The Wigan Athletic Enigma

Let’s all sit down and try and think sensibly for a moment: can anyone explain Wigan to me? I really don’t understand Wigan, in fact the more I think about them the more it hurts my brain. I tried to have a conversation via twitter about Wigan last night and after a while I found myself almost unable to articulate what I actually thought about them. The solution? Try and piece it all together in a blog post.

Wigan Athletic are the only English club never to have been relegated from the top flight of English football. Since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2005 they have come awfully close to going down a number of times but have always managed to dodge the relegation bullet. When you take a step back and look at Wigan as a club it’s hard to understand how they ended up in the Premier League.

Wigan are victims of geography. If you were looking to build a Premier League team you really couldn’t have picked a worse place than Wigan. It’s slap-bang in between Liverpool and Manchester. With Bolton thrown in for good measure and Blackburn and Preston not far away. Wigan is the heartland of Rugby League. Wigan Athletic football club don’t have many fans. They rarely sell-out at home even for the likes of Manchester United and they have a notoriously small band of travelling away fans.

Wigan's contribution to the crowd at Carrow Road this season.

Now you can’t talk about Wigan Athletic without talking about Dave Whelan. Dave Whelan is Wigan Athletic. A multimillionaire, the former professional footballer and JJB owner built their stadium which they share with the local Rugby League club, Wigan Warriors and bankrolled their rise through the football league. It took Whelan ten years to get the club from what is now League Two into the Premier League. Whelan’s money and ambition transformed the club, his connections brought Roberto Martinez, Isidro Diaz, and Jesus Seba to the club, dubbed the three amigos, the Spaniards represented a change in the club instigated by Whelan.

With the appointment Paul Jewell, Wigan got out of the Championship and into the Premier League. Now it has to be said that Wigan are a well run football club. With minimal attendances and sponsorship opportunities and with the other clubs around them snapping up nearly all the young talent, Wigan have had to spend their money wisely and continuously sell their best players.

Jimmy Bullard, Jason Roberts, Emile Heskey, Antonio Valencia, Leighton Baines, Titus Bramble, Mario Melchiot, Lee Cattermole, Wilson Palacios, Paul Scharner and most recently Charles N’Zogbia have all come and gone. Nearly all of them have earned Wigan a profit. Buy cheap when the players were undervalued, sell when their value is much higher given that they are now “proven Premier League players”. Wigan have benefited from giving players that other clubs weren’t prepared to risk money on a chance.

A look at the current squad and Chris Kirkland is a name that stands out, mostly because he’s been at Wigan a long time, since 2006. The rest of the squad is relatively new. Players go to Wigan to make a name for themselves then tend to move on. Victor Moses is the latest star to realise his potential at Wigan and a big money summer move doesn’t look out of the question. Wigan paid £2.5 million for Moses, if he were to leave now I imagine that it wouldn’t be for less than £10 million.

Wigan are a success story, they play attractive football and despite not getting good attendances they are good to watch. Roberto Martinez has done a fantastic job with the team and although they struggled at the beginning of the season, yet again when the pressure is on they’ve produced results, this season more spectacularly than ever before. Back to back wins over Manchester United and Arsenal, how on earth have they managed that? Were it not for a terrible offside call they could well had added Chelsea to that list and regardless of Liverpool’s current problems a win at Anfield is still an impressive achievement.

Wigan’s 3-4-3 system has caused everyone problems. The tactical naivety of many teams in the Premier League is exposed by Wigan who are well drilled and prepared for each game they play. Their style has caused the best teams in England problems, furthermore it has often forced them to change their style to combat lowly Wigan. For this Martinez deserves huge credit, firstly for having the balls to do it, secondly for putting it all together and lastly for getting the players to buy into it and believe in it so strongly that they keep their discipline even in the face of high pressure.

The trouble is, Wigan are in a false position. They have been boosted by Dave Whelan’s money into a place in the football ladder that they otherwise would have struggled to reach. Financial fair play would have ruined Wigan, the big money signings that propelled them up the football league ladder and saw a turn around in the club’s fortunes both in football and financial terms would have been next to impossible if new financial fair play rules were in place and enforced. The Premier League TV money enables Wigan to stay where they are. The Premier League protects its own. As much as Wigan must be credited for staying in the League when so many others have fallen it does make me worry for bigger clubs who find themselves stuck in the lower reaches of the English game.

There is currently no team from Yorkshire in the English top flight. Can Warnock turn Leeds around? Yes, but he needs money. Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday are both on the up but breaking into the Premier League is hard work. These clubs should look to Wigan and how well the club is run as an example, but the way in which Dave Whelan turned around the club’s fortunes may never happen again once the new Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules come into effect.

The likes of Blackburn, Chelsea, Manchester City and Norwich have all benefited from new investment. Without Delia, would you have survived Robert Chase? Will such acts of salvation be doable under FFP? I simply don’t know. The difference between those aforementioned clubs and Wigan is that Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City are big clubs, they didn’t need an guardian angel to guide them to the promise land. Norwich’s success isn’t the result of big money signings, it’s simply down to Paul Lambert’s genius.

Be thankful for St. Delia

It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, as much as Wigan should be praised for what they are doing now, it’s built on one man’s legacy. Has an individual ever had such an impact at changing the fortunes of a football club? Jack Walker at Blackburn springs to mind or perhaps Mohamed Al-Fayed at Fulham, but I think Whelan had a bigger impact. Where would Wigan be now if it wasn’t for Dave Whelan? Did Lancashire really need another Premier League team, can they support one?

The answer to the last question is no, they can’t. Wigan’s average attendance would only make them the 13th best supported club in The Championship. They have QPR for company, another English club from an area overpopulated with Premier League football clubs bank rolled by new money. The difference is that QPR fill their stadium, were they to build a bigger venue or have a stadium the same size as Wigan’s I reckon they would fill it.

There is currently no Premier League team from the South-West. Now I know none of these clubs have any more right to be in the Premier League than Wigan, I just think it’s a shame that regular Premier League football isn’t a little better spread across the nation. In an era of financial fair play it would be far more difficult to move a team from League Two to the Premier League should a super-rich individual like Whelan wish to do so, to say a team like Bristol City. There is nothing fair about how much more money Premier League clubs receive than those down further down the ladder. I fear that all these rules will do is protect the status quo.

So what do I think of Wigan? I think they should be commended for the way they play their football. I think they are an example of how well you can do in the transfer market if you buy sensibly. I think Roberto Martinez is a fantastic young manager with a big future in the game. I think Wigan Athletic football club owe Dave Whelan everything. But most of all, I think it’s a shame that Wigan is where it is, because had Dave Whelan picked a club with a larger fan-base, far more people would now be getting the opportunity to regularly attend Premier League football matches.



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