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Norwich City players huddle before Saturday's game, watched by their 4,500 travelling fans. Picture: Paul Chesterton / Focus Images

The road to Wigan Pier

Hamilton Nemo
Monday, August 15, 2011
3.49 PM

I don’t know about you, but I never bother about pre-season games. I fail to see why I should take time off work and fork out my hard earned money to watch what are essentially training sessions to get the players match fit.

There is nothing at stake and I fail to feel elated even if a City XI beats Sea Palling Reserves 15-0, or if we thrash a Dritte Liga team I’ve never heard of like Rot Weiss Hotfrankfurterflippers 8-1.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I set off for Wigan. During the last two seasons our first games of the season had promised so much and delivered a 1-7 home defeat to Colchester and a 2-3 reverse at home to Watford. Both games were certainly eventful and even enjoyable in parts, but I was acutely aware of the statistic that City hadn’t won on the opening day of the season for eight years.

Never mind. This was different. Norwich are back! We are Premier League! It was my first visit to Wigan and I was determined to enjoy it and to wave the Canary flag. For me the road to Wigan Pier began with a phone call to the Carra Rud Ticket Office to secure my match ticket to join the other 4.499 members of the Yellow Army.

I then navigated my way from London to Wigan by rail via Euston, Milton Keynes, Coventry, Birmingham, Crewe and Warrington. Euston was awash with Liverpool fans optimistic that for them this season would be better than last. My train was full of people dressed as pirates (complete with parrots), spacemen, and dinosaurs. They were all in fancy dress because they were going to watch the Test Match at Edgbaston, and delighted that India had not completely capitulated in the first two days. Tickets for the last day of the Test were changing hands for 34 pence apiece.

Finally the train arrived at Wigan North West and I joined the throng of Canary fans drinking in the beer and the pre-match atmosphere in the town centre. The locals were friendly, and there was neither a rioter nor a looter in sight.

After a couple of pints it was but a short walk to the brand new DW stadium. It was my first visit to the DW and I was quite impressed. The stadium is spacious, clean, and the view of the pitch was unimpaired. And all for a mere £20! The toilets were clean and the pies too were good, and inexpensive. Even the weather was kind.

The away end was full and there was much speculation amongst the City fans about which members of our newly enlarged squad would make the starting line up, be on the bench, or omitted completely.

Our players came out onto the pitch to warm applause. Ward and Vaughn were injured. Chrissy Martin, Lappin, Smith, Wilbraham and Drury were the unlucky ones left out. The back four was Russell Martin, Tierney, Whitbread, and de Laet. Crofts, Surman, Fox and Wes were the diamond in midfield. Holt and Morison were up front. Johnson, Jackson, Bennett, Pilkington and Naughton were on the bench with Rudd.

Both sides moved the ball around confidently in the opening stages, and both looked comfortable on the ball without creating many clear cut chances. Fox was booked within the first thirty seconds for a crunching tackle, and Morison had to leave the field for stitches after a clash of heads. With 20 minutes gone Wigan took the lead. Their Argentinian striker Di Santo dispossessed de Laet about 40 yards out and as he ran on towards the goal, de Laet tried to run back to atone for his mistake. He did make the tackle, but the referee blew for a penalty and Watson converted the spot kick.

The lead lasted until first half injury time. Morison charged down the right wing, and the Latics’ Omani international keeper could only parry his fierce cross. Wes was perfectly positioned to lash the rebound into the roof of the net for a well deserved equaliser.

Both sides had chances in the second half but there was no further score. After 70 or so minutes, Lambert brought on three subs and changed our shape. Barnett replaced Whitbread who had taken a knock. Bennett and Pilkington came on for Surman and Morison to add width down both flanks, thus proving that our manager was keen to take the three points if possible.

So what was billed as our first relegation six-pointer is over. A draw was a fair result. Either side could have won it and will probably be disappointed that they did not. Neither side displayed that sharpness that comes with regular games and both will rue some errors and misplaced passes. But there were several plus points for Norwich. I know that Wigan are not exactly Barcelona in disguise, but Whitbread was really solid at the back. Our new boys Morison, Bennett and de Laet (who more than made up for his error) all showed that they will be real assets to the club. Our established players, including Grant Holt, showed that they can cope at this level, which will boost their confidence.

They can only benefit from more cohesion, more sharpness, and more understanding of each other’s play as they come to terms with the demands of the next few matches during the next few weeks. If we can get our first win soon, this will I hope prove, not least to the players themselves, that they can cope with the tougher tests to come in this division.

City will be pleased with the first goal and first point in the Premier League. The Canaries sit proudly in fifth place at the end of the first weekend of the season. And we have not lost in the Premier League since May 2005 - over six years ago!

PS I eventually found the Pier at Wigan. It consists of a couple of once dark satanic mills recently converted into luxury apartments and high class gastro pubs (in Wigan that means that they serve mayonnaise as well as ketchup with the chips. Plastic forks are optional). Both the apartments and the gastro pubs seemed empty and devoid of atmosphere - rather like the home seating areas in the DW stadium.