A trip to Netherfield – Part 1

 

Geoff Davies attacks as ex-Latics player Alf Craig (left) looks on. Kenny Morris and Doug Coutts watch from defence and Bobby Todd from midfield.

Geoff Davies attacks as ex-Latics player Alf Craig (left of centre) looks on. Kenny Morris and Doug Coutts watch from defence and Bobby Todd from midfield.

On a bright sunny day, with a hint of autumn in the air, my father and I walked through the town centre towards the Gas Showrooms, opposite the market square. I had bought the coach tickets the day before, going to our usual source, Barnes Travel Agents in Market Street.

As we waited for the coach to arrive my father started to reel off one of his favourite old stories about traveling to watch Latics play. This time it was at Bacup, the ground being on top of a steep hill. The coach’s engine had stalled and the driver could not get it moving again, so the passengers had to push it up the hill. A story of his that must have been at least nine years old, when Latics would meet Bacup Borough in the Lancashire Combination.

The coach had no problems getting up hills in this journey. The advent of the M6 motorway had made traveling north much easier, although we had to come off a little before Kendal, the difficult stretch leading over Shap being close to completion, but not ready yet. We arrived an hour early and decided to go through the turnstiles and soak up some sun on the terraces. Just like at Springfield Park there was a supporters club building inside the ground where we could get drinks and a bite to eat.

As we walked in we saw a sight that I had never seen before at a football ground. There were three or four cows grazing on the pitch. It provided a classic rural scenario and made one wonder if this was the reason that the Netherfield pitch was one of the better ones in the league.

It was September 5th 1970, an exciting time for Wigan Athletic fans. The advent of the Northern Premier League had brought new hope for the club, which had been thus far been thwarted in its ambition to be elected to the Football League. Moreover Latics had appointed a dynamic young player-manager who had started to meld the talented squad assembled by his predecessor into probably the best side the club had ever had.

Playing away at Netherfield was never an easy prospect. The team from Kendal, set up by employees of the K Shoes company, were old adversaries from the days in the Combination. Like Wigan they had joined the fledgling Northern Premier League (NPL) as founder members in 1968. They had finished in midtable the previous season.

The arrival of Gordon Milne to Wigan Athletic in the summer of 1970 suggested that the club had serious ambitions. Milne had been one of Bill Shankly’s first signings for Liverpool, paying Preston a £16,000 transfer fee. He went on to make 236 appearances for the Reds in the next seven years, during which he was capped 14 times for England under Alf Ramsey. Milne had joined Latics from Blackpool at the age of 33. Although nearing the end of his playing career he was still a force in the midfield. Curiously his father, Jimmy Milne, had been manager of Latics in the 1946-47season.

The NPL offered hope to Wigan Athletic in their quest for a place in the Football League. The archaic system had remained in place by which the bottom clubs in Division 4 would apply for reelection, together with non-league aspirants. Critics would complain that the Football League was a closed shop and that the clubs would play the “old pals act” by voting for those bottom four clubs.

It was hard for a go-ahead non-league club to get into the Football League and only two had got elected in the past eighteen years, Peterborough in 1960 and Oxford United in 1962. An added complication was that the non-league vote was repeatedly split.

In 1968 Latics had been one of 15 non-leaguers making an application. They received two votes, one less than Cheltenham Town, but woefully short of the 38 votes that got the least favoured Football League club, Workington, reelected. Wigan Athletic did not make an application the following season.

In those days Latics could only dream that automatic promotion to the Football League might become a possibility for non-league clubs. However, the creation of a northern super league, composed of the top clubs from the various regional competitions, was a real step forward. Winning such a league would certainly give more kudos than the Cheshire County League, even if it had been  the best of the northern regional competitions. Moreover the prospect of only the winners of the NPL and the Southern League applying for election would make sense, if it could ever become a reality.

The NPL started in the summer of 1968. It comprised 7 clubs from the Cheshire County League, 5 from the Lancashire Combination, 4 from the Midland Counties League, 3 from the Northern Regional League and one from the West Midlands League. Interest in Wigan was high and Latics’ first game at Springfield Park against Ashington was to draw a crowd of 6,721 – the highest home league attendance for 13 years.

The legendary Ian McNeill had been recruited to manage Latics in that first NPL season. He had been managing Ross County, following a successful playing career with Leicester City and Chelsea. His contacts in Scotland were to prove valuable and in his two year stay he brought in the likes of David Breen, Benny Cairney ,Doug Coutts , Jim Fleming, Jimmy Lynn, Jim Savage and Billy Sutherland. The left full back Sutherland had been signed from Rangers to begin that first NPL season. He was to go on to make 228 appearances over a seven year period at the club.

But the most notable of all in McNeill’s squad that year was not a Scot, but an ex-youth player from Arsenal, who had played just three games in the Cheshire League the previous season, after being signed by Allan Saunders. Just 19 years old at the time, Ian Gillibrand soon established himself as a regular in the team. Although he lacked height for a central defender, Gillibrand had an impressive leap and his reading of the game made him look like the non-league version of Bobby Moore. He was to play a further ten seasons at the club, breaking the record for his number of appearances and, most famously leading Latics out to their first ever Football League match at Hereford.

McNeill was keen to win the NPL in its inaugural season, but so too were the previous season’s Cheshire League champions, Macclesfield Town, led by their inspirational player-manager Frank Beaumont. McNeill paid Runcorn £3000 for Alan Ryan, who had scored a remarkable 66 goals in the previous season. But despite having an excellent record of record of W18 D12 L8, Latics were to finish in second place, 12 points behind the Silkmen. Attendances had almost doubled from an average of 1,801 the previous season in the Cheshire League to 3,393.

The following season was an even better one for Latics, with a record of W20 D12 L6, but they were to once again to finish behind Macclesfield, this time on goal difference. Despite doing a great in those two initial NPL seasons McNeill was to leave the club following a disagreement with the chairman.

Ken Cowap replaced McNeill with Gordon Milne, who soon splashed out £4000 for the 32 year old ex-Everton winger Derek Temple from Preston. It was a sign that Latics were very serious about winning the title.

However, Milne’s key signing at the time was to prove to be the 23 year old centre forward Geoff Davies for a much more modest fee from Northwich Victoria.

Another FA Cup Final for Whelan

dave whelan espn

My first visit to a professional  football ground was in 1960, when my father took me to Springfield Park to watch a schoolboy game. My mother never really understood my dad’s obsession with football and why he would want to walk 40 minutes across town to that windy ground in Springfield, often in awful weather. Sometimes he would get a lift from Dick Smith, who ran the Darlington Street post office. Dick had a very upright stance and my Dad told me that it was from his time in the Royal Guards. That ride across town was a real treat for my father, but it was the matches against teams like Prescot Cables and Leyland Motors that kept him in awe of the ground and the club that played there.

During my childhood my father would reminisce of his first visit to that eccentric old home of Wigan football. The year was 1932 and times were tough for people in the depression. Despite the economic crisis a new football club had been launched in the town. It played its first competitive game at Springfield and a crowd of over 5,000 witnessed  that Cheshire League defeat to Port Vale’s reserve team. Seeing Latics playing in red in the FA Cup semi final yesterday brought back memories of my father telling me that this very first Wigan Athletic team had played in that red and white shirts.

My father developed a lifelong love of football – and Wigan Athletic in particular – following that first visit to Springfield Park. It was to be imparted to me and his grandson, Ned, whose life has been spent overseas but who has remained obsessed with Wigan Athletic. As a kid there was nothing he wanted more than a visit to Springfield Park.

1960 was to prove an eventful year for the future of the Latics. In those days you were starved of football on television. It was to be four years later that the BBC put out the iconic “Match of the Day” programme. However, there was one exception – the FA Cup final – which was broadcast live, albeit in black and white. It was in early May of that year that I was to see the sad sight of Wigan’s most successful home –produced player, Dave Whelan, being carried off the Wembley pitch with a broken leg. Ten man Blackburn went on to lose 3-0 to Wolves. Wigan had been very much a rugby town in Whelan’s youth. It was a significant achievement for him to make it in the First Division and play full back for Blackburn in that FA Cup final.

If Whelan had not broken his leg in that cup final, where would Latics be today? The broken leg that damaged  his football career, was to prove the catalyst for him to build up huge business empires, making him one of England’s richest men. Many wonderful stories have been written about Whelan’s rise from the ashes and his incredible achievement of establishing Wigan Athletic as a Premier League club. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Wigan Athletic have always had to fight against the odds. For so many years they were shackled in their attempts to get into top league football. The archaic system of Football League clubs voting whether clubs should be promoted or relegated kept them out until 1978 when they got into the old Fourth Division by the skin of their teeth. It had taken them 46 years to get out of the semi-professional leagues, despite being consistently among the elite in that sphere.

With Whelan’s guidance and considerable financial support Wigan were able to make the jump between League 2 –the modern day equivalent of the old fourth division – and the Premier League in only 10 years. Crowds when he took over the club in 1995 had dipped below 2,000, basically on a par with what they would get as a non-league club.  Latics average attendances since joining the Premier League have averaged around 18,000, well above that of Wigan Warriors. Let it be no longer said that Wigan is a rugby town. No matter how die rolls this season, to stay in the Premier League for 8 years has been a remarkable achievement.

Springfield Park is now no more. Fans no longer wander up First or Second Avenue – what great names evocative of New York – to watch Latics play there. So many Wiganers will have fond memories of Latics  games at the old stadium during the eras  in the Lancashire Combination, Cheshire League and the lower divisions of the Football League. However, Whelan ensured another shining achievement for the club and the town with the construction of the excellent JJB Stadium, housing its first league game in 1999.

Since 1960 Dave Whelan and Wigan Athletic have come so far, against the odds. Let’s hope that Roberto Martinez will allow the chairman the chance to walk out again on the Wembley turf with the team on Cup Final day. Dave Whelan has had to wait 53 years to repeat history, but who could begrudge him that privilege, given what he has done for the club and the town?

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