Whelan can revel in the final reward for Wigan's long march

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The Independent Football

This was a week in which Wigan could revel in the achievements of its football club. A 1-0 victory over Gateshead had helped maintain Athletic's rise up the Northern Premier League and ultimately to the runners-up place that secured promotion to the Football League at the fourth time of asking. A mere 28 years on, the proud inhabitants of the Lancashire town are celebrating once more, albeit in the knowledge that, this time, the nation is taking notice and being advised to follow its lead.

"If England can show the spirit and resolution that Wigan show then we will win the World Cup," their ebullient chairman, Dave Whelan, said yesterday.

Cup finals are not an alien concept in Wigan, their rugby league team won the Challenge Cup eight years in succession after all, but for those of a more spherical sporting persuasion a remarkable football odyssey will be completed on 26 February when Paul Jewell takes his Premiership debutants into the club's first showpiece occasion at the Millennium Stadium.

"I've just been in town and there is an unbelievable buzz everywhere," said Whelan, of Wigan's reaction to Tuesday's advance into the Carling Cup final. "While the buzz has been there all season because we've continued to surprise everyone, including me, it is just wonderful for a working class town like Wigan to go to Arsenal and come away in the final while they are not.

"This club has been so small in the past, 25 years ago we were playing in the Northern Premier League, so to come from there it is a fairy story, but we have done it on merit. It has not been a fluke or engineered, it has been done by the boss Paul Jewell, his assistant Chris Hutchings, by all the staff and the players."

Whelan travelled home from the capital by private helicopter to study a replay of the semi-final defeat that turned to delirium once Jason Roberts' scored in the last minute of extra time to make the score 2-1 to Arsenal on the night, but 2-2 on aggregate - sending Jewell's men through on the away goals rule. The JJB owner was accompanied on his journey by a box of champagne, a gift from the Arsenal chief executive, David Dein, who "had been presented with it before the game but thought we deserved it more. The sportsmanship of everyone at Arsenal was outstanding," although the early hours were distracted by recollections of the bonuses he may have promised those signed last summer with the sole aim of Premiership survival.

"They're on a hell of a good bonus to win it," he admitted. "I never thought we'd get to a final so I might have gone mad. They could have said: 'What do we get if we get to the final of the Carling or FA Cup?' and I may have had a moment of madness thinking we'd no chance of getting there. I might have offered them £1m." Wigan's unexpected and unheralded journey has also caused the chief executive, Brenda Spencer, to cancel a Nile cruise she had planned for the weekend of the final. In the circumstances, Cardiff will make a welcome alternative.

"This club has cost me about £80m but all of that is worth it when you have times like these," her chairman added. "This final is not a financial return for me, what I put into this club I don't take out. We'll probably make an income this year of £25m-£26m, but that belongs to Wigan Athletic.

"The rewards of success are recorded in different ways by different people. I've had some really good success stories in my life, and some awful endings. When I broke my leg in the Cup final, snapped in two places, was the lowest point of my life. When you're carried off at Wembley, that's the low point in your life. To get into the Premiership was one of the high points, and this is another fantastic high point. When I see our boys come out... Nobody will be prouder than me and the mayor of Wigan."

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