From The Outside In

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When Tom Gill turned 100 last season Hyder Jawad, deputy editor of Backpass magazine came to visit the DW stadium.  He’s kindly allowed us to share his thoughts on the day and on Wigan Athletic’s past, and present.  Thanks to Hyder and to Tony Topping for sorting this out for us.

Wigan Athletic’s existence has been, to my mind, an act of rebellion. Since their formation in the summer of 1932, the club has fought against nature, against culture, and against economics – and yet they are still here. Still winning Premier League matches. Still rebelling.

When Wigan played West Ham United in the Premier League on Saturday, among the spectators was a special guest: Tom Gill, aged 100, who has been a Wigan supporter since the day the club formed. Tom is a reminder of Wigan’s relative youth. Tom is a reminder of Wigan’s relative success.

Tom is a reminder of Wigan’s permanent rage against the dying of the light.

In defeating West Ham 2-1, Wigan exhibited a brand of football that, often, took the breath away. Roberto Martínez’s 3-4-3 formation looks so flexible, so outrageously fluid, that it almost defies evaluation. The style of play – swift, two-touch passing, with clever movement off the ball – was similar to the one that made West Ham famous in the early Seventies, in those anodyne days when Wigan were a Northern Premier League club and not doing too well financially.

Tom Gill was aged 20 when Wigan Athletic formed out of the ashes of Wigan Borough, the obscure club that resigned from the Football League midway through the 1931-32 campaign. Borough was the fourth Wigan-based club to have gone bust because of diminishing interest. Why would a fifth club fare any differently? By surviving for so long as a leading non-League club, however, Wigan Athletic won the fight against nature.

Now the club had to win the fight against culture – the town’s rugby-league culture. It helped so much that on a memorable summer afternoon at the Café Royal, London, in 1978, Wigan defeated Southport on a second ballot to secure a place in the Football League. Nevertheless, for 17 years, there was always the perception that Wigan remained a small club with a small stadium and small ambitions.

Only when David Whelan, the former Blackburn Rovers full back, bought Wigan Athletic in 1995 did the tide turn. Wigan occupied a lowly position in the fourth tier of the English professional game and a return to non-League football seemed a possibility. Some people scoffed when Whelan declared that he would take the club to the Premier League. The musings of an illusionist, they said. But Wigan gained promotion to the third tier in 1998, built a new stadium in 1999, gained promotion to the second tier in 2003, and then – in accordance with Whelan’s prediction – promotion to the Premier League in 2005.

When Wigan Athletic recorded an average attendance of 20,610 for 2005-06, they surpassed the average attendance of their rugby-league counterparts, Wigan Warriors, for the first time. Wigan Athletic had won the fight against culture. Wigan was now a football town.

The fight against economics was always going to be the most difficult, especially in a Premier League sphere that contains mega-rich institutions such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

That Wigan has become a selling club is no surprise. In the summer of 2012, Wigan lost the services of their best three players: Mohamed Diamé (to West Ham), Hugo Rodallega (to Fulham, after seeing out his Wigan contract), and Victor Moses (to Chelsea). The players followed in the footsteps of Antonio Valencia, who signed for Manchester United in 2009, and Charles N’Zogbia, who signed for Aston Villa in 2011. Wigan had become a feeder operation for larger clubs.

How long will it be before James McArthur, who joined Wigan from Hamilton in 2010, and who scored the winning goal against West Ham on Saturday, attracts the attention of larger clubs? How long will it be before Iván Ramis, the Spanish defender, so ridiculed on his debut against Chelsea in August but so impressive against West Ham, does likewise? These two players enjoyed fine matches against West Ham, which, in the case of Ramis, was particularly significant because he had turned down a move to Upton Park to sign for Wigan. “We did try to get Iván,” Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager said, “but Roberto Martínez tipped it with his Spanish.”

So even when Wigan beat another Premier League to sign a player, it has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with Martínez.

Working within a tight budget is nothing new for Wigan, of course. In 1973, the year they reached the FA Trophy final at Wembley and finished third in the Northern Premier League, they reduced their wage bill to avoid threats of liquidation. They had been overspending since 1968, in a bid to get out of the Northern Premier League, and were suffering for their profligacy. When they reached the Football League in 1978, they were neither the richest nor the best team in non-League football. Being the best and the richest was not important, however, because the club had an aura about it, and the directors used that aura to win over enough of the elite chairmen among the Football League fraternity.

When Wigan finished Northern Premier League runners-up in 1978, Liverpool were winning the European Cup. On Saturday, after Wigan’s victory against West Ham, just one Premier League point separated Wigan and Liverpool.

For me, the aura endures. I developed affection for Wigan Athletic on that Tuesday evening, in November 1977, when I watched them play away to South Liverpool in the Northern Premier League. But that affection was tested when I played against Wigan in the Lancashire League in August 1985 and gave away a goal in a 5-0 defeat. I hope Tom Gill was not there to witness my error.

Tom was there when it mattered, however, and was there to witness the rise and rise of a club whose existence has turned into an agreeable act of rebellion.


– October 28, 2012.


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