So, it’s the (assume cut class ‘posh northern’ accent) Silk Cut Challenge Cup final in that London this weekend and, as you may have noticed the other day, our thoughts have turned to our near neighbours, the Wigan Warriors. Of course, by kick off, you’ll be sick to death of hearing just how muchof a rugby town Wigan is. But is it? Is it really? Well we’re a little bit biased over here at TNS so we thought we’d see if there was anything independent around that could help out. Then we remembered something that goes one better, why get someone independent in when you can get a rival to do the job for you? So we’ll hand you over to Bolton fan (albeit a house trained one) Bolton66 and this blog post which first appeared on the web back in April 2011.
Living, as I do, in Wigan I find it remarkable some of the hostility that exists between supporters of the town’s football and rugby league teams.
Much of it is indeed well intentioned harmless banter, but some is actually really rather nasty and runs much deeper than sporting rivalry.
Why is this…?
Well I’m an outsider and cannot be entirely sure and, of course, different people will have their own various reasons. For those less familiar, the recent history of the two sporting clubs is worthy of inspection:
25 years ago Wigan Warriors started a decade-and-more long run of supreme achievement. Countless Championship/Premiership titles won as well as the Challenge Cup year after year. They won the World Club Challenge three times and were possibly the envy of the RL world. Wigan RLFC are a proud club with a hugely impressive, respectable and respected heritage.
Wigan Athletic FC are also a proud club with a long history (formed in 1932). However, they have only been playing in full-league football (with the big boys) since 1978 when they replaced Southport in the old Fourth Division. However, in 2006 little Wigan won promotion to the Premier League (the really big boys) and have been there ever since.
Both teams play at the DW stadium (formerly the JJB) and it is here that much of the resentment between these teams is centred – probably most notably the ability of each team to put bums on seats on match days.
Rugby fans and, sometimes it seems, the entire UK media say Wigan is a rugby town – the oft-trodden out commentator’s remark at a Latics’ game is to explain the empty seats away as simply something like, “well, being a Rugby town the football club struggles to bring in the supporters”. I’ve found that this angers your average WAFC supporter more than any other single issue! If there’s any reason for venom towards the rugby team then this is possibly it.
On the other hand, the football club are rather johnny-come-latelies to the big time. In achieving it they have been significantly financially supported by the town’s mega-rich businessman Dave Whelan and he made the dream of relocating football from the crumbling SpringfieldPark ground to a new home fit for the 21st century.
Along the way Whelan bought the rugby club in his endeavour to build the fine new stadium in the ’90s. This resulted in the closure of the old Central Park. Ever since ground sharing began the two clubs have not been comfortable bedfellows, with repeating rumours that Whelan is ready to evict the rugby club tenants from the football stadium.
So… back to those attendance figures…
As a football fan myself, and someone that has lived in Wigan now for 13 years, I do not recognise this label that Wigan seems to have of being a RugbyTown. It is simply untrue – in fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Have a drive round the streets of Wigan or a walk into the town centre. Yes you’ll see a fair proportion of Warriors shirts, but you’ll see far more examples of football shirts. Unfortunately for the town these shirts are often the colours of Man Utd and Liverpool, but you’ll also see some Everton, ManCity, even Arsenal and Chelsea! Go in the pubs on a Saturday afternoon and many of them will be busy with drinkers in to watch Premier League football on a foreign satellite channel. Wigan is very much a FootballTown!
And this is evidenced in the crowds that assemble to watch their respective sport at the DW. (the following chart is mine, but the data came from good old Wikipedia)
Now, before arguments are made that the bigger football crowds are made up of a larger contingent of away fans, let me just say this… perhaps it is (although I’m not entirely convinced), but this isn’t an argument about how many Latics fans there are in Wigan, it’s about the popularity of football in the area, and it seems clear to me that more people pay good money to watch football in this town.
Football is a huge internationally loved game, it is massive in Britain and nowhere more so than the North West. Rugby League, as big as it is down-under, is still principally a sport (and a fine sport at that) played in the UK at venues distributed along the M62.
Finally, I suppose, a necessary footnote needs to be the observation that after this season Wigan Athletic may no longer be in the Premier League. If relegation befalls the team then it is expected that the football gate at the DW stadium will fall.
But before the rugby crowd pour scorn on that likely prospect it might do to recall that back in 1980 when Wigan RL were relegated to their league’s 2nd-tier they were proud to post a divisional record season average attendance of 8,198. The last time Wigan Athletic were in football’s 2nd-tier their average was 11,155.
Even in the world of little boys’ leagues Wigan is clearly a Football Town!
You can find more of Bolton66 on twitter @ http://www.twitter.com/bolton66 and via his blog at http://bolton66.blogspot.com/
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