Wigan: It's all turned out nice again

... as George Formby used to say. But even he never imagined his local team in the glittering world of the Premiership. Paul Vallely visits a town stunned by an unexpected sporting success
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The sales assistant delicately arranges pairs of silky pink knickers in Ann Summers' leave-little-to-the-imagination lingerie shop in the centre of Wigan, while her colleague and I discuss the events of the previous night. "Why, what happened last night?" she inquires.

The sales assistant delicately arranges pairs of silky pink knickers in Ann Summers' leave-little-to-the-imagination lingerie shop in the centre of Wigan, while her colleague and I discuss the events of the previous night. "Why, what happened last night?" she inquires.

Her colleague shrieks. "What happened? What happened! You must be the only person in town who doesn't know."

The first girl blushes, which - I would have thought - is a bit of a handicap in someone who spends her days surrounded by Trick Me, Lick Me thongs (don't ask). But she still doesn't know.

Even the man from Oxford Archaeology knows. Ian Miller is the man in charge of the dig in Wigan town centre which has been enabled by the building of a new 425,000 sq ft shopping development. Townsfolk have always prided themselves that somewhere around Wigan was the site of the Roman settlement of Coccium.

"Twenty years ago we weren't even really sure if there was anything Roman of any consequence in Wigan," says the archaeologist. "But we have now found a stone building with underfloor central heating from the early second century, a time when most Roman buildings in the north were timber."

His hunch is that he has found a mansio - part of the Roman postal system which would have doubled as a guest house for visiting imperial dignitaries. "The town must therefore have had a strategic purpose. In terms of Roman Britain it has elevated Wigan from the 4th division to the premiership."

Which is, of course, what has just happened to Wigan Athletics - or the Latics as they are known in these parts.

In what football writers like to call a "fairy tale", the team has moved from non-league status just 27 years ago through all the professional football divisions - the Latics were still in the old Fourth Division as recently as 1997 - to win admission to the Barclay's Premiership for next season. The news spread through the town on Sunday with a speed not seen here since the Roman postmen were around.

"You should have been here," says the man in the railway ticket office at Wigan Wallgate station. "The whole town was off its cake. Singing and dancing and police cars everywhere. The whole town. Whether they were suits or track suits."

He observes this with a studied neutrality, since he is an Everton fan. Wigan, which has traditionally been more celebrated for rugby league than football, is within a half hour's drive of teams as illustrious as Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and Bolton. Wigan's football enthusiasts have traditionally looked elsewhere for their entertainment.

"I'm a Man United fan," says a policeman on patrol in King Street, "but I was rooting for the Latics to be promoted. It's good for the town."

This is a view which is almost universally held. In the pawnbrokers, the manager Barry Lack beams with jollity. "It puts people in a better mood - which is important in this business, where people come in with higher expectations of what they can get than are often realised," he says. "It makes for a better atmosphere. It reflects well on the town.

"And presumably it will bring us a better class of football hooligan." He roars with laughter at his own joke.

In the off-licence over the road, whose window display sports 176-degree Russian vodka in an impressive array of exotic spirits, the Asian shopkeeper, who introduces himself with due formality as Mr I B Mistry, says that already on match days his takings have risen by 30 per cent and he is hoping that Arsenal and Chelsea fans will spend more. (That might not be all they do when they alight from the train, I hope someone forewarns him).

"They will find Wigan a very nice place," says his assistant, Mrs Hansa Patel, whom Mr Mistry teases by saying: "She is a newcomer. She was a former friend of Idi Amin."

Mrs Patel, a refugee from Uganda, has lived in Wigan since 1970, but Mr Mistry has been here since 1966. "It was a gloomy place when I arrived," he adds. "Wigan has been getting nicer for many years now," Mrs Patel says. "And the people are very kind and friendly."

Indeed they are. Up in the shopping precinct, an uninspired pedestrianised triangle surrounded by the usual chain stores and half-hearted half-timbered buildings, a TV crew filming a local reporter is telling his viewers that "Wigan used to be thought of primarily as a rugby league town". He has to do a few retakes, partly because the local youths who have helpfully lent him their Latics blue and white scarves for a backdrop, keep offering helpful suggestions on the script of his piece to camera.

Down in the William Santos Emporium they are not so sure about the past tense. Wm Santos makes the world-renowned Uncle Joe's Mint Balls ("Keep you all aglow - no artificial additives") which were first marketed, in Wigan, in 1936. The lady behind the counter there is Joan Berrigan. Her reaction to the Lactics triumph is one of distinctly modified rapture.

"I'm a rugby supporter," she explains, "as are Wm Santos as a firm. But I'm pleased for the Latics. It shows there's more to Wigan than rugby league and all the old clichés - mills and mines and clogs."

"And pies," says one of her customers. Ah the famous Hollands Pies, I ventured. Withering scorn. "Greenhalgh's are better," says Mrs Berrigan. "Or Edwards's," the customer adds.

There is no doubt that the reputation of Wigan is replete with hoary old stereotypes. There was Wigan Pier, which never existed, but which was a music hall joke by George Formby senior. (A daft southerner named Orwell came looking for it, and never found it - it not being there - but nonetheless wrote a book about the road to it). But the rest of it - if it was ever true - is long gone. There were 1,000 pit shafts within five miles of the town centre at the end of the 19th century but the last closed in 1992.

With commendable post-modern irony the town a few years back opened the Wigan Pier Experience - a couple of museums and associated tourist attractions - in which actors play Victorian schoolteachers and which has won a host of British Tourist Authority awards. And there are plans underway now to expand this into a full "culture quarter" with a "performance venue" and plush canalside apartments. Not bad for a place whose only previous pretensions to culture was the Northern Soul of the 1970s Wigan Casino.

But, irony aside, the town is now a pleasant ordinary little place where Heinz provides 2,000 jobs making baked beans alongside Pataks Indian foods. But the service sector is now a much bigger employer than manufacturing: the Tote and Girobank are based in Wigan.

"We've had a lot to live down," says local historian Geoffrey Shryhane, who has a weekly column in the Wigan Observer, "what with Orwell and all that. But the town has pulled itself up by the bootstraps, just as the football team has. We're having the last laugh in many ways."

Not the smallest player in this transformation isJJB Sports, the £467m sports goods giant built up by a local lad made good. Dave Whelan, a former professional footballer, began with a market stall after breaking his leg in the FA Cup Final. He may not have done much for local architecture with his huge sprawl of characterless warehouselike buildings. But he has brought jobs aplenty. Unemploymentrecently dropped below the regional and national average for the first time since 1959.

Whelan owns Wigan Rugby League Club, the Wigan Athletics and has an interest in the local rugby union club. He inspires, shall we say, mixed responses. There are many here who think him a braggard and a bully. But others agree with the verdict on the banner unveiled at a recent Latics game which said simply: "Whelan Is God".

From his toiletries stall in Wigan market he built up a chain of discount stores (which he sold to the supermarket chain Morrisons) and bought JJ Bradburn, a local sports shop that specialised in fishing bait which he has now transformed into a £290m mega-chain. And he is doing much the same with Wigan Athletic which attracted about 1,000 fans in the bottom division when Whelan came on the scene. He has built a 22,000-seat stadium which he is optimistic will be full to capacity now the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United - rather than Plymouth, Brighton and Gillingham - will be visiting. Premiership status will bring in £7m in TV revenues, and is also expected to boost the local economy.

"It must be a bit of a disappointment for him and the Latics fans that all the shops aren't decked out in white and blue today," says Mrs Berrigan, smashing up slab toffee behind the counter in Wm Santos. "Every window in the town dressed in red and white in the glory days when Wigan won the Rugby League Challenge Cup."

Even so there is a lift in the mood. Even the traffic wardens are not being abused. "It's great," says one of them, Gail Davies. "It makes you feel like you come from somewhere. It's gives the whole town an ego boost."

"By the way, where are you parked," she asks, slapping a ticket on a white BMW.

In the station car park, I say. "Why, would you have let me off today?"

"No," she says. "I'd have booked you. I'm a Chelsea fan."

In the charity shop across the road, a second-hand Wigan rugby league scarf is in the window at £1.75. Maybe things really are changing.

Wigan's peer (and other famous names)

Joe Gormley

Wigan's most famous trade unionist led the miners in the 1977 national strike. He was made a baronet in 1983.

George Formby Jnr

Born in Wigan in 1904, Formby wrote and starred in more than 22 films. He died in 1961.

Richard Ashcroft

The Verve sprang from the Wigan suburb of Billinge, where they met at sixth form college in 1989.

Roy Kinnear

The actor was born in Wigan in 1934, son of rugby international Roy Kinnear.

James Hilton

Wigan-born writer, who moved to California where he died in 1954, aged 54.

Kay Burley

A leading Sky News presenter, Burley started her career aged 16 in Wigan.

Sir Ian McKellen

The McKellens moved to Wigan in 1939 when Sir Ian was three weeks old. Knighted in 1990, his latest role is in Coronation Street.