The battle for Wigan: how footballing success has divided town

For decades it has been a rugby league heartland, but the astonishing success of its football team has changed some (though certainly not all) sporting minds in Wigan. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Online

If proof were needed of the mutual enmity between a town's rugby and football fans, it is to be found in the story of the high-flying Bradford Bulls' temporary move to Bradford City's Valley Parade while Odsal Stadium was being rebuilt, four years ago. The Bulls' attendances dropped dramatically because their fans refused to attend a ground associated with football and the joke among the city's football contingent ran that after years munching pies on draughty terraces, the seats were also far too luxurious for the rugby league brigade's liking.

The story is much the same in Wigan, where the town's football team are prospering as deep into rugby league territory as it gets. The side have made a journey most can only dream of, from the lower reaches of the old Third Division to second in the Premiership inside eight years, yet they still don't seem to be able to win followers of the oval ball who are flocking in record numbers for Wigan Warriors season tickets. "The Wigan Athletic thing has not impacted on us as some people might like to think," said a Warriors spokesman yesterday. Once a rugby town, always a rugby town, so it seems.

The big fixtures suggest that Wigan Athletic can pull in the crowds without any rugby converts. A record crowd of 25,004 watched the Latics' absorbing home defeat to Arsenal four days ago (a figure which topped the curtain-raiser against Chelsea), and 20,000 tickets have gone for Spurs' visit to the JJB Stadium on Saturday. The clamour to get to away matches is even more intense, with fans queuing from 2am on Tuesday for one of 3,000 tickets for next month's match at Old Trafford.

The less glamorous fixtures are a different proposition. The home game against Fulham three weeks ago seemed certain to pack the stadium, since the Warriors' worst season in 20 years had just ended and Athletic were chasing five Premiership wins on the trot and second spot. The empty seats were manifest, with a gate of 17,266: down 6,000 on the Chelsea match and only 43 more than the September home game against Sunderland. With successive away games at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea in early December, Wigan's hold on second spot is by no means impregnable, so the biggest test of football's sustainability here may be yet to come.

Jewell revealed his frustrations about his side's support base two years ago after 6,000 fans - the lowest gate of the day in the Championship - watched Wigan go top of the league with a win over Gillingham. "I know there's a rugby issue but we've lost six out of our last 61 League games, so it does make you wonder what we have to do," he said. The Latics' senior management remains as pessimistic as ever on the issue of converting Warriors fans to football. "In a word, no," said one senior official. "It won't happen."

Jewell's complaints about the club's support ignited a correspondence in the Wigan Evening Post which rumbles on to this day and speaks volumes for the gulf between the Lancashire town's two teams. Not since Bill Shankly left Workington Town has die-hard rugby league territory offered up such football stars as Athletic's and letters from the rugby contingent reflect how unsettling it has been. They detail grievances about the Latics "roughing up" the JJB pitch, prompting a furious counter-attack from the football fans along the lines of "watch out Warriors, the town is turning blue".

The same sentiments surface during those rare matches when Latics fans have nothing much to shout about. The chant "Wigan's turning Blue" will go up, followed by songs in praise of St Helens RLFC. Hardly an enticement for any Warriors fans who might consider switching codes of football.

Wild horses wouldn't drag Ted Sinclair to a Latics match. At the JJB Stadium for a meeting of the Warriors' supporters' association he chairs, he struggled to name a single member of the high-riding local football team whom he might recognise. "There's the goalkeeper [John] Filan I suppose and [Jason] Roberts the striker and Jimmy Bullard. But that's the lot."

Sinclair enjoyed Souness, Case and McDermott at Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s. "But there's no longer the physical contact in football they brought to the game," he said. "There's so much more going on in rugby league."

His talk of Anfield provides another clue as to Wigan's struggle for football fans. While the club languished in non league, prospective football fans among its 90,000 population were being siphoned off by the two Liverpool and Manchester teams. The town's location, equidistant between the two, has not helped.

Preston, Bolton and Burnley have also spirited prospective Latics away, according to Gillian Grey, editor of the Evening Post. "Those are towns with huge footballing heritages," she said. Even the order of merit on the local signposts, "Welcome to Wigan, home of Super League Rugby and Premiership football", suggest that Latics blue will always come second to the famous cherry-and-white worn by Billy Boston and Shaun Edwards.

A journey to the places where rugby league's heart beats strongest does offers grounds for optimism. No pub ought to be more pro-rugby league than the Griffin on Standishgate which stood in the shadow of the old Central Park and was run for years by Boston, whose triumphs are chronicled by newspaper cuttings on the walls. Yet this place is now packed when Athletic are live on its TV screens. The £1 pint promotions and trays of sandwiches help - but there are also some nascent Athletic emotions on show, according to barman Chris Mason. "It's not the same turnout here when the Warriors play," he says. "We only need one telly on for those games. The new fans are of the younger generation, looking for a share of excitement. The results have helped. A lot of people here assumed [Athletic] were goners before the season started."

If any man ought to know whether Warriors can transmute Latics it is Keith Mills, who works in the Warriors' lottery shop and is of the rare breed that supports both. He remains the only man to play both for Wigan's football and rugby teams, courtesy of three appearances as reserve goalkeeper for the Latics in 1963 and 30 first-team rugby league games between 1965 and 1970.

"There's an old saying here that 'you always tell a Wiganer but you can't tell a Wiganer much', meaning that it'll take a few years to persuade him about the attraction of football," he says. "They've got to look upon this as a 10-year plan... but the town is plenty big enough for two teams and one day both can command 20,000 fans, especially if they target the younger Warriors fans, who have less preconceptions."

Wigan have overcome the issue of both sets of fans attending the same stadium. But Mills has another challenge for the football team which he believes could help to make this a two-sport town. "The Latics have never worn red because it's the rugby team's colour. This might be the time. In the spirit of cooperation, they should make their change strip cherry and white." Now that would be progress.

How Wigan's two teams match up

WIGAN ATHLETIC

Founded: 1932 (after Wigan County, Wigan United, Wigan Town and Wigan Borough had all folded).

Biggest gate: 27,526 v Hereford (FA Cup 2nd round, 12 December 1953). It remains the largest gate (except Wembley finals) between two non-League clubs. The 25,004 attendance against Arsenal on Saturday is the club's biggest League gate.

Season ticket sales: 12,000.

Average attendance: (Premiership 2005-06, as of 20 November) 20,377.

(Championship, 2004-05) 11,563.

Highest attendance: 25,004 (v Arsenal).

Fans like to sing: 'Wigan's turning blue'.

WIGAN WARRIORS

Founded: 1872 (as Wigan FC, by the town's cricket club). Known as Wigan and District FC and Wigan Wasps before becoming Wigan Warriors.

Biggest gate: 47,747 v St Helens (27 March 1959). Still a record for any rugby league game in this country.

Season ticket sales: On course for a record 8,500 for next season after 7,800 last season and 6,000 in 2003.

Average attendance (2005): 13,891.

High: 25,004 (v St Helens).

Fans like to sing: 'One team in Wigan'.

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