Those We Have Lost: Springfield Park, Wigan Athletic
Today’s instalment in the Those We Have Lost series is on the subject of a ground that seems like it existed a million years ago. We are indebted to Martin Tarbuck for this – Martin is the author of two books about Wigan Athletic and editor of the Mudhutter, a Wigan Athletic fanzine. He is also a contributor to This Northern Soul website, which is a collaboration of several existing Wigan Athletic websites including The Mudhutter’s online presence.
It is with considerable shame that I come to admit the manner in which I first gained entry to Springfield Park. You see, immediately behind the Town End there was a run down all weather pitch which used to serve as a place for the Junior Latics to play five a side on in the early Eighties before the game. The only problem with this was that by the time myself and all the other young urchins had scaled the perimeter fence, it was often closer to ten a side.
It only happened for a year or two to be fair after which I got a season ticket. I was taken to one of my first legitimate games by a friend of the family who used to play for Wigan and as we sat high up in the Main Stand, I realised where the real fun was to be had as the chanting emanated from under the ramshackle St Andrews Drive Stand (or Popular side as it was known). I wouldn’t expect anyone who wasn’t a Wigan Athletic fan to look back at Springfield Park with any kind of fondness and deep down most Latics fans knew that the old place had it’s limitations but nevertheless to us, it was home. A place to watch our heroes every other week and a place which had every bit as much character as any other ground in the country in our eyes.
THE HISTORY OF SPRINGFIELD PARK
Let’s get the story out of the way before I revert back to sentiment though. Springfield Park was built many years before Wigan Athletic were formed way back in 1897 by the marvellously named Wigan Trotting and Athletic Company whose aims were to create an ‘athletic and cycle club’. Whereas initially there was no mention of a football club, there had already been one separately formed under the name of Wigan County who played the first competitive game of association football at Springfield Park on September 1st 1897, a 1-1 draw with Burton Swifts. By 1900, in what was to sadly be a familiar theme, County had folded, to be replaced the following year by Wigan United who also shared the ground with the Wigan Rugby League Club.
Wigan United were booted out of Springfield Park in 1904 following the expiration of their lease and by 1905 Wigan Town became the third football club to play at Springfield Park again lasting no more than three years before going the same way as their predecessors. Springfield Park continued to host different sporting activities such as cycling and wrestling, without ever generating large attendances and it was only after the conclusion of the Great War in 1919 that another club – also called Wigan United but no link to the previous club of the same name bedded down at Springfield Park and they also failed to last longer than a year. They were followed by Wigan Borough in November 1920 who met with greater success and were accepted into the Third Division (North) in time for the start of the 1921/22 season.
So the first league game at Springfield Park took place on 3rd September 1921 where a crowd of around 7,500 turned up to watch the hosts lose 4-1 to the visitors, Nelson. Wigan Borough existed for ten years as a league club before being forced to resign from the League and enjoyed fleeting periods of success and struggle during that time and hold attendance records that stand to this day. Towards the end of the decade Wigan Borough drew the current Football League Champions, Sheffield Wednesday, in the F.A. Cup and provisions were made for the tie. On the day of the match, January 12th 1929, the gates were opened at 12 o’clock and the official attendance was given as 30,443. The largest attendance for a Football League match at Springfield Park was recorded on April 1st 1929 when Borough overturned Stockport County 4-0 before a crowd of 15,500. Both gates stood when the ground was demolished in 1999.
Nine months later and Wigan Athletic were formed after two local gentlemen purchased Springfield Park for the sum of £3,500. The team played their first competitive fixture on August 27th 1932, a 2-0 defeat against Port Vale reserves watched by a crowd of around 5,000. Wigan Athletic survived for many years where it’s predecessors had failed but league football was to elude the team and Springfield Park until 1978, no doubt the club being punished for prior failings in the town’s attempts to establish a football club. During this period Wigan Athletic carved itself out as a giant in non league circles and also forged a reputation as a famous FA Cup giant killer.
Springfield Park as far back as 1953 hosted an FA Cup first round tie between Wigan and Hereford which attracted a crowd of 27,526, the biggest ever crowd between two non league sides in the FA Cup and a record sure to stand forever in a game the Latics won 4-1. They went on to acquit themselves valiantly in the cup that year, going up to St James Park to get a 2-2 draw with Newcastle, Jackie Milburn an’ all and only lost the home leg in front of over 26,000 at Springfield by the odd goal in five. When league football was finally attained in 1978, league crowds inevitably picked up and for several years until the mid eighties were considerably larger than the rugby league team across town.
The biggest crowd I ever saw at Springfield Park was a then-capacity 12,500 for an FA Cup quarter final against Leeds United in 1987. Leeds were at best a mediocre second division club at the time and we were in the then Third Division and they were very beatable playing against a young, raw Wigan team who had already knocked out higher division opposition in the form of Norwich City and Hull City in the previous rounds. However, the game was a poor one on a windy day which Leeds won 2-0, our best chance coming when the legendary Bobby Campbell hit the post. As a wide eyed 14 year old, I spent the entire game sat on a crush barrier to get a proper view, unable to find my friends and unable to take my eyes off those notorious Leeds hooligans crammed into the Shevington End, half expecting them to steam over the fences and into our end at any moment. Leeds went on to lose to Coventry City in the semis, the team of the Keith Houchen diving header in the final fame.
The away end, known as the Shevington End was famous for it’s grass hill; there was a little shed at the back which provided cover for a few hundred and terracing right at the front separated by a grass bank. It could be treacherous on a wet day and in 1989, with a mudbath of a pitch and a mudbath of an away end, a large travelling support from Sunderland decided to confront the elements head on. The spectacle which followed has now been resurrected and immortalised on YouTube as the daft Mackems firstly tried to keep their balance while navigating the slope and then progressed to full on mud-diving whilst being cheered on by their fellow fans.
The home fans’ side was known as the Popular Side which had, low covered stands and was very close to the pitch. Many a time the crowd would surge forward to give the linesman or opposing winger some fearful abuse and even though the home support was small in number, they couldn’t half make a racket, particularly at night games. The aforementioned Sunderland game was watched by around 7,000 but as atmospheres went the place was absolutely bouncing and Springfield Park could be a very hostile place to visit when the home crowd were up for it. Like many grounds which had a ‘side’ as their main ‘end’, the crowd would gravitate to whichever end the team was attacking which usually meant shooting towards the away fans in the first half and the Town End in the second. The first half was usually occupied with a generous sprinkling of away fan baiting over the perimeter fencing, whereas second half just the naughty boys would remain in a cluster, indicating their interest in post match activities.
Around about 1990, a new stand was built over the top of the old one which went right up to the edge of the pitch and I remember the day that the first half of it opened for a home game against Northampton Town. Even though there were less than 3,000 on, we piled underneath it and made a noise like I’ve never heard before or since. At the same time, images started to appear on the front of the programme showing pictures of what the ‘new, redeveloped Springfield Park’ would look like with three other new equally identical stands. I can best compare it to QPR’s Loftus Road but of course, finances dictated that we never managed to complete more than the one stand.
Down the far end, the Popular Side also possessed that rarest of spectacles, an outside toilet, and taller spectators could peer over the top of the urinals and continue to watch the match whilst relieving themselves. This particular corner was also overlooked by a couple of trees, one of which offered an excellent vantage point for those currently excluded from entry or lacking a few bob to actually pay in. Others would stand behind the goal in the second half on the Town End, another uncovered end open to the elements which went all the way around to the Main Stand (Phoenix Stand).
The Phoenix Stand was a big, imposing stand in comparison to the rest of the ground and was the first thing you’d see as you walked towards the ground from First Avenue. There were three main streets which approached the ground, imaginatively named First, Second and Third Avenue and all three opened up into a large car park and a view of the main stand with ‘Welcome to Springfield Park’ emblazoned in large letters on it. To the left of the Main Stand was the magnificent Wigan Athletic Supporters’ Club: a warm, welcoming clubhouse open seven days a week, serving cheap beer and every single wall adorned with pennants from football clubs far and wide. From the inside of the ground there was a small serving hatch you could access to buy chips from and next to it was the Junior Latics caravan which made the cover of a book about the club entitled Pies & Prejudice a few years later but several years earlier than the Stuart Maconie book of the same name.
THE FINAL YEARS
As with many grounds, it fell into disrepair in the early 1990’s and with the football team languishing near the bottom of Division Four large parts of the ground were sectioned off by the local council with no money forthcoming to carry out repairs. In 1995, along came Dave Whelan who bought the club and immediately talked about a ten year plan to take the club into the Premier League to much hilarity, part of this plan being to build a new multi-purpose ground on the other side of town. Initially the stadium was built to be shared with Orrell RUFC not as is thought the Wigan Rugby League club who were in the process of selling their own ground and considering sharing the Reebok Stadium with Bolton.
On the field, a modest investment saw the club climb out of the basement division in 1997, helped in no small terms by the goals of current first team coach Graeme Jones and midfield maestro Roberto Martinez and the all new JJB Stadium started to take shape in the distance. The final league game at Springfield Park was played on the 8th May 1999 but there was to be an encore as Wigan Athletic had secured a place in the League One play offs. The first leg of the two legged tie was played on Saturday 15th May 1999 against a then-third tier Manchester City side. The last ever game at Springfield Park finished as a 1-1 draw with City winning the return leg 1-0 with a very dubious Shaun Goater ‘hand of Goat’ goal. Stuart Barlow scored the last ever goal for Wigan Athletic at Springfield Park with Paul Dickov replying for Man City to score the last ever goal in front of what was at the time a near capacity crowd of 6,762.
The last home game of the season was traditionally the cause for a pitch invasion and this time was to be no different as home spectators poured on to the pitch and started grabbing bits of turf, seats, even advertising hoardings. One lad took the subs bench home with him and another picked up the sound mike from behind the goal, prompting an appeal on Granada Reports several days later asking for it’s return. Sadly after the last game, the main stand was set on fire by local vandals and had to be demolished earlier than intended. Springfield Park eventually made way for a large housing estate, the only token nod to it’s former home being the name of one of the main roads, Lyon Road, named after the legendary non league goal machine Harry Lyon. As a gesture to the club’s former home the ‘West Stand’ of the new DW Stadium was recently renamed the Springfield Stand in another tribute to the club’s spiritual home.
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To find out more about Springfield Park, check out this great website.
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