Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Wigan Athletic U18 vs. Birmingham City U18

I wasn’t planning on covering Wigan Athletic’s progress through the FA Youth Cup – this is a groundhopping blog after all – but following the announcement that the U18’s Fifth Round tie at home to Birmingham City would take place at the Lancashire FA’s ground in Leyland, this was the perfect opportunity to combine the youth team’s strive through the competition with a visit to a football ground I haven’t been to before.

Lancashire FA - County Ground - LeylandThe County Ground in Leyland used to be home to Leyland Motors FC – the works team of the automotive brand that played in the Lancashire Combination from 1933 until 1980. The club then joined the Cheshire County League for two seasons before becoming founder members of the North West Counties League. They were solid members of the league up until the early-90’s (changing their name to ‘Leyland DAF-SGL’ in 1990, for some reason) before being demoted in 1992 to take up residence in the West Lancashire League.

Despite another name change in 1993 (to the much-more sensible ‘Leyland Motors Athletic’) they never really progressed, left the league in 2001 and quietly folded. All that remains of the Leyland brand is the British Commercial Vehicle Museum that sits next door to the County Ground – being an evening game, I sadly could not have a mooch around the former Leyland Motors factory. Maybe another time.

The Lancashire FA moved their headquarters from Blackburn to the County Ground in 1998, since establishing an impressive base from which to host youth football, develop coaches and train referees. Each of their County Cup Finals are played here and often, the youth and development sides of some of their members play matches here – Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers regularly have their U23’s at this ground, for example. Our own U23’s recently played a Premier League Cup match here recently too – a magnificent 3-0 win against Liverpool (which I watched live on LFC TV).

The reason for that (and tonight’s) switch has been due to the DW Stadium ‘hosting several matches in a short space of time’ – the condition of the pitch being kept in mind. Although I’m delighted to be doing a bit of groundhopping, part of me is frustrated for the youth team that they cannot play at the stadium tonight – the Rugby League season has started (Rugby League is supposed to be a SUMMER sport, by the way), with Wigan Warriors playing at home last Friday and Latics playing at home this weekend, there really isn’t any other option but to protect the pitch. My frustration also has nothing to do with me living a 15-minute walk away from the stadium too!

Finishing work at 17.30, I hop onto the 17:47 train to Leyland for the 13-minute journey and I’m in the pub by 18.05 (ironically, I probably would have left it to the last minute if the game was being held at the DW!) My choice of the Leyland Lion, the town’s generic Wetherspoons, wasn't just so I could get some inexpensive tea and a pint – it’s situated just around the corner from the County Ground. The name of the pub is taken from the Leyland-made bus that ferried people around in the 1920’s – as all ‘Spoonses do, the locality is celebrated throughout the pub, with the history of certain aspects of Leyland and its industry, maintained in frames upon the wall.

So I’m already in my element with so much history within easy reach – and it gets better when I spy the menu. I notice a pint of Greene King’s best, ‘Ruddles’ going for £1.49, but I’m drawn to pushing the boat out and plump for a pint of ‘Echoes of Symmetry’ by Salopian Brewery for £2.15. This dark, rich, malty 5% ale will be just the ticket (antidote?) to wash down my upcoming fish and chips with – the name of the brewery reminding me of Shrewsbury and them being beaten by what was effectively the Liverpool U23 side in the FA Cup last night (ten of that Liverpool side played in the 3-0 defeat to Wigan U23’s, by the way!)

Main Stand - County Ground - Lancashire FA

The County Ground is certainly an impressive facility; paying £3 on entry, my first sight is of the 500-seat stand on the opposite side of the ground, with the rest (save for an area directly behind one of the goals where there’s a shelter) being open standing. The turnstile side of the ground is taken up by the LFA’s offices, education centre, commercial suites, as well as the changing rooms. There’s also an open bar a few feet from the turnstile and naturally, a café hut – I’ll be visiting there later.

An all-weather pitch sits behind the goal without the shelter, which aside from providing an additional facility for the community to use, is also a good source of income for the LFA, you’d imagine.  Although the ground is used on a fairly regular basis for the LFA’s representative sides and County Cup matches, I feel like the town of Leyland would benefit from having their own team playing here – this facility is certainly step 3 standard.

Tonight’s match sees Latics come up against Birmingham City; both sides already play each other in the Professional Development League (North), with Latics leading the division by some distance and Birmingham being 9th in the 11-team division. Wigan Athletic have never reached the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup before – and expectations have never been so high. I take my seat in the corner of the stand and I quickly learn that I’m sat amongst the parents of the players – with a good portion of Wigan’s team being Scouse, you can imagine…the beautiful sounds they make whilst encouraging their sons. 

Scouse power works, however – Wigan take the lead after just 5 minutes when the Birmingham goalkeeper doesn’t deal with a corner and Scotland U19 forward, Kyle Joseph, heads in. First-teamer, 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt, is the most notable name on the teamsheet and here, after 13 minutes of play, he embarks on a jinking run that ends with him being unceremoniously hacked down – penalty. Gelhardt dusts himself down to take the kick and score – sending the ball into the corner. What struck me, before him taking the kick, was the sheer silence from the crowd – usually, you’ll have sections of the ground booing and screaming obscenities. On this occasion, the situation was reminiscent of a golfer attempting a putt – a respectful quiet aired, and he placed the ball in.

We’ve had a decent week at Wigan Athletic; the first team have won two consecutive games (a last-minute winner last Tuesday against Sheffield Wednesday before an unprecedented 1-0 win at high-flying Leeds at the weekend), giving the club renewed hope of avoiding the drop. We even, somehow, kept hold of star left-back, Antonee Robinson, despite him being on the verge of signing for AC Milan – the transfer collapsing due to them needing more time to complete the medical. This fast, aggressive, attacking play from the U18’s is making the week even better. England U19 international, Jensen Weir, has a free-kick that hits the bar, whilst the Birmingham goalkeeper got his bearings right to make a great save from a header from a corner.

Throughout the first-half, it seemed like only a matter of time until a third goal was on the way – and it did arrive, in some style, right at the end. Gelhardt picks the ball up, side-to-goal, 25-yards out. He turns inside before hitting a shot that looked high, but it dipped just at the right moment to nest in the top corner, distributing that spot 'where the owl sleeps' (as they say in Brazil). Latics have got one (giant) boot in the quarter-final – and it could have been so much more too.

Warning sign - Lancashire FA - Leyland

Being around the parents of the players has allowed me to experience a football 'whos-who' – first-team manager Paul Cook was sat behind me in the first half, as were some of his coaching staff and other club officials, and as I made my way back to the stand for the start of the second half with my brew, I followed Jamie Carragher round the ground – his son, James, is playing at centre-back for Latics (he didn't strike me as particularly ‘big’, did Jamie – that must be because I myself am an absolute beast, obviously). Later, I'd learn that a number of first-team players were here too – including the aforementioned Robinson. By all accounts, he has a great attitude he had also sat in the away end at Leeds on Saturday, hours after the move to Italy collapsed. He could have so easily sulked, but instead endeavours to support the club. This is the type of person every side needs; I'm glad he's still here but I hope he gets his move in the summer too, because he deserves it – and we get plenty of money for him!

I mentioned this briefly in the blog from the Wigan U18 game against Spurs – one of the benefits of the club making a major investment in the youth set-up is that we’ll be able to attract more talented youngsters. The bigger clubs will always have a draw for simply being who they are, but if you (as a club) can have facilities that are almost on-a-par with them, you’ll be able to offer them a more realistic gateway into professional football – and once they’re playing in the first team, they’re in the shop window. Whilst Robinson came through Everton's youth system, the principle is similar – he never played a game for Everton in the Premier League, came to us (on-loan initially) before singing permanently and 6 months later, AC Milan want to double our money to take him off our hands. It's a model that clubs like ours will have to adopt if we want to survive and build in The Championship, as the TV money gap is growing ever-wider at the top of the game.

Lancashire FA - Headquarters - HQ - County Ground - Leyland

Birmingham start the second half much better; Sam Tickle (his dad must be Mr Tickle!) in the Latics goal has to field a few long-range shots – comfortably, but you can’t win the lottery if you don’t have a ticket. Their coach (former Watford and West Brom left-back, Paul Robinson) has clearly had a go at them (within FA safeguarding guidelines, obviously), as they seem to have upped the tempo, putting more pressure on the Wigan backline. They struggle to get beyond it, however and Latics seem quite content (evidently, what with them being 3-0-up!) with catching them on the break. On one such occasion, Gelhardt finds space 20 yards out, shoots, the ball comes back off the post but Sean McGurk is well-placed to volley the ball home. It was a fine cap on a brilliant performance from Wigan’s U18’s – they move into the last eight where (we later learn) they’ll be away to Manchester United. I’m definitely going to that one – with the way they’re playing, these lads shouldn't be fearing any team at the moment.

Down the road from the County Ground is the welcome sight of a micro bar – so it would be rude of me not to indulge in it whilst I while away the time until my train home. The Market Ale House (because it’s located next to the town’s marketplace, funnily enough) brilliantly lies next door to a Galloways pie shop – Wigan’s very own corner of Leyland! Sadly, it’s way past the shop’s closing time but I fill up my senses with a pint of Mobberely Brewhouse's ‘Boom Juice’, a fruity beer with a ‘hint of orange’ for £3.20 – nice stuff. Check out this great blog on the Market Ale House from a more experienced Beer Ponce than me – I’m still in the 'youth team' when it comes to poncing around these establishments!

The Market Ale House - Leyland

All-in-all, a great night – I’m definitely going to return to Leyland for a match; as we get to the ‘business end’ of the season, I’ll be looking out for some of the County Cup finals and hopefully be able to visit on a weekend so I can spend more time exploring the town, and going for tea at Galloways. 

Wigan Athletic U18 4 
(Joseph, 5. Gelhardt, 13 (pen), 45. McGurk, 75) 

Birmingham City U18 0

Attendance: 366


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