Main Menu
What's New
04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 22/01/05, 3.00pm
Wigan Athletic
This is not a chemist's shop
By David Rivers

My daughter, without any consideration for football loyalties, recently married a Wigan supporter. The result of this matrimonial match inevitably meant I would be at a match of a different sort, come January 22nd 2005.

I had received instructions from my newly acquired son-in-law: "Park at the Red Robin pub opposite the ground and I will meet you there." I did and he did. Despite signs signalling that the JJB Stadium was nigh, I scanned the skyline in vain for floodlight pylons. It was already ten minutes to three. Obviously there was a walk in prospect. The son-in-law seemed in no hurry and we ambled through a shopping mall, past a cinema complex, followed by a fancy looking wine bar and headed at a leisurely pace towards what I had assumed was an outsized Boots the Chemist superstore.

It was only as we were nearly upon the building in question that I realised, far from being a chemist's shop, it was in fact the JJB Stadium. A football ground in a shopping mall. Given the surrounding infrastructure, one road and a couple of roundabouts, one wonders what would happen if Wigan did gain promotion to the Premiership. Complete chaos outside the ground would seem to be a very likely bi-weekly event.

That very morning on Radio 5, the programme "Fighting Talk" had spent some moments of, erm, "fighting talk" discussing what changes there might be in sport in one hundred years' time. Lots of new stadiums was muted. I suspect they were right and most will be in shopping malls.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still rely on floodlight pylons to act as beacons on away trips; followed by the reassuring sight of a corrugated iron roof over some dilapidated stand. Long live The Plainmoor, Rotherham, and I really mean that.

Meanwhile, inside Girder City, I was introduced to more distant relatives. The Wigan fans, it must be said, are a fine bunch. They knew we were fielding a weakened side and the reasons why. They were peeved that Chris Eagles had gone to Watford rather than to them, being more local. I explained he is a Hertfordshire lad and that seemed to satisfy.

But all the time, I felt I was acting as a fall guy in a drama/comedy script that had been already written. I would just dutifully play my part. I had to sit with the home support. I promised I would sit on my hands if we scored. This comment produced endless mirth. I also promised that when they scored I would stand up, in the interest of self-preservation and clap ever so politely. If at half-time we were three-nil down, I would smile bravely and remind them we had rested eight players for the Liverpool match.

At full-time, I would hold my head up high and congratulate them on their team's five-nil drubbing and drive back home to Yorkshire reflecting upon whether Lewington had been wise to rest so many. It was Wigan, after all.

As it happened, I left the stadium with my head held high for entirely different reasons. For this was splendid, absolutely splendid and give the Wigan fans their due, they were generous in their appreciation, although we lost a lot of goodwill at the end with some very blatant time wasting. But then as I said, this was Wigan.

The feeling of the home support was that this was going to be easy. No need to raise a sweat; this thought process had obviously transmitted itself to the Wigan players. They started at a canter, only to find that Watford's largely second string were biting at their heels like terriers. And here's the rub. I had mentioned in a rather pessimistic sort of way to my new family, that our two weak points were Johnnie Jackson in midfield, who has been variously described by Watford fans as a piece of lard, and Mayo at left back who was suspect, if not dreadful, on positioning.

After ten minutes, I was watching in jaw-dropping fascination at the sight of Jackson, aided and abetted by Blizzard, taking on the role of biter-in-chief. Jackson was everywhere; tenacious in the tackle and setting up attacks. The play was all in Wigan's half at this point.

As for Mayo, I remember Lewington being quoted a while back to the effect that he was eager to learn and was absorbing much knowledge of fullback play. One rather worrying aspect of acquiring all this knowledge was that he seems to be thinning a lot on top since I last saw him. But Lewington was not kidding. Mayo was poised (that's right, poised) and intelligent with the ball...and madly up for it. As were they all.

It therefore felt rather surreal when Jackson played a neat one-two with Webber, then on to Dyer who found Eagles who played in Dyer. At this juncture the Wigan supporters around me were already showing their footballing nous by saying, "They're" And how right they were, as Dyer blasted home from ten yards. I sat on my hands...I really did.

Watford continued to fight for every ball...every single player was involved. Doyley verbally marshalling the back four in which he and DeMerit snuffed out the threat of Roberts and Ellington, who were not receiving any service because of Jackson, Blizzard, Eagles and Young, while the pace of Webber and the pugnacity of Dyer fighting for every scrap kept Jackson and Thorne totally pre- occupied.

But, of course, there were flashes from Wigan that showed why they are pushing for promotion. A Wigan attack, Doyley manfully shepherding Roberts away from the penalty area, but a little lay-off and a magnificent cross from Eadens was buried with aplomb into the far corner by McCulloch. I say a magnificent cross because that's what it was. If Ardley had been watching he would surely have been be nodding in appreciation. From right in front of our seats, the cross left Eaden's foot with pace and a wicked was begging to be met with a firm header. I kept my promise and stood up, my polite applause genuinely felt: it was a quality goal.

Around me, the feeling was one of "here we go", business as usual. I was not so sure from the way we had been playing. Webber definitely had other ideas. Hardly had the crowd settled again when Dyer had flicked on into his path and his pace took over, leaving defenders in his wake. He dummied to shoot, committing Filan, and slotted home. More difficult not to go mental this time but decorum prevailed. I was envious of the jubilant but sporadic Watford fans huddled around on the opposite side.

As half-time approached, our defending became rather frantic as Wigan pressed. In a rare moment of Mayo panic, he headed up in the air inside the box and it needed a save from Jones to prevent Roberts scoring. Another frantic scramble ended with Jackson on the ground, but so determined was he to make contact with the ball that he appeared to approach the spherical object on all-fours with the seemingly intention of heading it in a goat-like manner, but the referee had blown for a foul before he had the chance to impress with this new butting technique. Oh God, another free kick. But magnificently, we reached the safety of half-time in front, at Wigan of all places and without most of our senior players.

My new found Wigan friends/relatives/whatever were gracious. "Thank God you're not playing your first team!" was the general message. "Normally Roberts and Ellington make defenders look foolish," was another sentiment. Not today lads, not today.

I knew Paul Jewell would give his players a roasting. I braced myself for the wave of attacks and show of strength that would surely come.

Wigan were much improved. The goal did come, Mayo unable to prevent Teale getting the better of him and providing the cross for McCulloch to score his second. But the onslaught never came. We just kept at it, all of them, denying, harrying and occupying Wigan's attention. On fifty minutes, Dyer appeared to be upended as he was about to shoot from a flick-on, but the penalty claim was turned down by the referee.

Some rested players ghosted back. Bouzza for Eagles who, while slotting in well, had a preponderance for engaging in niggly feuds with the opposition. Still, perhaps no bad thing. Gunnarsson came on for the injured Blizzard, while Jackson, having run himself into the ground, was replaced by Mahon.

The clock edged towards ninety minutes and we began to waste time. Not just a little bit but a lot. It has to be said that the goodwill from the home support evaporated rather at this point. Jewell was going apolopectic in his technical area. I was fearful we were going to get punished for this and indeed had we messed up and Wigan scored in the last minute, derision would have rained down. Not pretty the last five minutes and we had to endure four minutes of time added on, presumably our punishment for time wasting.

But the whistle went and we were home. A fantastic performance, full of spirit and not a little skill. And what a headache Lewington now has for the Liverpool game. For every player on Saturday staked a claim.

My lasting impression? The refreshing sound of a football crowd appreciative of what was on show, even if it meant praising the opposition. Somehow I feel the home fans deserved more than watching football in the middle of a shopping mall. But that's progress for you.

In the meantime, Liverpool are out of sorts, in fact, definitely liverish...