It’s not Whelan going it’s where you’re Athletic
When Charles N’Zogbia lashed home his late winner against West Ham on Sunday, the majority of neutrals watching seemed to be in approval. Not just for the manner of the victory, but also for the Schadenfreude of West Ham’s relegation, in part at least directed towards the owners. Despicable chairmen or managers are treated to a level of hatred from others far beyond the equivalent reserved for players of a similar temperament, and few are more reprehensible than the self-important, pompous, dishonest trio that run the East London club.
The celebrations will have been an unfamiliar experience for many of them, however. Their opponents too attract ire through their chairman, (though he is simply not in the same league as his counterparts that day) his money, and their half-full flat-pack stadium. They’ve looked like going down for a long time now, yet keep managing to eke out their Premier League status every year. Traditionally a lower-league club, bankrolled by the local multi-millionaire, Whelan Athletic bought their way into the big-time and have been hanging on for dear life ever since.
For some, it’s a case of Everything That’s Wrong With Football. A club on ‘financial doping’, high on imported foreign talent, with a mouthy chairman who names the hideous stadium after himself and few fans, dine at the Captain’s table at the expense of ‘bigger’ clubs, the ghosts of football past that roam the lower-leagues. But it would be cruel to deny Wigan their moment in the sun.
Glory comes in many forms, and in the inevitable, lengthy hangover that will follow these years, the likelihood is that there won’t be trophies, but there will be the memories, of having genuinely great players grace the Dave Wigan Stadium, and great victories like the comeback against Arsenal at the back end of last season. The 3-2 victory that relegated West Ham must have been a hilarious, mad, brilliant experience, and it will be talked of fondly in years to come even if they do still suffer the drop.
They had no misguided belief that they were a ‘sleeping giant.’ In a way, this makes them true lottery winners: they weren’t chosen because of their support base, their infrastructure, or their potential to develop as a global brand. They were chosen for no other reason than that they were Wigan. In a way, this makes them even greater lottery winners than the likes of Man City – but is having a big stadium and lots of fans a reason to expect success? Why should it be? The reason Wigan have stayed in the Premier League and Sheffield Wednesday are in League One is because that’s not how it works. Instead of outrage at enduring the sight of a few empty seats on our television screens, we should be glad of the fact that we have a sport where teams have to earn their corn on merit. Not that replacing Wigan with ‘bigger’ clubs would be guaranteed to be any different either – the aforementioned City have been no strangers to rows of vacant blue seats, even since the takeover.
‘We were there before Dave Wigan and it will be there after Dave Wigan’ is a popular mantra among the club’s supporters. It’s true, but it won’t be Whelan Athletic as we know it. They’ll have to re-organise their finances, and in all likelihood will end up where they were before – for a very long time. Because Wigan were chosen for being Wigan, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to attract another wealthy owner. They haven’t got the fanbase or the potential for development to attract foreign investment, existing as they do in the saturated North-West. Their current owner hasn’t put his money in expecting a return – it’s a gift to the club, a folly. And there’s something to be respected about that.
He has other principles too – Roberto Martinez was a popular figure at the club before he arrived as manager, but he has been continually backed by his chairman, who insists that his job is safe even if the club are relegated – a welcome commitment not just to expansive, attacking football, but also a pleasant antidote to the cold, results-driven machines that they compete against. Paradoxically, considering their rise by the wallet of an entrepreneur, it’s actually a welcome break from the relentless capitalism that leaves a sour taste in the mouth with the rest of the game. They’re exciting to watch in other ways too – their extreme unpredictability means they are always dangerous to themselves as others, providing for some great games throughout a season.
It’s hard to bear a grudge against a club, whatever they do, if they don’t claim to be anything that they’re not. That’s Wigan all over. Conventional wisdom stresses that to move on as a club, you need to keep hold of your best players. Wigan are only too happy to let theirs go if an offer comes in for them. It might be small-time, but it’s realistic – if Wigan had kept hold of Palacios, Valencia, and, yes, Heskey, then there’s a chance they might have had a brief go at the Europa League, or managed to fluke a League Cup or FA Cup. But that would be the absolute limit as to how far they could go, and without the money from such sales, the hangover might be too severe to ever recover from. When their paymaster goes to the great closing-down sale in the Sky, and Wigan solemnly bow out of English football’s top flight, few outside the town will miss them. But the memories will remain, and their fans can rest safe in the knowledge of why and how they managed to stay at the top for so long – for no other reason than that they deserved to be.