Rugby league : Wigan vote to stay at home

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AS MANY of Wigan's small shareholders as could fit into Central Park had their say yesterday on whether the club should stay there. Three hundred people voted yesterday on three alternatives - and 242 chose the one which involved staying at the town-centre ground that has been the club's home since 1902.

The meeting produced clear-cut backing for a proposal from David Whelan, the chairman of the town's football club Wigan Athletic, who presented a revised offer to buy the ground for pounds 4m and to spend pounds 11m on rebuilding three sides of it to create a 20,000 all-seater stadium which will also be used by the football side.

The Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, had come out in favour of sharing with Bolton Wanderers at their new stadium in Horwich, but said afterwards that he was happy with the decision of the three-hour meeting.

"Both options would have been good for the club. This gives us a solid basis on which to proceed," he said, revealing that Whelan's investment will wipe out current debts of pounds 3.3m.

Whelan, who will not come on to the Wigan board, said: "This is a great day for both clubs in the town. The decision showed a desire to stay at a ground that has always been at the heart of Rugby League."

Meanwhile, back on the rugby field St Helens will feel quietly upbeat about their prospects of starting 1997 by inflicting a defeat on Wigan today. Saints lost by 10 points in the first leg of the Norweb Winter Challenge at Central Park on Boxing Day, and they admitted that they were lucky to keep that deficit within bounds. But today's delayed return match at Knowsley Road looks a different proposition.

On top of their home advantage, Saints welcome back four key players. Tommy Martyn, Keiron Cunningham and, most important of all, Bobbie Goulding are all fit again after injuries while Karle Hammond resumes after missing the first match because of the death of his brother.

The two postponements of the match have worked in St Helens' favour. Neither Martyn nor Cunningham - both of whom have had operations - would have been ready last week. "One thing that has come through loud and clear during the delay in getting the match played is that it matters very much, both to our supporters and to the players," said the club's chief executive, David Howes. "The desire to beat Wigan is as strong as ever."

Wigan will have something to say about that, of course, but they will have to make their case without the nucleus of stars who also missed the first leg. None of the club's rugby union code-crossers will be drafted in and Shaun Edwards and Terry O'Connor are still recovering from surgery.

There is a comeback for the second-rower Simon Haughton and the unlucky Nigel Wright is back in the squad after a bout of flu. Youngsters Sean Long and Craig Murdock will continue at half-back, while Andy Johnson and Darryl Cardiss will continue in the three-quarter line.