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‘It can’t be said Wigan was agog . . . one woman was reading a Bagley novel’


JOHN ROBERTS wrote for the Daily ExpressThe Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Independent, where he was the tennis correspondent for 20 years. He collaborated with Bill Shankly on the Liverpool manager’s autobiography, ghosted Kevin Keegan’s first book, and has written books on George Best, Manchester United’s Busby Babes (The Team That Wouldn’t Die) and Everton (The Official Centenary History).

As Matthew Engel once wrote in the British Journalism Review: “I suspect posh-paper sports writing changed forever the day John Roberts left the Daily Express to join The Guardian in the late 1970s, was handed a piece of routine agency copy and picked up a telephone to start asking questions.”



29 January 2010

Scanning the weekend’s fixtures, it’s one of the lower-profile pairings in the Premier League tomorrow that takes me back. Everton, for whom I wrote their official centenary book, are hosting Wigan Athletic. It’s almost 32 years ago now that Wigan were elevated to the Football League for the first time in their history. And I was there, on an assignment that had a Merserseyside flavour and featured Goodison Park as part of the story, when Wigan played their first ever match as a League team.

I was leaning on a lamppost at the corner of the street in case a certain Unsworth’s Luxury Coach came by. Oh me, oh, my.

It was 12 August 1978, and Wigan were about to begin their 27-year odyssey to the Premier League. At the time, Alex Ferguson was starting his first season in charge of Aberdeen, Jose Mourhino was a 15-year-old wanabee footballer in Portugal, Roman Abramovich was an 11-year-old twinkle in the eye of the Soviet oil industry, and David Whelan was moving into his first sports shop.

Whelan, whose career as a full back with Blackburn Rovers ended after he broke a leg in the 1960 FA Cup final, bought JJ Bradburn in his home town. Wigan is renowned for rugby league, a pier that never was, and George Formby, for whom things always seemed to turn out nice.

The round-ball code of football had not meant a great a deal to the majority of locals, particularly since the ignominy of Wigan Borough’s resignation from the Football League in 1931, having been founder-members of the Third Division (North) 11 years earlier.

None the less, a dedicated group organised a public meeting at the Queen’s Hall in May 1932 and founded a new club, Wigan Athletic, which they hoped would gain entry to the Football League. Forty-six years on, there they were, having risen through the ranks of the Cheshire League, the Lancashire Combination and the Northern Premier League.

At which point, Tom, the club’s driver, welcomed me aboard Unsworth’s Luxury Coach as I accompanied Wigan and chronicled for The Guardian their first appearance as a Football League club, in the first leg of a first-round League Cup tie against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.

Jack Farrimond, a Wigan director, aged 65, who had not long retired from the Social Services department of local government, had particular reason to be proud that day. Jack’s first job was as a junior clerk with the ill-fated Wigan Borough. When Athletic were founded, he became the club’s first secretary, recalling that, “I was only 19 and seemed to be the only person in town with any experienced of football administration.”

Jack’s other claim to fame was that he wore out the carpets at the Café Royal in London during 46 years attending annual meetings of the Football League in campaigning for Athletic’s admission.

Back in 1932, Athletic bought the nine-acre Springfield Park for £2,250 in preparation for League football. Now, finally, they had gained membership to the Fourth Division and were on their way to play Tranmere, of the Third Division. Ian McNeill, Athletic’s manager, and his players were determined that the tie would be theirs for the winning when they returned to Springfield Park for the second leg.

An air of anticipation grew as Tom steered the team bus past Goodison Park, the home of Everton – one of the 12 original members of the Football League in 1888 – and drove past the rubble of Scotland Road and on into the Mersey Tunnel.

When we emerged on the Birkenhead side of the tunnel, the sky had transformed, the threatening nimbus clouds on our departure from Wigan had disappeared. It was clear, summery blue. “Lovely weather overseas,” said Jack.

It was reckoned that just about everybody in Wigan knew that Athletic’s match was No 23 on Littlewood’s pools. “And everyone’s put us down for a draw, including the chairman,” said Jack. I remarked that Arthur Horrocks appeared to be a jovial, old-fashioned type of chairman. “We’re old-fashioned people,” said Jack.

Sound judges, too, although the nature of Wigan’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw was unpredictable. Tranmere led by a Hugh McAuley goal until nine seconds of the match remained, according to Gwyn Owen, the referee. It was then that Tommy Gore, Wigan’s right back, let fly from about 40 yards, and Dick Johnson, slightly unsighted in the Tranmere goal, could only divert the ball through the angle of post and crossbar.

“Roy of the Rovers!” cried an over-enthusiastic reporter. “Ex-Rovers,” a colleague corrected him – “and Tommy didn’t even get a first team game for Tranmere.”

Bill Bothwell, the Tranmere chairman, whose voice was well known to listeners to Sports Report on BBC Radio, was an excellent host to the League newcomers as they celebrated a promising scoreline.

Jeff  Wright, one of three players whose hair had been permed for the occasion, Kevin Keegan fashion, by a Wigan barber, expressed disappointment at Tranmere’s tactics, saying: “Fancy marking us man-to-man and playing a sweeper,” he said.

Noel Ward, Wigan’s central defender, was certainly marked. His nose was mis-shapen and his left eye was swollen as a result of a knock that caused his premature retirement from the match. But even he was able to raise a smile afterwards.

On the journey back to Wigan, an unscheduled stop was made at the Crest Motel on the East Lancashire Road, a point from which Liverpool, the European Champions, had set forth on many conquests. The break was taken ostensibly to catch the news on BBC 2 (Wigan were due to be featured), but the cheery chairman Horrocks made his way to the bar, ordered the drinks and said: “I don’t know what time you said you’d be home, but you can forget it.”

Heads had cleared well before the second leg, when Wigan underlined their League status on front of 8,512 spectators with a 2-1 home win to go through to the second round, 3-2 on aggregate.

It cannot be said that the whole of Wigan was agog. A group of rugby players could be seen practising on a nearby pitch, and a woman sitting alongside the press box was absorbed in a Desmond Bagley paperback.

Sixteen Wigan managers and several chairmen have been and gone since then. So, too, has Ken Bates, a former Wigan backer who bought Chelsea for £1 in 1982 and sold it to Abramovich in a deal worth £140m in 2003.

David Whelan, having made his fortune with JJB Sports, bought Wigan Athletic in 1995 and his investment has forged success for the football club alongside the town’s rugby league giants, Wigan Warriors. After playing at Springfield Park for 67 years, Wigan moved to the JJB Stadium (now the DW Stadium) in 1999, and gained promotion the Premiership in 2005.

Having reached their highest position, tenth, in 2006, Wigan continue to joust with the rich and famous.

Oh me, oh my.


To purchase a copy of the recently re-published Bill Shankly autobiography, ‘Shankly: My Story’ by Bill Shankly, with John Roberts, buy direct from the publisher with free UK delivery by clicking here.

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