Wembley the first time

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The Spurs result from Staurday might have help the dust settle on last week’s League Cup exit, but there are still plenty of fans bitter about losing out on what they reckon was likely to be our best chance to make it to a Wembley final for some time.  So what better chance to delve into the past and remember the first time that Latics graced the “hallowed turf”?  Over to Tony Topping…

For the 1969/70 season the F.A. introduced a new cup competition for non league semi professional sides, the F.A. Challenge Trophy. The magnificent trophy was in fact over 60yrs old and originally was made to be used in a tournament between England, U.S.A. & Canada in 1905. The event never took place and the cup lay idle inside the F.A. headquarters until the non league teams laid claim to it all those years later.

Surprisingly for such a good side Wigan Athletic had never been past the 3rd round but in 1972/73 we made it all the way to the final.

In the first round we were drawn at home against Burton Albion. I remember this game well and we were excellent on the day soundly beating them 5-0 with the legendary Mickey Worswick getting a hat trick of penalties, the slim wing wizard Paul Clements and the more robust but equally skilful Joe Fletcher scoring the other two.

In the second round we were drawn at home again against local rivals South Liverpool. In a much harder game we managed to get through 2-0 with goals by Worswick and Graham Oates

In the 3rd round we were again lucky enough to be drawn out the hat first and we faced unknown opposition in the face of Southern League Romford. Now this particular game had me worried I must admit. After all we had lost to southern teams in the previous two seasons, Hillingdon Borough and Barnet. So I was especially nervous when I took up my spot on the Springfield terrace that day. In fact since the competition’s introduction the three teams who defeated latics went on to make the final though they all ended up losers. Thankfully we turned in a great performance and triumphed 2-0 with goals from Clements and Oates. Sadly Romford folded just five years later when they ran up huge debts building a new stadium and their ground is now the site of the Romford Ice Arena.

We were now in the Quarter Finals!

This time we were drawn away from home and faced a tricky tie against Morecambe at Christie Park, never an easy place to visit. Me and my Dad took our places in the healthy 5,538 crowd and watched a very edgy game unfold. It was also very edgy on the terraces as fights broke out left right and centre between our lads and the Morecambe Reds.

We were grateful to get out intact and with a 1-1 draw, Oates again on the scoresheet.

The replay was another tight game and Morecambe defended superbly, we threw everything at them but couldn’t break them down and had to settle for a second replay after a 0-0 draw. The crowd at Springfield Park was a magnificent 9,343 the highest attendance for a F.A. Trophy game outside of the final.

The neutral venue chosen for the 2nd replay was Blackburn Rovers Ewood Park. I took up my position in what would have been the home end for Rovers, right behind the goals. I expected the home fans to back us, I was wrong, so now we had fights going off between Wiganers and Blackburn fans. In between all the mayhem I managed to watch another nail biting game with us thankfully taking the honours with a precious 1-0 win courtesy of yet another Graham Oates goal. The attendance at Blackburn was 5,693 the highest attendance for a replay on a neutral ground in the cup’s history. In fact the three games produced the highest aggregate attendance for a tie in the competition 20,574.

Now only bitter rivals Stafford Rangers stood between us and a date at the home of football!

Stafford Rangers were managed by the wily Roy Chapman the dad of former footballer Lee Chapman. They were the current cup holders after beating Barnet 3-0 in 1972. They also were the current Northern Premier League champions and we knew the enormity of the task facing a latics side in transition.

The semi final took place at Port Vale’s ground much to the dismay of the Wigan fans, the locals would be sure to support their near neighbours Stafford. Still we set off down the motorway in good heart if not a little anxious. When we pulled in at the car park near Vale’s ground I grew increasingly more agitated when I saw the Stafford boot boys on a nearby coach. They all had painted faces, not the jolly England painted faces we see on kids nowadays but a more sinister tribal type of war paint that put the shivers up me I can tell you! When they finally noticed our coach they all started snarling and banging on the windows, giving us cut throat gestures.

Suddenly I felt like Ralph out of “The Lord of the Flies” facing my nemesis Jack with his savages. Thankfully our driver, no doubt worried about getting his coach home in one piece, moved onto another patch of wasteland.

When we finally made it onto the ground my dad and I made a beeline for the halfway line near the main stand. We managed to get a good spot on the terrace with the stand wall behind us. Minutes before kick off the Wigan team were assembled on the pitch directly in front of us for a team photo. My dad joked and said “Hey were going to get on this picture!” In the following days we searched the local press high and low for that photograph but we didn’t find it. It did eventually turn up but more on that later.

The game itself was another taut and nervous affair much like the quarter final. Both defences were on top and neither side created a chance of note. The game petered out to a 0-0 draw and there was to be yet another replay this time at Oldham Athletics Boundary Park.

With my dad on shifts I went to the replay on my own. This time the few locals who attended were on the side of their Lancashire counterparts and I could sense that this would be our night. We played with more freedom in this match and took the game to our opponents playing some great football. Then came the moment… the ball was played in from the wing, Mickey Worswick attempted to volley it at goal but mistimed his kick and the ball spun into the air, the nearest player was Wigan’s Graham Oates and he swivelled and volleyed the dropping ball past the despairing keeper from close range.

The final whistle produced fantastic scenes as the players and fans went wild with delirium. Somehow in amongst all the celebrations I managed to get from behind the goals to a spot near the players tunnel. Everyone else stayed behind the goals with the players but I knew eventually that the team would have to make it back to the changing rooms. Stood all alone apart from a couple of bored stewards I managed to shake each players hand as they walked back, with Johnny Rogers giving me a big joyous bear hug! We were going to Wembley!

On Saturday morning April 28th 1973 I got up nice and early after hardly sleeping all night. Grabbing our bags stuffed with enough provisions to feed a small army we walked the short distance to Marsh Green shops to meet up with our coach. Safely aboard my dad opened his first bag of butties, a Topping ritual followed by the rest of my family but thankfully not by me. On coach trips to Butlins we wouldn’t have left the market square in Wigan before my parents & sisters tucked into their goody bags. But this wasn’t Billy Butlins, no this was the furthest I had travelled in my young life.

As we set off somebody asked the driver to put the radio on, he duly did and the first record playing was “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree” by the group Dawn. A popular record at the time but not exactly t

o my tastes, in fact by the time we had got to Birmingham I was sick to death of hearing it and would have gladly hung Tony Orlando from the nearest oak tree given the opportunity.

To take my mind off this unsavoury image I concentrated on reading my Goal magazine which had great colour pictures of football luminaries such as Chris Balderstone (Carlisle Utd), Bobby Shinton (Wallsall) & Alf Wood (Millwall). For some reason my eyes lingered longest on a picture of Doreen Bernard (Wife of Everton’s Mike Bernard) until an embarrassed cough from my dad encouraged me to turn the page.

At long last we reached the outskirts of Wembley and everyone craned their necks to be the first to get a glimpse of the stadium. In the meantime I surveyed this “southern” landscape for the first time. I was disappointed, after being brought up on the films of Walt Disney I fully expected to see gents in pin striped suits with bowler hats, pearly Kings& Queens and stiff upright nannies pushing huge prams through pretty parks.

Not even a hint of a chimney sweep either.

Suddenly someone shouted out “It’s there!” and there it most surely was, the magical twin towers caught in a stream of sunlight that peeked through the cloud laden sky. The stadium looked enormous, this was football’s Camelot and I was about to enter its imposing doors. But not before my dad had enjoyed his pre match pint.

To be fair my dad didn’t normally drink on a match day but this was a special occasion so we headed for a leisure centre where I had a game of ten pin bowling and my dad had his tipple. Then finally we took up our spots inside English football’s coliseum. We were behind the goals which were all terracing back then and we managed to get a place leaning on a crush barrier. At the other end of the ground the 5,000 Scarborough supporters gathered in their red and white whilst we had a fantastic following of 17,000 adorned in blue and white.

The scene was set and I was confident that we would win; I mean how could we fail with such brilliant backing? When I saw the size of Scarborough’s goalkeeper I was even more convinced that the cup was ours for the taking.

Bert Garrow the Scarborough custodian was quite simply the fattest goalkeeper I had ever seen! But Scarborough were well drilled and organised and they were the first to settle in a frantic opening few minutes. In the 11th minute they took the lead when Leask took advantage of some poor defending to put the ball past Reeves. The game was scrappy and Garrow handled everything superbly despite his ample girth, but to be fair he didn’t have that much to do.

The game was slipping away and I was resigned to defeat, when with just seconds remaining we crossed the ball into the box and a Scarborough defender managed to head the ball to the edge of the packed penalty area. John Rogers lay in wait and hit the ball hard and low, it flew like an arrow through the crowd of players and straight through the unsighted Garrow’s legs!

Moments later the 90 minutes were up and we looked forward to extra time with renewed hope, surely we had the advantage now?

Sadly we had all but ran out of steam and four minutes from the end of the game Thompson raced through to score the winner, though to this day I’m convinced he was offside.

Wigan had arranged an open top bus to take them through the town whatever the result at Wembley and I got up on the Sunday to greet them. My dad decided to do some gardening, convinced that nobody would bother to turn out. As I followed the path across the notorious Gant to Springfield, I did have my doubts about people making the effort. Those doubts were erased when I entered the ground’s car park; it was full of hundreds of supporters! We heard the team bus coming before we saw it, loads of people were marching along with it, cheering and sounding horns.

When it finally stopped outside the clubhouse I could see Johnny King the hardest man ever to play for our team and he was crying his eyes out overwhelmed with the welcome.

I walked back home that lovely Sunday proud of my team, they had got me to Wembley for the first time and as everyone knows you never forget the first time.

Oh and before I forget here’s a little postscript to that Wembley visit.

When we finally trudged off Wembley to get the coach home I was despondent and close to tears. Sat on the coach I got in trouble for berating a women and her husband who said “Latics were a disgrace to the town” My dad finally calming me down before telling her husband to “shut it”

Feeling sorry for me my dad offered me the programme that neither of us had bothered to open. I flicked through it not really in the mood for a read when suddenly there it was, the photograph taken at Vale Park! “Dad, dad, were in the programme!” I cried, my dad looked at it “Let’s have a look… oh aye lad we are” and we were, frozen in time forever. My dad having a smoke, and me with my long hair and denim jacket with just a hint of a smile…

Tony Topping

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