Paul Middleton has to swallow his pride and relive the events of Wigan Athletic's worst ever season
It all started in 1973 when I happened to notice the headline on the back of the local paper: Latics at Wembley! I knew that we had a football team in Wigan but they played teams with names like Prescot Cables and Goole Town, not Arsenal or Wolves. But here they were, in the final of the FA Trophy. I asked my dad, a staunch Man City fan, to take me. The 2-1 extra-time loss to Scarborough was disappointing, but hardly heartbreaking. Suddenly I was a lifelong fan.
I didn’t realise it then, but that Wembley appearance was a last hurrah from a disintegrating team. The Latics were to win the Northern Premier League title again in 1975 but the season after that they finished sixth, the first time they had finished outside the top three since the creation of the NPL in 1968. The expected cup successes had stopped too, and attendances plunged to their lowest level ever, with several below 1,000, down from a high of over 4,000 in 1970-71, when recently retired England international Gordon Milne had been in charge.
Ian McNeill returned for a second spell as manager in April 1976 and was presented with a club massively in debt and lurching from one crisis to another. There were boardroom resignations and almost all the playing staff had to be sold. An appeal was launched to raise funds but a similar exercise to save the town’s last League club, Wigan Borough, in 1931 had been overwhelmingly unsuccessful, and people feared the worst.
In response to the crisis, the Football League placed a ban on the club applying for election until the financial situation improved. Towards the end of the 1976-77 season, former chairman Arthur Horrocks returned to the board and managed to steer the club towards financial stability. The team finished 14th, one point behind Worksop Town, but that was no small miracle given the resources McNeill had to work with.
Suddenly, everything seemed possible. In response to the improvement on the financial side, the ban on the Latics applying for promotion to the League was lifted. At the start of 1977-78, NPL had announced that they would only lend their support to the election campaign of the champions but when runaway leaders Boston were rejected for League membership, it was decided that the runners-up would be allowed to apply. After a three-way race with Bangor City and Scarborough, the Latics eventually managed to secure second position on the last day of the season.
Hopes for election to the League, when the other 88 Football League clubs decided on the fates of the bottom four finishers in the Fourth Division, weren’t exactly high. Twelve months earlier, Wimbledon had been voted in, and it seemed unlikely that new clubs would be allowed up in consecutive years. After a tie with Southport in the first round of voting, however, Wigan Athletic were finally elected to the Football League, with 29 votes to Southport’s 20.
It had been their 35th attempt to get into professional football, just a year after they had almost collapsed into the abyss that had previously dragged down every football club the town had ever had. Prayers had obviously been said. Thank you Arthur Horrocks.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month