IT IS NEARLY half a century since the reading of the First Division results sounded like a tour of the Lancashire mill towns. Blackburn and Bolton have since had their seasons in the sun but, for the likes of Preston and Burnley, footballing success has long gone the way of clogs and shawls and the mills themselves.
However, the Second Division table shows that something is stirring again in a part of the North-west long eclipsed by its neighbours, Manchester, and Liverpool, to the south. The First Division may no longer be the top flight but Preston and Burnley are again bidding to join Blackburn and Bolton there next season, along with new kids on the block whose sporting success has traditionally been achieved with a ball of a different shape.
Wigan Athletic have shared a state-of-the-art stadium with the rugby league club since the start of the season and now share the leadership of the Second Division with Preston, although they share the league's only unbeaten record with nobody.
They preserved it on Saturday in front of their biggest ever league crowd with a spirited 1-1 draw with Burnley in which they neutralised Andy Payton's 16th-minute opener through Simon Haworth 15 minutes later. Wigan created enough chances to win easily, and then almost threw it away at the end.
It will be easy to attribute Latics' success after 21 years in the league to their benefactor, the sporting goods entrepreneur David Whelan, but although the 25,000 all-seater stadium he has built for them demonstrates his ambition, he has resisted the temptation to emulate Jack Walker at Blackburn by buying a ready-made team of all-stars.
The material with which the manager, John Benson, has now come within two matches of the club record of 21 games without defeat might best be described as on the way down rather than the way up. Players like the division's top scorer, Stuart Barlow and the winger, Andy Liddell, whose pace and crosses contribute much to Wigan's direct approach to the game, have plied their trades at higher levels, and Benson recognises the need to strengthen his squad if they are to stay on course for reaching the First Division for the first time.
Burnley, of course, have been there, done that and won the silverware, though it is exactly 40 years since the prototype for Whelan and Walker, the carpet king, Bob Lord, bankrolled them to the old First Division title in 1960. Since then the Clarets have suffered a lengthy hangover, for which their experienced manager, Stan Ternent, has at last found a remedy.
He, too, has players who have performed at higher levels, like the defender Mitchell Thomas and striker Payton, but leavened with promising home-grown talent like Steve Davis and Glen Little. They play neat, passing football which may be more suited to the First Division than Wigan's style, and the 5,000 supporters who made the trip to the JJB Stadium demonstrated that the hunger for success at Turf Moor has not diminished.
"We are both very good sides," was Ternent's accurate verdict, while Benson said: "I think the two of us and Preston could be promoted, which will be great for the North-west."
Goals: Payton (16) 0-1; Haworth (41) 1-1.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-): Carroll; Sharp (Sheridan, 22). Balmer, De Zeeuw, McGibbon; O'Neill, Green, Kilford (Martinez, 67). Liddell; Haworth, Barlow. Substitutes not used: Stillie (gk), Griffiths, McLaughlin.
Burnley (4-4-2): Crichton; West, Davis, Thomas, Armstrong (Branch, 61); Mullin, Mellon, Little, Cook; Cooke (Lee, 71), Payton. Substitutes not used: Jepson, Brass, Johnrose.
Referee: T Jones (Barrow-in-Furness).
Bookings: Wigan: O'Neill. Burnley: Cook.
Man of the match: Liddell.
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