I must admit that the DW stadium in Wigan wasn’t on my top 10 of stadiums to visit. It is one the stadiums of the 1990’s and there is no immediate danger of it being demolished. There is, though, a very immediate danger that Wigan may be relegated from the championship, so perhaps it was last call to see football at that level at the DW.
I must also admit that I am no great fan of the stadiums from that decade. They were built after the Taylor report, so they are designed as all-seater stadiums, they are designed to give a decent view of the field from every seat. As much as I like, for instance, Upton Park and Goodison Park, the view from the seats that I have had, has been rather poor – at Upton Park away in a corner almost beneath the pitch, at Goodison Park with a pillar in front of me. Well, no such complaints about the 90’s grounds. But they were built before money really became big in football, and that really tells. They may be functional externally, but they are so drab. Standardized concrete and grey corrugated iron. You could just as well be in a parking house. It pretty much looks like that.
The distinguishing features of the DW are basically the curved shape of the roofing on the main stands and a Wigan crest put on the outside wall. That is just about it.
Like most grounds from that decade, the four stands are separate buildings with gaps between them, allowing the wind inside the ground, whirling around. Fortunately, this was not a windy night, but I know how bad it can be, having been in Stoke on a windy day. In this way, the Wigan ground distinguish itself from the ground of their neighbours and rivals Bolton, whose ground is two years older, but with a little more characteristics and a bowl shape. But there are common features, such as the grounds change their names with sponsors and owners, and have been built on what was probably cheap land. The stadiums are not attached to or grown from a residential area. Bolton’s (and Stoke’s for that matter) look like aMcDonalds or a service station dropped along a highway. Wigan’s – like Millwall’s – look like they have taken over a piece of land nobody else wanted, tucked away behind carparks or garages. The lack of a living neighbourhood and a proper name must, I imagine, make it difficult for the fans to develop the same passionate relationship with the ground, as they probably had with their old ground. Craven Cottage, for instance, oozes history and tradition. The name, the cottage, the stand. Just the mentioning of the name unfolds a long tradition. The way the ground has developed to adapt to new modes of consuming football materializes that history. And along with that memories of a life time for any fan who has attended.
Speaking as a Manchester United supporter, I find it in many ways sad that the ground has been altered completely. But most of the surroundings are the same as when I visited first time some 40 years ago. And whenever I walk to the ground, memories come flooding back. I have (so far) never lived in the same place for more than 15 years, never worked or gone to school in a place for more than 13 years. The only two places that have constantly been part of my life for the last 40 years are Old Trafford and Valby Idrætspark in Denmark. Therefore they entail a narrative of memories from childhood over youth to being middle-aged. Attached to the names and to the roads leading to the grounds. To me, it must seem so barren to have your ground relocated to a wasteland, with a changeable sponsor name attached to it.
Anyway, Friday night in Wigan! I am a bit late, as I get off the train at Wigan North West – less than an hour to kick-off. A kid with a Wigan jacket and four adults look like they are on their way to the ground, and I ask them if they mind me following them. John, a journalist, is actually a Sheffield United supporter and two of the others support Tottenham and Liverpool respectively. But they have agreed to offer their beleaguered Wigan friends some much-needed support. I tell about my groundhopping project – and when I ask them about the grounds they like, I get the impression that they agree wth me. For apart from Bramall Lane, White Hart Land and Anfield Road, they mention Goodison Park and Upton Park.
They stop for a drink in a pub close to the ground, but with only 30 minutes to kick-off and still without a ticket I go straight to the ground – and straight to a very slow moving queue for the two boxes that sell match tickets. I eventually get my ticket with less than 10 minutes to kick-off, so there is neither time for a snack outside or the obligatory look inside the club shop.
My ticket is for the East Stand. There are two entrances to it, but once you are inside there is one single, spaceful, throughgoing concourse with two snack-outlets and two beer-outlets. I like it, even though it is very sparse and strictly functional. No decorations, no ceilings, no attempt to make it feel like a special space for Wigan fans.
As there is no queue, I grab a steak ‘n ale pie to take with me in the stand. And I just manage to get to my seat high up in section ES2 as the players line up for kick-off. I had asked the girl in the ticket office to be located in the most vocal part of the ground – and only 3 seats away from me, two guys are standing, leading the singing and chanting with their drums.
And they and everyone else to my right are standing, whereas just a couple of seats to my left, people are seated. It seems that I have got a place in the hardcore section. There are a lot of teenagers, but the dominant feature is that it is white men – with a few women mixed in. We are close to the 3-400 Charlton supporters who have made the trip from London. They have the entire North Stand to themselves.
The Wigan fans certainly are quite vocal at the start of the match, singing “just can’t get enough” and chanting “blue army”. And the two-syllabled w-chants here are less offensive than in other grounds.
Somehow, the ground doesn’t look quite as dull as some of the other 90’s grounds. Remarkably there are no hospitality boxes (although they do have a fancy Italian restaurant with entrance from the street), but they have made platforms for disabled in all sections of the ground, and not just in one place, which is a nice feature.
After a first few scrappy minutes, Wigan start to dominate. Plenty of possession, a few nice moves, and plenty of pace and penetration from nr. 18 Ojo down the right flank. They carve out quite a few good openings – but either the final pass is astray, a Charlton defender gets in a late tackle, or the finishing is poor. And after 17 minutes Wigan midfielder William Kvist goes down injured in a challenge, Charlton break and score from their first meaningful attack.
Plenty of frustration around, but it is quickly forgotten in the 23rd minute, when everybody gets to their feet and applauds Wigan’s number 23 Juan Garcia who is suffering from leukimea. It is, however, by now evident that Wigan are a team near the bottom, lacking in confindence. They stil retain possession, but the frequency of unforced errors is higher now – and you sense that they are vulnerable on the break. And in first half injury time, Wigan again loses a tackle in midfield, Charlton breaks, the ball is put into the box, where a single Charlton player outjumps three Wigan defenders and heads it in. A fan in the row in front of me is about to explode. He rips off his shirt and is about to hurl it away, when he probably realizes how cold it is. He stops in his tracks, and in stead he pushes his way out, down to the concourse, cursing and swearing. It is too much to bear. 66% possession. Charlton have had only two meaningful attacks, both on the break after poor challenges – but still, you are somehow not surprised.
I go down for some warmth and a snack during the break. Nobody really seems to believe that Wigan can get back into this one. Everybody seems to be doing a post mortem. The second half gets under way, and as a Wigan player makes a slip, the Charlton fans sing “that’s why you’re going down”, and a couple of slips later, the Wigan fans sing “that’s why we’re going down”. And as the Charlton fans become increasingy boyant, the Wigan fans sing: “we lose every week, you’re nothing special, we lose every week”.
Most of us sit down now. The guys with the drums make a few halfhearted attempts to get the crowd going, but realize that right now, everybody is looking for their own way of coming to terms with defeat and probable relegation. Some are just silently watching in disbelief, some leave the ground midway through the second half, some are angrily telling each other what is wrong – others cheer the team and especially their goalkeeper ironically.
To top it all, the rain starts to lash down. The Charlton fans in the front rows hurry further up the stand for shelter. That is really the worst thing about seating at football matches; when the seats are not protected from the rain. Now it is the rain that makes most of the noise, banging against the roof. On the wet pitch, Charlton look increasingly dangerous on the break, and two minutes from the end, Chris Eagles makes its 3-0.
As I didn’t have time to go to the souvenir shop before the match, I make my way around the ground to visit it. But it is closed. Everything seems to be closed. Wigan seem to be closed. At least the rain has stopped, as I cross the bridge on my way away from the ground. A Wigan supporter behind me tempts fate when he asks his mates which would have been worse; that Charlton had got a fourth goal or the rain still had been lashing down. Before they can answer, the rain starts to lash down again. As I reach a public road, a taxi approaches. I run towards it from one side, two Wigan fans from the other. “Did you get it first?” they ask. “Where are you going?” I ask back. They are going to the town centre, so we share. And at least we don’t get soaked like the other fans.
There is an hour before train departure. I look for a place where I can have a warm coffee, but on a Friday night, only night clubs seem to be open in Wigan, so I sit down at the station. A few soaked, teenage Wigan fans arrive at the ground. They sit there in their wet replica shirts, somewhere between defiance and despair. That is the making of true fans. Sticking out for your team despite cold, rain, defeat and potential relegation.
The waiting room is gradually taken over by other football tourists. A couple of Norwegians, a contingent of German speaking fans, a group of Asian visitors. Just before train departure, the group, I met on my way up, arrives. I nod – but somehow I feel that it would be intruding to talk to them. I know how bad you can feel in defeat. And in that situation, you don’t want to chat to some stranger, who might hurt your feeling by asking stupid questions. A sad day. But a part of the game – and the ones that make the good days feel great.