Wigan Football Roots : Wigan County FC

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At the beginning of May 1897, a new association football team was formed. The team was to be the town’s premier association football club and was immediately elected into the Lancashire League. Their reserve side played their games in the Lancashire Alliance League. The club pulled off something of a coup when they signed Robert Menham, the former Everton goalkeeper, announcing at the same time that the clubs aim was membership of the Football League! Meanwhile the Wigan Nondescripts FC agreed at their AGM in June 1897 to apply for membership of the Liverpool and District Amateur League. A month later they were accepted and their fixtures were played in Wigan whenever County were playing away from home. According to the Wigan Observer, ‘This allowed two teams of parallel standards so that patrons could be catered for every week at home’

It is known that prior to commencing their Lancashire League commitments County played two games at Springfield Park, the first of which was on 25th August 1897, the intention of which was to give the Wigan public an opportunity to see the team play. Admission to both games was free. It is interesting to reveal that the second game was played in atrocious weather conditions but the attendance was over 3,000.

The first recorded game at Springfield Park took place on Wednesday 1st September 1897, between County and Burton Swifts in a friendly game, which resulted in a 1-1 draw. The attendance was 1,500 with many people put off attending the game due to awful weather conditions that had persisted in Wigan for the past few weeks. It is interesting to note the comparison between the reporting of the two codes of football in the Wigan Observer. The Wigan Rugby club were playing Salford the previous Saturday and their match description directly above that of Wigan County’s was at least three times in length. The report also included several descriptions of the game and the names of the players of the two teams playing. The report of the County game contained little factual observations or the players names for such an important game in the history of association football in Wigan.

County’s first Lancashire League game was against Southport Central and County won 5-1. This historic event was witnessed by a crowd of over 4,000 very interested spectators. The team lined up as follows,

Robert Menham, Holmes, Molyneux, Stevenson, Greer, Sharp, Jack Gordon, P. Gordon, James Sharples, Morris and Snodgrass.

The cost of watching Wigan County was rather ‘sharp’ (4d and 8d), but according to the Wigan Observer, ‘that is not the fault of the Wigan County club, as they are compelled by the Lancashire Association to fix the prices as announced.’

The FA Cup brought the new team relative success. In the qualifying rounds they had beaten Fleetwood Rangers 1-0, in front of 4,000 spectators, Hurst Ramblers 4-3 away from home, Blackburn Park Road 2-1 in front of 3,000 spectators and Nelson 3-1 away before drawing Manchester City at Ardwick in the first round proper. City were in second place in Division Two of the Football League at the time and when the game took place on 29th January 1898 City only won 1-0 courtesy of a goalkeeping error. Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

Playing for City was the legendary Billy Meredith and although nobody ever overawed the Welsh legend, he made it known before the game that County’s veteran ex Preston North End star Jack Gordon was the only player he had ever looked up to. Jack almost went down in football history as the man who scored the first ever Football League goal on 8th September 1888. However, although he scored the earliest goal in any match played on that day North End’s game, against Burnley, kicked off 45 minutes after Bolton Wanderers’ game against Derby County, for whom Kenyon Davenport scored after ten minutes! He was however the first player to score a penalty (against Blackburn Rovers) for the legendary Preston ‘Old Invincibles’ team and he appeared in the 1888 (West Bromwich Albion beat Preston 2-1) and 1889 (Preston beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0) FA Cup Finals for the Lilywhites. He was also a member of the great Preston team that beat Hyde United 26-0 in 1887 in what is still the record margin of victory in the FA Cup competition. All of which means that he was the first truly ‘great’ player to play for a Wigan team.

County had also entered the Lancashire Senior Cup and their first game in the competition was played at the end of October 1897. The game was against Bacup Borough away from home and County won 1-0 with a goal from James Sharples with just thirty seconds of the game remaining. The next round took place in December 1897 and this time County were at home to Newton Heath. (Later to become Manchester United). After eighty minutes the game was stopped due to bad light with County losing 6-0. Immediately after the game club officials lodged a protest in an effort to get the ‘result’ overturned. The following Wednesday the Lancashire FA ruled that the game would be classed as finished, there would be no replay.

Within days of this game, the Wigan County Committee suspended three players permanently ‘for violation of their terms of agreement with the club, principally in the matter of training’. The Christmas Day fixture of this first season are worthy of a mention as due no doubt to the suspensions, County were crushed 5-1 at Rochdale in front of a crowd of 4,000. Boxing Day saw a 1-1 draw at Southport but County were rapidly dropping down the league table by now.

Preston North End played County at Springfield Park in a friendly game on 3rd January 1898 a game that the Lilywhites won 2-3, despite County having a star guest player called Andy Gara in their ranks. Andy lived in Ashton in Makerfield and was, at the time, a current Irish International.

Liverpool later arrived at Springfield Park to play County in a charity match in aid of Wigan Cricket Club’s new ground. County won 4-1.

Towards the end of the season County decided to play all their games on Wednesday evenings in an effort to drum up more support. However, again according to the Wigan Observer, ‘the lack of attendance by spectators had the effect of checking the good intentions of Wigan County club, who provide football displays of the highest order for those who are fortunate enough to have a holiday midweek’.

Not everything was rosy at Springfield Park at board level either. On 23rd March 1898 the Wigan Trotting and Athletic Company were served with a writ for non-payment to the company who constructed the cycling and trotting tracks. The owners maintained throughout a lengthy court battle that the quality of the tracks, especially for the horse trotting was not up to scratch. The home straight of the horse-trotting track incidentally, was where the car park stood when Springfield Park was demolished in 1999.

County finished the season in ninth place in the Lancashire League. They had played twenty-six games, winning eleven, drawing five and losing ten.

Their full League record at the end of season 1897/98 was,

P 26 W 11 D 5 L 10 F 52 A 41 Pts 27

The team finished in 9th place in the League. There were 14 teams in it.

The following season (1898/99) saw County finish a very respectable sixth in the Lancashire League and in a memorable game at Victory Park, Chorley, became the first Association Football club in Wigan’s history to win a trophy for the town. Six thousand fans were present when they defeated St Helens Recs 2-0 in the Final of the Rawcliffe Charity Cup. When they returned to Wigan with the Cup they were paraded around town in a wagonette and escorted by a brass band. The historic team on that memorable day was,

Mackay, Wilde, Nellors, Evans, Dave Fitzsimmons, Clibborn, Atherton, Fielding, Jack Gordon, Thomas Fitzsimmons and Otty.

Brothers Dave and Tom Fitzsimmons both played

for Manchester United previously, who, of course, were known as Newton Heath in those days. They both made 27 appearances for Newton Heath but Tom hit six goals whereas Dave failed to find the back of the net.

As for the season itself, ‘the team was reconstructed and infused liberally with young blood’. The Reserve team were removed from the Lancashire Alliance and competed in the amateur division of the Wigan and District Senior Association Football League. The first four months saw County play twenty four matches, including friendlies and they were victorious on only seven occasions. In March 1899 both Newton Heath and West Bromwich Albion declined to play County in a friendly match at Springfield Park. However Scottish amateurs Dumfries accepted the offer and must have wished they hadn’t when County hammered them 7-0. The return fixture at Cresswell Park saw the Scottish outfit fare little better and they were beaten 8-2. Whilst in Scotland County entertained Celtic and despite reports in the Scottish press of what they were going to do to County, the Wiganers won 2-0!

However, the teams poor form in the League continued, so much so that the owners of the Wigan Trotting and Athletic Ground company directors advertised for tenders for sporting clubs to use their grounds for the following season. The Wigan County board were granted leave to play at Springfield Park for season 1899/1900.

Around this time it was recorded that County’s players had taken up the offer of Mr David Bell, owner of the White Horse Hotel in Standishgate, for the team to neglect the changing facilities at Springfield Park (which in effect were stables on the field of the ground) for the comfort of a spacious room at the Hotel. In return for the publicity Mr Bell himself would transport the team to the ground half an hour before kick off and transporting them back immediately after the game.

Wigan County made a very cheeky bid to join the Football League in the summer of 1898 and nobody was more surprised than the County board that they actually received seven votes as opposed to Coventry City who didn’t get any!

Their full League record for the 1898/99 season was,

P 24 W 8 D 8 L 8 F 57 A 36 Pts 24

The team finished in 6th place in the League. There were 13 teams in it.

Season 1899/1900 culminated in the demise of the club.

On 13th September 1899 George Wilcock offered Springfield Park for auction at the venue of the place where the ground was born, The Ship Hotel. At the time the ground covered almost 18 acres of land. This land contained a half-mile cinder trotting track, an excellent cinder pedestrian track, a grand cement cycling track and a ‘splendid’ football ground complete with grandstand, excellent entrance turnstiles and refreshments bars. Bids started at around £5,000. It was revealed that Wigan County had a contract to play on the ground until 30th April 1900.

In October 1899there was a meeting of all local association football clubs, the idea was to discover if there were any means of helping Wigan County. Thirty clubs attended the meeting and it was decided that County could have the cream of local talent available to play for the club at any one time. At the time County only had a squad of thirteen players. This amazing concession from their local amateur teams enabled the club to strengthen and in return County would provide a some of the best local amateur players a qualified instructor. According to the Wigan Observer, ‘The arrangement will present opportunities to local players of appearing in superior company, enabling them to gain valuable experience, they will also be brought together for effective and useful practice’.

Two months later it was rumoured that County had disbanded. This was not the case, but with falling gates and very poor results the club agreed to fulfil all their fixtures before finally biting the dust in April 1900.

The death of the club prompted a group of local men to try and reform the club but it was doomed to failure.

Their full League record for the 1899/00 season was,

P 28 W 5 D 8 L 15 F 26 A 59 Pts 18

The team finished in 12th place in the League. There were 13 teams in it.

Among quite a few Wigan County players who had previously played in the Football League, (or went on to play in the Football League) were, John Cunningham (Preston North End, Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Newton Heath), Andy Gara (Preston North End, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City), William Greer (Preston North End), John Grundy (Newton Heath, Bolton Wanderers), Alan Hardy (Blackburn Rovers), John Healy (Preston North End), Thomas Jones (West Bromwich Albion, Hull City), Andy Limond (Stockport County), Robert Menham (Everton), James Sharples (Ardwick/Manchester City), Richard Smith (Newton Heath, twice and Bolton Wanderers) and Joseph Wilson (Blackburn Rovers).

Richard Smith was later to play for Wigan United!

During this period in time, following the demise of County, there was in existence in Wigan a Wednesday League and so association football was still in the public eye. The teams that competed in this League were, Wigan Wednesday, Ashton Wednesday, Hindley Wednesday, Chorley Shop Assistants, Newton Wednesday, Atherton PCH Wednesday, Wigan Wednesday Shops and Wigan Wednesday Amateurs. In fact when Wigan County folded there were in existence six different Leagues and seventy-five clubs competed in them. And that didn’t include the Wednesday or Sunday Leagues.

The people of the town did need a senior association football club though and moves were afoot to form a new, stronger club…

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