Wigan received another blizzard of bad publicity last Saturday when a paltry 5,335 paid to see the FA Cup tie with Hull City. This was fewer than saw Wigan beat Northampton Town in the final home game of season 2001-02, when the Latics finished 10th in England's third tier.
That is what many think of Wigan: third tier. Yet last Saturday there were mitigating circumstances: the weather, the5-0 hammering at Manchester United three days earlier, a less-thanattractive Premier League opponent in Hull and the fact that there isan FA rule that forbids clubs to charge less than £15 per ticket forCup ties unless both agree.
Deserted: Wigan's FA Cup tie against Hull was played out against the backdrop of empty seats
Wigan Athletic were hardly proud of the attendance but they wouldlike some perspective, geographical and historical, when the club istalked about. 'Look where we've come from,' says the club's commercialmanager Paul Hunt.
'We were only elected to the Football League in 1978. We think our progress is pretty good.'
Jason Taylor, who runs a Wigan fans' website, agrees: 'Fifteen yearsago we had 1,800, now we have 18,000 - that's a success story. 'Thecritics don't look at our history. We are 100 years behind Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton. They also don't look at where we are. We are inbetween those three and Manchester and Liverpool. When you think aboutit, it's a miracle that we get 18,000.'
The miracle of Wigan. It took some believing as row upon row of empty seats were photographed during the Hull game.
It reinforced the idea of Wigan as an artificial club whose rise hasbeen based on owner Dave Whelan's wealth every bit as much as Chelsea'strophies are due to Roman Abramovich's wallet.
There is no doubt that Whelan's money helped fuel the wage bill asformer manager Paul Jewell led the club out of the old Division Two andthen out of the Championship.
Players of the cost and calibre of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts were bought as Wigan gathered momentum.
Later Emile Heskey would cost £5.5million from Birmingham. It's notReal Madrid's budget, though. Jewell received much deserved praise then- and for getting Wigan to 10th in that first Premier League season -but feels now that the novelty factor has worn off, which contributesto the dissatisfaction there is about Wigan.
Meteoric rise: Wigan were only elected to the Football League in 1978
He said 'We climbed mountains to get to the Premier League and toget to the League Cup final, and we got the pats on the back. Butpeople thought it'd be a fleeting visit from Wigan. They expected Wiganto go away. But they haven't.'
Jewell says it is also forgotten that Wigan is a small town. Where Wigan begins and Bolton ends is one thing.
Another is that as Taylor points out, migration from Merseyside inthe 1960s and 1970s means that 'the west of Wigan is populated byScousers'.
That segment of the population has retained its affection forLiverpool and Everton, while Manchesters United and City are 19 milesaway. Wigan is hemmed in.
Then there is the rugby league club. It and George Orwell made Wiganfamous. Central Park once held 47,000 for a game but by the time of itsdemise in 1999 the capacity was 18,000.
Now Wigan Warriors attract an average of 14,000. 'Wigan Warriors arenot an issue,' says Hunt. 'There is a crossover in support and I viewit a very positive rivalry that should inspire each other. It is not anissue in the way that Liverpool, Everton, City and United are.'
'Family club': Martinez says Wigan are making great progress
Hunt adds that the youth of the club leaves no generational base tofall back on, unlike an historic club like Bolton (average attendancethis season 21,400).
But Wigan have worked hard on this. Not only is their most expensiveadult season ticket £295, they have targeted schools with success.
Manager Roberto Martinez said: 'In terms of the future we have thehighest number of youngsters as season tickets holder in the PremierLeague. I think it is about 20 per cent of Wigan's population at under 16 are season ticket holders, so there are many, many positive signs.'
Martinez was a player at Wigan and knew what the old SpringfieldPark was like. 'We have trebled our crowds but never lost our familyfeel,' Martinez adds.
'If I am not wrong we have 11,000 season ticket holders, which is aseventh of Wigan's population. If other football clubs had that ratio,their grounds would not be big enough.
'From the inside, we know that where we were 10 years ago to where we are now, it's a great achievement.'
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