Wigan celebrates sporting excellence in 2013
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2014 | UPDATED: 23:49 23 October 2015
This famous Lancashire town is on a roll following an extraordinary 12 months of sporting success. Martin Pilkington reports
Pies, pits and that pier - three things that encapsulate the cliched view of Wigan. But the beating heart of this Lancashire town has always been sporting endeavour and a remarkable run of recent success is changing perceptions. The FA Cup win, rugby league double, a plethora of internationals in both rugby codes have reminded us of Wigan’s prowess – and this from a town of just 81,000 souls. So what’s the secret?
Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan thinks it’s ingrained. ‘Wigan has always been a very sport-minded town, and its record going back has always been strong in producing tremendous athletes. This year has been extraordinary, when everything seems to have come together for us to be so successful on so many fronts. I can only speak for my own club of course, but it has been a great achievement for the town. Winning the FA Cup really was a dream come true.’
Wigan Warriors captain Sean O’Loughlin is similarly delighted at his club’s 2013 triumphs in both Super League and the Challenge Cup Final. ‘It’s an unbelievable achievement for the club and the town. We’ve had a great year, and add Latics to that and the FA Cup and it’s a great position to be in.’
Olympic 800 metre athlete and European indoor gold medallist Jenny Meadows is Wigan born-and-bred. For her, the town’s sporting prowess is inextricably linked to its rugby league pedigree. ‘Growing up, the rugby league team helped make it a sporty place - as Wiganers we had season tickets. I just think it’s in our blood in Wigan, that Northern grit.’
She went to the Deanery High School, but it was St John Fisher Catholic High School making headlines in November when six former pupils played rugby for England on one day – Owen Farrell, Joel Tomkins and Chris Ashton in the 15-man game, Sam Tomkins, Liam Farrell and Sean O’Loughlin in the 13-man code. They all feature in the school’s hall of fame. What’s more the fitness coaches for both sides – Paul Stridgeon and Mark Bitcom respectively – were SJF alumni, too.
‘Basically there’s a tremendous tradition in the school,’ explains chair of governors Dave Mallin, a former teacher and rugby coach there. He modestly suggests another played a bigger role. ‘We’d a gentleman called Steve Macleod who taught in the school for well over 30 years. He built it up as a league fortress - a great coach ahead of his time who set the foundations.’
Rugby Union is holding its own. Wigan RUFC has just celebrated its centenary, with an exciting crop of younger players coming through, according to club president Frank Morgan. ‘We do get players poached by the league guys, but it works the other way too. People like Joe Lydon started off with us, and we have a good rapport with the Warriors.’
Local attitudes to sport are epitomised in the story of Frank’s debut. ‘It was on March 29th 1969 that I played my first game for Wigan. I remember the date as that was the day my daughter was born – you didn’t attend births in those days and it was an important game!’
Jenny Meadows and many other athletes at Wigan Harriers owe much of their success to another inspirational coach, Margaret Grayston, and to excellent facilities at Robin Park. ‘When I joined the club in 1989 I think we had one of only two indoor tracks in the country,’ says Jenny. The wider environment is equally good.
‘Non-Wiganers probably think it’s quite industrial, but we’re surrounded by greenery. I do about 80 per cent of my training running from my front door – on brilliant canal footpaths with a nice shale surface, and at Haigh Hall country-park. The rugby players have used that for years, too. It has some killer hills!’
Maybe the secret includes the water sourced from the more distant West Pennine hills. Helen Wilson, of United Utilities, says: ‘All our water is lovingly treated, but anyone who’s ever visited our beautiful reservoirs at Rivington knows it’s a pretty special place. We wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of that magic has found its way into the water before it arrives in Wigan!’
That same water is an ingredient in award-winning beers made at the lovely All Gates Brewery, another potential source of inspiration and a link with the mines that left a legacy of toughness here. ‘We’ve a map dated to about 1890 showing 96 pubs in the town centre – being a mining area the miners would come up from a shift and slake their thirst with beer,’ says co-owner David Mayhall. ‘Our biggest seller is California, named after the California pit in Hindley, and Pretoria named after another, where the disaster was in 1910 when 344 miners died.’
Another characterful local stimulant may help too. Uncle Joe’s Mintballs made here since 1898, a further link with its mining past – the peppermint sweets sucked by miners to clear their throats. Founder William Santus once offered free samples outside the rugby league ground to promote them.
The company is now owned by his great-great nephews (they alone hold the recipe) and they made special versions to mark recent Wembley visits. ‘Blue-and-white mints for the Latics, black ones for the rugby league guys when they played in that kit, and cherry-and-white for their other final,’ says the company’s Anita Taulty. ‘So we did limited editions for all three finals, and they won all three – it must be our balls!’
Another local speciality plays its part even for athletes like Jenny. ‘I eat a balanced diet but have a pie about once a fortnight. I do a lot of running so I can indulge!’
Wigan lacks oligarchs, oil-sheiks and US billionaires, but they’re optimistic. Jenny hopes 2014 will be her year, with three major championships. Dave Whelan is proud to have brought European football to Wigan, but his priority lies closer to home. ‘We must get back into the Barclays Premier League.’ And Sean O’Loughlin wants more success: ‘We will have to do it again next year - and maybe add the League Leader’s Shield!’