In a Premier League where money talks and where only a small number of teams stand a realistic chance of success, everyone loves to root for an underdog. Premier League fans all season have marvelled at how Swansea and Norwich have taken it to the bigger clubs in the Premier League, and have done so with some success. But, fans are forgetting about an even smaller team, a team who are forgotten because they have become part of the Premier League furniture. That team is Wigan Athletic.
It cannot be understated just how much of a feat it is that Wigan has managed to stay in the Premier League for seven years. Wigan are underdogs in every sense of the word. They are without question the smallest club in the Premier League. They have the lowest revenue in the Premier League, the smallest crowds, the heaviest reliance on TV money, the highest proportion of wages to turnover in the league and virtually no money to spend on transfers.
Wigan are known (and mocked) for having small attendances, despite the fact that they are consistently amongst the cheapest teams in the Premier League to go and watch (they have the second cheapest tickets in the Premier League and their most expensive ticket is still cheaper than the cheapest ticket of 9 other Premier League teams) and cheap season tickets, last season Wigan had the 6th cheapest season ticket of all 92 English league clubs. Wigan also have probably the smallest potential fanbase out of any Premier League team, and also probably have the most competition for those potential fans from other teams than any other Premier League team.
Wigan is a town in North-West England with a population of about 80,000 people. If you’re familiar with the geography of the UK, Wigan lies roughly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, and is less than 10 miles from Bolton, and Blackburn isn’t far away either. Apart from those six other Premier League teams that Wigan residents could (and do) support at the expense of Wigan, there is a raft of other league clubs not too far away to choose from. Many Wigan residents were originally from Manchester or Liverpool, so have passed down their love of Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United or Manchester City to their children. Also, for years there wasn’t a league team in Wigan, Wigan Athletic only became a league club in 1978, so many football fans in Wigan already supported another side, putting Wigan on the back foot immediately.
Wigan had never been in the top division of English football before their promotion to the Premier League in 2005. Indeed, when Dave Whelan bought the club in 1995, they were in the third division (what is now League Two), the bottom division in English league football, which makes their rise to the top very impressive. So, they don’t have much have a football pedigree compared any of the other clubs around them, both geographically and in terms of where they are in the Premier League pecking order.
Wigan also suffers from the fact that unlike most other towns in the UK, football isn’t the dominant sport in town. Wigan is world-renowned for Rugby League. The Wigan Warriors are one of England’s strongest and best-supported teams, and share the DW stadium with Wigan Athletic (which is why the pitch can often look like a herd of Wildebeest have stampeded through it). Surveys taken around the ground suggest that most fans don’t cross-over, so the Rugby fans don’t go to watch the football and vice-versa.
Wigan just cannot compete with the other Premier League teams financially, having one of the smallest turnovers in the league. Commercially, Wigan only generate about £1.5m per season, which is extremely low even compared to Premier League clubs of a similar size. For example, Blackburn, who are not much bigger than Wigan, made £9m commercially (according to last published figures, though it’s unknown how much that has changed since Venky’s took them over). Wigan’s last shirt sponsorship deal only made them £650k per season, which when compared to Liverpool’s £20m per season, is miniscule. So Wigan just don’t have the financial resources of other Premier League clubs and haven’t been able to cash in the Premier League’s global appeal by being able to attract fans from all over the world.
Wigan’s payroll is a relatively modest £36m (for example, Chelsea’s is five times larger), but with Wigan’s income being so small, they have a wages to turnover ratio of 91%, which is the second highest in the league after Manchester City’s ridiculous 107%. This would mean that Wigan would fall foul of UEFA’s new Financial Fair Play regulations in the unlikely event that they should ever qualify for European competition. They rely heavily on player sales to keep them active in the transfer market (they have a total net spend of only £5m in the last decade), which they’ve managed to achieve by using a large scouting network to find players they can buy cheaply, and then sell at an increased price, like they did with Luis Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios. However, this also means that any mistakes in the transfer market hit them harder that they do most other clubs. Mauro Boselli’s transfer for example, has proven to be a total disaster both on and off the pitch for Wigan.
The fact that Wigan have been unable to compete once again in the transfer market has been reflected on the pitch this season. Wigan’s squad is a bit of a rag-tag mixture of promising young players (Victor Moses and James McCarthy), players who had failed to make any impression at other Premier League clubs (Franco Di Santo, Ben Watson, Jean Beausejour and Shaun Maloney) and players recruited relatively cheaply, none of whom were on the radar of other clubs. With such a weak squad, it’s no surprise that Wigan have been in the relegation places for most of the season.
But Wigan have once again managed to make it work, and on the surface, it’s difficult to see just how. They have trouble scoring and even more trouble preventing the opposition from scoring. Before last weekend, Wigan had not won a home game since August. Yet they still stand an excellent chance of escaping relegation once more.
The main reason for Wigan managing to stay competitive is the excellent management of Roberto Martinez. Martinez has Wigan playing some of the best passing football in the Premier League, which belies many of the experts who say that it is impossible to play such football and still manage to survive. One thing that the Wigan squad does have in its favour is that there are a lot of utility players, which means that Martinez can be flexible with his tactics, to a degree other managers can’t.
Wigan’s bid for survival has taken a bit of an upturn in the past few months. Wigan have managed to hit a bit of form at just the right time. Since January, Wigan have only lost once in their last eight games, winning three of them. Wigan followed up two impressive performances against Norwich and West Brom, where they probably should have picked up six points rather than the two they did, with a surprise win at Anfield, against a terrible Liverpool team. Wigan finally broke their unenviable run of home fixtures without a win by beating Stoke 2-0, a result which means they are level on points with QPR, who are currently the 17th placed team and well and truly in with a chance of survival.
Wigan will benefit from having had experience of a relegation battle. Sometimes, when a team finds itself at the wrong end of the table, they start to suffer from a fear of failure, which makes the players tenser and often ends up making performances worse. That won’t happen to Wigan, whose players have been through relegation battles in the past and know how to overcome any nerves or tension.
Wigan have a horrendous next three games, with away trips to Chelsea and Arsenal and a home game against Manchester United meaning it is hard to see Wigan getting any points from those games, but it would be surprising if the other teams around them will have picked up enough points to increase the gap between themselves and Wigan to an insurmountable amount. After that though, the fixture list opens up a little for Wigan, with winnable home games against Newcastle and Wolves (who will probably have been relegated by then), as well as a trip to Fulham, who don’t have much to play for and a relegation six-pointer at Blackburn. Wigan will fancy their chances of picking up the eight to ten points that will probably be enough to ensure their survival.
Every season, everyone picks Wigan as favourites to be relegated saying that this will be the season where they finally go down. But once again, Wigan have belied their lowly status to turn yet another league campaign where they seemed destined for relegation to mount a serious bid to stay in the league for another season. I certainly wouldn’t bet against them managing to overcome the odds once more.