Rugby League: Wigan exiled by pounds 12m Central Park sale

Dave Hadfield
Thursday 06 March 1997 01:02
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Wigan will leave both Central Park and the town within two years following the club's sale of its ground for more than pounds 12m to Tesco. The game's most successful club will move in with Bolton Wanderers at their new ground in Horwich, until they can build a new stadium in Wigan itself.

"It has always been our desire to play in a modern, state of the art stadium in Wigan and this deal is buying us time," the club's chairman, Jack Robinson, said.

The deal was immediately attacked by the chairman of Wigan Athletic, whose plan to buy Central Park and redevelop it for joint use had been approved by a meeting of the rugby club's shareholders in January.

"This is a disastrously sad day for Wigan," said Dave Whelan, who added that Robinson and his fellow-director, Tom Rathbone, had "completely and utterly disregarded the views of the shareholders".

Whelan, the former Blackburn Rovers full-back and multi-millionaire who has long sought an involvement with the rugby club, is also exploring whether he could challenge the directors' legal right to enter into the contract with Tesco.

Robinson, on the other hand, regards the board as having no choice but to accept the improved Tesco bid, which was three times Whelan's offer. He has also described the terms of the lease under which Wigan would have rented Central Park - their home since 1902 - from Whelan as "a financial straitjacket".

As for riding roughshod over the shareholders, Robinson argues that circumstances have changed radically, with the improved offer from Tesco and the revelation of the Whelan lease.

"We have a duty to get the best deal possible - and this is it," Robinson said.

The availability of the new ground in Horwich gives Wigan breathing space, although the idea of moving out of the borough is not popular with the club's spectators.

"As a short-term, stop-gap arrangement they may feel very differently about it," Robinson said.

How short-term it will be, however, depends on Wigan successfully finding and developing a new site in the town, something they can only do in co- operation with the local council. However, relations with the borough have often been less than harmonious in the past.

Robinson admitted that the availability of an alternative ground nearby might improve the club's bargaining position with the council. But, as Richard Gee, the club's development advisor, put it: "Our primary intention is to build a new ground within the Wigan boundary, but we can't say categorically that we are going to be able to do it. We've got the will and the desire to do it, but we need the same willingness from the council."

Failing that, the exile of rugby league's most famous name could be a long one.

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