Wigan chase a major dream to put a proud town on the legendary map

Club chairman Dave Whelan, who broke his leg playing in the 1960 FA Cup final, will lead the team out for Saturday’s Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley


When Wigan Athletic reached their first FA Cup final last month the Masters was taking place in America, and for a short time the local papers could not work out what would be the top sport story because a Wigan golfer had spent most of the first day in the lead.

David Lynn’s challenge fell away, though it was entirely typical of a town that has always punched above its weight to have two sporting majors going on at once.

Within 24 hours of becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France and giving his impromptu speech on the Champs Elysees, Bradley Wiggins was to be found shunning the limelight in a coffee bar in the centre of Wigan.

Lancashire cannot claim any credit for the Londoner’s cycling prowess, yet having married a Wigan girl, enrolled his son into a junior rugby league club and become the Warriors’ most high-profile supporter, Wiggins is the latest decoration to what Dave Johnson has described as “the capital of the sporting world”.

Dave Johnson? He’s Martin Johnson’s father. It is a well known fact that practically everyone who is anyone in rugby union these days not only comes from Wigan but attended the same high school – Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell, Joe Lydon and Chris Ashton are all St John Fisher alumni – though less remarked on is that the only England captain to lift a rugby union World Cup was just one generation from being a Wiganer. Johnson Sr played rugby for Orrell before moving to the Midlands. When his son became the England coach, he succeeded Brian Ashton, also a Wiganer.

Famous for rugby
It is fair to say Wigan is famous for rugby, though now it is famous for football too. Eight seasons of Premier League football and an FA Cup final have put the town on the map in a way that not even the rugby club’s eight successive Challenge Cup victories in the 80s and 90s ever quite managed.

Football is the more global sport, and until recently Wiganers abroad who did not happen to be visiting Australia would have to explain they were from a former mining area between Liverpool and Manchester. Now just saying Wigan suffices. People have heard of the place, even if it conjures up images of annual relegation scraps.

Should the unthinkable happen and Roberto Martinez’s side prevail against Manchester City Wigan will become more famous still, legendary in fact because there has not been a Cup final upset this century.

Although 18th in the Premier League, Wigan under Martinez have become quite adept at achieving shock results, as they showed against Everton in the quarter-finals, though after the hapless 3-2 defeat at home to Swansea on Tuesday it would take a supreme optimist to expect them to do themselves justice at Wembley with their Premier League status hanging by a thread. Martinez is that man.

“It will be a difficult balancing act but we know the whole town is behind us and we will try not to let them down,” the Wigan manager said. “If we are going to survive we have put ourselves in the worst possible starting position but I still feel we can gain the points we need to succeed. We have had great messages of support from the rugby side of town and we see this as a marvellous opportunity to bring the town together.

It is hard to know which is the biggest challenge; bringing the town together, altering perceptions or beating City. If you look hard enough you can find Latics supporters who have followed the club since the days when Skelmersdale United were their main rivals, refer to the rugby team as egg-chasers and claim respective attendances at the DW Stadium (Athletic 19,173; Warriors 16,043) mean Wigan is now a football town.

Shake their heads
By the same token, there are rugby league fans who dismiss the national sport as Wendyball, shake their heads with a mixture of contempt and pity at the sight of Premier League players rolling around the floor in search of a free-kick, and are only interested in Wembley on the one day of the year when the rugby posts are up.

Yet those are simply the extremes. Most people are somewhere in the middle, with more complex allegiances. And their fondness for a drink impressed itself early on Martinez, who recalls being staggered by the amount of alcohol consumed by his team-mates on the short coach journey home from his first FA Cup tie as a player in 1995, away to Runcorn. The present team have come so far since those days they will not be allowed a drink on the way home from the FA Cup final.

“Celebrations will have to wait until we complete our season,” Martinez says. “We are coming straight home from Wembley on the bus, and training on Sunday in preparation for Arsenal on Tuesday.”

Martinez does not want to consider the prospect but should Wigan be relegated the town will endlessly debate whether that stay in the top flight represents a greater achievement than the rugby team’s eight Wembley wins in a row. In the latter’s favour is that there was always locals present in the squad.

The nearest to a home-grown talent has been Leighton Baines, a Liverpudlian, though they do boast a home-grown chairman. Without Whelan’s backing none of the above would have been possible, and that includes the rugby, where prior to saving the football club from extinction he used to take a keen shareholder’s interest and help out behind the scenes.

If Wigan is no ordinary town, the former Blackburn Rovers player leading out his side at Wembley today is no ordinary chairman. And if the Premier League run does stop at eight seasons and an FA Cup final, that is no ordinary achievement for a town of Wigan’s size.
Guardian Service