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Taking the Step

18 Jan

It’s only when you get older that you look back over your life and think “If only I’d taken that step” It could have been getting a different job, working harder at school, asking that pretty girl out, moving away from your home town and so on. Well if you didn’t take “that step” it’s too late now my friend and I’ll see you in the coffee shop ruminating over the clouds swirling slowly in your cup…

 

Back in the early eighties a good work friend of mine who made me laugh a lot and eased the tedium of factory toil, emigrated to Australia. I missed him a lot as work once again returned to the monotony it was before his arrival. Years earlier a girl I worked with in the same old factory emigrated to South Africa and left me with no warm smile to light up the gloom. I was briefly tempted to follow them, one way or another, and while I still had my youth, but I only climbed to the top stage in the swimming pool to look down and not to take that leap of faith.

 

In the mid 70’s a young man with a wife and children was given the chance to take that leap into the unknown and he soared. His name was Brent Atherton, a Wigan lad like me but unlike me he was good at something, that something being football.

 

Brent first came to the attention of the football scouts at the age of 18 after scoring 64 goals in the local Amateur League for the SS Club in Downhall Green. Blackburn Rovers moved in and Brent spent a season there playing in the A team but found it difficult to break through.

The following season Brent signed for Prescot Town and later joined Kirkby Town where he teamed up with the infamous Johnny King. In February 1971 Gordon Milne signed Brent for Wigan Athletic. Brent now lives in Australia and I managed to get in touch with him via his old friend Danny Dewhurst another ex Wiganer down under.

 

TT: The 70/71 team is my favourite Wigan Athletic side of all time. What was it like for you as a local lad to join such a successful side?

 

BA: It was a dream come true for me personally. Wigan Athletic were one of the biggest, probably the biggest non-league club in the country at the time. Gordon Milne was a top man and a top manager. The training under Gordon was a lot harder than I was used to but the morale and the atmosphere was fantastic. Kenny Banks was trainer and I have fond memories of him, lovely man.

 

What was it like to be amongst ex England players like Derek Temple and Gordon Milne for example?

 

Derek Temple was a great bloke and a fantastic player; it was a pleasure to be at the club. Gordon Milne was a real gentleman and of course he had a fantastic career. David Breen was another player who wasn’t always first choice but he was an extremely skilful player, very tricky. It was a very gifted squad and it was really difficult to break into the first team but I enjoyed every minute of my time at Wigan Athletic. Some of the other players who the fans might not recall but were very good Ron Melling and Ivor Swarbrick who played in the reserves with me.

 

Gordon Milne left the club and was replaced by Les Rigby

 

Yes that’s right and for one reason or another Les and I didn’t really get along together. Les had his favourites at the club and it was like a closed shop. I left the club and signed for Skelmersdale United. Skelmersdale were a good side back then. They were coached by Roy Rees a top coach and a great innovator. Roy managed the British Universities team and was also a coach with the F.A. He later coached in America having great success with the USA under 17’s team taking them to four U17’s World Cups and beating Brazil, Italy and Argentina.

 

There seemed to be a flux of good non-league players back then

 

Some very talented players who could have gone on to play at a higher level which some did of course. Steve Heighway had just left Skelmersdale when I arrived there. Alan Wolf was a cracking player at Skem too. Mickey Worswick was at Chorley when I played and he could easily have played at a higher level. Many others too many to mention but Johnny King was another top player. Dougie Coutts another latics favourite followed me to Skem as assistant coach to Roy Rees.

 

After appearing for clubs such as Kirkby Town, Wigan Athletic, Prescot Town, St Helens Town, Skelmersdale United and Ashton Town you received an offer too good to turn down I believe?

 

That’s right whilst playing for Skelmersdale I was approached by a scout from Perth Azzuri a club in Australia. I jumped at the chance to move and together with my wife and two children we set out on big adventure in 1977. The opportunity was too great to turn down and we never looked back after that, settling down here for good.

 

Did you feel under any pressure to justify your passage from the other side of the world?

 

No I was always confident in my ability and quite a few players made the same journey from Britain at the time. The players that emigrated helped raise the standards of football in Australia. Perth Azzuri was an Italian based club and they really looked after us. I quickly adapted to the heat and in fact preferred it to the harsh conditions we got in England from time to time. It was less stressful and we just embraced the lifestyle with open arms.

 

You had a very good career out there too

 

Yes Azzuri won two Championships while I was there. I was playing in midfield by then and I’ve always been fit so I was quite an energetic player. I later moved to Kelmscott United and was made captain there, well I had to pass the armband on to Sir Trevor Brooking when he arrived for a spell at the club but I said to him “I want it back when you’re gone!” He was a gentleman on and off the field. We won the Cup playing together in midfield that season.  In 1983 I moved to Forrestfield United and it was there that I won my greatest honour being voted the league’s Best Player Award and receiving the Gold Star on television. I’ve loved every minute of my career and been fortunate to play with or against Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking, Alan Ball, Ted McDougall, Maurice Parkin ex Leeds/Sheff Utd, Peter Holt ex Rochdale and John Salton ex Dunfermline.

 

Thank you to Brent for agreeing to this interview, many thanks also to Danny Dewhurst for doing the actual interviewing* Danny also performed the laborious task of typing the emails out. Thank you gentlemen it’s been a pleasure.

 

Tony Topping

 

*I did want to go over and interview Brent myself but sadly my Mudhutter expenses didn’t stretch that far. Still if anyone wants interviewing in Scholes I can just about scratch enough together for that, sniff…

 

 

The History Man

11 Dec

The History Man

I went for my flu jab the other day at Boston House Surgery hey it’s free for codgers so I’m in. If they were giving away the Bubonic plague for free I’d be there, owt for nowt. Normally when I’m in this part of town I’m on my way to a match at the stadium and usually on the last minute but today I have all the time in the world. So what did I do with all this time? I went for a walk into the past yet again…

Up Springfield Road and down First Avenue for the first time in years. I walked slowly trying to conjure up misty memories from that terraced street which thankfully was empty and silent as the grave. All of us who ventured down that street to watch the latics at Springfield Park should pay a visit now and again especially if it’s been years since we last did it.

At the end of the Avenue the view of course has changed dramatically. New-ish houses populate what was once our pot holed pitted car park. A little gap allows you to cut through to the houses and then the ghosts appear. I’ll admit I was surprised by my reaction, a melancholy mood engulfed me and it was like visiting a graveyard where loved ones are interned.

I wandered about for a bit in the drizzle and made my way out via St Andrews Drive. Nothing indicates this was our former home apart from one lonely street sign Lyon Road. A nice tribute to a latics legend but could and should have been so much more. I’m about to move off when I notice something on the street name from across the road. On closer inspection it’s a sticker stuck over the “O” in LYON something to do with Wigan Warriors. How petty can they get? I spend the next couple of minutes making sure I get every bit of the crap from the sign.

It’s our history, our turf, our players and our people. Never forget that.

I’ve actually dipped my toe into the latics history waters and it’s an all consuming interesting frustrating hobby. We are lucky at Wigan to have some fantastic historians amongst our fans, Bernard Ramsdale, Andrew Werrill, Rod Prescott, Steve Halliwell, George Chilvers David Roughley (http://springfieldparkmemorial.weebly.com) and my good friend Paul Gallagher but one man who I always associate with Wigan Athletic and statistics is of course Jeff Rourke. From an early age I watched Jeff and his mates write notes down at Springfield Park. Glancing at watches, no doubt synchronised, and nodding sagely they would record every minutiae of the game.

If you want to know anything about Wigan Athletic Jeff is the man to see. Here is a little insight into our very own Jeff…

1ST GAME

I remember waiting at my local shops in Beech Hill with my Dad to catch a coach to go to Blackburn to see Latics play Chorley in the 1959 Lancashire Junior Cup Final. I don’t remember the game which is just as well as our local rivals hammered us 4-1. Still I was hooked.

INFAMOUS BRAWL

I remember a game in 1962 against Winsford United when the referee abandoned the match because the players were brawling. An angry crowd gathered outside the ground waiting for the referee to appear but he managed to dodge them by jumping over a wall at the other end of the ground. Latics were losing the game 2-1 at the time. 

SCRAPBOOKS

I was 14 when England won the World Cup and I kept a scrapbook of the occasion (and also for the next 7).  I began keeping scrapbooks of Wigan Athletic from season 1966/67 and have continued to do so every season since. 

MADNESS

In 1969, I remember going to Chorley on a Friday in order to catch a holiday coach going to Clacton-on-Sea. Latics were playing a pre-season friendly at Cambridge United and the coach went through Cambridge at 5am on the Saturday morning. It was worth it as Latics won 2-0 but I had to wait until midnight to catch the return coach back to Chorley.

WEMBLEY

Finally getting there in the 1973 FA Trophy Final against Scarborough but it ended in disappointment as the Seadogs won in extra time with a controversial offside goal. Staying behind after the game thinking I’d probably not come back here again – how wrong was I. 

FA CUP GIANT-KILLERS

Beating Jack Charlton’s Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup in 1977 – the 9th Football League scalp non-league Latics had taken. 

ELECTION AT LAST

Replacing Southport to finally gain election to the Football League in June 1978 after 34 failed attempts. What a night we had in the Supporters’ Club.

CAR CRASH

Travelling with mates back from a postponed game at Hartlepool in 1979, we got hit from behind while going through Leeds and our vehicle spun round in slow motion and ended up facing the wrong way – that was scary.

WRITING IN PROGRAMME

In 1982, asking Director Jack Farrimond, who was the first ever Latics Secretary in 1932, if I could write in the match-day programme.

GOT TRAVEL CLUB STARTED

After discovering Swansea had a Travel Club and we were paying over twice as much as them to travel,  I wrote to Latics Director Jim Bennett  in 1984 asking could we start one up and after two meetings in the Supporters’ Club – I was elected Secretary.

FIRST WEMBLEY TRIUMPH

Seeing captain Colin Methven lifting the Freight Rover Trophy after the 3-1 win over Brentford in 1985. I had a splitting headache all the game just wanting the victory so much. I didn’t even notice Mike Newell’s hand ball before scoring.

SON’S DESERTION

My son Steven, born in 1984 has not followed in my footsteps and after taking him on a trip around Old Trafford, he stayed a Manchester United fan but Latics are his second favourite club

RELEGATION/PROMOTION

Relegation to Division 3 was a major disappointment at the end of season 92/93

but then winning the Championship in the last game of season 96/97 more than made up for it especially as Fulham were beaten for the title by their own goals scored suggestion.

THE THREE AMIGOS

Watching Jesus Seba, Isidro Diaz and Roberto Martinez doing their matador goal celebrations and the fans’ flag that stated “Jesus is a Wiganer”.

CLOSURE OF SPRINGFIELD PARK

After 40 years, the thought of not standing on the popular side, hearing the dodgy tannoy system and missing all the great nights in the Supporters’ Club, my second home, was hard to imagine at first but we have all the memories.

MORE PROMOTION

Winning the Division 2 title with a massive 100 points in season 02/03 before missing out on the play-offs on the last day due to a West Ham last minute  equaliser in our first season in the Championship.  The  Premiership dream was realised the following season by finishing runners-up to Sunderland.

CARLING CUP FINAL

Reaching the final held at the Millenium Stadium before being beaten 4-0 by Manchester United. Knocking out Newcastle United and Arsenal along the way. 

SURVIVING IN THE PREMIERSHIP

Lasting eight seasons and playing a remarkable 304 Premiership games – winning 85, drawing 76 and losing 143 but all the big boys have been beaten at one point.

WINNING THE FA CUP

The bucket dream of every football supporter came true for  Latics fans just after 7pm on May 11th 2013 when Ben Watson’s superb last minute header won the coveted trophy, to become the 43rd different name engraved on the cup.

PLAYING IN EUROPE

Zulte-Waregem of Belgium, NK Maribor of Slovenia and Rubin Kazan of Russia provided the opposition with over 2,500 fans making the first trip to Bruges a fantastic spectacle.

I unfortunately travelled to Bruges through the club which was a big mistake, probably the last coach to get there but the first one back in Wigan – one of the biggest disappointments  I’ve had – even took Shearings to court over it.

 

Thanks to Jeff for the interview and it’s safe to say that our history is in good hands with our dedicated group of historians. See you in the history shop kids!

 

Tony Topping

P.S. If you know of any Wigan Athletic historians who deserve a mention here please let me know and I’ll update the post. Thanks

Another respected WAFC historian is Paul Rowley

 

25 Years of Junior Latics (2008)

4 Aug

25 years of Junior Latics

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.  ~Stacia Tauscher

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2008 was the 25th anniversary of Wigan Junior Latics, 25yrs of looking after the lifeblood of this club, playing a vital role in the history of Wigan Athletic yet taken for granted by the powers that be. That I hasten to add is my own personal view, feel free to disagree but I have seen them treated harshly in our rapid rise through the leagues. Homeless and unattached they wander from venue to venue whilst the corporate big wigs jostle for position at the Premiership trough.

Yes we know they contribute some of the money but as the saying goes all that glistens is not gold. The ones who are really precious are outside shivering by a bus or standing in a broken down nightclub or if their really lucky in a nearby gym. The adults who give up their time freely to look after and organise these children do so stoically, the show must go on and it does thanks to them and no none else. My own two children now young adults were both fortunate enough to be picked out as mascots. My daughter led the team out against Millwall at Wembley in 1999 and my son v Gillingham at Springfield Park on a cold barren Tuesday night. Two very different occasions but both of them were precious to me and the kids. A quarter of a century ago things seemed very different to me, was I looking back through rose tinted glasses? To find out I managed to get in touch with someone who was there in those early days, Laurence Fairhurst all round nice guy and lifelong latics fan agreed to talk to me about our junior member’s organisation.

When did you become involved in the Junior Latics? How did JL start up?

I first became involved in 1985 two years after the organisation was set up. My son Barry was playing for the Junior Latics U10’s and I was asked if I would like to help out. Jack Sudworth started the whole thing off after seeing how well Man City’s Junior Blues was doing.

Did you get any help financially back in those early years?

Yes we got help from Port Petroleum and Heinz amongst others. Heinz were especially good with us.

Were the senior players at Wigan Athletic initially keen to attend events?

The players were very good especially when we were based at Springfield Park. We had the likes of Neil Rimmer, Alan Tankard, Roberto Martinez and Stuart Barlow turning up on a regular basis but they all were very keen. Bryan Hamilton was especially good when he was manager and he would have the players on a rota to attend our meetings. Dave Philpotts was another one who made sure the players knew their responsibilities with regards to the kids. It’s a little bit harder nowadays to get close to the players but Jimmy Bullard was always brilliant when he was here.

When did you first start watching the latics? Who was your favourite player?

In 1959/60 a Lancashire Cup game. My Dad liked to watch the rugby but like many others in those days he also watched the latics especially in the cup. After a while I started to make my own way there. My favourite player would have to be Harry Lyon. He wasn’t the most skilful player I have seen but he knew where the net was! 60 goals in a season, it’s not bad is it? He would run through a brick wall if you asked him. He was a great character who liked a pint and always had time for a chat.

Did any of the latics players kids ever become members of Junior Latics?

Stuart Barlow’s little lad Josh became an honorary member but no other players children ever joined. Arjan DeZeeuw’s was at one meeting and he was so impressed that he asked us if his own children could attend the event. After we said yes he nipped home straight away to bring them down.

Who were the worst away Juniors to visit Wigan?

Oh Preston North End definitely! Around 72 of them turned up at Springfield Park on a double decker bus for one match. They only had two adults to look after the lot of them! We usually played football etc on the all weather pitch but it was unavailable on this particular day so we herded them all into the supporters club. They were wild, running about everywhere while their “minders” were drinking at the bar. Eventually Carol Liptrot could take no more and we had to put them in the family enclosure. They started to wreck that and we had to get the stewards to march them to the away end. Undeterred they went on to smash an emergency exit door down!

Which ground was the best to visit with the Junior Latics?

I would have to say Rotherham United. We had a great relationship with them and always got a warm welcome whenever we visited Millmoor. They always organised events for the adults as well as the children and they put on fantastic buffet’s etc.

Without doubt the best away trip we had.

What happened to the little caravan that used to be near the supporters club at Springfield Park?

Stuart Roy Clarke

Image by Stuart Roy Clarke from thehomesoffootball.co.uk

Ah the little caravan was eventually sold for £5! The trouble was it was always getting vandalised even though we never kept anything valuable in it. You would get a phone call from Norma (Sherratt) saying “They’ve been in it again” Shame really as it was an iconic symbol in its own little way. We used to take it to carnivals all over the northwest and it was great for raising the profile of our club.

Many of those Junior Latics members have gone on to have families of their own now. It must be heart warming to see their kids coming through.

Funnily enough I was at a game a little while back and I was waiting in the tunnel with the mascots when one of the Dads said “I remember the day when I was the mascot” It’s great to see that continuality, we must have been doing something right!

Finally do you miss Springfield Park?

I do miss the old ground. We had some great times in the old supporters club and it was a very sad day when we had to leave. We managed to get a last look at the club before it was torn down, sad but we have some great memories to look back on.

Thanks to Laurence and his lovely wife Therese for their hospitality. They invited me and the wife up to their home and were terrific company. They are immensely proud of Wigan Athletic and remain humble about the role they played in cultivating our junior members. The same work goes on today though the name of our junior club has changed. I can’t help feeling that the more we have progressed the more we have forgot about our roots. That somehow as supporters we are less valued than we once were, there’s a distance now that seems to be growing. Children are the lifeblood of any club and Wigan Athletic need to recognise this. They need a permanent home in the stadium on a match day. The family stand is a lonely place nowadays, marketing brains better than mine need to look at this and set about filling it. The saying “Look how far we have come” seems to be a mantra emanating from the stadium. Maybe they should be saying “Look how far we have yet to go”

Tony Topping

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springfield Road

16 Jan

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The match ended, Wigan beat Bristol City by one goal to nil. Not a classic but another 3 priceless points. The crowd seep out of  the stadium into the September night, plenty of chatter after a win, not so much following a defeat. Mobile phones check the league table as we wait to cross the metal bridge over the canal. Shuffling forward slowly and fairly orderly although some sneak under the bridge and filter in at the side. I don’t mind the queue jumpers, I’ve done it myself but the smug ones irritate me a little especially after a defeat.

I try to get near the handrail on the bridge, not always possible, but to be in the middle of the steps is a bit of a balancing act and the metal steps are hard to see in the dark. As we cross that black stretch of water I listen for rivets creaking under our mass and ask myself “Did they test this bridge load capabilities?” Finally we reach the other side descending more dark metal steps, through the bottle neck fencing and a palpable sigh of relief as we spread out into the open road picking up speed at last.

Under the railway tunnel avoiding the concrete post lying in wait to catch unsuspecting groins and knees and out into the metropolis of Springfield and its environs. Once upon a time my journey home from football took me the opposite way over the canal and crossing a different bridge that looked more modern than the monstrosity we use now. That was when we played at Springfield Park…

As the crowd thins out and I cross the road in relative isolation my mind invariably turns back to the past. So when I look up and see the old Springfield Road street sign on the building on the corner I’m a bit taken aback. How many times have I walked past this spot and never noticed it? It’s tucked away  a little bit and looking neglected, orange rusty glow under the streetlamps glare and occasionally lit by the passing cars. The corner of the old shop is quite a sharp one and brings to mind the image of a shipwreck resting on the sea floor, the last remains of HMS Springfield.

The old street sign has seen some sights including me at 15yrs of age going past there with my dad. I get out my mobile phone to take a picture of the metal sign fifty years on from my first walk past it. So much has changed and I’m starting to get a bit rusty myself but we all do eventually.

I have my back to the road taking the photograph and behind me a stream of Wigan Borough supporter’s walk past me in grey clothing ashen faced. A coach carrying Newcastle United players coughs and splutters by, all the team already in their black and white striped kit looking glumly out at the latics crowd giving them stick.

Snow falls from the sky and the Halifax Town supporters alight their coach after being slayed or should that be sleighed in a snowstorm at Springfield. Have we ever been as cold as that day? I doubt it.

Lancashire Cups and League Championships hang from street lamps, glittering like the illuminations at Blackpool. Old leather footballs bounce down the road eagerly chased by Harry Lyon and Bert Llewellyn while Johnny King and Bobby Todd run across the rooftops. Kenny Banks is on standby with his bucket and sponge in case of emergencies.

A player goes past, boots tied together slung over his shoulder, carrying a bag with “Cole” on the name tag, the young man is going away never to return and is killed at Dunkirk along with many others who watched him play football just down this street.

Wagons carrying steel and scaffolding make their way to Springfield Park to erect floodlighting for the first time. A young girl from the club office is sent up to change the light bulbs when they go out. Climbing up the steel ladder with not a care in the world.

These very lights illuminate my first game and grass has never seen as green as it did that night. When we walk back down this street after the game, my dad and I, the living rooms glow invitingly and some occupants appear to look out the window at the shadows outside, puzzled, irritated and curious about our passing. I feel like I’m part of a special movement, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends, we are one…

The passing crowd roars through like a tidal wave of humanity, fashions mingle uncomfortably and look there’s you being swept along with people you know, yet don’t know… And sometimes the wave dissolves into a trickle, a quietly sighing intermittent flow that reflects the football clubs fortunes.

Past First Avenue and onto the corner of Second Avenue is the place where my heart was shattered into a million pieces unknowingly by a girl who found love with someone else. I look at that corner every home game but I met another girl who patiently picked up every piece of that shattered heart and put it all lovingly together. I was lucky…

So much can change in one lifetime; buildings crumble and leave nothing but memories behind, some good some bad but all part of life. When I was a boy I dreamt about travelling around the world but my journey was marked by pins on my Great Britain map of exotic places like Gainsborough and Goole, Netherfield and Northwich. No sun cream needed, no passport stamped, no language problems. Well if you discount Bangor that is.

I look at my mobile phone to check if the photo I’ve taken is okay and a lorry goes past carrying the mournful twisted limbs of floodlights bound for the scrapyard. Satisfied with my picture I turn around and walk up a dark and silent Springfield Road…

Tony Topping

Goalkeepers are Different

2 Dec

Goalkeepers are Different

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“Some people say goalkeepers are crazy, but to me they’re not crazy, they’re different”

The quote above is the opening line to the excellent “Goalkeepers are Different” by Brian Glanville one of the first fictional football books that I had read and also one of the best books of its genre. It was published in 1971 a vintage year for Wigan Athletic fans of a certain age (old buggers) That 1970/71 season was one of the greatest in our history, it was non league that’s true, but the football that side played was some of the best I have ever seen, if not the best.

One man who had the perfect vantage point of that classic side was the goalkeeper Dennis Reeves. Dennis was one of our best ever keepers, never flashy, always calm; he made the art of goalkeeping look easy. Dennis still attends many of our home games and I managed to have a chat with him at the end of last season. Here’s what he had to say…

Early Childhood

I was born in Lockerbie Dumfriesshire we lived in a country cottage with my granddad. He was in charge of the fishing licences for the anglers on the river Annan which was only about 300 yards away from the house. My dad was from Cheshire and he had met my mum, a Scottish girl, while he was stationed there in an army camp. We moved to Cheshire when I was two or three years old and lived on a farm there. It was there that my love of sport grew. I had an older brother and a younger sister and it was an idyllic place to grow up in. We used to throw a tennis ball against the barn wall and try to catch it, throwing it that bit higher every time. When the weather got cold we’d play cricket inside the barn. My older brother would soon get fed up if I kept bowling him out so I used to bowl easy deliveries just to keep him interested. Being isolated meant I had no other kids to call upon once my brother got fed up.

When I was around 12 years old we moved to Wrexham where my parents had bought a pub. It was better for us because we had more going on in the town. I started watching Wrexham football club being a big believer in supporting your local team. At first I would wait until they opened the big gates with 20 minutes to go then I would nip in but when I started getting pocket money I could then pay on. I remember Alex Stepney playing there for Millwall and it was around this time that I started going to Wrexham Youth Club and taking part in all the sports they played there. My first competitive football game came about when I was picked to play in goal for North Wales Youth v South Wales Youth when I was about 15. We won the game 2-0 and a few weeks later I was playing football with my mates near our pub when my dad came over and said that three scouts from Manchester United wanted to see me. Johnny Carey and Les Olive were two of the scouts, can’t remember the other one’s name but they wanted me to go on trial at United. This was in May, anyway June and July arrived and I still hadn’t heard anything from them so I started training as an amateur at Chester FC. I often think should my dad have phoned Manchester United? But we didn’t know the correct protocol to follow and we never heard from them again.

 Football League

I had a good grounding at Chester and it was a gradual progression to the first team. I was initially sent out on loan to play in the Welsh League and then I was picked for the Chester Youth team for a game against Bradford City in the FA Youth Cup. From there I never looked back and went from the A team to the Reserves. My first reserve game was away to Frickley Colliery and i played well in a 2-0 victory. It was a tough league but it stood me in good stead and after 2 or 3 games I got picked for the 1st team. I made my first team debut at Chester when I was 17 years old against Rochdale at home in October 1963. It was a midweek game under the floodlights and we won 2-0 in front of seven or eight thousand fans. We won the next game on the Saturday at home to Doncaster Rovers and it eased me into league football.

Manchester United v Chester City FA Cup 1964/65, Chester City v Wigan Athletic FA Cup 1965/66

Chester had a good run in the cup this particular season, In the 1st round we played Crewe at home and won 5-0. Then we travelled to Barnsley and beat them 5-2. In the 3rd round we played Manchester United at Old Trafford in front of 45,660 fans. We stayed in the Norbreck Hotel in Blackpool and trained on the beach. Standing in the tunnel at Old Trafford was Denis Law who was suspended for the game. He was one of my idols and when he saw us lining up he said “Who the f*****g hell are these?” Well he knew at half time because we were winning 1-0 but that was just his way, it didn’t put me off him. I’d settled into the game very well, Bobby Charlton had a terrific shot in the first couple of minutes of the game and I pushed it round for a corner and my confidence grew from then on. In the second half we had our backs to the wall a bit and George Best scored an equalizer from what we thought was an offside position. We hung on but after a scramble in the goalmouth Albert Kinsey scored the winner. Then in the following season we of course played in the cup against Wigan and that was a hell of a game which the latics supporters are always quick to remind me about. It was a very physical game which Chester won 2-1 but I got a bit of a buffering probably from Harry Lyon shoulder charging etc. I always remember one incident in that game someone shot from point blank range and I instinctively stuck a hand out and pushed it over the bar. I played well that day and I had to do too.

Wrexham to Wigan

I was at Wrexham for a couple of seasons and following a late release in the summer I was looking for a club. Port Vale were interested but I signed for Wigan who needed a keeper following Dave Gaskell’s move to Wrexham ironically. I couldn’t have moved to a better club, it never felt like I was playing for a team outside the Football League. I sometimes go to games in the National League now and I think these teams are playing at the same level we were in the Northern Premier but we were miles better! Wigan had a good mix of youth and experience, Jim Fleming was a great player and of course Derek Temple was here and I’d watched him score the winning goal in the FA Cup final a couple of seasons earlier. Smashing lad Derek always had a smile on his face. Quite a few players from the Football League signed for non league clubs back then. Boston had Howard Wilkinson and Jim Smith, Great Harwood had Ronnie Clayton etc good players who wanted to carry on playing football because the money wasn’t really that good and some had to carry on playing for a wage.

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A goalkeeper’s lot

Training for goalkeepers is very different today, all the clubs have specialised trainers to work with the keepers. I wish they had had them in my day but the only one I knew of was Harry Gregg at Shrewsbury Town. I suppose I could have asked to go there for guidance but I was only a young keeper and I didn’t like to ask. Gordon Milne was a smashing manager at Wigan and he used to say to me “Dennis you know your position. Try and dominate the six yard box and take control of the eighteen yard box” He summed it up in a nutshell. I used to go to Everton when we didn’t have a game and I would watch closely the keepers in games. I remember studying Gordon Banks in one match and the positions he took up. He always seemed to get in the way of shots and that was down to his positioning. Ray Clemence was another and I picked up a lot from watching them. I’d like to think I was a good positional goalkeeper, it came naturally to me. Back then we didn’t have the gloves they have today and I seldom wore gloves. I had cotton gloves for night games because the grass would have dew on it. They had bits of dimpled rubber on like those that you see on table tennis bats but generally goalkeepers didn’t wear gloves. I tried some of the gloves they have now after I retired and I think I could have caught the ball one handed with them!

Manchester City v Wigan Athletic FA Cup 1971.

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This was the game were I famously split my boot taking a goal kick which led indirectly to City’s winning goal. I don’t regard it has a mistake because the ball landed almost near the halfway line. The pitch was very hard and icy because it was in the shade of the big stand they had there and that didn’t help. When I kicked the ball the sole of the boot just came away, flapping about. The trainer came on and wrapped tape around it to try and secure it. We didn’t have spare boots or anything like that. I threw them in the skip after the game. At the end of that 1970/71 season hopes were high that we would finally get into the Football League but they refused us entry citing the free pens we had circulated was not received well. I mean come on? We deserved to be in the league, should have been in the league but for an antiquated system. I was really disappointed because I wanted to return to playing in league football. I played the best football of my career at Wigan Athletic but I never got picked up by a league club.

Final Thoughts

I was working as well as playing football and eventually it got a bit too much. The decorating business was getting busier and I had to make a decision about playing on. I decided to step down from goalkeeping duties and went to see our manager Brian Tiler around Christmas time to tell him I was retiring at the end of the season. He was very good about it and he could have got another keeper in but he played me until the end of the season. I could have gone to other non league clubs in the area but I respected Wigan that much that I didn’t want to play against them. My feeling was that I was going out on a high leaving a good club rather than signing for a lesser team. It was hard to keep away from it at first and I had a call from the chairman at Winsford who asked me did I fancy playing again. I went back to Wrexham and did some training there to sharpen myself up but I felt a pain in my back and it affected my work for weeks so I phoned Winsford up and told them I wasn’t going back to football and that was it.

I was lucky to play for three good clubs even though things didn’t go to plan at Wrexham I still enjoyed it. I get to watch the teams when I can and it’s just a pity the old players at Wigan from my time here seem to have just drifted away. Sad because it would be good to see them again. We’ve had some great players here, Billy Sutherland, Kenny Morris, big Dougie Coutts, Fred Molyneux, Ian Gillibrand only small but could sniff out danger. Ian was probably the smallest defender I’d ever seen but he timed his jumps so well he had the spring in his legs that a lot of bigger opponents didn’t have, they were flat footed compared to Ian. Gilly was a quiet man off the field but on it he was so determined, thy shall not pass attitude. He had Wigan Athletic on his sleeve, loved the club and it was so sad when he passed away so young.

I like to think we played our part in where the club are today, part of the foundations so to speak. The non league days were a very important part of Wigan’s history and rightly so. A lot of the clubs we played against have now gone, some good teams who would give us hard games, real shame. Some are still going today of course and Stafford Rangers was always a tough place to go. One ground that always created a good atmosphere was Netherfield. Not a very good ground but noisy when you got a few on. The good thing about playing in non league was the places you got to visit that you probably wouldn’t have gone to normally, Matlock, Mossley, Worksop and of course I got to play at Wembley Stadium which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t dropped down to non league. I always get a warm welcome from the fans at Wigan who saw me play and it was a privilege to play for this wonderful club.

Dennis Reeves

I’d like to thank Dennis for taking the time to be interviewed and it was a pleasure to meet such an unassuming latics legend. Real gentleman who still attends games at Wigan so if you get the chance to have a chat with him please do. Best of luck Dennis and thank you.

Tony Topping

From Dundee to Crocodile Dundee

24 Aug

The John Wilkie Story

John Wilkie joined Wigan Athletic in time for the 1976/77 season. It was a difficult season, the club was forced to cut costs and the team was a mixture of experience and young local lads. Wigan were bottom of the league at one stage but recovered well in the second half of the season finishing 14th and won the Lancashire Cup Final v Chorley with a Joe Hinnigan header. It was a far cry from our usual position of league challengers but it was understandable in the circumstances. John Wilkie ended up top scorer with 17 goals. The 1977/78 season was in complete contrast to the previous campaign and the old swagger was back in Wigan Athletic. To everyone’s surprise it was also the clubs last season in non-league football and John Wilkie had the honour of scoring the last ever non-league goal at Springfield Park in a vital 2-1 victory against Bangor City. He also played in the clubs first ever Football League game at Hereford United a day never to be forgotten. I managed to get an interview with John and here’s his story in his own words.

How did you first get into football?

I really just got into it on my own. My Uncle Frank, who was eight years older than me, would kick a ball about with me at my grannies house. It was only a tennis ball but I took it from there and always played from then on just messing around. They had no coaching schools back then or anything like that; you got by on your own ability and people noticed you from a young age. I went to a catholic school St Pius in Douglas and the teachers were all priests. One of the teachers was keen on football and he organized trials for the team.  I got picked for the side, I was aged ten at the time, and in our first season we won the cup against all the other schools in Dundee. I scored a couple of goals in the final and in the crowd was two representatives from the Dundee Schoolboy Association and I got picked for the Dundee Schoolboys.   I also played for Douglas Amateurs until I was 13 or 14 and in Scotland they have “Junior” teams that play just before the level of the senior teams, like Dundee, Dundee United etc. The problem was with the Junior League was you had senior players coming to the end of their careers and it was… well robust for a 14/15yr old so I returned to the amateur level.

I got picked for Scotland Amateurs and that’s when I realised I could be a footballer for a living. Stanley Matthews was manager of Port Vale at the time and he invited me down for a two week trial. I was 16 and working so I asked the firm could I have the time off to play in the trials. They said no so I packed the job in and went anyway. Stanley Matthews picked me up from the railway station in his limousine; it was in the Dundee local paper when I got back home. I did well at the trials and Stanley Matthews offered me a contract. I was made up but a bit unsure about living away from home, I’d never been away before. So I asked Mr Matthews if it was okay if I asked my Mum first, he said “Yes you go on and ask your Mum and let us know” When I got back home I had no job, no money and some teams up there offered me trials and I would get £7 expenses so that’s what I did not thinking I was doing any wrong. Anyway Port Vale didn’t approve of this and I got a letter from Stanley Matthews saying they had cancelled my contract. That was one big mistake of mine and I’ve always regretted that. I should have signed the contract, my Mum even said “Go for it” but I didn’t think I was doing any wrong by playing these trials but that was it.

Where did you go from there?

I got invited for a trial by Dundee United and I played in a game against Dundee. After the game Dundee asked me to go for a week’s training up at Dens Park and I said yes but the very next day Arbroath asked me to sign for them so I joined Arbroath and I was there for around five years. We won promotion to the top league while I was there and I played against Celtic when they were reigning European Champions at the time. Alex Ferguson was another I played against when he was at Rangers, yes I played against some great players and I had some good times at Arbroath. I was due a loyalty bonus after 5 years along with my friend and teammate Jimmy Jack who had signed at the same time has me. So Jimmy goes in and he gets his bonus then I follow and ask for mine. I’m told that I couldn’t have one yet and I’d have to wait so I asked them could I have a free transfer so that I would get a signing on fee and they agreed. I signed for a club called Keith in the Highland League but just before that I had played a few games for Raith Rovers but the club were in administration and could only sign players from week to week.

I’d always played as a left winger but Keith wanted me to play as a centre forward. I enjoyed playing up front and scored 15 goals in ten games and people began to take notice. Morton came in for me and I signed for them. I ended up only playing one game because they put me on the wing and I thought they had signed me as a striker. I went to see the manager after the game and said “You’re not going to play me on the left wing are you?” he said “Yes that’s where I want you to play” so I said “Well I want to leave, I don’t want to be a winger” Ross County had been interested in signing me but I ended up at Morton so the manager phoned Ross County to ask them did they still want to buy me?  They did and the manager was Ian McNeil who went on to manage Wigan.

You had a spell at Halifax Town too, how did that come about?

I was part time so I had to work as well and I got sent on a course in Warrington. In my hotel they had this pretty receptionist and I asked her out and I fell in love with her.  When I got back to Ross County I explained to Ian McNeil that I wanted to be nearer this girl. Ian understood and he phoned his old friend George Mulhall who was manager at Halifax Town. I scored a couple of goals against Preston North End on trial and Halifax signed me, big mistake. I didn’t get on with the manager and he didn’t get on with me so when it came down to re-signing at the end of my contract I asked to leave. He phoned Ian McNeil and Ian wanted me back at Ross County so I went back. I had got married to the girl from Warrington and we both moved up to Scotland.

I’d only been back about five months when Elgin City signed me for a record fee back then in the Highland League. I was at Elgin for about 18 months when Ian McNeil then at Wigan Athletic signed me for the latics. It was ideal because my wife had her family in Warrington. 

Life at Wigan under Ian McNeil

Ian McNeil was a great manager and I loved him to bits. I still keep in touch with him; in fact I’ll phone him after this interview. I loved it in the Northern Premier League, we didn’t do too well in my first season but the second season was very good and we finished second in the league behind Boston United. The players were fantastic and it was the best club I’d ever been with. Everyone and I mean everyone, got on together and we were all good friends, brilliant, brilliant times. Boston United’s ground was deemed unsuitable for League Football so as the NPL league runner up we were put forward for election to the Football League. When we got voted in and I was asked if I wanted to be a full time professional I jumped at the chance. The wages weren’t great but I wasn’t bothered, full time footy, you can’t beat it. I could understand Mickey Worswick not going full time, he had a decent job and he was coming to the end of a great career.

I enjoyed that first season in the league but come the second year I just felt I wasn’t the same player, I was 33yrs old then and I was disappointed when Ian McNeil decided to release me but I perfectly understood why. Wigan had younger, fresher players coming through and that’s football it happens to every football player. I went to Chorley, Les Rigby was the manager, but my heart wasn’t in it and I left after a few games. I did carry on playing football for my mate’s team in Warrington, a pub team. I scored 50 goals in my first season.

Life after football

I had studied accounting throughout my career and in fact spent two years at Wigan College while I was full time at Wigan. I got a job in accountants in Wigan and I used to get an American magazine that claimed “What happens in America today happens in Britain tomorrow” One article that caught my eye was about video rentals and how it was going to be the next big thing. So I started up my own video delivery business, posting them out £2 for two nights. The business got so big that I was coming home from work and still be sorting videos out until 11pm at night. So I opened a shop in Penketh in Warrington and it mushroomed from there it was brilliant. Then I bought a nightclub in Warrington and had both businesses going at the same time. I also bought 3 houses in Spain to rent out and everything was going hunky dory then tragedy struck…

My wife died suddenly, she became ill on a Saturday and she died the same day, totally unexpected. I had two young boys, aged 3 and 5 so I had a decision to make about the business because I couldn’t carry on with it and look after my boys at the same time so I sold everything to look after the boys. All the old Wigan players came to my wife’s funeral even though seven years had passed since I had played there.

I couldn’t get a job to fit time in with the boys but I had a caravan in Rhyl that we used at weekends and one weekend when we were there I asked the site owner if there was any jobs going that I could do that would still enable me to look after the boys. So they gave me a job has a lifeguard round the swimming pool and the boys went to a school in Rhyl and I was always there for them. Eventually I moved on to become a compere, then a kid’s entertainer, bingo caller and a singer. I used to dress up as Crocodile Dundee because people said I looked like him, all the kids thought I was him! I stayed there until I retired last year and I really enjoyed it.

John Wilkie 

I’d like to thank John for his honest and interesting interview. John took the time to phone me and we spent a good 40 minutes talking about his career. Sadly the day after this interview took place John phoned me again to tell me that Ian McNeil would have to go into care because his Alzheimer’s had got really bad. On behalf of all our supporters I would like to wish Ian all the very best. He played a prominent part in the Wigan Athletic story.

Tony Topping

Since this article was first published in the Mudhutter I’m sorry to say that the great Ian McNeil has since died. His contribution will never be forgotten or underestimated. God bless Ian

My Honeymoon with Italian Ice Cream Men 1982

6 Jun

I got married on the 5th of June 1982 but we had a belated honeymoon in July after I agreed to loosen the purse strings and whisk my newish 20yr old bride off to Blackpool for a week. We stayed in a little boarding house in Charnley Road called “Bramlea House” and shared a dining table with two women in their 30’s and a lovely old couple Ethel and Neville from Rochdale. I got allocated the chair in the middle next to one of the women, the “brassy” mad blonde one of our grub group.bramlea dining room

(The actual dining room at the Bramlea)

Of course the mad blondie picked on me mercilessly “Have you come for a dirty weekend Tony?” she asked me on our first breakfast meeting “No, no” I said “We’ve come for a week” “You’ve come for a dirty week!” she replied just loud enough for the people on a passing tram to look at me with disgust. “No, no” I spluttered with a face redder than the unrealistic plastic tomato ketchup dispenser laid before me “We’ve come for a holiday” Except “holiday” came out in a reluctant elongated “Hollllllidayyyyy” Blondie laughed and nudged me with her sharp elbow “I’m only having you on kid” Aye maybe but it put me off my sausage that morning.

Ah but Blackpool is not known as the Plastic Jewel of the North for nothing and our spirits soon lifted as we walked along the heaving promenade. With the smell of chip fat and burgers adding to

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(Blackpool 1982)

hedonistic atmosphere we went for a paddle in the grey/brownish sea whilst children happily shifted the sands with their buckets & spades playing “Find the buried Nappies” Raising my voice so that my wife could hear me over the bingo callers, I held her in my arms and said “Isn’t this bliss darling?” She said nothing in return but looked like she was about to cry. Yes Blackpool has that effect on you…

Now I find it best if you start a relationship by being honest and laying your cards on the table so to speak. With this in mind I got on my wife’s best side by treating her to a pot of tea in Woolies café. Whilst she was putting wrapped cubes of sugar in her bag (for emergencies, novelty value, impress her workmates, passing horses) I told her that I loved her and I also loved football but I had known football for longer therefore I should put that first, seemed reasonable to me. Seconds later I was picking sugar lumps out of my hair, shirt and eyeballs and we came to a new mutual arrangement…

(She didn't buy this by the way)

(She didn’t buy this by the way)

The World Cup Final took place on the Sunday and I was on a promise with Mrs T. Yes I could watch the final if I promised to buy her something nice from Clockhouse in the nearest C & A store. Now then back in the early eighties you didn’t have televisions in hotel bedrooms, crikey you were lucky if you a sink to pee in, you had what was called a “Television Lounge” Which was basically like you Nan’s front room minus your Nan.

A lot of pubs didn’t have televisions either and besides I wanted to watch the final in relative comfort and an armchair pulled up to the TV was the best option. But this was not as simple as it sounded, you see other people were in the hotel and they might want to watch something else that evening, the selfish old buggers.

A plan formulated in my mind and we set it in motion. On the first strike of the dinner gong we would rush downstairs and be first in the dining room. Ignoring the soup of the day starter (Oxtail) we would move directly on to our main meal TV Lounge Blackpool(Chicken with it being a Sunday) and then pass up on the sweet option (Ice cream with tinned mandarins)

It worked like a charm and we rushed back upstairs with the brassy blondes parting retort “Ooo can you not wait you randy little sod?” echoing round Blackpool and District. Mrs T was on first shift in the lounge and she made sure the television was on the BBC channel as I preferred that channels coverage. In the meantime I would get washed and changed for an immediate exit to the pub once the final had finished. I get ready as quick as I can and hurry back down to the TV lounge to see Mrs T sat alone “Has anyone been in?” I ask slightly out of breath “No not a one” she replies before adding “Right I’ll get changed and meet you here later”

Now a lot of the older generation like a bit of a walk after tea before returning to the hotel and I was prepared for this sexagenarian surge pulling my armchair a little closer to the TV in the unlikely event of someone sitting in front of me. There was one flaw in my plan and I would need all my courage to stick to my guns. BBC 2 had “The Alamo” on at the same time as the final so it was my guns against John Wayne and his elderly fan club. alamoposter

They came in the room in bibs and bobs, sat down for a while and said “Are you watching this?” “Oh yes” I replied to which they glared at me and shuffled out the room banging the door behind them. You see the Alamo actually started before the World Cup coverage so I had to pretend I wanted to watch the programme that was on BBC 1 prior to the final. Thanks to the internet I found out what that programme was and I cringed with embarrassment while Mrs T laughed her head off. I wouldn’t let them switch the TV over for “The Alamo” because I wanted to watch “Songs of Praise” with Thora Hird…

I was left in blissful isolation albeit labelled a religious fanatic by half the hotel and a sex maniac by one. Mrs T joined me for the second half which she spent painting her nails as Italians painted their country Azzurro after a 3-1 win over Germany, a game immortalised by Marco Tardelli’s ecstatic celebration after he scored the second goal.

COPYRIGHT COLORSPORT / OLYMPIA. FOOTBALL. WORLD CUP FINAL 1982. ITALY 3 WEST GERMANY 1. BERNABEU STADIUM IN MADRID, SPAIN. MARCO TARDELLI CELEBRATES HIS GOAL FOR ITALY WITH CLAUDIO GENTILE.

Game over we bounded out the hotel and headed for the nearest pub but before we got there we witnessed the amazing sight of a line of Italian Ice Cream vans driving round, all playing jingles and sounding their horns. Carried away with the euphoria I started waving and yelling at them “Italia, Italia…” Mrs T pulled my arms down and told me to stop it, when I asked her why she said “They’ll be thinking you want to buy an ice cream!” Women eh?

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Looking at the hotel now on “Tripadvisor” it’s rated 831st out of 900 B & B’s it wasn’t quite that bad in 1982 I assure you. Mind you that Television Lounge where I watched the World Cup being won is probably split into two bedrooms now. Ah well it lives on in my mind.

Tony Topping