In Defence Of Wigan Athletic
Are Wigan a club that fail to receive the credit they deserve? As they ready themselves for a formidable task in the FA Cup final this weekend, today on the blog Ian King tells us why despite their faults, Wigan Athletic are a club worthy of praise.
There is a story to be told about Wigan Athletic's first appearance in the FA Cup final, about how the club that was the last but one to be elected into the Football League, in 1977, rattled around the bottom two divisions for more than two decades before being propelled up the divisions into the Premier League and, to everybody's surprise and, it often seems, the dismay of quite a few, managed to stay there. This is the youngest club in the division, founded in 1932, a club that was for many years the junior partner in a town in which another professional sport was the top dog. It is also the first club to play in finals of both the FA Trophy - as Wigan did in 1973, losing by two goals to one after extra time to Scarborough - and the FA Cup.
Beginning The Climb
The summer of 1978 might be better remembered for the escapades of Mario Kempes and the succession of Pope John Paul II, but at the bottom of the Fourth Division a tiny piece of history was being made. Wigan Athletic had been playing in the Northern Premier League since its formation a decade earlier, but had been frustrated by a succession of failed attempts to get into the Football League, with twenty-five unsuccessful applications, including one made from every year between 1964 and 1976.
After a break in 1977, however, it turned out to be twenty-sixth time lucky for the Latics in 1978, who had finished in second place in the Northern Premier League behind Boston United that season, when they replaced Southport, who had finished second from bottom in the Fourth Division in four of the five previous years.
Once in, it took four years for Wigan to be promoted, but once there they stayed in the third tier of the English game for a decade before getting relegated back, and at the end of the 1993/94 season the club finished in nineteenth place in the League's bottom division, just seven points from relegation.
We all know what happened next....
Dave Whelan arrived at the club, used his business connections to bring Roberto Martínez, Isidro Diaz, and Jesus Seba to the club, and in 2005, having moved from the ramshackle Springfield Park to what is now known as The DW Stadium six years earlier, the club won promotion into the Premier League for the first time, as runners-up in the Championship behind Sunderland.
And there they have stayed, obstinately and bloody-mindedly, for the last eight years. A tenth placed finish in 2006 and an eleventh place finish three years later have been about as much as the club has to show for that time, but the gravity-aspect of their continued survival in this most rarefied of environments has never quite received the praise that it deserves.
There is one obvious reason for this, and his initials adorn the name of the stadium that they now call home. Dave Whelan's money was the biggest single factor behind the club's ascent to the Premier League, but it feels too simplistic to simply ascribe the club's constant survival at this level to his money and that alone. Plenty of clubs and plenty of benefactors have tried a similar route to the promised land of the Premier League before and failed. At Wigan, however, luck has occasionally been on their side in the battle against relegation but it is difficult to argue that seven successive seasons in this division could all be ascribed to a combination of luck and money.
Of course, the biggest single reason for the jokes at the club's expense is the size of its home attendances. But Wigan Athletic aren't even the team in the Premier League with the lowest average attendances - they average 1,100 more people than Queens Park Rangers - and all of this is in a town that has been as affected by the economic slump as much as many other parts of the north of England over the last three decades and which only has a population of 80,000 people - the area defined as the "metrpolitan area" is bigger, but most of this requires a stretch of imagination to be considered "Wigan" in any meaningful sense - to start with.
When the club returned 10,000 tickets for their recent FA Cup semi-final against Millwall there were honks of derision from some quarters which ignored any of this in favour of a good, cheap laugh. Presumably for such people we might as well do away with all this "playing football matches" nonsense and simply issue a league table based on average attendances instead.
The extent to which the club has an uphill battle despite Whelan's benevolence can be seen from the club's financial figures for the 2011/12 season. Its match-day revenue for that season was just £4m and its annual turnover for that year was £53m - both the lowest in the entire Premier League - but the conversion of £48m of loans into shares in the club, and its overall debt has been reduced to a manageable £12m. The club remains extraordinarily over-dependent on Premier League television money, which puts its need to stay in this division firmly into focus. Should Wigan Athletic drop at the end of this season, even if inflated parachute payments are taken into account costs will likely have to be significantly cut. Getting back into the Premier League in this event might prove to be even more difficult than staying in it was in the first place.
Enjoying The Moment
In opting to host FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley for the foreseeable future because of the crippling costs of building Wembley Stadium in the first place, selecting a 5.15 kick-off time and explicitly telling the world that they were doing so for the benefit of television companies, the FA may be doing their utmost to debase the very competition which bears their name, but for the supporters of a club that has not reached this level of the game before, this is a day that promises to be one to remember for the rest of their lives.
It is right to have deep reservations about the ownership model that the club is run under, of course. Many clubs have suffered because its misuse, after all. None of this, however, if anything like the fault or responsibility of those that do turn out come wind or rain to watch their team. Come what may at the end of this season, this year's FA Cup Final should be a day for Wigan Athletic supporters to celebrate their club, their identity and their future, whichever division in which that might turn out to be.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @twoht
And read more of his work on his blog TwoHundredPercent.net