The football season is entering its final furlong and as the games disappear along the run-in, there are less and less opportunities to nudge over the lines of promotion, play-offs and safety.
Wrexham are trying to achieve the latter and were five points clear of the National League drop zone when they were due to play Chesterfield – a relegation rival who would go two points behind us with a win and pull us right back into the dogfight. I feared the worst against a side that’s had our number historically and tried to avoid the nerve-wracking 90 minutes by taking in a match elsewhere.
The Lancashire derby between Wigan and Preston fit the bill perfectly. It was only an hour and a half away, promotion and relegation were on the line and, like Wrexham’s match up in Derbyshire, it was an early kick-off – which also meant we could avoid Storm Ciara, due to batter the UK that evening.
Our day started serenely as the sun shined brightly through the cold air. There was no sign of any impending storm but, as the afternoon rolled in and we entered Wigan, the atmosphere began to crank up.
Bizarrely, we left the train station via its emergency exit and immediately came across a couple of police officers on horses wearing shin guards. I felt sad that the horses had to stand around all day but more concerned with the fact they had to be protected from football fans.
Trying to find our bearings, we clocked onto a group of lads who looked like fans heading in the direction of the stadium. My accompanying friend, Shaun, found amusement in how easy it was to pick out football supporters in a crowd.
After walking through an industrial estate, the roads opened up and the DW Stadium stood in front of us on the other side of the River Douglas. The sudden change of scenery began to spark life in the supporters we’d walked with and home chants bragging about being FA Cup champions were shouted as we crossed over – which was confusing, as both teams have won the trophy.
After a simple ticket collection pick-up, we entered the East Stand and made our seats just before kick-off. I was pleased with my selection, as we were with a group of Wigan fanatics who stood up throughout the game and provided a great response to the rowdy, 3,000-strong Preston following in the away end to our right.
A Thrilling Derby
The home team began brightly, Jamal Lowe forcing Preston goalie, Declan Rudd, to palm away a bending shot. However, that was the only decent bit of play in a poor first half showing from the struggling ‘Tics.
For the next 20 minutes, their play-off chasing opponents were sensational. They took the lead through Tom Barkhuizen, who tapped in after Daniel Johnson set him up following a wonderfully-timed run. The away end made a hell of a noise in celebration, while one supporter lit a smoke bomb.
The Lilywhite frenzy continued when Sean Maguire’s goal-bound header was superbly stopped by Wigan ‘keeper David Marshall before Scott Sinclair put his shot wide when well-placed to finish from inside the box.
Wigan were still in contention after that severe spell of pressure and their supporters continued to back them as they won territory up the field. However, the Championship’s lowest scorers lacked bite up front and their moves were easily dealt with by the away side.
They, then, started the second half in the worst possible way, conceding to Johnson’s low-drive inside the area after being set up by Barkhuizen. Wigan manager, Paul Cook, made a couple of changes soon after and it transformed his team as they pulled a goal back through Chey Dunkley’s tap-in – the defender extending his tally to six goals this season.
But that stat summed up Wigan’s woes. Dunkley is their top scorer this season and once Welsh international forward Kieffer Moore was taken off – to much jeering from the home following – it was only substitute Joe Gelhardt’s shot from distance that threatened to force an equaliser, despite them dominating possession.
The win put Preston back in the play-offs and within five points of automatic promotion, while they also severely dented their local rival’s survival hopes after a recent resurgence.
As the match wore on, our old friend Storm Ciara began to make herself known. The sun went in and the wind picked up drastically, spitting the fans’ discarded cups and chip wrapping all over the field.
This wasn’t the biggest load of rubbish on the pitch, though. That came from the officials, who were so bad, they made fifth division officiating look international-standard.
Almost every decision went in Preston’s favour and the gamesmanship tactics deployed by their players – from time-wasting on every corner to going down too easily when feeling a touch – were allowed in every instance. The only time the referee stamped any authority on the game was when he booked Rudd for taking too long on a free-kick – which was, ironically, the only time I believe Preston weren’t trying to run down the clock.
As frustrating as Preston’s tactics were, I have to give them praise for how they earned the three points. Their goals were scored with flair but they put in a lot of ground work when defending the countless corners and crosses coming into their box during the second half.
Slowing the game down and winning fouls was the kind of game management that looked to be missing at the Wrexham game up in Chesterfield – where, despite taking the lead twice, we lost 3-2 in the last-minute.
Shaun and I were walking back through the industrial estate when news of the winner came through and it did dampen our day. But we were, ultimately, pleased to have such a thrilling distraction and to tick off a decent, new ground.
Wigan Athletic 1
Preston North End 2
Ground rating: 7/10
One lingering bad note I’d like to mention was an isolated incident of racial discrimination that I heard aimed at a couple of Asian Preston fans. The one-off chant was about ‘fucking off to the corner shop’ and came from a couple of fans quite far behind us.
I’ve debated whether to include this in my blog because the rest of the match was played in such good spirit by everyone else around us. However, I feel like bypassing what I heard will only make it normalised when it should be condemned.
There were adverts below our stand that asked you to report any discrimination by text but the chant was so brief in the context of the game and I’m not sure the two Preston fans would have heard it anyway.
Maybe I should have taken more action, I’m not sure. But I feel like there’s too much hatred in this country right now to sit on what I heard. Hopefully I won’t have to be in that position again during future groundhops.