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Wigan given hope by Whelan


Wigan and Wembley have been virtually twinned during the Nineties, with all the kudos and cash going to the Lancashire town's rugby league giants. If Dave Whelan has his way, which he usually does, this will be the season Wigan Athletic fight back.

Cheered on by a budding businessman called Jack Walker, Whelan played for Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final - but the team lost and he broke his leg that day. He later resurfaced in Wigan, supporting the 13-a-side code and building up a chain of sports shops.

Happily for the round-ball minority, the multi-millionaire's interest in football was rekindled. Whelan bought the ailing Latics and, like some apprentice Uncle Jack, gave notice of his ambitions by signing three Spaniards a year ago.

Roberto Martinez, Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba - "Los tres Amigos'' - coped well with the culture shock of cold nights at Hartlepool and Mansfield. Not well enough, though, to keep Graham Barrow in the manager's job, his autumn replacement by John Deehan revealing the owner's restlessness for progress.

Wigan missed the play-offs by two points, but look equipped to make sure this time. Deehan soon recruited Kevin Sharp, an England youth contemporary of Butt, Campbell and Fowler, for pounds 80,000 from Leeds. This summer he has added Doncaster striker Graeme Jones (pounds 150,000) and Barnsley midfielder Charlie Bishop (pounds 40,000).

Carlisle, whose title 15 months ago underlined the importance of financial muscle, may be Wigan's chief rivals. Relegation was embarrassing after Michael Knighton's boasts of "Europe in 10 years", but Mervyn Day has added imaginatively (French defender Stephane Pounewatchy) to a squad tried and trusted at this level.

The picture of potential Northern domination is completed by Darlington. To lose only one away game was extraordinary; not to go up even more so. The attempt to improve at home will be undertaken without Matty Appleby, the division's best defender having joined Barnsley.

Money is so scarce at Hereford that mention of the market usually concerns cattle rather than players. A play-off place confirmed that Graham Turner's coaching and organisational skills were intact after his woes at Wolves, and they should challenge again.

Despite a tight budget, relegated Swansea show signs of responding to the ideals Jan Molby brought from Liverpool. Northampton, for whom 11th place represented genuine progress, may draw big crowds to Sixfields if they improve further, while Colchester, Chester and Scunthorpe should also be in contention.

Torquay's most important pre-season fixture was in court, where Stevenage failed to oust the bottom club. A colourful chairman, Mike Bateson, has a new management team - including best-selling author Garry Nelson - and has wagered pounds 7,000 on their landing the title.

Hard-up Hull could be Conference-bound, with the similarly strapped Scarborough or potentially homeless Brighton also candidates to replace Torquay as the League's last resort.