In August 2002, I went to my first proper football match. It was Wigan Athletic v Bristol City in Nationwide Division 2 (League One as it is called these days). Paul Jewell’s side held on to their 100% start to the season with a convincing win, with goals from Scott Green and Lee McCulloch. Despite being a Bolton fan, those of you who know me will know that I always try and get to Wigan matches with my mates when our own teams aren’t in action.
It was only fitting that on my 18th Birthday I took in my 41st football match at The DW Stadium… or the Wigan Athletic Stadium as it was known for the evening, as per UEFA regulations. It had been a fantastic few months for Wigan as a whole. Not only had I decided to carry on with my education in the town which was a huge coup for the local authortities, but Latics had won the FA Cup, Warriors had won the Challenge Cup and were hoping to add the Superleague crown on Saturday – and of course last but not least, Leigh Centurions had won the Northern Rail Cup again.
On the day of my birthday, I unfortunately had to go to college. So, an early start was on the cards and I made the long arduous journey from Atherton to Orrell, going past the ground which would be the centrepiece for the evening’s entertainment.
Two lessons proved too much, and I called the academic studies an end for the day. I was soon back in my bed, waiting for the evening to come so I could have a great night out. Aaron was picking me up, and as per usual he was late. He didn’t even have the courtesy to come up with an excuse this time. I’ll assume it was traffic. I had my Wigan shirt on which I wore when they beat West Ham United to virtually secure their Premier League status in the 2010/2011 season. It usually brings the Latics good luck.
We soon picked up Danny, and we were on our way to Wigan. Being the sensible planner that I am, I suggested that we purchase tickets first then make our way into the town centre for a couple of pints before the match, thus avoiding the last minute queues at the ticket office.
There’s something too special about European football tickets. The whole design and feel of them is unique. I remember when Bolton were in Europe the tickets amazed me. They were all shiny and different, with a great European team printed. Obviously Maribor aren’t a huge European team, but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. Our tickets cost just £5 each, which was fantastic. It seems at last Wigan have realised they need to reduce ticket prices to get people through the gates. You are going to get absolutely nowhere by ripping off students and children.
I opted to go in the West Stand for once. Usually I’d go and stand in ES2/ES3 with the vocal home fans, but this evening I was quite contempt with relaxing, watching the match, soaking in the atmosphere.
A couple of hours left until kick off allowed me to go into Wigan and enjoy my first legal pint. It was going to be between The Anvil next to the bus station, or Moon Under Water. I had heard rumours that the Maribor fans had been weilding knives at the Wigan fans and charging their mobile phones in various pubs so didn’t fancy walking down the back streets. Wetherspoons it was. At least if the Maribor Ultras stormed the Wetherspoons, we could hide upstairs or something.
Well, here was the moment. No longer did I have to grow facial hair for the week in preparation for a night out in Atherton. No longer did I have to send somebody else to the bar. Well, to be fair, I’ve only ever been asked for ID twice. With this in mind, I wasn’t really expecting to be asked for my ID (which was my passport for the evening). A pint of John Smiths was ordered. I didn’t get asked. 18 years I had waited for that moment, and I didn’t get asked. What a let down. 18 bloody years. I didn’t know what to do really, I was disappointed.
The disappointment continued when I asked for a naan bread to accompany my pint, but I was soon told that they were unavailable for the evening. Thankfully we hadn’t turned up for the evening’s curry night.
We spent some time in the pub moaning about naan bread before the long walk to the ground. The town centre was dead. Nobody was around. Perhaps the locals were making the most of Thursday Club in the nearby town of Leigh? £1 drinks I am told, and plenty of appetising local women who look nothing like men.
Talking of women, I’m sure half of the females at the match were Slovenian. There were hundreds of them, all walking up and down with their black clothes and blonde hair. They were a magical group; a group who drew a lot of attention from the locals. That was until they opened their mouths. The accent that came out was horrific. It was a low manly grunt. I am never going to Slovenia on holiday. Imagine being surrounded by women who have a deeper voice than you?
Anyway, enough about Eastern European women. More important issues needed to be dealt with. Before we entered the ground I needed a matchday programme. Everywhere had sold out, but after jogging around the ground I purchased one of the last ones. I must say, the club had gone all out on this one, and it was probably the best programme the club has ever produced.
Going through the turnstiles we could hear the iconic European music being played around the ground. Running up the stairs, we got a glimpse of the pitch. The two teams were lining up, and the Europa League flag was being stretched across the centre circle. If you’d have said to anybody at that club even six months ago that they would be competing in Europe in October, they’d have laughed at you before shouting “You need yer yed seeing to lad!”.
18 years ago, Wigan lost 6-2 at home to Mansfield in League Two, and now they were competing in the same competition as Sevilla, Valencia, PSV Eindhoven, Fiorentina… and Anzhi Makhachkala to name a few.
Wigan were still awaiting their first goal and victory in Europe after a 0-0 draw away at Zulte Waregem in the last round of fixtures. Maribor were sitting bottom of the table after defeat at the hands of Rubin Kazan.
Nick Powell, on loan from Manchester United had the first opportunity of the match, but a great save from Handanovic in the Maribor goal produced a great save.
One of the greatest moments in Wigan’s history came on 22 minutes. Jean Beausejour broke free on the left after beating the Maribor defender too easily, before firing in a cross. Handanovic must have thought he was Iker Casillas or Gianluigi Buffon as he darted out and attempted to punch the ball away with both fists; not the thing to do on a slippery surface. The ball deflected up into the air towards goal, where Nick Powell was on hand to nod in from a couple of yards out. The DW erupted with noise. What a moment.
It wasn’t long before Latics doubled their lead. It was again Beausejour who crossed in from the left, with Ben Watson scoring with a nodded effort at the far post. Watson, who scored the winning goal in The FA Cup final with a similar header will no doubt be cemented in Wigan history after recent months.
Maribor were poor. One of the poorest sides I have watched in a long time. It really wasn’t a good advertisement for Slovenian football, especially with the fact that Maribor are the dominant force in domestic football over there.
I tweeted after the second goal that if Wigan didn’t win this match then they really didn’t deserve to be in this competition.
The first half petered out and the home side went into the interval with a two goal cushion. It should have been more, but nobody in the home end dare complain; they were having the time of their lives.
At half time we went in search of some food. I purchased a steak pie, only to find out that it wasn’t a Pooles Pie. What on Earth was going on? Had Dave Whelan lost the plot? It tasted distinctly like a Hollands Pie, confirming that Wigan had sold their proud culinary heritage to the mass pie manufacturing monster that resides in Accrington. I was about to put 18 candles into my pie when the fire steward at the stadium came running down the concourse towards me. What a party pooper!
The Slovenian champions provided more competition in the second half, but nothing too much to cause Wigan any concern.
It should have been 3-0 when Beausejour and Powell linked yet again. The usual cross came in from the left and it rolled towards the back post. Powell slid in, but his touch took the ball just wide of the post when it may have been easier to score.
Against the run of play, Maribor pulled a goal back. Jean Philippe Mendy who had run around the pitch like a bull in a China shop found himself through on goal, and he pulled the goal back for the clubs Brazilian captain Tavares. Tavares knocked the ball into an empty goal. Scott Carson lay down on the floor with his head in his hands, evidently trying to cover up the fact that he’d just added another poor goal to concede into his growing collection.
The Maribor fans were bouncing up and down. I felt threatened and wondered whether they’d breach security and stab us. Fortunately I had just finished my pie, enabling me to create a Wigan weapon. A Wigan weapon is a dangerous item which may only be used by a trained specialist; such as myself.
Instructions on how to make a Wigan weapon:
1 – Leave a small bit of crust in the pie tin to act as a weight, and put napkin over it. Place knife horizontally across the tin and napkin and fold tin in half.
2 – Twist the pie tin with force, thus enclosing the crust, napkin and knife inside, whilst also leaving part of the knife on the outside.
3 – With your teeth, sharpen the top of the pie lid, making it into the shape of a dart.
4 – You will now hold the weapon with the visible part of the knife. You can either throw or stab an away fan who may threaten you*.
Weapon ready, we could sit back and enjoy the rest of the match. Wigan sat back, and invited Maribor to score again. Although they didn’t look dangerous, they came close to a shock comeback with a couple of minutes remaining when Tavares volleyed at goal from 20 yards out. Carson leaped across the goal and managed to tip the ball over.
Maribor, now throwing everybody forward had left the backline open to attack. Wigan broke, and Nick Powell danced through three defenders before firing into the bottom right hand corner to secure Wigan’s first ever European victory.
We decided to stay behind for a few minutes to applaud the two teams off the pitch. I always like staying behind to applaud the visiting side. I think it’s a nice thing to see, and makes us English football fans look like reasonable people.
Strolling out of the ground, the Maribor fans were locked in the ground meaning we weren’t going to get stabbed – hopefully. However, the Slovenian women were out in full force again. This time they were taking over ASDA car park before they dashed off past Wigan Pier… never to be seen again.
I arrived back at home to find a birthday cake waiting for me. It was a lovely way to finish my 81st birthday. Thank you Dad!
I’m really looking forward to Wigan Athletic v Rubin Kazan. I have no idea what delights we will see from the away end on that cold Thursday evening, but I know we will have a laugh and will hopefully see a more entertaining match.
The following day in college, I didn’t see any Wigan fans. One assumes they were nursing a well deserved hangover.
*Please note. www.gibbos92.wordpress.com does not suggest using this weapon and accepts no blame in the event of injury or death.