Wigan Athletic: a beautiful act of rebellion
When Wigan Athletic play in the FA Cup final at Wembley next month, there will be a hint of sadness; for absent will be Tom Gill, their supporter of 80 years, who died in March, aged 100.
When Wigan played West Ham United in the Premier League last October, Tom was among the spectators. He had been following the club since the day in 1920 when the club formed. Tom was a reminder of Wigan’s relative youth as a club. Tom was a reminder of how agape love can characterise the relationship between man and club.
He was a reminder of Wigan’s permanent rage against the dying of the light.
How sad that Tom missed Wigan’s victory in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday against Millwall and will not be there next month for the greatest day in the club’s history.
Wigan’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. Reaching the FA Cup final. Still rebelling.
Wigan often exhibit a brand of football that takes the breath away. Roberto Martínez’s 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. Wigan's style is better than the team and it makes the players look better than they are.
How Tom would purr like a cat. He was aged 20 when Wigan 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.
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. Only death intervened. Wigan Athletic FC is not the same without him – and the FA Cup final next month will be a poorer occasion for his absence.