Rugby League: Curtain falls on house of fame

Central Park closes its doors on Sunday but memories of the great battles will linger on

CENTRAL PARK will be full again on Sunday. Not full like it was when more than 47,000 squeezed in to see the same two teams, Wigan and St Helens, 40 years ago, or even like it was with almost 37,000 there against Manly in 1987.

But it will be as full of people as is legal these days and, after that, Central Park will be no more. It has never, all sentiment aside, been the best appointed of grounds. The best seats are in the wrong place, behind the sticks. The view from the Kop is littered with obstructions. One side of the stadium is crammed into an inadequate space between the pitch and the murky waters of the River Douglas; the other slopes so gradually that, if someone stands in front of you, all you see are the boils on the back of his neck.

Perhaps that is why, on the Popular Side, supporters have concentrated for the last few years on chanting "Red army, Red army" and throwing lager into the stand. Ah yes, the memories are all coming back.

Its catering facilities, despite Maurice Lindsay's mouth-watering plans 10 years ago for a food court under that stand, consist of lukewarm pies. Its toilets, the notorious River Caves, are a disgrace bordering on a health hazard. Nothing has been spent on its upkeep during its last, doomed years and the whole place has become increasingly shabby and down-at-heel.

Yet, for all its shortcomings, Central Park is the most famous rugby league ground in the world, the one that they know about in the outback, in clearings in the jungle in Papua New Guinea, even Down South.

And Central is the word. The town seems to revolve around it. People go in their dinner hours from its offices and factories to hang around there, just to see who's coming and going.

After Sunday, the whole club is going - across town to the JJB Stadium that it will share with its once bitter football rivals, Wigan Athletic, while Central Park becomes a strategically placed Tesco supermarket. Opposing fans of a satirical bent have turned up this season brandishing Tesco carrier bags, which has really had Wigan supporters rolling in the aisles.

Those who remember the place in its pomp will ask how such a thing could have happened. Part of the answer lies in the phenomenal success, under the leadership of Lindsay as chairman, that saw Wigan cram 30,000 crowds into the stadium in the 1980s. The club, it turned out, was pounds 6.5m in debt, its finances strained to breaking point by the building of the Whitbread Stand and lavish player contracts, its very existence under threat.

One solution - the one that cost Jack Robinson his chairmanship - was to move to Bolton Wanderers' new Reebok Stadium, something that appalled Wigan fans. The other was to throw themselves on the mercy of the Latics' chairman, Dave Whelan, and move in with the round-ball wallahs. Either way, Central Park, long eyed hungrily by the supermarket chains, was the price to be paid for survival.

So, after Wigan have played Saints there for the last time, after season ticket holders have been allowed time to unscrew and carry away their seats, after the increasingly neglected turf has been used for training before next week's final Super League match at Wakefield and has been carved into squares and transported to back gardens in Whelley and Scholes, the bulldozers will move in.

They will destroy a ground that, since Wigan set up shop there in 1902, has been synonymous with rugby league in this country and world-wide. What it has lacked in amenities it has more than made up for in atmosphere, and nowhere can claim such a parade of outstanding players.

With the sense of continuity that only an old ground can produce, supporters have walked past the terraced houses of Hilton Street to see local heroes from Jim Leytham and the town's first great team of the early years of the century, through Jim Sullivan, Billy Boston, Ellery Hanley - all giants of their respective eras - to today's slightly more iffy line- up. The last few months of its life have not been kind to Central Park. With a mere 6,000 scattered around its stands and terraces, as they have been for some home games, it has looked depressed and depressing.

But, with the 18,000 tickets for Sunday sold long ago, this final match will be a throwback to the great days, which for the current generation are best represented by the evening when those 37,000 saw Wigan beat the Australian champions, Manly, 12 years ago.

Hanley was Wigan's captain that night, so it is fitting that he should be back, albeit as St Helens' coach, for the fall of the final curtain. It would, however, spoil the script if his side could withstand the tidal wave of emotion that will be behind Wigan on Sunday afternoon.

The ghosts will be on the pitch with them, just as there will be supporters whose links with the place go back a lot longer than one generation. Yes, Central Park will be full alright, but, as of Monday morning, the feeling around that tatty old site in the middle of the town will be very, very empty.

FIVE GREAT CENTRAL PARK GAMES

WIGAN 12 NEW ZEALAND 8

9 NOVEMBER 1907

A crowd of over 30,000 saw a hat-trick from Jim Leytham beat the first Kiwi tourists. The railings aound the pitch broke, but the fans resisted the temptation to charge through and a disaster was averted.

OLDHAM 26 SWINTON 7

7 MAY 1927

The first of three Challenge Cup finals staged at Central Park in the late 20s and early 30s was watched by 33,000. An Oldham man died, but the coroner ruled it was due to excitement, not overcrowding.

WIGAN 19 ST HELENS 14

27 MARCH 1959

The ultimate Wigan-Saints derby, with 47,477 shoehorned into the ground, saw Wigan win with tries from Billy Boston, Eric Ashton and Roy Evans. The crowd record set that day remains unbeaten.

WIGAN 18 AUSTRALIA 26

12 OCTOBER 1986

A 30,000 record crowd for a club game against the Australians witnessed what was billed as the unofficial fourth Test. 16-2 down at half-time, Wigan fought back to scare the tourists before finally succumbing.

WIGAN 8 MANLY 2

7 OCTOBER 1987

Almost 37,000 watched an all English Wigan team win the first World Club Championship with four goals from David Stephenson. It might sound dour, but it was Central Park's most unforgettable night.

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