"Don't agree with me? GO AND STAND OVER THERE"
Ahead of a MASSIVE game for Wigan this weekend, friend of Magic Spongers – and a man who likes his pies – Martin Dearden makes his debut...
The first time my Dad took me to Wigan was October 1993. We sat in the Phoenix Stand at Springfield Park and watched the Latics stuff the now defunct Chester City 6-3. There was a young winger on loan from Man Utd who scored two and even managed to get booked for netting a cheeky chip after an offside whistle – but at least he hit the target, Mr Van Persie. It was a great introduction to watching my local team. Growing up closer to St Helens than Wigan with a rugby-mad Granddad, it shouldn’t really have happened, but after a rare highlight in a poor season I was hooked, begging my Dad to take me back.
Unlike those of Keith Gillespie, Wigan’s fortunes improved steadily in the years that followed. We graduated round behind the goal where you could get in for £2.50 with a Junior Latics card, if the bloke on the door didn’t let my Dad lift me over the turnstile. You could even show your card to enter the free half-time draw at the hut next to the burger van. We began to go regularly to home games, occasionally venturing to such exotic places as Gigg Lane and Spotland. I never won that draw though. Even when we only had 2,500 fans. How many of those were Junior Latics? It was rigged.
Like a lot of fans, the football was something I did with my Dad. Nostalgia probably clouds my memory, but I remember vividly the buzz when Dave Whelan took over and bought “The Three Amigos.” They were three young Spaniards named Isidro Diaz, Jesus Seba and Roberto Martinez. Diaz, the pacey winger was my favourite. When I played as a lazy striker-cum-winger-cum-left back, I would saunter around the pitch as my Dad growled at me from the sidelines before becoming bizarrely animated at pointless throw-ins in true Diaz style, making myself available to bemused teammates. Seba never really found his feet despite his obvious talent. Despite this his traditional Spanish name did allow Sombrero wearing Wiganers to unveil the iconic banner: ‘Jesus is a Wiganer’.
The best goal I ever saw at Springfield Park was by Martinez, or ‘Bob’, as he became known. I think it was in the record 7-1 thrashing of Scarborough. A low cross from the left to the edge of the box was met by the outside of Martinez’s right boot as he ran parallel to the 18 yard line. I stood directly behind the flight of the ball as it curled away from the keeper and into the top corner. In recent years I’ve seen Henry, Rooney and Ronaldo grace a Wigan pitch but I’ve never seen anything as audacious as that.
These days Martinez is in the hot seat at the DW Stadium. Much is written and said about his footballing principles, but the truth is that Bob has put together a team of young, potentially excellent players who play increasingly attractive football but who don’t score enough goals. We have the worst chance completion rate in the league and despite playing three of N’Zogbia, Cleverley, McCarthy and Moses behind the striker, we haven’t got enough goals from midfield. Without a goalscorer – which Rodallega certainly isn’t, we have plummeted down the table and now look like losing our Premier League status after six years. But who’d have thought I’d be writing that in 1993?
The controversial point is that I’m not sure I care. It never mattered what league we were in before so why does it now? In fact, I’d go as far to say I might even enjoy next season in the Championship, even if that is a touch idealistic. The chances are that given our finances, relegation will be a disaster as it was with Charlton, Southampton, Leeds and so on. On the other hand, we are relatively well managed. Dave Whelan is, to his credit, trying to make the club self sufficient. The recent accounts published, however, show that we are a long way from achieving this goal.
Relegation would be a massive blow to Whelan’s’ vision. I’m amazed we held on to N’Zogbia this long but losing McCarthy, Moses, Rodallega and Alcaraz would be a tough task for anyone, never mind a manager as inexperienced and idealistic as Martinez. By Premiership standards we are paupers, with one of the lowest wage bills in the league, but with relegation it would become a massive burden. I’m not naive enough to deny this. However, I’m sure that Whelan, with his ruthless business background, has relegation clauses written into playing contracts. We are not Leeds, and we would never claim to be. We are ‘Little Wigan.’
So I keep my hopes up. We are improving, we might stay up and if not James McCarthy seems a sensible lad; he turned down Liverpool at 16 and he may do again. I don’t think he’s quite ready for ‘The Top Four’ as has been touted, but he will be. He would destroy teams in the Championship, becoming a better player in the process.
I can’t help but think that relegation might be a good thing. I don’t buy into the parachute payments myth that we would be better off being a yo-yo club. The guaranteed money of the Premiership is the Holy Grail, on and off the pitch. That said, I do believe that Martinez could put together a great team at a lower level, continuing his development and becoming a better manager. Most importantly, we might even win some games.
This is what it all boils down to. I am a glory-hunter writ small. Is that the right turn of phrase? Possibly not but I’m trying to say I’m not as bad as all those Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool fans who never go to games. I’ve been to hundreds and delight in explaining to dickheads screaming at the TV that actually, Ashley Cole did really well to show Rooney down the outside.
The truth is that since 1995, Wigan Athletic – thanks to Dave Whelan – have been on an amazing journey. An upward spiral that took us all the way from the lower reaches of the old Division 3 to second in the Premiership at one point and the Carling Cup final. It has brought euphoric highs. I will never forget the emotion I felt when Nathan Ellington headed the goal that sealed promotion, or the exhilaration of our very own Great Escape at Sheffield United; a day over-spilling with emotion to the extent that I actually felt sorry for Neil Warnock.
We have seen players of unimagined skill at Wigan, and not just for the opposition. Wilson Palacios was a great box to box midfielder before ‘Arry’ made him sit in front of the back four, and Leighton Baines is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Man Utd are going for the treble, but they’re a better team now the lad that Paul Jewell brought to Wigan from Villareal after his World Cup scouting mission has recovered from his broken leg. I must say I’m sick and tired of Steve Bruce getting credit for Antonio Valencia. Wigan’s scouting network was already pretty extensive before Bruce turned up. That said, Valencia was a rising star in Germany in 2006, so it was hardly a stab in the dark.
It has been brilliant to be part of that story, but the best thing was winning. That’s what all fans want isn’t it, a winning team? Wigan Athletic have been punching above their weight for years. If we stay up we will continue to put one over on the London-centric, big club obsessed arseholes who pass for pundits then I will be a very happy man. I can’t WAIT for Gary Neville.
If we do go down, I will still go to games. Many people predict we will drop like a stone and ply our trade back in the lower reaches where we belong. That may well be the case but I’ll still be scouring the internet for transfer gossip and enjoying visiting proper grounds again. Wigan will still be my club.
Many Wigan fans, the majority in fact, will probably not agree with me on this. The Premiership is where it’s at. Best league in the world or not, every club wants to be there. The level of coverage is unimaginable to lower league fans. It’s not that I’m not supporting the team, but I have become tired of going to certain games safe in the knowledge we are going to lose. When did pragmatism devour my eternal childhood optimism? I was pretty happy with a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea for God’s sake. I couldn’t even bring myself to be outraged by Torres’ unsurprisingly under-reported elbow in the build up to the goal. A 1-0 defeat is a decent result these days.
And this isn’t an indictment against ‘Big Time Charlie’, ‘Johnny Foreigner’ Premiership ‘aces.’ How many lower league fans still go out and have a few beers with their heroes after the game on a Saturday? You’d have to go a fair way down the ladder. Yes it was great seeing Jimmy Bullard on King Street on a Saturday, but you couldn’t help wondering if he’d make it to training on the Monday. Football has changed and the gap between footballers and the fans who worship them is wider. I’m not even sure I could find a player to shoot me with an air rifle if I arranged it myself and provided the weapon. They have so many better things to do.
I’m sure there are fans who hark back to the days when they met up with their friends in the pub, had a few beers and a day out with the lads, win or lose. Being a fan is all about the camaraderie, having an identity, and that overrides everything. This wasn’t the case with me. I went with my Dad. It was something we did and still do whenever possible. Of course I enjoy screaming back at fans who’ve hurled abuse at you for 90 minutes after a last minute winner but I’d never dream of shouting “Fuck Off!” in front of my Dad.
In short, I want us to stay up. I hope I’ve made that clear. We’ve got some big games coming up and I’ll be supporting the Latics as ever. But football is an emotional game. A victory in the right circumstances can make you bounce in to work the next day ready for anything the world can throw at you. But football fans are like children. As constant rejection and put-downs will sure enough create a delinquent, being rock bottom of the league has bred indifference in me, Premiership or not. It doesn’t matter to me whether we play matches in the Premiership or the Championship next season – as long as we’re winning them.