First published in Rugby League World, Issue 389 (Sept 2013)
Ground: Halliwell Jones Stadium
Game: Warrington Wolves v Wigan Warriors
Date: Monday 24 June 2013
Generally speaking I am fiercely opposed to the demolition of any brewery as a matter of principle, but if you are going to do it, at least build a Rugby League ground in its place. Which is exactly what Warrington did on the Tetley’s site, moving in ten years ago. That was the last time I saw it, as a building site, when I visited before a game at Wilderspool. Tonight I’ve brought along my cousin’s football-loving husband Del who, despite moving to Cheshire from London seven years ago, has never been to a live Rugby League match. Beginner’s luck: he is in for a treat.
Getting to Warrington is easy enough for most league fans – straight off the M6, M62 and M56 – and the ground is on the A49 that cuts through the whole town. But there are no signs for it as we drive through posh Stockton Heath (where fans standing at bus stops are looking anxiously down the empty road), past Wilderspool, and over the Mersey to the town centre. The Halliwell Jones Stadium sits neatly on a slight rise among light industrial and retail outlets, surrounded by a giant Tesco and car showrooms. These hubs of modern consumerism are interspersed with remnants of Warrington’s Victorian past, particularly half a dozen redbrick pubs.
The club’s only car park is for guests so we have to head for the NCP off Winwick Street or one of the private car parks towards the station. There was a sign for £2.20 all day parking but we never found that one and instead splashed out £4 to park behind an office block, which allowed a swift getaway afterwards. Do not park in Tesco’s unless if you are happy to pay a £50 fine!
TV presenter Chris Evans once told me that he believed that coming from Warrington, rather than Manchester or Liverpool, made him what he was: “I’m neither one thing nor the other, we are in-betweeners. We take the best of both cities but we’re our own special breed”. Or words to that effect. They certainly have a unique accent – a lot of Manc, a tiny lilt of Scouse, and a lot of sawdust. The steward we ask for directions is efficient and friendly but we have no time for pre-match niceties.
Despite it being a wide pitch, the single tier design of what is basically a cheap and cheerful modern ground ensure that the furthest from the pitch any fans are is about 15m, making the HJ feel far more compact than it looks on TV. We’re crammed in shoulder to shoulder in the South Stand towards the away fans, and there are only a few hundred spaces in the U-shaped ground. The crowd of over 14,000 is one of Warrington’s largest since 1973.
Well let’s just say my mate turns to me at least three times to say ‘Wow! What an atmosphere!’ He is right to be blown away by this. Thanks to the roofline, the noise is deafening – my ears hurt, literally. When Richie Myler breaks and Ben Westwood fluffs the opening, it is the first time in all my Secret Speccie trips that hairs have literally stood up, but on my shins rather than the back of my neck, weirdly. It’s the first game I’ve been to where police film the crowd and make an ejection. Respect for the wry yet provocative “Wigan’s a football town” and “Wigan’s turning blue” chants, but a point docked for other chants being foul-mouthed enough for the PA to request they refrain from such unsuitable behaviour at a family gathering. He gets booed.
The Brian Bevan statute, moved from Wilderspool roundabout to here on Mike Gregory Way, is suitably gracious and subtle, less so the wall of yellow bricks picking out his name. There probably should be a statue of the late Peter Deakin here too, as it was his persistence that got the project the go ahead in 2000. But the piece de resistance is the new Wire2Wolves timeline – a magnificent, stylish, thoughtful major work that runs the length of the South Stand concourse, taking you through not just the history of the club – the lows are honourably mentioned alongside the highs – but of the sport, society and the town itself. With only a few minutes at half-time to admire it, I am left frustrated. I have only one criticism: the other 9,000 fans in the ground don’t get to see it. ‘Living the dreams of our forefathers’ it says somewhere. Spot on.
I notice that us plebs on the terrace look across at a patchwork of little local ads for scaffolders, curry houses, removals and roofers, scattered like confetti over the north stand. Those in the most expensive seats see large ads for BMW dealers and the university (the club’s two main sponsors). That’s either smart marketing or condescendingly assumptive. Or both. There are Warrington Fabrications logos everywhere, but nothing saying what they do.
The big Sky screen is in the south-west corner, so the majority of home fans on the South Terrace can’t see it. Even the scoreboard is behind them. The north-east corner is crying out for a screen and appears to have a space left in anticipation of Uncle Simon splashing out on one.
The PA overpowers the fans’ chanting and then Sky’s pre-match presentation blasts out, their plethora of presenters on the pitch getting varied receptions (Brian Carney = warm; Phil Clarke = icy).
PLAYER INTERACTION 8/10
The Wigan army packed in the West Stand go impressively nuts when Anthony Gelling levels the scores on 50 minutes. Eventually Mickey Higham scores a thrilling leveler and Chris Hill pounces to seal victory, throwing himself into the crowd to share the joy. Both sets of fans are rightly proud of their teams for differing reasons and the lap of honour afterwards is long and warm. The Wolves fans’ relationship with the players extends to a whole host of organisations and events, including Fan Appreciation Day.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
A night out at the Halliwell Jones is not cheap but it is easy. We just strolled up and paid £20 cash at the turnstiles – seats were available from £22 (in advance) to £29 (central blocks on the night). All under-5s are free if pre-booked. There was a decent range of food and drink available if you knew to peruse the whole of the South Stand concourse. I didn’t and had an insipid pint of Tetley’s Smooth (£3.60) when I later discovered the Tetley’s Golden Cask Ale stand hiding in Jack Fish Corner. Drat. There was also wine, cider and spirits available, even bottle of mouth wash. Or was it Wkd? The meat and potato pie was spot-on. You could also have a pie, mash, peas and gravy for a fiver. Or go all cosmopolitan with a Domino’s Pizza, New York Hot Dog, or Holy Cow Curry!
Having been Secret Speccie at Warrington’s previous game, against London, this was everything that Medway Massacre wasn’t – intense, passionate, vitriolic and brutal. Driving home, Jack Dearden from BBC Manchester signs off their coverage proclaiming: “What a night! What a sport! What a game! What a contest!” I could not have put it better myself.
Sausage roll: £2.50
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)
View/Com fort 8
Value for Money 7