Football takes the limelight in Wigan

Wigan may be the rank outsiders for the FA Cup but their name is synonymous with Wembley cup finals – just not in football.

Wigan may be the rank outsiders for the FA Cup but their name is synonymous with Wembley cup finals – just not in football.

Wigan Athletic and their supporters this weekend make a journey made many times by their rugby league counterparts down the years.

The Warriors, as they are now known, have almost made the Challenge Cup their own at times, not least the spell from 1988 to 1995 when they triumphed eight times in succession at the national stadium.

They have won the competition a record 18 times, most recently in 2011, but while Wigan may be the most evocative name in rugby league, they are mere minnows in the football world.

For a club only admitted to the Football League in 1978, not promoted to the top flight until 2005 and that has spent the past four years battling against relegation, emulating the Warriors to become Wembley winners would be no small achievement.

In the past there has been a perception that the supporters of the two clubs care little for each other, something that has not altered since they both moved into the DW Stadium in 1999.

The FA Cup run could change that and, at administrative level, the relationship between the co-habiting clubs is healthy.

“There’s a lot of thought for Wigan Athletic throughout the town and certainly from me and a lot of Wigan rugby league supporters,” said Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan, who took over the club when Latics owner Dave Whelan relinquished control in 2007.

“I’m going to Wembley, Wigan Athletic are special to me.

“The Premier League profile that they’ve given to Wigan is also an additional benefit to Wigan rugby league.”

Wigan-born Lenagan’s interest in football can hardly be questioned given that he is also the executive chairman of League Two Oxford United.

Wigan Athletic receive plenty of brickbats for the size of their support, the inference being that, with average crowds of 19,000, they do not belong in the Premier League.

But that figure is still treble what it was a decade ago and with many other football fans in the area enticed by the nearby giants of Manchester and Merseyside, Lenagan claims the theory that Wigan is purely a rugby league town is a myth.

“I don’t think it is,” he said. “It’s 60 per cent rugby and 40 per cent football and what’s wrong with that?

“I know that we’ve got 10 per cent common spectators who watch football and rugby. It’s like rugby union and rugby league, I like both games.”

The challenge for the Latics is now to capitalise on their Wembley appearance to give impressionable youngsters fewer reasons to declare their love for Manchester United, Liverpool, or their cup final opponents Manchester City.

The only frustration is that their achievement in reaching the final for the first time is being overshadowed by yet another battle against relegation, and one that is not going well for Roberto Martinez’s men.

Wigan are three points adrift of safety with just two games left to save themselves after a damaging loss to Swansea in midweek.

Lenagan said: “I think Martinez is a great coach. They’re the perennial avoiders of relegation and I hope they do exactly the same this year.”

The implications of succeeding in both challenges over the final week of the campaign, with European football also on the way next season, could be significant for club and town.

A recent report revealed that Premier League football brings £330million into the Greater Manchester economy, of which Wigan is a part.

Lord Peter Smith, leader of Wigan Council, said: “It has been really important and having Wigan in the Premier League means we as a town benefit as well.

“We’re really proud of the club and the way they have performed this season in the FA Cup.

“It is going to be good for the club, we are going to paint the town blue - which is unusual for Wigan as we usually paint it red in the colours of our rugby team.

“It’s not unusual for Wiganers to go down to Wembley, but it is the first time for the footballers in the FA Cup final and we are going to get behind them.

“We’ve worked out Wigan football and rugby have been down to Wembley just under 30 times, that is pretty good for a relatively small town.”

With Wigan also leading the way in Super League and aiming to secure a Challenge Cup quarter-final place this weekend, it could be a heady year for a town with more than one sporting passion.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox