Opposites Attract – Wigan Athletic & Manchester United

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If it was up to most football purists, Wednesday’s fixture would never happen.

They would see us as too small a club to face the mighty Manchester United. But isn’t that the beauty of this game?

The fact that we face them for the SEVENTH consecutive season, in an ‘equal keel’ league fixture. We got here on merit, and we have stayed here on merit. And if you look back through the sands of time, as a club, we have always been miles behind United.

As we were formed in 1932, United were actually a second division club, knocked out of the FA cup by Plymouth Argyle. They were a ‘yo-yo’ club, promoted then relegated, I suppose a bit like someone like West Brom today. This continued until the suspension of play due to WW2.  Everything changed at the end of the war. United appointed a new manager, by the name of Matt Busby, and suddenly they became a leading title contender, finishing there or there about, with a cup win in 1948, and a league title in 1952.

Latics meanwhile, had established themselves as a leading non-league club, and in 1953 they had a crowd of 27,000 on for a game against Hereford. And of course in 1954, there was the famous cup tie versus Newcastle. It was a magnificent feat, to get a 2-2 draw against Jackie Milburn and co. And it was only some dodgy refereeing decisions that saw us lose the replay. Some things never change, eh?

At the same time over at United, Busby was putting together a youth system which would make others stand up and take notice, ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ was a statement first heard back then, not through Alan Hansen yeas later.  The Busby Babes were born, and exploded onto the scene. By all accounts they were much loved by everybody.  Featuring mainly home grown players, but also a couple of shrewd purchases, including Tommy Taylor, a center-forward of great ability, they were the press ‘darlings’ of the time. The average age was only 22 and it was seen that they could rule the English game for ten years. Their success saw them become the first English in Europe and this saw them come up against the great Real Madrid side of the late fifties, featuring Di Stefano, Gento, etc. They proved too good for United in the 1957 semi final. But the seed had been sown.

The 56 league title was followed the the 57 one and United again went into Europe. Under pressure from an angered FA who had been against United playing in Europe from the beginning, United always worried about getting back home on time to fulfill league fixtures, or they would be punished.

Traveling back from a game versus Red Star Belgrade in February 1958, their plane stopped to refuel at Munich. On the take off, at the third attempt, the plane never left a runway that was covered in snow and slush, and the Busby Babes were no more. 7 of the players died instantly, and Duncan Edwards, the ‘star’ of the team, died later in hospital.

Years ago, I asked a relative who had seen him play, just how good he was.  My relative had tears in his eyes as he recalled such a powerful, commanding player…at 21 years of age…And not just a star for United, but England as well.

Munich robbed England of 3 key players in, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, and Duncan Edwards. Taylor may not be known to the youth of today, yet his scoring record was magnificent. 112 goals in 166 league games for United, and 16 goals in 19 games for England.

What would he be worth today?

And how do you explain Edwards to the youngsters of today? From what I’ve seen from old footage, he has elements of Gerrard, Keane, Hoddle and Terry to his game as a midfielder. He could push forward and get goals too. With those 3 players, England may have won the world cup in 58.

The sixties came around and in 1960, Latics were managed by a former United captain, Allenby Chilton. The club already had sights set on gaining league status, and continued to impress in league games, such as the legendary game in 66 where Harry Lyon was carried off injured against Doncaster, only to return and score a hat-trick. United meanwhile, rebuilt after Munich and a youngster by the name of George Best was the darling of the side, forming a triple act with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. The sixties were basically owned by United, with league successes and the pinnacle, the European Cup win in 68.

Latics meanwhile plugged away, forging a reputation as a leading non league club. By the turn of the seventies, it was usually a battle between ourselves and Jim Smith’s Boston United, as to who were non league top dogs. The desire for league football was stronger than ever.  The club was ready for it, but several times our appliction was turned down. We had put together a very good side, with players such as Ian Gillibrand, Billy Sutherland, Bobby Todd, and Kenny Morris, who’s dad Johnny, had featured in Uniteds 48 cup winning side.

As a club, Laticd had a hunger for more. United meanwhile, had fell into decline. The success of 68, had given way to an ageing team. Busby retired, Best went awol, his lifestyle betraying his genius, Charlton retired, and in 1974, they were relegated.

By 1976, Latics were almost breaking down the door of the Football League headquarters, such was the frustration held, and the desire to get into the league. More than one door was slammed in our faces. United had themselves got back into the top flight, and were losing finalists in the scorching summer of 76.  They won the FA cup in 77, and this was also the year that Latics, led by chairman Arthur Horrocks, worked tirelessly to gain the support of clubs throughout the land. A gallant performance in the cup against Birmingham, earned us the support of their manager, a certain Mr Sir Alf Ramsey.

At last, we were voted in, and that was after a re-count. We at Latics have always had to battle to get our rewards. United entered the 80’s looking enviously at Liverpool. In fact, they spent most of the decade like that.  However, the arrival of a tough-minded Scot named Alex Ferguson in 86 was to pay eventual dividends. Latics established themselves as a league club, and gained a promotion in 82.

By 83 however, Latics was in trouble due to ‘questionable management’ from the board, of which United legend Bobby Charlton was a member.  As the fans rallied to raise funds to save Latics, and people such as Jack Farrimond battled to save the club they loved, United meanwhile were winning the cup.

In fact United, despite going very close a couple of times, could not shift the Mersey dominance in the league, and were largely a ‘cup team’.

Latics, thankfully, survived the financial wolves at the door, and with a successful youth policy, built an exciting young team.  The club went to Wembley in 85, beating Brentford in the Freight Rover Trophy final. United were also there in 85, beating Everton in the cup final. They returned in 1990, to beat Crystal Palace and give Ferguson his first silverware, one which many people say saved him his job, as he had been under pressure. From 82 to the turn of the 90’s, Latics had been a solid third division club (when there were four divisions).

In 86-87, we had a magnificent cup run. This is my first memory as a fan.  Beating Norwich (then 4th in top flight) as well as Hull City (a division higher than us) it was on  windy Sunday where luck deserted us and Leeds United beat us in the Quarter Final of the FA cup.

Had we reached the semi final, who knows?  That team dismantled after another season or so, and by 1990, we were in decline. So as we declined, United improved. They won title after title in the 90’s, whilst we were relegated to the bottom tier in 93. The next couple of seasons were hard to bear for Latics fans as we had a team which was largely a collection of has been’s and never would be’s. You had to feel sorry for players such as Neill Rimmer, Andy Lyons, etc as they were surrounded by players who were simply not good enough. For me, it was the arrival of John Deehan as boss in 95-96 that started off our success. Also Dave Whelan had become chairman, saving us from potential further financial woes.

Deehan gave us a greater degree of Professionalism.  We won the then third division title in 97, before Deehan left. We did this playing some wonderful football and of course we had the 3 amigos in the team. Great times, those.

Simultaneously, United were by now regular title winners, with players like Keane, Cantona, Giggs, Beckham, etc making them the best side.  But as United were on the rise, so were little Wigan! We had play off heartbreak V City in May 99, the same month as United won the Champions league. That was also the month we won the Autowindscreens shield at Wembley, beating Millwall.

Indeed, it was United who came and played us in the opening game of the then JJB Stadium, beating us 2 nil with Scholes and Solkjaer scoring. Did any of us believe then that we would on day play them on equal league terms? I don’t think I did.

And into the 2000’s United carried on winning titles, as we carried on our climb up the leagues. We had more play off heartbreak versus Gillingham and Reading, before winning the then division 2 at a canter in 02. We were unlucky in that first Championship season of ours. We had kept the momentum going and in Paul Jewell we had a manager fit for the task.

We all know what happened on that glorious day in 2005. I don’t think I have ever celebrated goals like I did that day. That was our pinnacle. For us, it was on a par with United’s 68 European Cup win. On that sunny May afternoon, I am sure there were many people who have passed who were looking down on us and smiling.   Think of people like Jack Farrimond, Arthur Horrocks, Ian Gillibrand, and many more.

I had tears in my eyes. Little Latics in the Premiership? And it got BETTER! Though it was bitter sweet. Getting to Cardiff in our first Premiership season in the Carling Cup final, versus United.  If ONLY we could have faced someone else!  They were too strong that day, we lost our goalkeeper early.  In truth, have we had any luck since against them?  No!

We’ve had dodgy goals, spawny ones actually, sendings off, the lot. The one thing which they have far more of than us is……luck.

So to conclude, to the neutral or as I said at the start, football ‘purist’, they may see United and Latics as being poles apart. If it is based on support and worldwide appeal, then they are probably right. Bang on perhaps.

But how do you measure success? There’s different ways of looking at it, surely? As a football fan, I admire United as a club. I respect, and would have loved to have seen the Busby Babes play. The Sixties side also. There’s no denying their history and success.

However, the large corporate magnet they have become over the past 15 years really holds no appeal to me.  Going to Old Trafford now is like going to a carnival.  When you had Roy Keane slating the ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade, it shows that even the players themselves see it. Personally, I’d hate Latics to ever get like that.  Thankfully, we seem to be keeping Latics as a close, family club. When you get the manager spending time with the fans, it says it all.

Hopefully on Wednesday, we can cross another team of our ‘beaten’ list.


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