Northern Irish defender Noel Ward tells of how he almost missed the club's first ever league match 40 years ago today.
- On This Day: Noel Ward looks back on Latics' first league match in 1978.
- Latics stepped out to face Hereford United on the opening day of the 1978-79 season.
- Noel broke his nose in three places against Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup days before the season opener.
Northern Ireland-born no nonsense defender Noel Ward is now an adopted Wiganer and settled in the town following his four years and some 134 appearances for Wigan Athletic.
An integral defender in Ian McNeill’s side, Noel recalls how he almost missed the very first league game…
“The build up to the game made us as excited as we’d ever been going into a match because we knew we were making a piece of history for the club.
“I nearly didn’t make the game actually because I had my nose broken against Tranmere Rovers the previous Saturday in the League Cup. I went up for a header and this Tranmere guy has led with his elbow and apparently, I was lying on the pitch with the game going on around me. The referee stopped the game and on came Kenny Banks. He got me to the dressing room and I remember the Tranmere doctor basically pushing my nose back together. I was in agony, it was broken in three places.
“We played on the Tuesday night in the second leg and there absolutely no way I could play. Even running was painful, every footstep I took went right through my body. On the Friday Ian McNeill asked me if I could make it for the first league game… well there was nothing going to stop me.
“I told Ian that I was fine and fit to play. It got to the day and I was sat in the dressing room going through my usual routine and over came Kenny Banks with this piece of Elastoplast to stick over my nose. I thought to myself ‘that’ll do the world of good if I get another slap to the nose!’
“Thankfully I won my first header really early into the match and I completely forgot about it after that.
“What helped us through the game and the first 10 or so matches in fact was that we were all mates on and off the pitch. We were playing for each other and we had players like Ian Gillibrand who had Wigan Athletic running through their veins. That togetherness helped us get used to the life of full-time footballers.
“A lot of people took a wage cut to turn professional, so we had a point to prove to ourselves and to everyone else around us that we were not only good enough to play league football, but prepared enough and comfortable enough as well.
“We’d shown for many years that we were a match for league teams, but we’d only done that in one off cup matches which are actually relatively easy to psyche yourself up for. The Hereford game itself had that cup match feel to it because all of the build-up from the decision by the league to accept our application all the way up to the game itself had everybody excited.
“It was a special day and it’s an honour and privilege to have been part of it those 40 years ago.”