Doubts shake the citadel

close-up Wigan Rugby league's most powerful club is showing worrying signs of strain. Dave Hadfield examines cracks in the legend
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The Independent Online
IT WAS just one match, just one defeat. But Wigan's loss at Salford in the Challenge Cup five weeks ago has set in motion a sequence of events that has shaken the composure of the most dominant club in British sport.

With less than two weeks before the launch of Super League, Wigan have self-confessed cash-flow problems, a playing squad in which cracks are appearing and their chairman, Jack Robinson, under police investigation following allegations of attempted fraud.

Wigan's parlous financial state is illustrated by constant rumours of unpaid bills as well as by the business of the pounds 100,000 from a World Cup match that they accidentally pocketed for a time instead of sending it on to the League.

That position can only be worsened by the lack of a cash transfusion from their by now annual Wembley trip. And the fact that there is a man with plenty of money waiting in the wings makes Robinson feel less rather than more secure.

It is all a long way from the Wigan of recent legend: the mighty machine against which all other clubs were measured and found wanting on and off the field. There might be an element of wishful thinking, but some of those rivals believe Wigan's castle is crumbling.

On the day that Wigan lost at Salford - their first defeat in the Challenge Cup for nine years - they seemed to have handled the end of an incredible record with dignity. A few fans at the Willows performed the once-famous "Wigan walk" by leaving before full-time, but most stayed on to pay due credit to Salford. The Wigan players, unaccustomed as they were to its flavour, were gracious in defeat, as was their coach, Graeme West, and their chairman, Jack Robinson.

It was in the following week that it all blew up in their faces, the weekly Wigan Observer quoting Robinson as being scathingly critical of West's decision to let a number of Wigan players go on a "training week" to Tenerife during the build-up to the tie. Robinson was indeed of the opinion that the Tenerife break had been a mistake, but claimed that the newspaper had over-stated his disapproval and was trying to stir up friction between him and West where none existed.

Worse, from the club's point of view, was to follow. The following week's Observer ran a front-page story based on interviews with a Wigan woman who had been staying in the same complex. They depicted the trip as a drunken binge, during which one player had been so inebriated after an all-night session that he collapsed by the swimming pool.

The Wigan Observer is a small paper, but, in what is a small town, it can be disproportionately influential. In the pubs and clubs of a place where every cough and hiccup from Central Park is hot news, they were talking of little else.

Once more, Robinson embarked on damage limitation. He would be investigating, he said, but he had too much faith in the professionalism of Wigan players to believe that they would behave in that way just a few days before an important match. Besides, one of the players named in the Observer's article - the Wales and Great Britain prop Neil Cowie - had not even been in Tenerife.

That error gave Wigan their opportunity to strike back. The Observer received a solicitor's letter giving notice of an intention to seek libel damages, although whether it was the club or Cowie who was doing the suing is a moot point. That letter, however, was the prelude to the next, and potentially most damaging round in the battle.

Last Tuesday, five pages of the newspaper were devoted to detailed accusations that Robinson's desire to punish them for their Tenerife revelations went far beyond sending a solicitor's letter. The Observer claimed that Robinson phoned Alf Davies, the chief executive of Leeds, with a bizarre suggestion. If Davies would provide Wigan with two letters, one saying that Leeds were interested in Cowie and another saying that, as a result of the Tenerife publicity, they were no longer prepared to pursue the deal, Robinson would cut them in on the resulting damages from the Observer.

Robinson strongly denies having done any such thing, but the paper says it has evidence, which it duly passed to police, who last week confirmed that an investigation was in hand. He also insists that he will not resign, but at his antique shop in Wigan this week, Robinson was a man feeling the pressure. "Five pages?" he mused. "We've had two murders in Wigan recently and they only got half a page apiece. I'd be better off if I'd killed somebody."

He insists that there are "several serious inaccuracies" in the Observer's account of events and that the recent glut of bad publicity is part of a campaign to unseat him and put Dave Whelan, the chairman of Wigan Athletic, in his place. Whelan, Blackburn Rovers' full-back in the 1960 FA Cup final, self-made millionaire and former Wigan sponsor, is Robinson's bete noir. His previous attempts to get on to the Wigan board have been resisted, as have his suggestions of football and rugby clubs sharing a new ground, but Robinson sees Whelan's shadow behind everything from damning newspaper articles to disallowed tries.

At the Wigan Observer, however, they are adamant that they are not doing a hatchet job on Robinson on anybody's behalf. "We would not allow ourselves to be used in that way," the paper's editor, Carl Johnson, said. "This newspaper is not in the business of victimising individuals, but certain information came to our attention which we felt we had a moral obligation to publish."

Whatever the motives of his tormentors, Robinson would find it easier to shrug off this latest problem if it were his first. Although he could claim to be Wigan's most successful chairman - the club has won virtually everything on offer since he took over from Maurice Lindsay in 1992 - his is a chequered reign.

The coach he inherited, John Monie, made little secret of his disdain for him and the tenure of the man he appointed as his successor, John Dorahy, ended after a wrestling match between coach and chairman on the way back from Wembley. This season, there has been the affair of the missing pounds 100,000 and stories of massive unpaid tax bills, which Robinson claims were the product of malicious disinformation.

"We are short of cash," he says. "But, in the 16 years I've been a director, we always have been. We have been very successful on the field, not at the bank." Indeed, it is impossible not to feel sympathy on that score for Robinson, who inherited a business that was financially over-stretched and has been struggling to steady the ship since.

The evidence that money is tighter than in recent times, however, is there for all to see in Wigan's failure to make new signings to compensate for the players they have lost. Robinson exudes confidence in the club's young players, although that is a case of making a virtue out of necessity. A massive transfer coup could deflect the spotlight; without that, Jack Robinson will remain in its fierce glare.

Landmarks in Wigan's golden era

1980 Wigan's decline from their best years in the Fifties and Sixties is completed by relegation. The "Gang of Four", which includes Maurice Lindsay and Jack Robinson, take control of boardroom.

1985 Challenge Cup won for first time in 20 years.

1986 Graham Lowe becomes coach.

1988 Sequence of eight Challenge Cups begins.

1989 Lowe succeeded after three successful seasons by John Monie.

1992 Lindsay leaves to become chief executive of the Rugby League. Robinson becomes chairman.

1993 Monie leaves, John Dorahy appointed.

1994 Dorahy sacked, despite winning Cup, Premiership and Championship. Graeme West appointed.

1995 Wigan win every available trophy under West.

1996 Beaten in Challenge Cup for the first time since 1987.