First published in Rugby League World, Issue 375 (July 2012)
Ground: DW Stadium
Game: v Hull Kingston Rovers
Date: Friday 4 May 2012
Despite having Lancashire loyalties, I am not a Wigan fan but I have been here a few times before. Early on, the trip is like an out of body experience. I passed both a stationary railway carriage and Hep Cahill on the M6 carriageway – Cahill was gliding along on the side of Stobart truck, the train was not doing so well – and experienced my first ever Uncle Joe’s Mint Ball, a delightful head-rush I can’t believe I’ve missed out on all these years. By the end of the night I have also seen a referee stretchered off for the first time, pole-axed as Wigan score a try (not that there was anyone there to actually award it).
Although it’s just about the furthest English Super League ground from my home, it’s simple to get to as the DW is only a ten minute drive from junction 25 of the M6, winding along the A49 towards the town centre. It’s a 20 minute walk along the canal tow path a mile into town and the two mainline stations, and there are bus stops galore a five minute walk from the ground, though not much sign of any buses after the game.
The club have use of three car parks around the ground. I head to Car Park 4, hidden away down Frith Street behind B&Q, but still packed an hour before kick off because it’s free. It’s unsurfaced but one to remember. Car Park 1 is for season-ticket-holders only and it’s a fiver a car in number 3. Fans are discouraged from parking at the various leisure park stores but the locals clearly also know about street parking within walking distance.
Approaching over the stream and canal into the south-east corner of the ground, one emotion overwhelms me: it is May but it is freezing. Fans from all generations frown, grit their teeth and shiver their way around the Fans Village, the icy wind and gloom undermining the effects of the Army activities set up for Armed Forces Day. Orwell would be appalled: Wiganers have gone soft. I have to shelter behind a wall to take notes. As I walk back from the Red Robin pub through the leisure park to the DW Stadium, a seemingly sensibly- dressed man says, “I’m beginning to think I should have put another layer on.” I thought it had started to snow, then realised it was blossom, losing its grip on a tree outside Gala Bingo. As I squeeze into my seat – I’m not a big man but there’s not much space – the old boy next door nods and says, “Warm, in’t it?”, with a glint in his septuagenarian eye. We are packed so tight together it would be weird not to chat to your neighbours, and comment is passed on most goings-on. I feel welcomed.
I had tried to book a £19 South Stand seat online at the start of the week but the system failed. By Thursday night the club website claimed it was sold out. On the night there were hundreds of empty seats. Strange. Instead I buy a ticket outside for the Boston East Stand for £21. I find myself half a dozen rows from the back, near the halfway line. The view is majestic. I can even see the sun set over north-east Wigan. I find myself watching the game far closer than at the older grounds as the view is vastly better and there is far less going on elsewhere to draw your attention from the pitch.
Once the game starts it is clear that the entertainment is going to be on the pitch as well as off it. The fans sit back and wait for it to happen. And it does, at a point a minute up to 26-0. As a neutral, I hoped I would see something special from Sam Tomkins. We ended up seeing more than the locals wanted. There’s a beautiful 13th minute try which sees him run a hairpin line, fending off defenders and screwing back on an astonishing angle like a kid in the playground. I find myself shouting “Oh yes!” through a mouthful of pie so hot the fork melted. We get several more delightful moments from this unique talent, then a series of woeful kicks, dropped catches, slips and cock-ups. I like him even more. There are barely 300 Rovers fans here, the novelty of crossing the country on a Friday night clearly wearing off despite them having a relatively decent record against Wigan in recent years, resulting in a vacuum of banter.
On Armed Forces Day, it looks like a goth tribute to Phoenix Nights outside. The bouncy castle is black, and a teenage girl in school uniform is waving a machine gun and shooting targets with yellow paint on a firing range. The pop music is not courtesy of Chorley FM. Inside, the Wigan Youth Choir and 103 Artillery Brass Band give us a rousing Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem, and we have the surreal sight of Hull KR still warming up as the rest of us stand up for the national anthem. There is a reminder that the Warriors are not at home: the football goalmouths are staked out of bounds making the warm-up awkward for both sides. It is a little unnerving when you keep finding yourself surrounded by swarms of camouflage-clad teenagers but I remind myself they are local Army cadets and I am in south Lancashire, not Helmand Province.
Tonight is Armed Forces Day, the latest in the many themed days at the DW. Hardly a game goes past without it being in some way ‘special’ and the marketing team do a fine job. The military theme is visible both inside and out. There are some gems in the surprisingly small club shop, notably the T-shirts: there is a pink ‘Charnley’s Angels’ for the girls, one for the nostalgics simply says ‘Ancient and Loyal’ beneath a classic shot of a packed Central Park, and there’s ‘Keep calm and east more pies’ for everyone. The ghastly gold and grey away shirts are also on sale. I settle for a bag of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls for 50p: arguably the buy of the season.
I may be in the Billy Boston stand but it occurs to me that at shared stadiums (here, Hull and, I assume, Huddersfield), the club find it hard to show off their heritage in public areas and it is left to the fans to do it themselves once a fortnight. Wigan’s do so magnificently. The banners above the South Stand are tremendous if a little provocative: ‘We have achieved what you can only dream of’, ‘Arrogance is inherited through success – 19 times champions’, ‘My wife said it was Wigan rugby or her… I’ll miss her’. They pass a giant ‘LOYAL 18’ shirt over them before the teams come out. The Wigan fans in the top of the South East corner think they are on a Serie A curva, their huge Italian flags have to be admired: they are both awesome and stylish. One picture of Jim Sullivan simply says ‘LEGEND’. The ‘Welcome to Wigan Warriors’ signs at the turnstiles appear to have replaced Wigan Athletic ones, a reminder that the rugby club are merely popping in for a couple of hours every fortnight.
PLAYER INTERACTION 6/10
For the first few years at the then JJB Stadium, we were told Wigan fans hated the place, hated having to buy tickets in advance, being split up from their mates and all that. Now they have got it sussed. Pre-match in the concourses, nearly everyone is in huddles, chatting away like they are in an Italian market square at passeggiata time. In the stands, they seem to know people all around them, shouting across, leaning over to exchange opinions and agree the ref is anti-Wigan. They are united in the stands but their support for the team must come from afar. The victorious team do a low key lap of honour after the game and are expected in the (season-ticket holders only) Supporters Lounge later on, the only time they will be within touching distance of the fans.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Inside, a pint of keg Worthington’s was £3.20, 20p more than a proper pint of Bombardier in the Red Robin pub. Ridiculously you can’t get a pint and hot food at the same bar. You have to queue for ten minutes at one, then the other, by which time you’d have missed a couple of tries the way Wigan are going. The pies, £2.20 each and from Poole’s of Wigan, range from the good (meat and potato) to the exquisite (steak). Yes, I know because I had both, for research purposes only, of course. The different vans outside the ground sell at the same price: it’s your last stop for burgers and chips as there are none inside. You can get a Herta Hot Dog for £2.50 but I opted for a pie and tea deal for just £3.60.
As one of the biggest clubs in Super League, Wigan have the size and power to put on a show and they deliver. The DW itself may be cold and charmless and looking every day of its 13 years old, with peeling paint and fading signs, but they make the most of it. The game is strange: Rovers’ mainly Antipodean team play for an hour like they expect to lose heavily and are not too bothered about it, until the second half when they realise they can avoid embarrassment and apply some pressure on the cherry and whites. The natives get restless, the Rovers lads at the back of the north stand get topless, and the scoreline gets misleading, ending up 36-22.
As the Wigan fans snake home over the winding canal and stream – Robin Park is a surprisingly green scene for a post-industrial development – I depart having enjoyed it without falling for it.
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