18 April ~ This week we're up to 1991 in our retrospective of 25 years of WSC history. If Wigan Athletic go down this season it'll be only the second time the club have ever been relegated. But in WSC 48 Mike Wareing was despairing of the dominance of rugby league in the town, and fantasising about getting to football's top flight
For most WSC readers, Rugby League probably begins and ends around May, when the BBC make their annual trip to Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final. On these occasions we normally find Desmond Lynam swapping jovial banter with Alex Murphy and waxing lyrical about the wonderful family atmosphere that surrounds the sport. Wembley takes down its fences and our screens are filled with happy family groups all mingling together. Rugby League may be all well and good when it is limited to one match a year on a sunny day in May, but here in Wigan, where it is constantly rammed down the throats of sensitive footy fans, its attractions wear a little thin.
Wigan, in case you didn't know, is a rugby town. Try to get directions to the football ground and you'll be told as much by locals. "What? Wigan Athletic? Never heard of (em, mate. Oh, you mean the soccer team. We don't go in much for that soft jessies' game here, son." Wigan Rugby Club is in many respects the Manchester United of the egg-chasing game – except they often win the league. The crowds they get and the money they're able to spend probably justify their claim to be the biggest Rugby League club in Britain. But, then again, where's the competition? What other town could take such an odd sport so seriously?
It's hard to understand the game's hold over the good folk of Wigan. I suppose the brain-washing begins at school. The pale sensitive swots who are no good at games, with their thin legs and NHS glasses, are banished to a remote comer of the playing field and forgotten about. Everybody else, meanwhile, gets on with the serious business of playing rugby.
If you are a Wigan Athletic supporter it isn't even safe to go out for a quiet drink. If you do, it's best to avoid that most unwelcoming of places, the rugby pub. Often run by ex-players, the walls of these buildings are adorned with pictures of huge men in shoulder pads and other unsavoury-looking characters. They show endless videos of rugby matches and serve only undrinkable Australian lagers. Wigan Rugby League fans are besotted by all things Antipodean, probably because Australia is the only place in the world that takes the sport as seriously as they do.
Should you inadvertently stray into one of these places and casually mention that the Latics have had a good run of results recently, the pub would immediately fall silent, rather in the manner of An American Werewolf In London when the two tourists bring up the subject of the five-pointed star on the wall. A burly man, distracted, will throw a dart into a photograph of ex-Wigan hero Green Vigo and turn on you menacingly, saying: "You made me miss."
With care, these ghastly places can be avoided, but the media overkill is less easy to ignore. The local press could quite easily double as the Wigan Rugby matchday programme. The oval ball game receives blanket coverage to the exclusion of all else. In fairness, the football writers do a good job under the circumstances, but it can't be easy for them. On the few occasions when both clubs play at home on the same day the press takes great delight in comparing attendances. Arrests at the football match will be gleefully dwelt upon. In contrast, reference will be made to the happy, peace-loving throngs of rugby fans, including many small children. To find out how the Latics have got on, you have to wade through acres of rugby match reports, interviews, ghosted columns, competitions to win Ellery Hanley's autographed jockstrap etc. Finally, tucked into a comer of an inside page, there it is – the match report: "Last night, Wigan Athletic won the European Cup. Four supporters were arrested."
Football really doesn't get much of a look-in here. Conspiracy theorists point to the influence not just of the local press but also of the local council. While bending over backwards to accommodate the rugby club, they won't lift a finger to help develop football in the town. Applications for planning permission at Springfield Park, whether for a new stand, terracing or a hatstand in the Directors' box, are routinely refused by the spineless councillors who almost appear to take their orders from Central Park. Following a craze that's all the rage at the moment, Wigan Athletic are looking into the possibility of flogging off their ground to developers and moving to a specially built super stadium on the outskirts of town. It will be interesting to see how readily the council agree to Springfield Park being bulldozed to make way for Sunnyview Estate.
But it isn't all black (oops, was that a rugby reference?). Obviously, one of the main reasons for the popularity of Rugby League in Wigan is simply that the team happens to be pretty successful at it. However, the Wigan public is notoriously fickle. The football club's promotion to the League in 1978 happily coincided with the rugby club's relegation to the Second Division. This had the same shock value as when Manchester United were relegated but, unlike United, the Wigan fans deserted their club in droves. This, together with the novelty value of League football, meant that for the first time in many years, perhaps ever, attendances at Springfield Park regularly knocked those of our big-shouldered neighbours across town into a cocked flat cap.
So, the answer is simple. All Wigan Athletic need to do is get themselves in the First Division and win the FA Cup a la Wimbledon. Who knows, perhaps the local press might even start taking an interest. In the meantime, footy fans in Wigan must take their pleasures where they can. Like deliberately misdirecting visiting rugby fans to Springfield Park rather than Central Park. That's always good for a laugh.