Frustrations in co-existing with a rugby club

A couple of weeks ago Wigan Warriors met the Catalan Dragons in a televised match at the DW Stadium.  The events that followed have once again brought to the surface the latent frictions between followers of the two codes, the ground-sharing issue once again being hotly debated.

The pundits said that the rugby match would have been postponed had it not been on television. The DW pitch was already in poor condition after the constant rains that had fallen over recent months. Allowing a rugby game to be played in atrocious conditions caused so much further damage that a couple of days later David Sharpe was to take drastic action by installing a brand new surface within the week that followed.

The social media message boards were buzzing. Some Latics fans advocated evicting the rugby club; others questioned why towns like Huddersfield and Hull don’t have the same types of problems with their pitches. However, it is understood that the control of the DW Stadium rests in the hands of the Whelan family, not Wigan Athletic itself. Moreover we are told that the rugby club was given a 50 year lease on using it.

Theories abound as to why the pitch has been so problematic since the opening of the stadium in 1999. The common view is that it was built on marshy, reclaimed land close to a river and a canal, so how could we expect any better? Another claim is that there is a large cesspit beneath it, from which gases rise over the winter months, poisoning the grass above.

The bottom line is that Sharpe has invested a significant amount of money in providing a new pitch for the short term, with more work to be done over the summer. The new pitch looked remarkably good for the Oldham match last Saturday, although the players will have found some difficulty adjusting to the longer grass, which could not be cut to normal length at the time because of its newness.

Sharpe’s investment will surely help Gary Caldwell’s players in their quest for promotion. Having to play on a quagmire would have seriously damaged Latics’ promotion chances, given their preferred style of possession football. But more rugby games are coming up as the football season continues.

The recent announcement that the Warriors home game with Salford has been moved forward a day to Thursday, February 25th has brought indignation from their fans. Latics have a home game with Bury on Saturday, the 27th. Warriors’ chairman, Ian Lenegan, eloquently discusses the fixture schedule complications that caused the rearrangement of the match on YouTube.

The upcoming matches at the DW are now:

Sat, Feb 20 – Warriors v Brisbane

Thurs, Feb 25 – Warriors v Salford

Sat, Feb 27 – Latics v Bury

Sat, March 5 – Latics v Peterborough

In 2011 we published an article called “1932 and all that – is Wigan a rugby town?”

The intention was to examine the more recent history of both Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors, looking at attendance trends in particular.

From 1932 to 1978 a look at attendances would appear to an outsider that rugby was the dominant force in the town, although a significant number of Wiganers would typically travel to Liverpool and Manchester to watch top flight football. After achieving Football League status in 1978, Latics’ average attendance went up five fold in that first season, the average of 6,701 eclipsing the 4,505 average of their rugby counterparts for the first time.

However, it was Latics’ entry into the Premier League in 2005 that was to give them dominance in terms of attendance. Even after relegation to the Championship their attendances held up in the first year, only to fall below the rugby last season

Football season Rugby season Wigan Athletic Wigan Warriors
2005-06 2006 20,160 14,464
2006-07 2007 18,159 16,040
2007-08 2008 19,045 13,995
2008-09 2009 18,350 14,080
2009-10 2010 17,848 15,181
2010-11 2011 16,976 16,125
2011-12 2012 18,634 16,043
2012-13 2013 19,375 13,556
2013- 14 2014 15,176 14,102
2014-15 2015 12,882 13,980

Can a small town like Wigan support two aspiring clubs?

In terms of attendance the highest ever aggregate of the two clubs’ attendances was 34,677 in the 2011-12 football season/2012 rugby season. The contrast with 1977-78 season is stunning, with the rugby club averaging 5,544 and Latics 1,334 in their last season in the Northern Premier League.

Latics current average attendance of in League 1 of 8,679 will surely be eclipsed by the Warriors this year. However, should promotion back to the Championship occur, history suggests that they would compete on an even keel with the rugby team next season.

In terms of attendances it appears that both clubs can co-exist. It is the prickly question of ground-sharing that is the more urgent issue. Questions remain whether the pitch can withstand constant use over the course of a year and as to whether the Super League can play its part in ensuring that the rugby club’s fixtures complement those of their football counterparts.

Ground-sharing in a small town makes economic sense. Let’s hope the frictions can be reduced by dealing with the key issues.

Does size matter? A look at Premier League pitches

 

Wembley Stadium

I paid my first visit to Wembley Stadium in 1967 when I went to watch Skelmersdale United – locally known as “Skem” – play Enfield in the FA Amateur Cup final. I had harboured visions of it being a wonderful stadium – it wasn’t –but the pitch really impressed me. It was like a bowling green, a great achievement by the ground staff in those days before the advent of pitch technology. I recalled watching FA Cup finals at Wembley when teams would visibly tire as the match progressed, players suffering severe leg cramps. The same happened in that Wembley final, particularly with the match going to extra time. The underdogs of Skem were to put up a wonderful performance, drawing 0-0, after Alan Bermingham could not put away a penalty. Exhaustion probably played a part in his miss. After playing on the biggest and most energy-sapping pitch in English professional football, Skem were to go on and lose the replay at Maine Road, 3-0. They were to win the same cup four years later.

My father used to say that Springfield Park’s pitch was as big as Wembley’s. He was close to the truth. In fact it was around 107 meters long and 66 meters wide, longer but narrower than Wembley’s. Latics’ non-league opponents at the time were clubs whose home pitches were typically around the regulatory minimum size of 100 by 64 meters. They faced a physical challenge when playing at Wigan on the big Springfield Park pitch. In those days pitch sizes also varied significantly in the First Division — West Ham and Tottenham typically had the smallest.

Premier League pitches are standardized  for the first time this season. Rather than go by the previous broad parameters (between 100-110 meters long and 64-75 meters wide) clubs are now required to have a pitch meeting the UEFA standard of 105 by 68 meters. However, there is a get-out clause in that clubs may be allowed to have pitches of differing sizes if the nature of construction of their ground prevents them meeting the new criteria. West Ham and Tottenham will once again have the smallest pitches, measuring just less than 101 meters long and 67 meters wide. Given the style of football his teams play, Sam Allardyce will not be unhappy that Upton Park cannot accommodate a regulation size pitch.

As one might guess, Stoke City have had the biggest adjustment to make, having previously reduced their pitch size to the previous minimum parameter of 100 by 64. Stoke are now going to play in a playing area which is now almost 12% bigger (7,140 square meters compared with 6,400). Other clubs had consistently complained to the Premier League about Stoke’s choice to play to minimum pitch size parameters. It will be interesting to see if this affects their style of play. Several other clubs have had to follow suit, being unable to cite the get-out clause.

When Latics moved from Springfield Park to the JJB Stadium in 1999 they were to find a pitch that was shorter but wider. It was quality, not size, that was to become the issue. The poor state of the pitch- which would churn up so frequently – began to give the club some degree of notoriety. In February 2011, Latics had the pitch dug up and relaid following a cup tie against Bolton. It was the second successive year that they had needed to do this. Some clubs might have left the pitch in a churned up condition until the end of the season, actually using it to their advantage. However, Roberto Martinez’s insistence that his team play good football made it paramount that they have a smooth playing surface. Dave Whelan clearly backed him up, commenting that “You don’t want to go into a game where the players cannot express themselves and cannot play the game they want to play or we want to play.” Whether the damage had been caused by geological or rugby-driven issues, Latics took advantage of the type of technology that allows for rapid repairs.

Since then the pitch has been much better. Hotels-n-Europe.com is a site that helps you find accomodation close to football stadia. In their information about the DW Stadium they tell us: “The pitch is a state of the art design and construction utilising a sand based matrix which contains an irrigation and under soil heating system. The pitch itself is a natural grass pitch with a 2% synthetic fibre infusion which helps to stabilise the pitch profiles.” Let’s hope that the reinforced grass pitch continues to hold up to the pressures put on it.

Wigan Athletic’s style of football is well suited to a larger pitch, with the wing backs able to hug the touchlines, stretching opposing defences. However, there is no evidence to prove that a larger pitch contributes to a better standard of football. Let’s wait and see if the new ruling has any effect on the quality of play from long ball sides such as Stoke and West Ham.

In Wigan Athletic’s case it has been pitch quality – rather than pitch size – that has mattered.