Euro 2022: A summer like no other for the town of Leigh
|Venue: Leigh Sports Village Date: Friday, 22 July Kick-off: 20:00 BST Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website; listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; text commentary on the BBC Sport website|
“I have to be honest and say I had not really heard of Leigh before Euro 2022,” said Daan Schippers of the Dutch Football Association before the Greater Manchester town hosted the Netherlands last week.
“I know about Wigan next door because they used to have some good Dutch players in the Premier League, but Leigh? Not so much.”
To be fair, Leigh was not an obvious choice when it came to selecting venues for “the biggest women’s European sports event in history”.
But the town, four miles from where England forward Ella Toone grew up in Tyldesley, has pulled out all the stops to prove itself a fitting host for the European Women’s Championship.
In return, Leigh has been transformed into a party town by fun-loving fans of the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal and Switzerland, who have brought life, energy, colour and good vibes to Leigh over the past two weeks.
Locals, in what is traditionally a rugby league hot spot, have turned out for matches in their thousands. Just shy of 20,000 have watched three games at Leigh Sports Village, home of Leigh Centurions rugby league club and Manchester United’s Women’s Super League team.
And there is more to come.
While Premier League and Championship grounds at Brighton, Brentford and Rotherham have been selected to host quarter-final ties, so too has Leigh.
Five days after their first visit, Sweden – ranked second in the world – and their party-loving blue and yellow-clad supporters are back in town on Friday to face Belgium for a place in the semi-finals. The residents of Schofield Street [more about them below] cannot wait.
It promises to be another prestigious moment for a proud area that has embraced the spirit and feel-good factor of a record-breaking Euro 2022.
“I’ve never known this much excitement in Leigh,” David Wands, who has lived in the town for five years, told BBC Sport.
‘Never seen anything like it’
Wands will never forget the scenes outside his house in Schofield Street, a stone’s throw from Leigh Sports Village, late afternoon on 13 July.
Defending champions the Netherlands were in town to face Portugal and hundreds of visiting supporters waving Dutch flags were marching behind a bright orange double-decker bus pumping dance music from giant speakers as it snaked its way along the narrow street towards the ground.
“I thought ‘what’s all that noise outside the window?’. When I opened my front door, I saw this sea of orange streaming past,” Wands added.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I grabbed my phone and recorded it. The Dutch fans were very friendly and they were high-fiving residents who came out onto the street to watch.”
Before the fan march to the ground – which saw the Oranje single-handedly shut down the centre of Leigh – the orange double-decker attracted the attention of locals who wanted photographs of it parked in the town centre.
“It isn’t like any other bus, it’s famous back home and has been all around the world,” one Dutch fan explained. “It was at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and now it’s in Leigh for the women’s Euros.”
‘A rugby league town that has embraced women’s football’
One of the more unusual stories to emerge from Leigh hosting games is a reported ‘row’ over Euro 2022 bunting which hangs in the town centre to celebrate the event.
According to the Daily Mail, the small flags flapping in the wind is ruining the peace and quiet for residents.
“I know there’s more important things to worry about, but the noise is ear-bleeding – they’re so loud,” one unnamed business owner was quoted as saying.
That aside, there has been a carnival atmosphere on match days at the fan park in the town’s civic square, where thousands of supporters have mixed drinking beer, singing songs, eating ice cream and dancing to some of the best – and very worst – Euro beats.
The civic square is next to the town’s library, but reading books in peace on match days has become a challenge due to the outdoor parties taking place several hours before kick-off.
A new mural in honour of Leigh-born musician Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks has also provided an eye-catching backdrop to the fan zone.
When the Netherlands visited, the town centre was bouncing. Dutch supporters John Savis and Miek Verbers were dressed top to toe in national costume for their first visit to Leigh.
“We’ve been all around the world supporting the Netherlands – not just the football team, but hockey and volleyball too,” said Verbers.
“We haven’t been to Leigh before. We like it very much and I definitely want to go to a rugby match.”
Local pubs and shops have made a tidy profit from Euro 2022. Last Sunday, Sweden fans took over the beer garden at the Centurion pub before their team’s 5-0 demolition of Portugal.
One quick-thinking street trader even cashed in on the sweltering conditions by selling mobile fans on the pavement close to the ground – £6 each or two for £10.
Fourteen goals were scored in the three group games at Leigh Sports Village, while Manchester City’s Portuguese players Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo showed up to support Portugal in the thrilling 3-2 defeat to the Netherlands.
A record-breaking 500,000 tickets were sold before the start of Euro 2022 for 31 games at Wembley, Old Trafford, Southampton, Brighton, Milton Keynes, Sheffield United, Brentford, Rotherham, Leigh and Manchester City’s Academy Stadium.
But critics argue the figure could have been more if larger grounds other than the Academy Stadium and Leigh Sports Village – which have a tournament capacity of 4,400 and 7,800 respectively – had hosted matches instead.
Wands, however, believes Euro 2022 had helped shine a positive spotlight on Leigh, which has enjoyed a summer like no other.
“It’s fantastic for the town to have these matches,” he added. “Leigh is probably a rugby league town because of its history, but it has really embraced women’s football.”