Wigan, of Casino, Pier and rugby league fame, was not one of those northern mill and mining towns with a prominent football team in the early days of the Football League and FA Cup.
Current Championship side Wigan Athletic only gained full league status in 1978. Their recent success, the FA Cup win of 2013 and the eight-year stint in the Premier that ended three days later, was bankrolled by a millionaire only installed at the club in 1995, Dave Whelan.
The sports-goods mogul not only built the club’s modern ground, now called the DW Stadium – he reversed a century of football failure in Wigan, of local clubs not staying the course, of a sports ground hanging on from the late Victorian era, its history as patchwork and obscure as that of the game in this former industrial hub of Orwellian lore.
This ground, Springfield Park, is the most constant element in the story. Opened in 1897, at various times it hosted the main five football clubs that sprang up in Wigan during the pre-Whelan era. The popularity of rugby league there, too, underlines the fact that locals simply preferred the longer-established sport.
Wigan FC, the rugby club, were formed as far back as 1872 and were already winning trophies and dropping their amateur status by the time the first soccer clubs came on the scene.
In fact, so low was the profile of the round-ball game in Wigan that when top-hatted dignitaries gathered at the Ship Hotel in 1897 to formalise the setting up of a sports club, it was for athletics and cycling. This club was to be based at the Springfield Park site they had earmarked months before – having also factored in a track for trotting, the harness racing still popular today in France.
A Wigan United football team had already been formed, playing at the West End Grounds, today an industrial estate between the DW Stadium and Wigan North Western train station.
Further north-west at Springfield Park, football at last got a look-in when a Wigan County, created that same year of 1897, played a couple of friendly matches there. County then competed in the FA Cup, losing 1-0 at Manchester City in January 1898. A month before, they had beaten Newton Heath, later named Manchester United, in the Lancashire Cup.
The subsequent sale of the ground had a negative impact on the club, which duly folded in June 1900.
That November, United moved into Springfield Park, to be joined on alternate weekends by Wigan rugby club. Attracting a 10,000 for the visit of Widnes in 1902, the oval-ball club then changed grounds, heading over to Central Park. Within five years, an early international there drew a crowd of 30,000. A century later, the rugby team, now called Wigan Warriors, again groundshared with the main football club, Wigan Athletic, this time at the DW Stadium.
Wigan United continued to play Lancashire League games at Springfield Park until 1903, after which they led a nomadic existence, until returning, albeit briefly, to the ground in 1919.
Next came Wigan Town, formed in 1905 but folded in 1908, unable to pull crowds away from Wigan FC. Rugby was the only game in town.
After World War I, Wigan United finally became sole tenants at Springfield Park but their shady, semi-pro activities fell foul of the football authorities and they were forced to go legit. This new outfit, formed in November 1920, would be called Wigan Borough.
To the surprise of many, Borough’s application to join the Football League was soon accepted – perhaps Wigan’s lack of any representation at all since 1888 was a factor. Borough joined the Third Division North in 1921, bringing league football to Wigan – at least for the next ten years.
The high point came in 1928-29. With Welshman Cecil Smith at centre-forward, later prolific at Burnley, Borough achieved a best-ever fourth spot, 12 points behind champions Bradford City. In the FA Cup, a Third Round tie with Sheffield Wednesday saw a record 30,443 at Springfield Park. Within a season, though, Borough were 18th.
The cash-strapped club was forced to fold in 1931, the first team to resign from the Football League. On the plus side, Borough’s flurries of form had attracted healthy gates at Springfield Park. It now resembled a football ground, with stands erected at the Shevington End, the Popular Side and the main one rebuilt.
Soccer was now established. In May 1932, the mayor held a packed public meeting to set up a committee to form a new football club: Wigan Athletic.
Purchasing Springfield Park, Athletic joined the Cheshire League, and notched 121 goals to finish fifth in that first season. Retaining the services of ex-England international Charlie Spencer as manager, Wigan won the championship the following season, then again, and beat Carlisle 6-1 in the FA Cup.
The facilities at Springfield Park later helped Wigan edge out Boston United when Southport failed to gain re-election to the Fourth Division in 1978. At the 34th attempt, The Latics had become a Football League club – nearly half-a-century after the demise of Wigan Borough.
The hourly train direct from Manchester Airport takes 45min to Wigan North Western (£5) – or another hourly service runs to Wigan Wallgate (1hr). From Manchester Piccadilly, it’s 30min and 40min respectively.
From London Euston, one direct train an hour to Wigan North Western takes 2hrs, another 3hrs. Online tickets can fall as low as £22 if booked well in advance. Direct from Birmingham New Street, it’s 1hr 20min, cheapest advance tickets £7.
The two stations are 100 metres apart on Wallgate, by the town centre. The myriad local bus services are overseen by Transport for Greater Manchester, which can also provide a System One DaySaver pass (£5.20/£5.60) if required. You’ll need a bus or taxi to get to the ground – it’s a 25min walk from either station. The bus station for all services is alongside Hallgate, close to Wallgate, the street and station.
Long-established Bluestar Taxis (01942 242 424) has an office by Wigan North Western station.
There are no hotels around the stadium but a couple of chain choices in Wigan town centre. The nearest to the stations, the Premier Inn Wigan Town Centre is among the new generation under the moon and stars logo, with 40-inch flat-screen TVs. Also central, the three-star Mercure Wigan Oak has free parking, a bar and restaurant.
Just north, in leafy Marylebone up Wigan Lane, the Bellingham is cheap though sadly not too cheerful – although you’ll find 3D TV sport and cask ales in the bar. Nearby and also wallet-friendly, the Brocket Arms maintains reasonable standards in its 28 en-suite rooms – it’s in the Wetherspoons chain, with a large pub on-site.
For a reliably comfortable stay in the Wigan area, the four-star Macdonald Kilhey Court sits in its own gardens, with a spa and decent restaurant. Set by Wigan golf course in Standish, it’s four miles north of town, with plenty of free parking. Nearby, the hourly No.638 bus runs into Wigan (20min) until early evening.
Bars, mainly chain ones, line Wallgate that cuts through the town centre. Best of these is The Berkeley by Wallgate station, big on Super Sundays and for major sports events, screened on a huge projector screen and at least half-a-dozen flat-screen TVs. Guest beers also feature and live music on Friday nights. At No.26, Last Orders is now the Dog & Partridge, a real city-centre boozer with TV football.
Further along Wallgate, The Moon Under Water is the main Wetherspoons in town.
Parallel to Wallgate on Dorning Street, The Anvil is a great choice, an atmospheric outlet for Wigan-based AllGates craft beers (‘Brewed with Northern Soul’, regularly changing guest choices too, two big-screen TVs for sport and a beer garden.
On the edge of the town centre near St Mary’s Church, a string of more independent bars dots Upper Dicconson Street. Docherty’s is coming into its own as a live venue and busy bar, with TV football and regional brews (Lancashire Stout, Wigan Bier), plus guestrooms being added – Wigan currently lacking in decent pub hotels. Across the street, Fifteens At Swinley feels retro outside and in, with red phone boxes by the front terrace. It promotes local breweries, with Prospect of Standish, Bank Top of Bolton and Burscough of Burscough all getting a look-in. A large screen and several smaller ones show sport. On the down side, its five bedrooms are of varying taste and quality.
Right by the church itself, the Royal Oak was once the Mayflower and has since been revived by Wigan Pubs, bringing cask ales, TV football and well chosen music to a friendly clientele.
In the same vicinity, Doc’s Symposium, the town’s first micropub, dispenses ales from Wigan-based Hophurst, Martland Mill and AllGates in a chatty atmosphere. A version of Lancashire tapas, snackettes, is sourced from nearby bakers and butchers.
Sadly, an attempt to revive another area of town, the canalside area at the other end of Wallgate, failed – much-revered The Orwell closed, again, in 2014.