Focus: Welcome to peerless Wigan

The football team used to be a joke, just like the pier and the songs of famous son George Formby. But Wigan is about to gatecrash the Premiership, and this Lancashire town is looking for respect. Or at least a good time. Julia Stuart on a place that always has the last laugh
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The Independent Online

The pier was never real. The thing for which Wigan has been most famous, until this week, was a total invention. George Formby Snr, father of the ukulele strummer and a music hall performer who called himself the Wigan Nightingale, made it up. As a joke, because who would think you could really go bathing off the coal jetty on the Liverpool-Leeds canal?

Daft southerners who didn't realise the joke was on them, that's who. Like George Orwell, who came to stay in Wigan, wrote a book exaggerating the state of the place and used the pier in the title. Then visitors started coming, in their thousands, along what they thought was the road to Wigan pier. The council didn't want to disappoint them (and it could see there was money to be made), so it invented the Wigan Pier Experience, which has museums, a heritage centre where actors dress up as Victorians, restaurants and - of course - shops. There is an interactive tour of the last 100 years, "Amsterdam-style waterbuses" and on top of all that "visitors are invited to blow the steam whistle of the world's largest working mill steam engine".

Talk about living. And talk about the Spirit of Wigan (now embodied, incidentally, in a 10-metre stainless steel statue on a roundabout). This Lancashire town is the sort of can-do place where people take a joke and turn it into an astonishing success. And the latest, most dramatic example of that, is the football team.

Wigan Athletic used to be so useless it took the team until 1978 to get into the national Football League. Yet next Sunday it will play Chelsea, one of the world's best and richest football teams. This will be Wigan's first-ever Premiership game, following the unthinkable success of May when they beat Reading 3-1 to secure their entry into soccer's highest division.

Hotels and pubs in the town, which has a population of around 80,000, are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being in the world's spotlight (even the Arabic television station al-Jazeera has put in a request to film Wigan training). An additional 200,000 visitors are expected to come to watch 19 home games this season, bringing an estimated £10m boost to the economy of a town where a decent two-bedroom terrace house costs £85,000.

The council, which is predicting a long-term economic benefit closer to £50m, has since rebranded the place as "Wigan Premier Town". New road signs have sprung up welcoming visitors to "Wigan - Home of Premiership Football".

For £1.25, visiting fans pouring out of the station will be able to sample a chip barm (buttie) from Ray's Chippy and then pile into the Brunel pub and hotel where the manager, Joyce Rushton, 48, will be waiting for them. "We're very happy Wigan got into the Premiership," she said. "We've already had room bookings from supporters. We can't get them all in, but we'll try. It's what every pub dreams of. We are hoping it will double our turnover."

Only 11 years ago buckets were being passed around at the end of matches for donations for the club's survival. Its incredible change of fortune is down to a local businessman, Dave Whelan, now the club's chairman. Owner of the JJB sportswear chain based in the town, he bought the club in 1995. At the time, gasping for life in the bottom division with only 1,500-odd fans every week, the club was prepared to try everything, even announcing that it had a celebrity supporter - one Mikhail Gorbachev - to increase coverage. But while the press loved the story, it continued to mock the team. John Fillingham, now the club's commercial manager, admitted for the first time last week that the tale of the former Soviet leader sitting in the Kremlin on a Saturday afternoon wearing a Wigan Athletic shirt and scarf while waiting for the match results was entirely of his own making.

When Whelan bought the side he stood up in front of the supporters' club and announced, tongue in cheek, that he was going to take it into the Premiership. Everybody laughed. He went on to spend £30m on a new stadium to replace the old Springfield Park venue (universally described as a "dump"). Its replace- ment, the plush 25,000-seater JJB Stadium, opened in 1999.

Whelan continued to pour money into the club - the total to date is around £70m - and success followed success. Fans returned and by last season the average crowd had swelled to 11,700. It is expected to reach 20,000 this season. Around 12,000 season tickets have already been sold - an all-time record and more than double last year. Tickets for the Chelsea game were expected to have sold out by this weekend. More than £100,000 has been spent sprucing up the stadium for the arrival of the demigods from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea thought nothing of spending £21m of their (even richer) owner's money on a winger, Shaun Wright-Phillips, last month. The entire Wigan squad cost less than £6m.

The smell of sawdust filled the stadium's corridors last week as workmen toiled to finish the refurbishment. "Being in the Premiership demands certain things of us," said Matt McCann, the club spokesman. "The calibre of celebrity will be much greater. People like the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United demand a much higher quality of care. There is an onus on us to make sure we impress this season - we are keen not to be left behind and thought of as 'little Wigan'."

The maximum number of journalists at any given game last year was 30. This week they are expecting 140. A new office with plasma screens has been built for the manager, Paul Jewell, who previously had to make do with a room not much bigger than a single bedroom.

While pressure is on for the stadium to be ready in time for its celebrity guests, Wigan fans are still in a state of shock. When Caroline Molyneux went to watch them play as child she would bring her lucky rabbit along. But the charm, like the side, was hopeless. At school she was the team's only supporter, wearing their shirt underneath her blouse. The ribbing was merciless. Then there was the time when she watched fans walk out of a game against Portsmouth dressed as funeral directors and carrying a coffin to mourn their team's relegation into the fourth division.

When the team won in May, Caroline, 28, the chairperson of the supporters' club and a season-ticket holder for 20 years, wept. For the first time in the club's history, the atmosphere on the terraces was electric. "It'll only sink in when I'm sat there on Sunday and see them coming out of the tunnel," the science teacher said. She was, however, optimistic about her team's performance. "There have been lots of first-day shocks in the past. We could steal it at 1-0. Even if we just stay up this season, it will be like we've won the European Cup, because everyone has got us down to be relegated straight away. Now that we've hit the big time, Whelan is not going to let us go back down to the Northern leagues any more, no way."

John Heeley, 38, co-editor of the Cockney Latic fanzine and editor of its website, admitted: "It's slowly sinking in. I started watching them in 1974 as a seven-year-old, when they were non-league. Even six or seven years ago you would dream of things like this but never think it possible. When they play Chelsea I'll just be staring at the pitch trying to take it all in. It's a dream come true."

But dreams, and jokes, do come true in Wigan, it seems. So Chelsea or any other arrogant southerners who feel like poking fun at the aspirations of this Lancashire town had better watch out. Or they may find - as George Orwell and those who laughed at the idea of Wigan pier found - that the joke is on them.

TEN THINGS TO DO IN WIGAN BEFORE YOU DIE

Ride the helter-skelter at the end of the mile-long Victorian pier. Oh, sorry. There isn't one. You can go to "The Wigan Pier Experience" but that's not a pier at all.

Ask for Uncle Joe, whose world-famous mintballs (made in Wigan) "keep you all aglow". He probably never existed either.

Put a shiny bit of wood on the floor and dance yourself dizzy to Northern Soul, like they used to at the legendary Wigan Casino. That did actually exist, but doesn't now.

Visit Camelot, the Arthurian theme park just outside town. Some historians say that Arthur fought battles here. And some say he didn't.

Watch rugby league in its heartland. Wigan are among the world's finest practitioners of this proud game.

Blow the steam whistle of the largest working mill steam engine in the world at Trencherfield Mill, regarded (so the council says) as "the Wonder of Wigan".

Go to the Wigan Food and Drink Festival (or the International Jazz Festival, or the Standish Festival of poetry and music or the Children's Festival - you can't say they're not trying).

Shout, "Who ate all the pies?". Other Lancastrians started calling the townspeople pie eaters after the General Strike, when Wigan miners were among the first back to work and had to eat humble pie. Apparently.

Ask where the Pie-dome is. Sardonic out-of-towners call the JJB Stadium this for the reasons above. Then run like crazy.

Watch Shakespeare. Sir Ian McKellen did so for the first time here, as a young Wigan man, and look where he ended up.

Many of these observations are derived from 'Lancashire: Where Women Die of Love' by Charles Nevin (Mainstream)

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