings – but I later realise was deep Scouse. Interestingly, the older fans have Lancashire accents.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Tickets are £20 to sit on either side, up to £40 for a seat in the middle of the South Stand, and an extra £2 on the gate. Both sides are surprisingly full for a Monday night game on Sky, but Widnes fans know this is a must-win if they are to climb up the table. The club issued one A4-sized programme for tonight and the following weekend’s clash with St Helens, priced £3.50. It has several excellent articles and has production values higher than I expected. Among the proletariat from both sides of the Pennines in the south-eastern corner, the half-time queue diminishes rapidly. There is bottled lager, Guinness, cider, Bovril, soup and Pot Noodles on offer, but disappointingly no bitter for Secret Speccie. With no burgers or chips, I settle for a splendid meat and potato pie and PG tips tea for £4.
As Widnes play out a joyous 40-10 romp and Castleford’s young fans resort to celebrating phantom tries and doing the conga, the pitch is bathed in a beguiling light. Constant thin rain, the encroaching dusk, roof-top floodlights and pumping smoke from the east combine to turn the sky from grey to pale brown, then a shade of pink and finally navy. After the game it is still light outside: summer rugby is here at last! As I tread across some grass to get to the car, my feet sink. Thank goodness for the i-pitch. Steve O’Connor and his team have got it sorted here: this appears to be an excellent club, that respects its past, appreciates its present position and is relishing future opportunities. All it lacks are a few wins. The Stobart is not flash but it’s neat, tidy and just right for the Vikings. Good work people.
Sausage roll: £1.80
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for money 7