LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Wigan Athletic

Post-Whelan dealings leave Wigan in dire straits

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

The glory days are over at Wigan Athletic. In fact, for a year at the height of the pandemic, the club itself was nearly over, as distant foreign owners sank to new depths of irresponsibility. All the while, desperate fans were raising the funds to rescue their beloved Latics.

By spring 2021, a Bahraini consortium had taken over the reins, supporters were paid back the £600,000+ they had scraped together and, within a month, Wigan had secured safety in League One.

It’s all a far cry, of course, from the emotional promotion to the Premier League in 2005 and equally memorable last-minute FA Cup win in 2013 – but these must be seen in the context of decades of non-league obscurity. 

The man who financed this transformation, Dave Whelan, created a top-flight club out of a lower-tier mess, and built a 25,000-capacity modern-day stadium in the process.

Dave Whelan statue/Joe Stubley

Wigan Athletic rose from the ruins of Wigan Borough, the first football club to gain full league status in this rugby-dominated town, shortly after World War I. Although Borough folded in 1931, they had established Springfield Park, a multi-sports ground from the late Victorian era, as a viable venue for senior football.

Wearing red-and-white halves, the newly formed Wigan Athletic joined the Cheshire County League in 1932, winning it three years running. Switching to blue-and-white after the war, the club made the first of 34 (!) attempts to join the Football League, spurred on by an FA Cup run in 1953-54. A crowd of 27,526 gathered at Springfield Park for the visit of Hereford, still a record for a match between non-league clubs at a non-league ground. In the next round, before 52,000 at St James’ Park, Wigan managed a 2-2 draw, Jackie Milburn getting the vital second for Newcastle. The Magpies then squeezed through 3-2 in the replay at Wigan.

Thanks to a record number of goals from Harry Lyon, later commemorated with a street sign at the site of Springfield Park, Wigan won the Cheshire League again in 1965 and became founder members of the respected Northern Premier in 1968. This was one step below the Football League, although there was no automatic promotion at the time.

DW Stadium/Joe Stubley

NPL champions in 1971 thanks to goals from later NASL star Geoff Davies, Wigan kept pressing for full league status, their case backed up by another title in 1975 and FA Trophy final appearance at Wembley. In the end, it wasn’t so much results on the pitch as the conditions around it – Springfield Park was preferred over Boston’s York Street and in June 1978, Wigan Athletic joined the Football League.

Immediately finding their feet then a place in the third flight four seasons later, Wigan came close to a second-tier spot in 1986-87, losing by the odd goal in five to Swindon in the play-offs.

Much of the decade was marked by crowd trouble at poorly segregated Springfield Park and madcap stadium schemes by much-maligned club chairman Bill Kenyon. When former Blackburn star Dave Whelan took over in 1995, attendances had dipped below 2,000.

DW Stadium/Joe Stubley

Bringing in ex-Norwich striker John Deehan as manager, and a trio of Spaniards including a young Roberto Martínez, Whelan set about sprucing up Springfield Park despite his stated intention to relocate.

With Martínez named Player of the Season two years running, Wigan won Division Three in 1997, sold Springfield Park and moved into the new-build JJB, named after Whelan’s sports-goods chain. A tight play-off defeat to Manchester City in front of a full house pulled the shutters down on the venerable ground. It was later renamed the DW Stadium.

Alex Ferguson’s United were the visitors to unveil the new JJB Stadium. More play-off agony was to follow, a late extra-time turnaround by Gillingham to beat the ten men of Wigan in 2000, a last-minute goal at Reading in 2001.

DW Stadium/Tony Dawber

After a tricky start, ex-Wigan striker Paul Jewell took the Latics to a 100-point win of the Division Two title in 2003, goals coming from promising young Nathan Ellington. Teaming up with strike partner, Grenadian international Jason Roberts, Ellington shot Wigan to the Premier within two seasons, realising Whelan’s ten-year plan announced back in 1995.

Ellington left for WBA, and a disappointing post-Wigan career, Roberts continued to shine in Athletic’s surprisingly unflustered debut campaign with the elite, seven straight league wins coming early on.

Wigan also reached the League Cup final, thanks to a 119th-minute winner by Roberts. On final day, though, Rooney and Ronaldo proved too much for their local rivals, and Manchester United won 4-0.

The next major final came in 2013, this time the FA Cup. Wigan had survived eight seasons in the Premier under, mainly, Jewel and Roberto Martínez, but looked set for the drop when Wembley beckoned. Alongside the stars of moneyed Manchester City, Martínez and Whelan led the team out, the Wigan owner returning to the turf where he had broken his leg when playing in the final half a century earlier. Wearing black, Wigan battled hard to keep the score at 0-0 until a late red card for City’s Pablo Zabaleta. Athletic then won the cup with a 91st-minute header by late substitute Ben Watson.

DW Stadium/Joe Stubley

Three days later came relegation and the departure of Martínez. First under Owen Coyle then Uwe Rösler, Wigan endured losing trips to Kazan and Maribor in the Europa League but made the play-offs for a possible swift return to the Premier League. Two Charlie Austin goals, though, one in extra-time, sent QPR through instead.

Worse was to follow a year later, Wigan relegated to the third tier, bouncing straight back up to the Championship in 2015-16. By then Dave Whelan, whose Wembley fairy story was being tainted by dubious comments he was making in the press, incurring an FA ban, had passed ownership on to his grandson, David Sharpe.

Wigan looked to have reversed a downward spiral when goals from Will Grigg helped them gain another promotion from League One and embark on a memorable cup run in 2017-18. A late Grigg strike saw off Manchester City before a crowd of nearly 20,000 at the DW Stadium but the subsequent quarter-final was settled by two late goals from visitors Southampton. On-loan Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton will be remembered for his string of fine saves that kept the Latics in the game.

Dave Whelan statue/Joe Stubley

In Paul Cook, Wigan had also found an extremely capable manager but the club’s problems lay in the boardroom. After the Whelan clan sold the Latics to a Hong Kong-based group in November 2018, it set off a cycle of grave uncertainty that cost the club 12 league points the following campaign.

But relegation was the least of Wigan’s worries in 2020. Despite putting together an unbeaten run either side of the pandemic shutdown, as well as tonking Hull 8-0, Cook’s men were aghast as the club’s future lay in the balance. More new Hong Kong owners had deliberately placed Wigan into administration, key players were sold, and 75 non-playing staff were made redundant.

As fans raised more than £600 million to help save the club, and reserve keeper Jamie Jones raffled off his 2018 League One winners medal – the buyer then gave it back to him – Athletic began the 2020-21 campaign not knowing if there would be another. Rumours of a Spanish buy-out circulated for months before a Bahraini consortium stepped in. Supporters were refunded, and the Latics, with Jones as club captain, narrowly avoided relegation to League Two despite a depleted squad.

Key to the success had also been the loyalty shown by Cook’s former assistant, Leam Richardson, in staying on as manager, and the goals of former United striker Will Keane. Promotion from League One in 2021-22 as champions depended on both, Keane topping the scoring charts on 26.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Shared by Wigan Athletic and Warriors, the DW Stadium was built by Dave Whelan at a cost of £30 million in 1999. The Latics owner only had six years to wait before his club was playing Premier League football here, though rugby crowds still dwarfed those for soccer – these days, it’s almost twice as many.

Holding an all-seated 25,000, the ground comprises four steep-sided, single-tiered stands, away fans in the North end. The loudest Wigan fans occupy the side of the largest East Stand nearest to them, plus the South end. The main reception and ticket office are behind the West Stand. 

Just as the venue changed names from the JJB to the DW Stadium in 2009, now that DW Sports has gone out of business, it remains to be seen whether it will adopt another sponsor’s name given the new ownership at Wigan Athletic.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

The stadium is on the long side of a good walk from Wigan North Western station – allow 25 minutes.

There is no special match-day transport – an array of buses runs from town towards the retail park that surrounds the ground.

From Stands F/G at Wigan bus station and stop A at Wigan North Western train stationStagecoach services 3 and 4 run to Laithwaite Road every 5-10mins (every 30mins-1hr eve/Sun), journey time around 6-7mins. This is alongside Robin Park Road by the retail park. Alternatively, the hourly Transport for Manchester service 641 calls at both Wigan Wallgate and North Western stations on its way to Robin Park Road, stopping at Scot Lane closer to the ground, journey time 5mins. This doesn’t run evenings or Sundays.

The sat nav code for the DW Stadium is WN5 0UZ. There is plenty of parking (£5) around the ground – Car Park 1 is designated for away fans. Expect reasonable delays getting out after the game. Using the nearby retail park may be risky as vehicles can be clamped or towed away. The council-run car park at Pennyhurst Street (WN3 4AZ), about halfway between the stations and the stadium, is only £1/day and free on Sun/bank holidays when it’s open all day – note that it closes at 6pm Mon-Sat.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Sales are though the ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, weekend match days 4hrs before kick-off to 30min after final whistle, weekday matches from 9am to 30min after final whistle) beside reception behind the West Stand, over the phone (same office hours 01942 311 1111) and online. There’s a £2 booking fee for credit/debit cards unless you use the print-at-home facility. Pay on the day is usually no problem.

For most games, admission is £20, £15 for over-65s/under-21s, £10 for under-18s, £5 for under-12s, £2 for under-5s. For prime fixtures, adults pay £25, discounted tickets are priced the same. In the earlier rounds of the cup, it’s £15, £8 charged for over-65s, under-21s and under-18s.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The Latics Store (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-3pm, match days) at the DW Stadium stocks the current home kit of blue-and-white stripes – or rather, two blue stripes and a white one in the middle – as well as away tops of all red. There’s also a change strip for goalkeepers that they might want to change, bright pink with strange markings like some esoteric board game. 

Mascot Crusty the Pie features on various artefacts, including fridge magnets, keyrings and coffee mugs.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Being in a retail park means there are plenty of chain eateries nearby. If it’s a pub you’re after, then it’s a question of whether to drink in town before heading up to the match or in the residential area around the ground.

If you’re arriving into North Western station, then Wigan Central under the arches is ideal, all Brief Encounter-era railway furnishings, real ales and craft ciders. A modern-day live departure board also comes in handy.

If you’re walking to the game, then a third of the way up on Frog Lane, the Old Pear Tree at No.44 has been revived by Marston’s brewers and now buzzes on match days, whether it’s football or rugby. There are TV screens and sensible away fans are welcome.

Up around the ground, Latics fans still meet at the refurbished Douglas Bank, a favourite from the Springfield Road days, with TV sport and Joseph Holt ales. It’s on Woodhouse Lane, parallel to the canal, halfway between the former and current football grounds. Further along, the Belle Vue is as traditional as it gets.

Of the family-friendly eateries in the retail park, the Red Robin on Anjou Boulevard is the most suitable as a pre-match venue, filling with home and away fans alike. It’s in the Fayre & Square chain, so all the favourites on the menu, and standard beers.

If you prefer chippies to chains, there are plenty on the way to the ground, including the sit-down Mr Chips at 26A Hallgate near the bus station in town.

Behind the North Stand, the match-day Marquee is a large bar and function room catering to away fans, with mega screens. Capacity is 500 and the place can get packed pretty quickly, with long queues for drinks.

There’s also a supporters’ bar for home fans behind the South Stand.

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