Wolves leave old hunting ground with heads high

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The Independent Online

When Warrington play their last league game at Wilderspool tomorrow, few in the capacity crowd will have memories of the stadium stretching back as far as Clarrie Owen's.

Owen watched his first match there in October 1932 and has been involved ever since - as a fund-raiser, committee man, director and, most of all, passionate supporter.

"I was 11 and I stood in the boys' pen, at the Kop end, behind the posts. It cost 3d, which was three weeks' pocket money at the time," he remembers. At the end of that season, he went to Wembley to see his team beaten 21-17 by Huddersfield. From then on he was hooked and the memories came thick and fast.

Pride of place goes to the player who is unarguably the best Warrington and Wilderspool have ever seen. "I saw the first match Brian Bevan ever played here, in 1945. It was a trial against Widnes A and, just after half-time, our stand-off cross-kicked for the corner. Bevan was on it in a flash, but the referee couldn't believe anyone could have got there so quickly from on-side and he disallowed it."

The committee which ran the club in those days had seen enough and signed the spindly Australian, who went on to score an unparalleled 740 tries for the Wire, as well as having the main stand named after him and a statue erected near the ground.

That statue is the source of some concern to Owen. "They want to move it to the new stadium, but I'm dead against that," he said. "I promised Brian's widow that, if it was up to me, it would never be moved."

What is certain is that, after tomorrow's game with Wakefield and a sprinkling of representative games at the end of the season, Warrington are on the move after a stay lasting 108 years, albeit only to the other side of the town centre. "The new stadium is nearly completed and it looks wonderful, especially as it has two standing areas for spectators," Owen says. "I will feel some sadness on Sunday, because I still would have preferred them to knock down the old snooker club and redevelop that side of Wilderspool. But the council own the ground now and they want the land."

At least, Owen believes, the team is moving across town with their collective head held high. "They said at the start of the season that they wanted to leave with dignity and I think they will do that. I hope they don't blow it on Sunday, but it's a big improvement on the last two seasons, because that was the worst Warrington team I've ever seen in my life."

Instead of fighting relegation, the Wolves will be bidding for a place in the Super League play-offs for the first time, and Owen gives much of the credit for that transformation to someone whose devotion to Warrington mirrors his own.

"Along with Carl Webb, they used to say about Paul Cullen that, if you cut him, he would bleed primrose and blue," he said. "He was never the most skilful of loose forwards, but he was all heart - and he's done a good job as coach this season. He probably needed to spend time away from the club, coaching Whitehaven. It was a learning period for him and did him a lot of good."

At Wilderspool this weekend Owen will see in his mind's eye many of the great players he watched on the old ground - like his close friend, Gerry Helme, and the Australian second-rower, Harry Bath. "Near the try-line, there was no one like Harry Bath, but Bev was unique. Once he got the ball in his hands, even he didn't know what he was going to do with it.

"On Sunday, I'm expecting the atmosphere to be a bit like Brian's last match. A lot of people are going to be very emotional." Few, though, have Clarrie Owen's attachment to the place. "It's not bad - 71 years coming here - but I suppose it's time to move on now."