Widnes Wild’s Mikey Gilbert (#16). Photo by Geoff White.
Widnes Wild games against the Altrincham Aces are always very feisty affairs and are looked forward to by players and fans alike. The current Aces team was only formed in 2015, so the rivalry doesn’t stretch quite as far back as with the Deeside Dragons but there is just as much passion involved and you can usually cut the atmosphere with a knife when a Widnes / Altrincham derby is going on.
The Wild actually played against the Altrincham-based higher division Trafford Metros in their second-ever game back on 25th August 2013. It was a one-off challenge game to help introduce the new team to the Widnes public, following on from the game against Sheffield Spartans two weeks earlier. Interestingly enough, the Metros team that won 5-8 that day included Ben Brown, Lee Pollitt and Geoff Wigglesworth who would all switch to join the Wild for their debut season. Also in the Metros team were Nicole Jackson and Chris Gee who would go on to play for Widnes in later years.
In terms of former Trafford players, the Wild team that day had Marc Etherington, who had been the Metros captain the previous season, Thomas Ratcliffe who had been a Manchester Phoenix junior but had never played for the senior team and back up netminder Tom McDonald in their ranks
Czech import Lukas Zeman did most of the damage in the game as far as the Wild were concerned, opening the scoring for the Metros after just 36 seconds and going on to score 4 goals overall in the 5-8 victory.
Goals from Ben Simister, Richard Charles, Thomas Ratcliffe, Calum Ruddick and Chris Preston kept the Wild in contention but there was never really much chance of the newcomers beating Trafford on this occasion.
The Metros – and their subsequent incarnation of the “Manchester Minotaurs” – played in the higher Moralee Division so there were no more derby encounters in that direction during the Wild’s early years. In fact, the next time that Widnes played an Altrincham team didn’t come until the 2015/16 season, when the Aces were reformed following the departure of the Manchester Phoenix organisation from their Oakfield Road rink.
The Aces team that season had Joe Greaves – who had spent the previous season at Widnes, Tom Revesz – who seemed to spend a period yo-yoing between the two clubs, and Daniel Etherington who had played a few times for the Wild in their debut season.
The Wild had Shaun Dippnall who had played for the Metros in the 11/12 season, Sheldon Cassidy, Geoff Wigglesworth, Chris Gee, Thomas Ratcliffe, Ben Brown and Tom McDonald – who had all played at Altrincham in the past.
The season started with a 4-2 challenge match win for Widnes and then the Wild won the first league encounter 8-5 at home in November. They drew 4-4 in their first ever away game at Altrincham but then won 2-5 a fortnight later on their second visit. A 9-1 hammering back in Widnes in early January handed the Wild an unbeaten record in their first season of meetings with the new Aces team.
The 2016/17 season started with back to back challenge games over the August bank holiday weekend. The away game on the Saturday saw Ollie Barron’s new look Wild team win 3-6 and then win 4-1 at home the night after.
The league meetings saw 4 very close and competitive matches with a 3-3 draw at Altrincham and 4-2 home win on consecutive weekends in November.
The Aces picked up their first ever win over Widnes with a 6-3 victory in January before losing 7-5 at the end of March in a top four encounter that saw both teams vying for places in the end of season play offs.
That game took the term “rivalry” to a whole new level as, not only was it attended by a sizeable group of Manchester Storm Elite League fans whose own team were without a game and had come along to cheer on the Aces for the night, but there was also a prominent vocal group of Manchester Phoenix fans who had adopted allegiance to the Wild team after their own club had folded mid-season and were there urging on the Widnes team!
It was an especially close game that saw the Aces lead 0-1 at the end of the first period and then 4-5 at the end of the second. A 3-0 final period eventually secured the win for the Wild and they went on to finish second in the Laidler Division table, seven points ahead of Altrincham who came third.
The two teams the met in the Play Off semi final at iceSheffield and this was also a very tense affair. The Aces outshot Widnes by 32 to 27 over the 60 minutes but were unable to find a way past netminder Matt Croyle and the Wild won their way through to the play off final for the second year in a row with two goals from player coach Ollie Barron in a 2-0 shut out.
Season 2017/18 saw the Aces line up with former Wild players Joe Greaves, Sheldon Cassidy, Sam Dunford, Tom Revesz, Lee Pollitt and former Wild women’s team player Sarah Hutchinson while the Wild team still had Wigglesworth, McDonald and Ratcliffe in their ranks. They had also made a bit of coup by attracting young playing talent Mikey Gilbert down the M56.
In fairness to Gilbert, he also had a job at the Planet Ice rink in Widnes and was put in charge of setting up the new Wild Academy junior teams, so it wasn’t purely a move based on choosing to play for a better team. However, having gone all the way through the junior ranks at Altrincham and also making senior appearances for the Metros and Aces for the past 5 seasons, this was quite an upheaval, especially as it would pitch him head to head against his older brother Tom who also played for the Aces – and his mother who was a team official.
The Wild won the first encounter of the season with the Aces in October with a 2-1 overtime victory. The score had been tied at 1-1 after 60 minutes play and the first ever OT period for the Wild saw none other then Mikey Gilbert pop up with the winning goal over his former club 121 seconds into extra time. The win saw the Wild move briefly to the top of the Laidler Division table but a 2-0 shut out away away in Altrincham on Bonfire Night caused them to lose ground to eventual champions Sutton Sting.
A comprehensive 7-2 win at Widnes in January and then a 4-3 defeat away in Altrincham – also an overtime golden goal – meant that honours were shared between the two teams for the season and Widnes finished runners up in the league, with Aces fifth – just outside the play off positions.
The 2018/19 season saw the Wild land another coup with the signing of Czech forward Jakub Hajek, who had played the previous season with the Aces, scoring 26+19 in 32 league games.
With Shaun Dippnall and Chris Gee back with the Wild after brief sojourns elsewhere and Gilbert, Ratcliffe and McDonald returning for the season, this brought Widnes’ complement of ex-Aces up to 6 while Altrincham had 5 former Wild players in Dunford, Greaves, Cassidy – along with Kyle Haslam and netminder Phil Crosby.
This was the year that everything finally went right for Widnes and they won the league title at long last after finishing second for three years in a row. They beat the Aces in all four league meetings – 6-1 at home in November, 3-6 and 2-6 away and then 4-1 again at home on 17th March in the game that secured the league title for Widnes.
Following the retirement of successful player coach Ollie Barron in the summer of 2019, the Wild appointed Mike Clancy as his successor and he brought in a longer view policy of encouraging younger players. In came Charlie Ratcliffe – Thomas’ younger brother who had played the previous season with the Aces – and former Storm juniors U18s Jake Lowndes and Sam Anderson. Team GB women’s international player CJ (Clara) Ashton also played two games for the Wild during the season and her inclusion brought the former Altrincham contingent to 10 overall.
Widnes hammered an unprepared Aces side twice in pre season challenge games – 1-10 away and the 7-2 at home – and they also won 3-5 in the first league encounter at Altrincham in October.
They came unstuck big time with a surprise 3-4 home defeat at the start of November – the first time that the Aces had ever won a game in Widnes – in a match that would be famously remembered for a “was it or wasn’t it” goal that was scored as the buzzer sounded for the end of the second period.
After a lot of discussion, the match officials decided that the puck had, indeed, crossed the line milliseconds before the buzzer had sounded – fact that was confirmed later after frame by frame analysis by the Wild’s official video-grapher.
Widnes went on to win the next meeting 3-4 away and then managed to lose 3-6 at home in a back-to-back weekend at the end of January and that meant that Altrincham narrowly secured local bragging rights for the season with 16 goals to 15 and two wins each over the 4 matches.
In total Widnes have played Altrincham Aces 26 times in 5 seasons – 20 league games, one play off semi final and 5 challenge matches. The Wild have by far the better playing record overall, having won 18 games, drawn 2 and lost 6.
They have won all 5 challenge matches with a goal tally of 31 to 9 and the competitive games have a combined score of 95 goals to 60.
Talking about the rivalry between Altrincham Aces and Widnes Wild, Mikey Gilbert said:
“With both of the teams being very close to each other a bit of a rivalry is going to crop up. These types of games I always used to – and still do – look forward to the most because there is a bit more intensity in these games and feistiness, which adds to the game and the speed of them which I tend to love.”
“The way I see derby games hasn’t really changed no matter which side I have played on – they have always had that higher intensity.”
When asked whether it felt strange playing against his former club where he grew up, Gilbert said:
“For me it doesn’t feel much different, because on both sides I have played with players I like and have friends on my team and also friends on the other team, whether it was while playing for Aces or while I have been playing here.”
“The only difference is, I am playing and want to win for the team I am playing for. Everything gets left out on the ice to gain that win for the club. I have friends on both teams still now, however, I put in 100% effort for my team no matter who I am playing against and that is the same for all ice hockey players.”
“Its nice to play against people I know and am friends with – and we can catch up after the game but throughout and its the same with anyone, the focus is on the task at hand to win the game.”