A history of Scotsmen and the settling in period at Wigan Athletic

As a kid I often used to walk to school with my mother via her place of work in Wigan’s town centre. Typically, as we walked along we would chat and this would result in heads turning. My mother was a southerner and her accent stood out like a sore thumb. “Wur ya from luv?” was not an uncommon question for her to respond to. After being evacuated from the London blitz she had married a Wiganer who would not entertain living anywhere else but his hometown. It was a culture shock for her. She would recount stories of not understanding a word people said to her and how Wiganers could be so uncomfortably direct in conversation. Wigan was a pretty depressed town in those days, heavily polluted and with one of the lowest average household incomes in the country. Times have changed for the better. After the initial shock, my mother grew to love the town and its people, many of whom did not have easy lives. She understood that Wiganers were proud people with warm hearts.

My first experience of culture shock was arriving in Scotland, where I was to go to college. It was difficult enough to understand what people were saying to you, let alone walk around poorly-lit city streets where the English weren’t the most popular. I missed my trips to Springfield Park with my Dad, who would nevertheless do his best to keep me up to date on Latics progress at the time. I would call him up after he had been to watch a match for him to give me his commentary. It was usually fairly brief, laced with his habitual comment that the referee was the worst he had ever seen in his life. Did referees ever like Wigan Athletic one wonders?

Ian McNeill was not only one of my favourite Wigan Athletic managers, but also a Scot. He had been manager of Ross County and clearly retained good connections with his home country. When he first arrived – launching Wigan Athletic into the newly formed Northern Premier League in 1968 — he brought a posse of his countrymen. “Why do we need these Scotsmen? What’s wrong with our local lads” was a common refrain from some fans at the time. I enjoyed Scottish football, regularly watching the two Dundee teams in my time north of the border, and welcomed the acquisition of the Scots. There were the skilful wingers – Davy Breen and Jim Savage – plus the stylish Benny Cairney as a striker. There was also the lanky centre half, Doug Coutts, and that wonderful left back, Billy Sutherland: he of strong tackles and thunderous shots. But my favourite was Jim Fleming, a really skllful and intelligent forward who probably created as many goals as he scored. I often wondered why he would leave Hearts to take up a role as a part-time footballer at an English non-league club, together with a low key job at the Heinz factory. In those days the Scottish League produced more “ball players” than in England, with the ball less in the air and more at the feet. The” Nine in a row” Celtic team that produced the 5 foot 2 inch magician known as Jimmy Johnstone were the prime example.

Culture shock and Scotsmen remain very relevant to Wigan Athletic in modern day. The team that lined up at Swansea last week included four Scots (counting James McCarthy for the sake of argument), two South Americans, one Central American, one Spaniard, one African, one Omani (Oman is actually in Africa, but belongs to the Asian Confederation) and one English-raised player who represents Barbados. In McNeill’s early days the Scots were the minority in the team which was made up mainly of English players. Nowadays the Scots are the mainstay of the current multicultural mish-mash that represents Wigan Athletic. Like Ian McNeill, Roberto Martinez and Graeme Jones retain links with Scotland where they both played.

Not one of the current Wigan Athletic squad has played for any continuous period of time for a top Premier League club, before arriving at the club. Some might say the that Latics squad lack that genuine belief that players acquire after playing at such levels. The current bookmakers odds favour Queens Park Rangers to stay up despite their poor start, factoring in the presence of previously proven top level players in their ranks: Wright-Phillips, Zamora, Park to name but a few. Wigan do have Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney, winners of multiple championships in Scotland when with Celtic, but does that give them the kind of belief necessary for the Premier League?

Roberto Martinez’s task is always difficult. Because of the club’s salary cap he has to bring in players from outside England – Scotland, Latin America and Spain mainly. Even the Scots have a culture shock when arriving: probably not so much to the local culture, but more to that of the Premier League with its relentless physical and mental challenges. Gary Caldwell had spent some time at Newcastle before joining Celtic and he stepped right into the first team after his arrival. However, the other three – James McCarthy, James McArthur and Shaun Maloney were given a period of months before being thrust into regular first team action.

The double culture shock for players arriving from overseas can be daunting. Some like Di Santo and Beausejour had already been through that with their previous English clubs, Chelsea and Birmingham. Others came from Europe, where the culture is more similar than other far-flung parts of the world. But imagine Maynor Figueroa coming from Honduras, a developing nation in Central America. He was sensibly given time to settle in, having been signed in January 2008, but making an excellent debut as a starter– against Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo — in April of that year. Poor old Mauro Boselli, who had never played for a club outside Argentina, was thrust in immediately in August 2010. The end result was that he failed to make that cultural adjustment that was needed. Fortunately Boselli is back at Wigan, some two years later, biding his time to get into the starting lineup and scoring goals galore in cup and reserve fixtures in the mean time.

It looks like Scottish summer signing Fraser Fyvie is going to be given a significant settling in period before being considered for the first team. This despite the fact that he was a regular in the Aberdeen lineup from a tender age. Looking at other players who have been through the same process it appears the right thing to do. Sometimes the needs of the club force the manager into playing new recruits from the get go. It is not ideal, but some players rise to that challenge. Others unfortunately can’t make the adjustment so easily. The double culture shock is significant and should not be underrated.

Dreaming of financial fair play — can Wigan ever win the league?

Ask a room of Premier League fans if Wigan Athletic could ever win the Premier League title, and your question will be met with derision and laughter. It is widely accepted that such an achievement is beyond a club of Wigan’s size and means. But what if the fundamental nature of financial competition were to radically change within English football? Is a future Premier League that Wigan Athletic could win, feasible?

It is not likely to happen this year. In fact, Ladbrokes are currently offering odds of 3500/1 against it. On the other hand they have Manchester City at 13/10, Manchester United 19/10 and Chelsea at 3/2. After that, the odds on the remaining clubs range from 14/1 to those of Latics. The bookmakers are clearly convinced that  the title will be gained by one of the two Manchester giants or Chelsea. However, if the financial ground rules under which the Premier League operates were to change radically, maybe a door would open for such dreams to come true?

In other sports, and in other countries, systems are put in place to stop elite clubs signing on dozens of highly paid players, preventing them from being available to other clubs. They also try to ensure that games are not so heavily weighted to one side that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion who is to win. Having the top players more evenly distributed between the clubs means that all clubs have some hopes for success. Their supporters are then more likely to stay with them, rather than being drawn to other sports, other entertainment, or other more wealthy clubs.

The Premier League was formed in 1992, after First Division clubs broke away from the Football League. The elite clubs had considered doing so for some time and the idea of a European League was mooted. At the time, English clubs lagged behind the top clubs in Italy and Spain in terms of revenues. Television money was burgeoning and the First Division clubs wanted a much larger slice of that cake, not wanting to share it with those in the lower divisions.

Since then the Premier League has become the most economically powerful league in the world, largely through selling itself to a global TV market. Its attendances are the second highest in Europe. Last year the average Premier League attendance was 34,601, beaten only by Germany 41,205.
It is no surprise in a league dominated by the elite that Premier League television revenue is far from evenly distributed among the 20 clubs. In the 2011-2012 season. Wigan Athletic received  £42.8 million in TV money. Manchester City received  £60.6 m and Manchester United  £60.3 m. Wolves received the lowest with  £39.1 million. It will be argued that the public are more likely to want to watch the elite teams, but the inequality clearly exacerbates the huge financial gap between rich and poor in the league.

In the 2013-2014 television rights are set to steeply rise, making it even more lucrative for Premier League clubs. At the same time, footballers’ salaries have escalated almost beyond control, the absurd spending of Manchester City and Chelsea exacerbating the problem. The League is looking at ways to provide more financial control. One realistic option is to follow UEFA’s initiative, which will require clubs to break even financially. According to BBC.co.uk, Dave Whelan supports the adoption of a financial fair play policy, saying that a proposal in this area has come from Manchester United. The strong inference is that United are envious of their near neighbour’s success last season.

Clearly a move towards Manchester United’s proposal would favour the interests of big clubs with huge fan support  like themselves and Arsenal, cutting out the excesses of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. This might help to redress the issue of spiralling player salaries and stop multi-millionaires financing huge debt in top clubs. However, the end result is still going to be a huge divide between rich and poor in the league.

This columnist advocates the implementation of not only financial fair play rules, but also of a salary cap per club. The latter would prevent the elite clubs hoarding so many top players, making them unavailable for other clubs. It sets a limit on the total salaries that a club can pay each season. This does not preclude a club paying the ridiculous wages to some players that have become the norm, but it does limit how many players they will be able to accommodate this way.

The salary cap concept is used widely in American sports as means of stopping wealthy clubs achieving dominance by signing up the majority of outstanding players available. The National Football League (NFL) of the USA had a salary cap of $120 million per club in 2011. It is to be noted that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only 5 clubs have won championship titles. Manchester United have won it 12 times, Arsenal and Chelsea 3 times each, Blackburn and Manchester City once. In comparison the NFL has had 12 clubs winning its championship in that time.

The implementation of financial fair play rules and club salary caps would not be easy. There are so many potential loopholes involved. However, there has to be a way forward from the current situation which has such inequities that it makes it virtually impossible for any club without huge revenues or massively rich benefactors to reach the top. Let’s at least give the average club in the Premier League some chance – although it may be slim – to win the title.

It is highly unlikely that Wigan Athletic will ever win the Premier League. At present, their chance is almost zero. Lets at least lower the odds and give clubs outside the elite few at least a chance to dream.

1932 and all that — is Wigan a rugby town?

A twelve year old boy went to watch his first football match on August 27th, 1932. It was the beginning of what was to become a life-long addiction to his hometown team and in his later years he would still talk about that match with great affection, although the result was not favourable. It was the opening league game for Wigan’s new football club: they lost 2-0 to Port Vale Reserves in front of 6,000 people. It was during the time of the great depression. Wigan Borough had folded the previous year, following the familiar pattern set by other clubs who had been set up to represent our  ‘Ancient and Loyal’ town in the football world.

That boy was my Dad. Although he was a Latic fanatic he was also proud of our rugby club, although the rugby matches he actually attended were few. However, I do remember him going to Central Park to watch Wigan rugby league club’s highest attended  game when they met St. Helens in March,1959. The recorded crowd was 47,747. Latics were drawing crowds of one to two thousand those days.

As a kid I was brought up around the corner from where George Orwell lodged in Sovereign Road when he started writing “The Road to Wigan Pier”. He chronicled the misery of life in Wigan at the time. It was superb documentary, way ahead of its time.  It is totally chilling and gives you a real feel of how hard life was at the time. The year was 1936, a handful of years after the great depression. It was the forty second season of the Northern Rugby League (NRL). Wigan RLFC finished fifth that season, three points behind the fourth placed team Liverpool Stanley and nine behind champions Salford.  There were 29 clubs in the NRL that year (there were 35 clubs in the three divisions in 2010-2011). That same season  Sunderland won the First Division for the sixth time and Arsenal won the FA Cup for the second time. The Football League was composed of 88 clubs in four divisions.

The early thirties was a tough time for any football club to be born. Wigan Athletic were fighting against the odds  then, as they continue to do now. Wigan remained economically depressed for decades. Could a town of its size and economy support two professional sports teams? Could both clubs co-exist and survive economically?

According to Wikipedia:  “Wigan are the most successful club in the history of British rugby league, having won 19 League Championships, 17 Challenge Cups and 3 World Club Challenge trophies. Wigan enjoyed a period of sustained success from the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s which included winning the Challange Cup eight seasons in succession and the League Championship seven seasons in succession.”

Wigan Athletic’s record is quite different. They were a non-league team for their first 46 years. During that time they won the Northern Premier League twice,  the Cheshire League four times and the Lancashire Combination four times. Since entering the Football League in 1978 they have gained promotion four times, winning their division twice in the process. They reached the League Cup final in 2005-2006.

Wigan Athletic continue to defy the odds. Despite being in a so-called rugby town the fact is that they consistently pull in superior attendances than their historically more successful counterparts do. This despite having struggling teams, fighting to avoid relegation. Since they got into the Premier League their average attendances have been around  the 18,000-20,000 range. According Wikipedia they have been:

2005-06                20,160

2006-07                18,169

2007-08                19,046

2008-09                18,413

2009-10                18,006

Those of Wigan Warriors rugby  team in the Super League have been around the 14,000-16,000 range during the same period (Wiki figures again) :

2006                       14,404

2007                       16,040

2008                       13,955

2009                       14,080

2010                       15,181

From 2000-2005 their attendances were lower, the highest average attendance being 13,894 in 2005.

Is Wigan really a rugby town?  Can it support two teams? Let’s take a look at the statistics.

Since entering the Premier League Wigan Athletic’s attendances have been significantly higher than those of the Warriors every year. However, it is to be noted that the Warriors’ attendances too have shown a positive trend since Latics got into the higher echelons.

Providing both clubs can balance their books with those attendance levels and maintain their status in their current divisions then the answer must be that the town can support the two. Things have changed a lot since the 1930s. Football clubs used to base their budgets on gate revenues, but now the reality for Latics is that the gate receipts are a relatively small part of their overall income. The Premier League is marketed worldwide and gets revenues which are way beyond those of any other football division in the world. Latics may be a small club by Premier League standards, but economically they can compete on more than just an even footing against their rugby counterparts.

Wiganers have  a choice: to support a club that is  a big fish in a small pond or to support a smaller fish in a giant pond.  Or they can support both. Wigan Athletic are an example to the football world. The rugby team’s  performances and attendances do not need to concern them. There is room for two teams, but the tables have turned. This is not the 1930s. The football team is now the more dominant economic force in the town, in terms of revenue and scale of operation. The myth of Wigan being a rugby town needs to be put to bed.