I hate Wigan. Always have. That might seem a little harsh, a little xenophobic even but it is important to understand what I mean when I say I hate them. I don’t mean the people or even the town itself. I mean the sports teams, basically. I’ve spent too many of my formative years watching the charade of Ellery Hanley and Dennis Betts perform fitness tests before major cup finals before inevitably declaring themselves fit and stomping all over a massively inferior, semi-professional Saints side. I’ve seen a couple too many Saints players of old get to the top level and then decide that actually they would rather be in Wigan sitting on their cash mountain. Then I’ve had to listen to Wigan fans trot out stomach churning, curdled rhino-shit about how Wigan turned those players into world class athletes.
Now this is just rugby league but the emotional pummelling I have received in that sphere has tainted my views on all of Wigan’s sporting endeavours. I wouldn’t support a Wigan team if they were taking on Ian Brady at backgammon and they had to win to save mankind. The recent revelations regarding Wigan Tory and absolutely not racist Dave Whelan have only served to intensify my feelings. I have always hated Dave Whelan anyway. Not just because he is a Wiganer, a Tory and now absolutely not a racist, but because of the way he celebrated Wigan’s League Cup semi-final victory over Arsenal in 2006. I’m all for chairmen connecting with the fans but his exhibition of head-rubbing in the disabled areas was too much to bear. If I had been a Wigan fan sat in that end that night I would have punched him full in his greedy, Tory face. Or in the Chingaling. So it was little surprise that I found myself supporting the opposition when I visited the pie dome for a bit of festive football on the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year. That the opposition was Sheffield Wednesday, Emma’s team, pretty much sealed the deal. More Wednesday support came from her mum and dad who had arrived to spend New Year with us.
This being the day before New Year’s Eve I volunteered to do the driving. There would be plenty of alcohol related chicanery 24 hours hence and as it turned out it was all very convenient. Disabled parking at the Dave the Wanker Stadium is remarkably easy to come by. Emma had requested it some days earlier and had received email confirmation, but when we arrived nobody questioned us or asked to see a blue badge. Perhaps they have more disabled parking than they could possibly need at the home of a struggling Championship outfit. They are remarkably blasé about it.
Do I sound like I’m from Yorkshire, by the way? I know I lived there for a few years but I really didn’t think I had picked up too much of the accent. I ask because as we approach the lift the attendant asks us if we have brought any snow with us from Sheffield. Despite her origins and allegiances, Emma doesn’t have a Yorkshire accent either. Nor is she wearing any Wednesday merchandise so I’m a little bewildered. Perhaps he just noticed the fact that I don’t have a Wigan accent and decided that I couldn’t be from anywhere else but Sheffield. There’s a certain logic in that. Who else would turn up at Wigan to see two poor Championship sides do battle in the perishing cold but people from either Wigan or Sheffield? I explain that I am from St.Helens and more of a rugby league man and to my extreme satisfaction he reveals that although he works their games he does not support the despised Worriers. Instead he watches his rugby league in Swinton, Chorley and Blackpool. A proper fan. Not like us spoiled, Super League types. Amusingly, the floor 2 button inside the lift is upside down so I ask Emma to take a photograph and stick it on Facebook. A Wigan 2. But while she is doing so the doors close and the lift automatically starts moving back downstairs. The door opens again and all we can do is smile and apologise to the people still waiting to get upstairs. I don't want to speculate on what they probably thought we were doing.
We have half an hour to kill before kick-off so we go for a brew. The concourse is already filling up and most people there seem to be extremely boisterous Wednesday fans. Makes sense since we are in the North Stand where the away support is housed. In the time it takes to get served we are treated to the full repertoire of Wednesday fan songs. Most strikingly, to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’ (alright, it is probably not called that but you know the one I mean) they sing ‘if you don’t fucking bounce then you’re a Blade’. A Blade being a Sheffield United fan. That is the lowest insult they could pay you. There’s an interesting contrast between their aggression and their politeness. In between publicly decrying Sheffield United fans they bend over backwards to help me pass through the crowds. Almost every person I encounter moves away quickly, apologising a thousand times for being in that particular space at that particular time. You get the feeling they would have done the same for me even if I had been a Blade.
Roland, Emma’s dad, has a beer. This being a football ground for the night we are not allowed to our seats inside the stadium until he has finished it. In a few days it will be 2015 and still we are led to believe that football fans cannot be trusted to have a beer or two without embarking on an 80’s style riot. It seems a little draconian to me, especially when a bout of fisticuffs breaks out later in the evening in any case. I’m starting to think the ban might be nothing to do with the potential for hooliganism and more to do with the fact that nobody wants to be picking up plastic beer containers from in between 25,000 seats. Instead of entering the stadium then we find a little space away from the main throng of fans and drink up, watching previews of tonight’s other Championship games on an incredibly small screen perched high above our heads. Derby are taking on Leeds while Ipswich Town face Charlton Athletic. Roland hates Ipswich for reasons that I don’t think I have fully understood. He’s a Sheffield Wednesday fan living in Buckinghamshire but somehow he is irritated by a middling outfit from Suffolk whose last meaningful success was in the late 1970’s. Football, sport in general, can do that to you.
When we do enter the stadium we find that Emma doesn’t have a seat. The platform has space for around five or six wheelchair users and not much else. Anyone accompanying a wheelchair user either has to stand, or else go and sit in the row of seating just in front and off to the right of the platform. It’s another classic piece of segregation. Up there with the Liverpool Empire Theatre’s brilliant idea of having you sit behind your companion if you happen to be using a wheelchair. We’ve never experienced it for ourselves. The knowledge of those arrangements was enough to put us off even trying it out. That and Ray Fucking Quinn.
I feel like I should have remembered about the lack of seating up here and warned Emma but I completely forgot. I have been here a couple of times before, in this exact same stand, watching Saints have varying levels of success against the other lot. One night, Sean Long ripped them a new one in a play-off game here as we ran out 54-16 winners. He was dazzling. One of the more enjoyable Saints-Wigan derbies in living memory. Sean Long is my favourite Wiganer by some distance. He might come from the wrong side of the lump and talk funny but he is nevertheless the second highest points scorer in Saints history. I can see why the Wigan fans hate him. One of their own turning to the other side, picking up pots and medals as a matter of routine and repeatedly humiliating them. That must have hurt. As I said earlier though, we really do know how that feels so suck it up, Wigan. Besides, it is the same situation with Matty Smith now with the obvious difference being that Matty Smith is shit. Ok, so he is not shit, but he is no Sean Long and never will be.
Emma’s not as upset about the lack of seating as I had feared. In fact I think I am more offended but I decide to refrain from too much of a rant about segregation and I will spare you it now aswell. Soon all of our concentration is on the game itself as the teams come out and begin aimlessly woofing the ball at each other as if it were a weapon of mass destuction. Wigan won the FA Cup last year but have fallen on hard times since being relegated under that football genius Roberto Martinez, while Wednesday remain mired in the same shit-swamp of mediocrity which has seized them for more than a decade. It’s not pretty to watch. Chief culprit is Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu. He’s ploughing the proverbial lone furrow tonight due to manager Stuart Gray’s decision to keep Stevie May on the bench from the start and he is ploughing it in the most hapless way imaginable. His presence serves only to persuade his team mates to whack the ball up to him as hard and as high as they possibly can but his touch is preposterously bad and most of his lay-offs find a blue and white striped shirt. Which would ordinarily be ideal except that Wigan are at home and are therefore the team donning those colours. Wednesday are in yellow, which might be confusing the big Austrian. He has one moment in the first half where he could affect the game, latching on to a cross from the right but finding only the feet of Wigan goalkeeper Scott Carson, a man so ordinary that he wasn’t even good enough for Liverpool. Anyone who has seen Simon Mignolet play recently will be able to put that into some kind of context. Despite Wednesday’s good opening through Nuhiu it is Wigan who are the slightly better side in a first half lit up by little else other than a couple more from the Wednesday fan songbook;
(To the tune of KC And The Sunshine Band’s ‘Give It Up’)
“Na na na na na na na na na na……we’ve got Stevie May, Stevie May, we’ve got Stevie May!”
(To the tune of ‘Oh When The Saints Go Marching In’)
“I’ve got a shed. As big as this. I’ve got a shed as big as this…..”
Strangely there is also a chorus of a song which has as its main thrust an order to ‘fuck the IRA’. That might not be the worst sentiment in the world given their history of terrorism against the UK but I’m not sure what place it has at a football match. It is not universally enjoyed but there are enough people joining in for it to dominate the atmosphere at our end for a short while. Perhaps if you let them have a beer they would refrain from this kind of negativity and anger?
When we rejoin Roland and Susan on the concourse at half-time Roland’s main bugbear aside from the plainly incompetent Nuhiu is the behaviour of winger Jeremy Helan. The Frenchman has pace to burn but Roland complains that he doesn’t engage his brain and that all of his athleticism is wasted because he basically doesn’t know what he is doing. He’s equally unimpressed by the other winger, Jacques Maghoma. I’d describe his first half performance as disappointing had I expected anything of him in the first place. Clearly Roland did expect a little bit more from the man from Zaire.
Wednesday are markedly improved in the second half as they kick towards the goal behind which we are positioned. Around the hour mark controversial absolutely not racist Wigan manager Malky Mackay introduces Callum McManaman from the bench and I wonder if this might be a decisive move. It is, but not in the way I had imagined. McManaman earned rave reviews for his performances under Martinez in the Premier League a couple of years ago and so clearly has the class to impose himself on a game of this level. He does that alright, but only in lunging recklessly at Wednesday man Claude Dielna and earning himself a deserved red card within 10 minutes of his introduction. It was the kind of tackle in which the perpetrator seems to view the ball as nothing more than an obstacle between him and his real goal located somewhere around the opponent’s knees. The referee has no hesitation, but not all inside the North Stand are impressed. There is one lone voice, that of a Dave the Wanker Stadium steward who is angrily claiming that Dielna is play-acting as he writhes around on the turf waiting for assistance from the physio. Incadescent, the steward points out that this would never happen in rugby league. He would just get straight back up and get on with it if he were a rugby league player. Having seen rugby league players carry on playing with broken bones it is sort of easy to see where he is coming from, but Dielna is by no means play-acting and in any case, the extent or otherwise of his injury has no bearing on the fact that McManaman’s tackle is both late and dangerous. He has to go.
And when he does it really puts Wednesday in charge of the game. They enjoy the expected increase in possession and use it well, culminating in the winning goal just nine minutes after McManaman’s sorry exit. What is more surprising is that the goalscorer is that man Nuhiu. He had continued to make a Nuhiu-sance of himself throughout the second half with little in the way of finesse, before finally latching on to an Helan cross to power a header into the roof of Carson’s net. Wigan hit the post before the end but their forays into the Wednesday half are rare due to their numerical disadvantage. With five minutes left Gray gives the Wednesday fans what they had been waiting for all night when he throws May into the fray. May is a frizzy-haired, diminutive Scottish striker who has pace but is hardly clinical in front of goal. Yet try telling that to the Wednesday fans who laud him at every opportunity with their Stevie May song, sung with the kind of ghusto that makes you believe he is Luis Suarez.
Wednesday cling on for the win that takes them into the top 10 of the Championship and leaves Wigan floundering at the wrong end of the table. Celebration comes in the form of a chippy dinner on the way home after a more than satisfactory way to sign off in 2014. Just don’t mention the fact that their first game of 2015 is away to Premier League champions Manchester City in the third round of the FA Cup on Sunday.
But since we weren’t there, we will gloss over that particular result.