I've had enough of Wigan in the Premier League. They're stinking the place out.
I have a lot of respect for their innovative young manager and their impressive brand of football. I even have a soft spot for a couple of their players.
I’ve met their chairman personally, and found him to be warm, genuine and charismatic.
But as a football club; as a member of the Premier League and a recipient of its riches, they don’t cut the mustard. Their infrastructure, and support base, is frankly pathetic.
Manchester City were the visitors to the DW Stadium on Wednesday. The champions were in town. The champions from just down the road. The hottest ticket in town. And yet as I watched the midweek Match Of The Day - as Wigan’s bright young side went toe to toe with the best team in the country - I couldn’t help but become preoccupied with the fact that so many seats were empty.
It was the same earlier this season, when European champions Chelsea visited the DW, and only 14,000 showed up. That’s 14,000 in a 25,000-seater stadium. It degrades the league.
The Wigan story is a remarkable one. They were only elected to the Football League in 1978 and less than 15 years ago they were still in the bottom tier of the professional ranks. Chairman Dave Whelan bought the club in the mid-nineties and plunged his cash into what seemed like a pie in the sky plan to achieve Premier League football.
Whelan’s plan, as it transpires, wasn’t so far-fetched and you have to admire his endeavour. But the problem is that his personal ambitions have outgrown the club’s rightful status, and thrust them through their ceiling of potential.
I can remember a feature aired on Football Focus the day of the Latics' Auto Windscreens Shield final against Millwall in 1999. The BBC crew conducted vox-pop interviews in the town centre that day, asking the locals about Athletic's upcoming final – to the point one of the biggest matches in the club's history. Half of those featured had no idea the game was happening. The other half had no idea Wigan even had a football team.
Propaganda and agenda aside, it raised a wider issue. Wigan borough is not the most densely populated area of the North West, and there are nine other Football League clubs within a half-hour drive. Furthermore, generations of Scousers – Liverpool and Everton fans in particular – inhabit the town and its surrounding area.
Then there’s the barrier of the town’s traditional first love. See, Wigan has long been a hub of world class sport, of excellence and a history of back to back topflight titles. But that is in rugby league. Martin Offiah, Jason Robinson and Shaun Edwards put the town on the map when I was growing up, and they did so in front of huge crowds cheering the Warriors on to honours aplenty.
As such, Wigan Athletic FC finds itself in an unenviable predicament; one of playing the role of undervalued sibling - the Paul Ross to Warriors' Jonathan. It also means they should be on a drive to attract new fans, and to fill their impressive DW Stadium, or at least offer an enhanced allocation to the away team. Many clubs in a similar position offer empty seats to local school children, or at reduced promotional prices for newcomers. Sadly, Wigan seldom do this. In fact, if anything they make it more difficult for new fans...
Recently, a friend of mine was visiting family in the area and found himself at a loose end on the Saturday. So off he went to the DW in the hope of attending Athletic’s match against Aston Villa. Upon arrival he was told that there were tickets available, but that he would need to pay for membership before buying one. The membership was as much as the ticket. He declined. There were fewer than 16,000 inside the ground that day. The place hasn’t been full for a football match in four years.
Then there’s the club’s away following. Rival fans joke around with songs like: ‘What time’s your minibus,’ but the stark reality is that sometimes Wigan’s away support would indeed hardly fill a minibus. This in the biggest league in the world. Having attended supposed big matches at the DW before, I’ve found the atmosphere to be more akin to a pre-season friendly. Let alone when they take only 35 fans away to Spurs, as is reported to have happened last term.
This is not necessarily the Wigan fans’ fault. Many of them are as passionate as supporters of any other team. But the sad truth is that there’s not enough of them to justify their status in the big league.
The financial implications cannot be promising, either. Whelan may have made a fortune selling off JJB Sports before it went belly up, but he has already hinted about his departure. Sooner or later the bubble will burst, the team’s luck will run out, and Wigan will be forced to assume their natural position, somewhere between League One and The Championship, as some locals still wonder whether the town has a football team at all.
Click here to read more from Ben Cove.