Money can't buy you happiness, as this year's play-off losers can confirm. Paul Middleton reports on Wigan Athletic's failed bid to join the Firts Division
This season, despite its desperate ending at Wembley, stands out as the greatest in Wigan Athletic’s short history. It saw the club’s highest league placing, the biggest crowd at a home match, highest average attendance – up almost two thirds on last season – all in a new stadium in front of a millionaire chairman. Yet for the fans it has still been a season of frustration.
Call us ungrateful if you like, but countless rows with the local anti-football press and a seemingly anti-football council have left many battle weary. Add to this a slump in form on the field, leaving only a play-off place despite being unbeaten until January, and it’s a wonder every Athletic fan isn’t bald, with no nails and a severe twitch or two.
The season promised so much, beginning with a game to officially open the stadium against the European champions in front of a sell-out crowd. Except, in this case, “sell-out” didn’t mean the same as “capacity”. Because the new JJB Stadium is located behind a retail park, Wigan Council saw fit to limit the amount of traffic approaching the stadium and therefore the capacity of the ground. This was supposed to be a temporary move, until the nearby road junction was upgraded to handle both match-goers and shoppers on a Saturday afternoon.
The junction is known as The Saddle, fittingly, because as time went on, it appeared that fans of Wigan Athletic Football Club were being taken for a ride. I emphasise the football club, as no such restrictions were placed on the other team that uses the ground, Wigan Warriors rugby league club, despite the fact that the adjoining Robin Park retail site also enjoys trading on Sundays, when Warriors matches take place.
The first competitive rugby game at the JJB, the rather grandly titled “World Club Championship” (not actually involving Wigan Warriors, it should be noted) was played on a Saturday. Although any suggestions of bias were denied by the council, there were puzzled looks among Latics fans when it was announced that all four sides of the ground would be open, giving a theoretical capacity of 25,000, more than double the 12,000 limit placed on the football club.
Enquiries to the council regarding this apparent inconsistency were met with a stock response, consisting of denials and statements of shock and outrage that such a suggestion should ever be mooted. The response was so stock, in fact, that everybody who enquired got the same reply, word for word.
After several months of the season, with the road still unfinished due to the contractors spending more time in court that actually laying hardcore, chairman Dave Whelan threatened to pull his money out of sport in Wigan altogether, frustrated with the council’s “Don’t blame us mate, blame the builders” attitude. A full season has now passed, and the approach to the ground is still a candidate for calls to the Cones Hotline. Although work has progressed in recent weeks, it is still far from finished.
The only thing approaching sympathy in the press came from the Wigan Observer. The other local paper, the Wigan Evening Post, has been consistently anti-Latics, reporting on every minor occurrence involving the Warriors, yet ignoring the football club almost totally except when there was trouble at home games, in which case, it suddenly became big news.
Even when Wigan Athletic were featured on the back page of the Post, it seemed the paper only reported on them reluctantly. The anti-Latics rhetoric that appears in letters to both papers has widened the already gaping gulf between the two sets of fans and there is no sense that the press have an interest in promoting all sporting success as being good for the town.
At the risk of seeming mildly paranoid, it seems as though the national media have jumped on the “Great ground, no fans” bandwagon. As Wigan progressed to the play-off final, the defeat of Millwall took second place to comments about the size of their crowds. The Sun, the Telegraph, TalkSport, SkySports and Granada TV all focused on the fact that the town doesn’t seem interested in the Latics, despite the fact that the club reached Wembley for the second successive season.
Nevertheless, the press continue to refer to the “mighty” Wigan Warriors, when they haven’t won a trophy for some time, and in their single appearance at Wembley in recent years, were humbled by the Sheffield Eagles, a club no longer in existence. Many Warriors fans refer condescendingly to their co-tenants as “Little Latics”, conveniently ignoring the fact that average crowds for rugby matches are now barely 1,000 above those for football. The 10,000-plus crowds that were once a Warriors trademark are now the exception rather than the rule.
Although Latics narrowly failed to gain promotion to the First Division this time, the day may not be far off when the rugby club becomes the minor team in Wigan. Then, things will get interesting.
From WSC 161 July 2000. What was happening this month