Walking in a Wigan wonderland

The unlikely lads. It is the Premiership's most surprising success story. Ronald Atkin meets an all-star cast
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it came to choosing the Premiership's manager of the month for September, the selection panel were evenly split between Jose Mourinho and Paul Jewell. Eventually, it was decided the honour should go to Jewell, on the grounds that the Wigan Athletic manager was unlikely to win it again.

This weekend, Jewell did win it again as the outstanding manager for October, an anecdote which says everything about the remarkable rise of the newly promoted club. Tipped by most pundits to go straight back down, Wigan lie second to Mourinho's Chelsea and comfortably ahead of Manchester United and Arsenal.

Jewell, the archetypal Liverpudlian, acknowledges pleasure at the award but denies surprise. "I won it two months in a row the year we got promoted from the Second Division," he points out. "The most pleasing thing is not that I've won an award but that the team have been winning games, and obviously those results reflect on me. That sort of thing comes with the job. Look at poor Alex McLeish. Last year Rangers won the Scottish League, and now people are asking questions. That's the nature of the job. Sometimes it's unfair, but unfortunately there's not a lot we can do about it."

What has surprised Jewell, he cheerfully concedes, is where his team find themselves in their Premiership debut season. "I would be telling lies if I said I had expected to have 25 points after 11 games. We have done tremendously well, but there's only a third of the season gone and we've got a fair bit to do until we can feel happy with ourselves. We know we are moving in the right direction, but there is an awful lot of hard work ahead if we are still to be in this league next year."

Starting with Arsenal at home next Saturday, Wigan now tackle the defining stage of their season. Following Arsenal come a home game with Tottenham, then visits to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, with a home Carling Cup tie against Newcastle thrown in.

"It's a tough batch of five League games for us," said Jewell. "But I'm not setting any targets. We've got 25 points now, and if we still have 25 after those next five games we are still doing OK. But we want to do better than OK, we want to get as many wins and points as possible.

"So we are going into these games showing the other teams plenty of respect. But we won't be fearing anybody. That's not arrogance. Whether we play Arsenal or Torquay, we prepare the same way. That's the way I am as a manager, and the way my players are. Once you take your eye off the ball, and it might only be one per cent, you can lose your focus very easily. So we're just focusing on Arsenal, see what that brings, and after that it's the next one."

As for becoming the town's new hero, Jewell insists: "I am more interested in being respected than liked. I prefer that to people thinking, 'What a great guy, but what a hopeless manager'. What matters to me is that if I left tomorrow Wigan would be in a better position than when I joined, and that's all any manager can ever ask for."

THE OWNER AND CHAIRMAN

DAVE WHELAN: "Most chairmen are there to help the club and are dedicated. Most of those I meet are nice people and are madly enthusiastic about their teams. But that can make you do things which are not financially sound, as we have seen. A chairman's job is to be boss of the club in every way except football. The manager is the boss there, because he is the difference between a good team and an average one. It is all about one guy, and in Paul Jewell I have got a good one after having had four or five over the 10 years I have been at Wigan. A lot of people think it is not really difficult to be a manager, but it is. You have got to pick your players up, you have got to train them right, they have to believe in you, and you have to select the right team. It is an amazing job, something that you realise only when you become chairman of a football club. But any chairman who wants to interfere with the manager, forget it. If you get a good manager, back him, do what you can for him and give him total support. Paul speaks my language. There is no messing about, no nonsense, he is so upfront and honest."

THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE

BRENDA SPENCER: "When I joined the club in 1986, on the accounts side, we were at Springfield Park, with no money and average crowds of 1,800. Sometimes I don't know how we got through the season, you survived from year to year. Then I became club secretary, which got me into the administrative side, and when Dave Whelan bought us in 1995 he made me the chief executive. Now here we are in a magnificent stadium and in the Premiership; it's like living a fairytale, a whole different world. The manager, Paul Jewell, takes credit for getting us there, but he would agree it is a team effort. We are run as a tight club, not a lot of staff, but it works very well. We all double up on different jobs. I do the finance as well as the administration. Most people muck in. The first thing I did this morning when I arrived was to wash up, because there were all these dirty cups and plates in the kitchen. I suppose not many chief executives would do that. But this is a hands-on job and it has become my life. I am on the board as well, and I love Wigan Athletic. I just couldn't imagine not being involved in some shape or form."

THE LOYAL SERVANT

JIMMY BULLARD: "Paul Jewell calls my £270,000 move from Peterborough the best money-value signing of his career, so I've had a lot to live up to. But I think they have had their money's worth, since I just broke the club record of 118 consecutive League games. After non-League and Conference I have played in every division except League Two. I'm really enjoying the experience of the Premiership, but in my opinion there is a very fine line between the Leagues, especially between the Championship and the Premiership, though it can become a gap with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. Against Chelsea in the season's first match we coped really well, held them for 92 minutes. And after the initial letdown over our defeat, we took a lot out of it. We thought, if they are the best team in the League, what else have we got to fear? I always said the best time to play Chelsea was in the opening game, nothing to lose for us. That lifted us. I was surprised at first about how well we were doing, but with each game I lost that surprise. I must be a bit of a Wigan mascot, because there's only one season I've been here when we haven't got promoted."

THE NEW ARRIVAL

GRAHAM KAVANAGH: "After my last game for Middlesbrough in the Premiership, there was a nine-year gap for me playing in the top division until this season, and it is a joy to be back, especially since we haven't lost when I have been in the side. The start we have got off to has made it all the better. After that opening game with Chelsea the whole season has snowballed, absolutely brilliant. I would be lying if I said I expected us to be second in the League at this time. I'm not saying we will get a European place, but we set ourselves a total of 40 points and already we are only 15 away from that. Confidence is incredibly high at the club, but we've got a tough five games ahead of us. Hard work is what has got us here. There is a very good structure to the side, good morale and team spirit, and that's all down to the gaffer. It is all blending very well. We've got pace up front, a very hard-working midfield and a solid back four. We look strong at the moment but we haven't got the biggest of squads and we will need luck with injuries and suspensions. Still, we are on a hell of a run right now. Long may that continue."

THE PRESS OFFICER

MATT McCANN: "The press box, with its capacity for 50, never had more than 15 people in it, just the local papers and the agencies. For our first match against Chelsea there were 150 applications for accreditation, every national newspaper sent two reporters. We have had to double the size of the box. The biggest change is the global interest. I field 20 calls a day from foreign journalists, from Canada, South America, all across Europe. I have been on the phone this week to Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, France, Russia, the Far East and Australia. We got a mention in the New York Times recently, and we had al-Jazeera for the Chelsea game. The media interest has changed from being patronising, almost treating us as a toy, to very good journalism. A couple of requests teetered on the insulting, like posing in sombreros and setting up palm trees on the training ground before we went to Barbados. We weren't prepared to do that. The attitude was that we were going to be a flash in the pan. All of a sudden people realised we mean business, and the coverage has reflected that."

THE TOURISM CHIEF

KEITH BERGMAN: "Publicity around Wigan's rugby league team has always been good, but not to the same extent. Obviously, it brings in the crowds, but they are people travelling for the day from local towns. It is not the same as 6,000 Newcastle fans wanting hotels. Next weekend we will have thousands of Arsenal fans looking for a place to stay, places to eat, visit, shop and drink. We expected an extra £11 million spending on the town, but that is now a conservative estimate, and the economic benefit will roll on far after this season. The football team epitomise what the town is about - ambition and progress. Because Wigan were expected to go down straight away, people all over the country have now taken them to their hearts. They have become everybody's second club. I was in the Canary Isles recently and on the back wall of a pub was the Wigan Athletic flag. That would not have been in place six months ago. For far too long now, Wigan has been the butt of jokes. It was thought of as a typical northern town with cobbles. Now people realise we don't wear cloth caps and keep whippets. Two-thirds of the Wigan Borough is beautiful countryside."

COMMERCIAL HEAD

JOHN FILLINGHAM: "Getting promoted and then being successful has been a double bonus. Despite doubling our prices for corporate hospitality, we are sold out for the season. It has exceeded all our expectations. I'm getting phone calls every day from companies abroad asking about merchandise and sponsorship. The shirt sales have trebled, mainly to the Far East and the United States, where expats have tuned in to this wonderful story. Ever since the fixtures came out and gave us Chelsea at home as the first match the whole thing has become an adventure. The eyes of the football world were on us from the start. What could have been a negative has turned into the most massive positive. We are not in the Premiership to make up the numbers, but to develop Wigan as a football club, and everybody who works here has bought into the dream. From the day we moved into the JJB Stadium, nobody involved had a shadow of a doubt that one day we would be in the Premiership. But I was at the Premier League offices yesterday and somebody said to me, 'If I offered you 17th place right now, what would you say?' I told him, 'I would snatch your hand off'."

THE FANZINE EDITOR

ANDY VAUGHAN: "I've been a fan since 1966 and known the hard times. There was once talk about moving the club to Skelmersdale, with collection buckets outside the ground. Now every match has become like a cup-tie. Next week it's Thierry Henry and Arsenal, the highlight since Chelsea on opening day. We should have won that, but when we then lost at Charlton I thought, 'Oh God, here we go'. Since then it has been unbelievable. There has been such a rivalry here over the years between the rugby league and the football clubs. We are on top now, and probably they don't like it, but a lot of rugby followers have been coming to the football who don't admit they have been here. We have pulled them in. There are people sat near me who I have never seen before, women and girls. But that's terrific, let's hope we can hold on to the new interest. The good thing is we're doing well, with Bolton just behind. How great if we could both finish where we are now. But we aren't going to, are we? It's just a question of getting to 40 points and safety."

Comments