Adventures in Groundhopping – All pastry, no filling
North West Counties League – First Division
Wigan Robin Park 3 – 0 Leek CSOB
Attendance – 41
Cloudless sky, blustery wind, and the liquid orange of the low-hanging autumn sun: what a day to be alive and walking through an out-of-town shopping centre under a phalanx of seagulls towards a leisure centre in Wigan. To avoid any doubt, I have great affection for the town of whippets and Richard Ashcroft even though the general population seem less attached to the football than even the stereotypes would have you believe. When I suggested via Twitter that my groundhop venue for the day was “t’other Wigan”, I was pointedly reminded that Wiganers would consider that label better suited to Roberto Martinez’s Latics than a lowly non-league side. All things considered, I concede, there are nicer places in the country to spend a couple of hours watching football from four levels below the Football League.
Fellow BornOffside scribe Joe Norris is a native of Wigan (listen to his podcast appearances, you could mine coal with his accent), and has observed from close range the main characteristic divide between supporters of the football and rugby teams. Rugby fans will hit the town centre after watching the game at the DW Stadium: football fans hit town because they’ve largely been in the pub to begin with. That said, there is an obvious football heritage here and loyal fans turn out every week who remain after the ‘unwind’ of the initial Premier League boost has long since completed. “Wigan” is derived from an Old English word meaning “fight”, which is exactly the spirit required if teams of either code want to stay prominent in their respective sports, more so at a time when the footballers are battling relegation fears whilst the Cherry Reds stew over losing too many matches to arch-rivals St Helens.
The walk through the Robin Park shopping village includes a half-mile ‘Wembley Walk’ style parade at which the grey DW Stadium looms as the main focal point: its arches have an impressive reach which distracts from four side portals that seem to have leaked an unidentified brown sludge onto the carpark below. As much as the “Pie Dome” attracts me to its charms, today’s venue is directly opposite, the silver “Sports Arena” with incongruous blue entrance hall. If you’re a northener wondering about the fuss over the Olympic Stadium and its ‘legacy’, one quick jaunt along the M6 could help answer questions – Robin Park is one of the few non-league grounds with an eight-lane athletics track, or for that matter a hammer and discus net, or indeed with the long-jump runway positioned underneath the away team’s dugout. When I arrived, making my way through the foyer, my eyes settled on the thoroughly bemusing sight of attendants hurriedly collecting high-hurdles from around the pitch.
Wigan Robin Park FC is not the only pithily titled club playing today, the visitors are Leek County School Old Boys, which would send Final Score graphic designers into paroxysms of fear. Wigan RP have been around for six years, settled in the North-West Counties League with a clutch of little trinkets in the trophy cabinet for their troubles. Leek CSOB formed in 1945 and have been merrily bouncing around the lower leagues ever since; for reasons which seem interesting to say the least, a ground of their own has been out of their reach since formation which has lead them to ground share with fellow non-league team Leek Town. There are only a small number of English towns who share two non-league teams, if there are any pub quiz veterans who could answer that question I might throw a shiny pound coin your way.
Sitting over the athletics track with a force-seven south-westerly in my ear did not set my mood fully right. The game takes a long time to get going – both teams appear to be very uncertain about themselves and in the grand non-league tradition have nominated two outward midfielders and forwards as the only players who are worth giving the ball. Central midfielders seem utterly redundant , which does not lend itself to a first half which ensures the neutral fan can hold on for much longer.
“The ball is flat, listen to it!” comments a bloke behind me. As though by magic, an overly enthusiastic shot from outside the area flies across to the discus net, it’s sound like a carboot being slammed by a stressed mother. Two things become clear as the first half comes to its underwhelming close: nobody in the red-and-white stripes of Wigan RP can head a ball from corners, and their ‘keeper is worth his “Goalkeeper of the Month” title and then some. Leek are unremarkable throughout – they’re reliant on a speedy young forward who switches both sides with intent and wasn’t afraid of shooting from very tight corners, although without enough force when needed. He enjoyed some mazy runs later in the second half but was easily swamped in the latter third of the pitch.
The three Wigan goals came in a sweep of activity very late in the second half. Two penalties, from a tasty tackle within full view of anyone still watching, and a more contentious incident involving a Wigan player turning away from the direction of goal when his ankle was clipped. In between the penalties was a decent strike from the only corner Wigan were able to translate into a chance, and I counted twelve home corners before this one.
I tend not to judge lower leagues by their average attendances, though NorthWest Counties struggles to break 150 in an average month, and for all occasional breaks in this match there was far too much unedifying filler. Wigan RP have a good side but if they decide not to turn up on any given Saturday, watching them play in such unusual circumstances makes things very difficult indeed.