FA Cup final: Why Wigan fans are up (and down) for the Cup
Wembley fever as relegation looms is tough in a rugby league town
Thursday 09 May 2013
There is a sign at the top of Lyon Road, a neat if anywhereville, new-build estate surrounded by a swathe of traditional redbrick terraces. It reads: "No ball games." Wind the clock back and it would be standing in the middle of Springfield Park, the historic home of Wigan Athletic.
Lyon Road is a nod to that past. Harry Lyon is Wigan's record goalscorer. It was nearly half a century ago that Lyon ensured himself a place in club legend, and in the small print of FA Cup history. In a first-round replay against Doncaster Rovers, the non-league side found themselves down to 10 men when he was carried off with a suspected broken leg. The story goes that Lyon, born, bred and raised in these parts, swallowed a couple of painkillers, washed them down with a brisk tot or two of whisky and returned to the fray to score a second-half hat-trick that won the day.
"Oh aye, I remember Harry Lyon," says Derek Eastham, a 77-year-old who has watched Wigan for more than 50 years. "He was a good player."
Eastham is standing outside the DW Stadium, the neat if anywhereville modern ground, down the hill from the old Springfield Park, under the railway line that will take the current squad with its 14 different nationalities to London this morning, and across the iron bridge over the canal.
Tomorrow morning, Eastham will be on coach No 31 departing from the stadium's car park for Wembley to watch his club play in an FA Cup final. It is not a journey he ever imagined embarking on but it is also not one that seems to matter as much as it might once have. Nor are the ones that will follow next season into European football. Because it is all about the league.
It always has been at Wigan. It is why the club spent so long trying to get into the Football League in the first place, showing a persistence that would have wearied Robert the Bruce's spider. There is a Scottish connection here. Among the 34 attempts the club made to get into the Football League was one to try to join the Scottish League in the early 1970s – a publicity stunt driven by desperation at the Football League's perceived closed shop.
A year after Lyon's Cup exploits, in 1966, English football's year of years, Manchester City came to Springfield Park to mark the "opening" of the ground's floodlights. The two face each other at Wembley now as league co-habitors, if far from equal housemates – Wigan occupy the box room, and may soon be moving out against their will.
There was not a cloud in the sky over the town on Tuesday: blue bunting fluttered in Market Place; a flag in the window of Norman and Philip Hairdressing proclaimed they were part of Roberto's Blue Army; and the balloons declaring "We believe" were pinned up in the next-door pub. A day later and the weather was a grey shroud that reflected the mood of the club's support. The team had limped off the night before to a smattering of boos. Outside, Wembley flags and scarves were touted for a fiver. "How much are the Championship scarves?" muttered one malcontent.
It was difficult to find anyone who placed winning tomorrow above victory against Swansea on Tuesday. Alan Edwards was a possible exception, although he wasn't sure. He had driven back for the day from his home in Brighton with his son and grandson, all Wigan supporters. The rest of the family were sure. "The league," said second generation David. "Yes," agreed third generation Scott. "I want to win tonight, next Tuesday against Arsenal and against Villa," said Eastham. "Saturday can take care of itself."
The fear is that while Wembley might provide a one-day feast, famine will follow if – as looks likely, judged on the table and Tuesday night's erratic performance – they suffer a first relega-tion from English football's top flight.
"We won't come back," said Sylvia Eastham, shaking her head as her husband nodded his agreement.
Wigan have been a Premier League club for eight seasons. For some they are there only because of the chairman Dave Whelan's largesse, a rich man's plaything, a club with no soul. Except every club with a history rooted in its locality has a soul. This is Northern Soul. A supporters' website puts it like this: "No fans, no history, no money, no worries." It is, of course, tongue in footballing cheek. The worries are rising unnervingly high despite tomorrow's big day out.
Wigan have yet to sell their final allocation, as with their semi-final and as with their final league game against Aston Villa. This is perceived by some to illustrate a plastic football club in a rugby league town. But Wigan's average gate of just below 20,000, the second lowest in the top flight, is from a town with a population four times that number. It is a proportion that compares favourably with all the other single club towns or cities in the Premier League – Sunderland's 40,000 average comes from a population of 180,000, Newcastle's 50,000 from 280,000.
Wigan keep ticket prices low. It's £10 for children and Tuesday night saw a larger number than at most Premier League grounds. But they will not all grow into grey, grizzled Wigan fans. As one father pointed out, his sons support City and United but they go to Wigan because they can afford to.
Take away the Premier League and that audience may shrink dramatically. Then there is the financial pain of relegation at a time when it has never been more lucrative to be in the top flight. That is the reality that accompanies the coachloads south tomorrow.
"Most would say it is more important that we stay in the Premier League," says Mick Moffat, a 52-year-old and season-ticket holder at the DW, as he was at Springfield Park, "and that irritates me. Why should it be all about money?"
Moffat and his wife are standing outside the Springfield Hotel, across the road from First Avenue, the old route to the old ground. Both are wearing Wigan shirts, both heading for Wembley. On Lyon Road, No 31 has a Wigan flag hanging from an upstairs window. At the top of the road a car has Wigan Warriors and Liverpool stickers in its rear window. You are never far from sporting neighbours in these parts.
"We have been in the shadows for too long," says Moffat and then adds with a happy note of rare optimism, a little bit of Harry Lyon and his whisky spirit: "Win the FA Cup, stay up and go into Europe and we won't be in anyone's shadow any more."
Dzeko hints at City departure this summer
The Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko has suggested he could be playing elsewhere next season.
The Bosnia international was non-committal about his future as he met reporters at City's pre-FA Cup final media day.
Dzeko, who has scored 14 goals this season, has been linked with other clubs as City consider a summer revamp of their squad.
When asked if he could leave at the end of the season, Dzeko said: "We will see. Everything is open."
Dzeko's present thoughts are on helping City beat Wigan in the final at Wembley on Saturday.
The 27-year-old was guilty of a glaring miss in last weekend's draw at Swansea but made amends with a well-controlled winning volley against West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday.
Dzeko, an unused substitute when City beat Stoke City in the 2011 final, accepts he may not start but is keen to be part of the action.
He said: "Everyone is hoping. Everyone wants to play. I don't think about that but I think that's not important. It's important to win it. It means a lot to the club, to the fans, to us players, to everyone."
Dzeko earned a tag of "super sub" earlier this season after six of his first seven goals came as a substitute.
It was not a nickname he particularly liked, but he added: "That's my job to score goals, if I come on after 60 minutes or start."
And did he dream of scoring the Cup winner? "It is important just to win it. I'm not sure about scoring the winner but I am dreaming of playing and winning the title."
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