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"IT WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST DAYS OF MY LIFE" - PAUL ROWLEY RECALLS LATICS' FIRST EVER LEAGUE GAME ON THIS DAY 40 YEARS AGO

19 August 2018

BBC political correspondent and BBC Radio Manchester's Latics reporter Paul Rowley takes a look back at one of the proudest days in our history.

  • On The Day: 40 years ago we played our first ever match as a professional league club.
  • BBC's Paul Rowley shares his memories of 'the greatest day'... Hereford United v Wigan Athletic.
  • A look back at how Latics' position in the league came about and the history made in 1978.

It was one of the greatest days of my life. Not only had my team been elected to the Fourth Division, but I travelled to the first game at Hereford United on the team coach, and was getting paid for it! But I never thought it would happen.

NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE

As a schoolboy, I loved our non-league battles with Macclesfield, Altrincham and Chorley, but it wasn't enough. I dreamed of facing teams like Rochdale, Halifax and Crewe. They were in the Football League, and even though they regularly struggled, they always kept their status. The institution seemed to be a closed shop where most of its participants invariably survived. And even when a club was promoted, it always seemed to be a team from the south at the expense of one from the north. Hence Peterborough United replaced Gateshead in 1960, Oxford United succeeded the collapsed Accrington Stanley in 1962, Cambridge United took over from Bradford Park Avenue in 1970, Hereford United displaced Barrow in 1972, and Wimbledon ousted Workington in 1977. 

KNOCK BACK IN ANGER

Forty years ago, the likelihood of Wigan Athletic joining the full-time ranks looked remote. We'd tried 34 times since our first application in 1936, and had been knocked back every time. Some years we ended up with "nul points". We did get close in 1950 when they extended the league from 88 clubs to the present 92. But on a third ballot Scunthorpe United beat Bob Pryde's side to the final place, joining fellow newcomers Gillingham, Colchester United and Shrewsbury Town.  Workington made it the following year in a rare success for the north, albeit at the expense of New Brighton, who we later played in both the Lancashire Combination and the Cheshire League.

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

I thought we were certs to make it in 1971. Gordon Milne's side had won the Northern Premier League for the first time, losing just two games. For good measure, we'd also reached the Third Round of the FA Cup, narrowly going out 1-0 to Manchester City at Maine Road in our first appearance on "Match Of The Day". But having hoped for 30 votes, we ended up with just 14 (four fewer than the previous year), allowing Lincoln City, Barrow, Hartlepool United and Newport County to be re-elected. It became known as "pens' scandal". Chairman Ken Cowap distributing a Parker pen (worth £2) to each club, which was waiting for their representatives when they came to vote. It backfired big style, and our chairman was forever known as "Ken the Pen".

SECOND COMING

Ken made amends in 1976 when he brought back an old face to Springfield Park. With manager Brian Tiler moving to the United States to take over Portland Timbers, Ian McNeill returned, six years after being sacked. Success wasn't immediate as we finished 14th in the NPL at the end of his first season, our lowest ever position, with home gates often down to three figures. The Fourth Division had never seemed so far away. But a year later, thanks to some astute signings, we finished runners-up behind Boston United, whose York Street ground was deemed not up to Football League standards. So we were the non-league’s northern representatives, along with Southern League rivals Bath City at the league's annual general meeting at the Café Royale on Friday, June 2, 1978.

Ian McNeill and Frank Corrigan

Returning manager Ian McNeill and midfielder Frank Corrigan.

THE LEAGUE - AT LAST

I wasn't hopeful, even though we'd had a tremendous FA Cup run, beating York City and Sheffield Wednesday before going out 4-0 at First Division Birmingham City in the Third Round. York were one of four clubs seeking re-election and easily survived with 49 votes, along with bottom club Rochdale (39) and Hartlepool United (33). We polled 26 votes, tying with Southport, with Bath on 23, who dropped out. I was expecting "The Old Pals' Act" to kick in, but it didn't. We won the second ballot by 29 votes to 20, ensuring that we were the first northern club since 1951 to be elected to the Football League. Strictly speaking though, as Southport is twenty miles north-west of Wigan, we maintained the tradition of a northern club demoted at the expense of a team that geographically was "down south",

NEVER MIND THE HORROCKS

Oddly, Ian McNeill wasn't in the room when it happened. Each club was only allocated two seats, with chairman Arthur Horrocks and his deputy Jack Farrimond witnessing the momentous vote. It was the right call. Arthur, a larger than life travel agent, had been with the club on and off since just after the Second World War, and had even been chairman of Southport for a spell. Jack, who was then 65, had been with the club since it was formed in 1932, having been a teenage office clerk with our predecessor club Wigan Borough when it went out of business. Together with manager McNeill, who was waiting outside the door, the trio made their way home to a rapturous welcome when they arrived back at the Supporters' Club. 

MAKING A POINT

For me, the timing was perfect. Having joined the Radio City newsroom the previous year, I jumped at the chance to cover my hometown club in that first season. Fellow fan Harold Ashurst from the Wigan Observer and Nick Duxbury from what was then called The Evening Post and Chronicle joined me on the team coach for our historic debut at Hereford United on August 19, 1978. We stopped off at a hotel for lunch when we had toast with the players for lunch (I don't know if that was a regulatory diet for footballers at the time) and then called back for a roast dinner on the way home. I was the only radio reporter at the game, and it seemed to flash by in an instant. But we gained our first Football League point in a goalless draw, with Ian McNeill deploying a five-man defence, years before it caught on elsewhere.

Hereford United v Wigan Athletic programme 1978Hereford United v Wigan Athletic Programme

TURNAROUND

Despite the exalted status, nine of the starting eleven had graduated from our non-league days, and when the team coach dropped me off at Bryn Cross I was walking on air. I couldn't wait for our home debut against Grimsby Town the following Wednesday. But it was an anti-climax. We were two down midway through the first half, new signing Ian Purdie missed a penalty, and we conceded a third goal late on. The early optimism disappeared as we lost our next four games, and by early September we were propping up the Football League. But suddenly it clicked. We thumped Rochdale 3-0 to record our first Football League win, secured our first away victory at York, and lost just once at home from late September onwards. We finished a creditable sixth at the end of an extraordinary campaign.

LATICS LEGENDS

I was privileged to be asked to host this year's Supporters' Club dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of our election to the Football League. Together with Tommy Gore, who was player of the year in that opening season, we spoke to Noel Ward, Joe Hinnigan, Jeff Wright and Peter Houghton, along with reserve team manager Fred Eyre and former director Alan Muir. We were also joined by the families of Arthur Horrocks, and the widows of director Jack Sudworth and club secretary Derek Welsby who said grace. A word too for our veteran skipper Ian Gillibrand who led the team out at Edgar Street on this weekend forty years ago. At 29, the step up came just too late for Gilly after a decade in which we was arguably the best defender in non-league football. He managed just six more league games before moving into coaching. Sadly, Ian died in 1989 at the far too young age of 40 while playing cricket for Lower Darwen.

PS

At the time, just getting into the Football League was enough for me. The most I thought we could achieve was reaching the Third Division. To make the Premier League, and stay for eight years, let alone winning the FA Cup and playing in Europe was the stuff of dreams. Then again, that's what this club is all about.


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