x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

FA Cup final: Small fish Wigan Athletic ready for big pond splash

Overshadowed by rugby in a small town, Wigan's football lovers are living the dream of watching the team play at Wembley.

Wigan Athletic fans can set aside Premier League relegation worries for now and enjoy the team play in the FA Cup final. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Wigan Athletic fans can set aside Premier League relegation worries for now and enjoy the team play in the FA Cup final. Michael Regan / Getty Images

There are the cliches about Wigan. The rugby, George Orwell, Northern Soul, pies, poor crowds and George Formby.

There is truth in every one.

Wigan Athletic were never one of the cliches attached to the town of 80,000 around 20 miles to the west of Manchester, but the club are, by a distance, the biggest entity to come from there in 2013. This afternoon, they will play the biggest game in their history, the FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley.

When Wigan faced Leeds in the quarter-final of the cup in 1987 they released a record titled Come on you Latics. Tongue in cheek, it warbled that one day the club would be at Wembley winning the FA Cup.

"It was bold and ambitious statement for a third-division club more noted for early-round giant killings as a non-league club," says Martin Tarbuck of the Wigan Athletic fanzine Mudhutter. "Now the dream is just 90 minutes away."

Wigan have been a Premier League side since 2005 and have fought relegation battles in almost all of those seasons, leaving it until the final day to survive three times. That may be the case again this year, though their survival prospects look bleaker than ever.

Yet they have not always kept such esteemed company. Wigan are the youngest team in the league, but for the majority of their 81-year history they were a non-league team - that is, not in the top four leagues of English football.

Wigan's rivals were Chorley and Altrincham, who currently play in front of average crowds of 500 and 900, respectively.

Wigan's Springfield Park stadium had a big grassy bank behind one end. Wigan's main sport was rugby league, but for a small band of enthusiasts, who averaged 6,000 in their first season in the Football League in 1978, it was only ever about football.

They had their heroes, players such as the non-league legend John King, a toothless scaffolder from the Liverpool overspill estate of Kirkby. An Everton supporting midfielder who looked like Brutus from the Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon, he had been on Liverpool's books as a youngster.

"Wearing that red shirt made me sick," King said. "I lasted four games before moving to Harry Catterick's Everton, but Harry thought I was a little too robust. At 15 years old I weighed over 13 stone.

"The doctor at my medical sized me up and said, 'You're a big lad. There's not much chance of you losing out in a tackle, is there?' That was like loopy juice to me; I came out feeling invincible."

King's desire to succeed may have curtailed his Everton career, but he found a place at Wigan and then starred for Altrincham, the Manchester United of non-league.

It was from Altrincham that Wigan acquired their current kitman, Dave Mitten, whose uncle Charlie lifted the cup in 1948 with Manchester United.

He had been working unpaid, but now travels to every Wigan game, sitting on the bench with Roberto Martinez. He is in his element.

"I joined Wigan full-time in 2009 and I've loved every minute," he says. "Being a kitman is hard graft and no job can be beneath you. I travel with the team everywhere and stay in nice hotels; I'll also put my hand down the toilet in the visiting dressing room if the opposing players have blocked it with rubbish.

"Wigan are a great club who have done superbly to survive in the Premier League," he says. "That's in no little part down to Roberto Martinez. A more loyal, friendly and talented boss I couldn't wish for. There's not a person at Wigan he doesn't have time for, from the fans to the cleaners."

Not everyone in the working-class town is enamoured of the foreign millionaires at a club which has more Spaniards on their playing staff than Malaga.

"Wigan rugby fans like to brag about the number of local lads they produce playing rugby league," Tarbuck says.

"The not-totally-inaccurate insinuation being that Latics players are all a bunch of foreign mercenaries. But aside from St Helens, Warrington, parts of Yorkshire, where else are rugby league players likely to come from? They don't play it in 95 per cent of the rest of the country.

"I'd love to see Wiganers playing for Wigan Athletic but we're in a league which attracts 400 of the best footballers in the world and given the schools don't prioritise playing it, it makes it even harder."

The frequent mentions of rugby irk the football fans because here football tends to come second best.

"It's just that football fans in the town don't necessarily support Wigan Athletic," Tarbuck says.

"Clearly, the rugby side are a big fish in a little pond whereas we're the opposite. Because they are the big fish, they pull in support from all over the northwest, whereas the football club's support is generally more local.

"People tend to home in on the fact they sell out once a season when it's the rugby league 'El Clasico' v Saints, not the fact they struggle to pull in 12,000 when many of the smaller rugby league teams come to town."

Wigan Athletic's average crowds of 19,200 are higher than those at the rugby, but rugby is more widely played in the town.

"Many schools in Wigan still don't play football competitively," Tarbuck says. "It's a constant fight because rugby gets you from cradle to grave - junior rugby league starts at Under 5s."

The money of Dave Whelan, the local sportswear businessman, transformed Wigan's fortunes.

The former Blackburn Rovers defender, who suffered a broken leg in the 1960 FA Cup final, has long been associated with the club. His investment took Wigan from the lower leagues and built a 25,000-capacity stadium, named after him, for the football and rugby club to share in 1999.

"Opinion on the bloke is more or less split," said Andrew Vaughan, a Wigan-based writer.

"There are those that think he is the second coming and everything he does is divine. Others recognise he is a successful businessman, without whom we would not have got to this position and appreciate what he has done. However, they are still able to differentiate the good things he does and says from the rubbish he sometimes spouts and does."

There are other, less-flattering opinions. Martinez, the manager, is also crucial to the story of modern Wigan.

The locals know Roberto as "Bob". He arrived in the UK in July 1995 from regional football in Catalonia, one of three Spaniards, known as the "Three Amigos".

They lived in a tiny terraced house in the Poolstock area of Wigan, barely spoke a word of English and experienced the kind of culture shock which saw the most highly rated of the trio, Jesus Seba, disappear within a few months. Isidro Diaz followed a couple of years later.

Which left one, and somehow Roberto adapted, survived and learned to love the town of Wigan.

A classy midfielder, he played 227 games and scored 23 goals for the club while his father also became a regular visitor and was often seen strolling the streets of Wigan in the early evening, as is the norm in Spain.

Martinez returned at manager in 2009 and his reputation remains high.

Martinez, his dad, Whelan, the players and those long-standing Wigan fans who remember humbler times, have every right to feel proud when they watch their teams walk out at Wembley, in front of 90,000, this afternoon for their first FA Cup final.

"It should be the biggest, greatest day in our football club's life but as our Premier League existence is currently on life support the celebrations are a touch muted," Tarbuck says.

"If we had all of our players fit and raring to go I would actually give us half a chance against City, but we're decimated by injuries in a small squad already full of tired legs. The energy isn't just sapped in the body but also in the head" after Tuesday's demoralising and dismal defensive display against Swansea.

"I'm determined to enjoy the day. We might not get too many shots at winning an FA Cup and it's so close now."

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