By Ross Daggett
Non-league clubs, no matter how far-fetched it seems, all share one dream. That dream is to reach the Premier League. Although it would take extreme perseverance, excellent judgement, ownership, and a degree of luck, it is not outside the realms of possibility. Step forward Wigan Athletic. ‘The Latics’ currently play in the Championship and enjoyed a successful spell between the 2005/06 season and the 2012/13 season where they competed at the pinnacle of English football. But not too long before this relatively successful period for the club, Wigan Athletic were competing way down the pyramid of English football, only reaching the Football League for the first time in their history in 1978.
Wigan Athletic was formed in 1932. This was the sixth attempt to form a club in the town after the demise of Wigan A.F.C., Wigan County, Wigan United, Wigan Town and Wigan Borough. The club entered the Cheshire League, despite being based in Lancaster, and won their first honours by winning the league in the 1933/34 season. Wigan followed on their early success by winning the league in the following two seasons as well as causing some FA Cup upsets. In their first season in the historic competition, Athletic defeated Carlisle United 6-1, which remains a record for the largest victory for a non-league club to have over a league club in the competition.
After the Second World War, Wigan were unable to put together a competitive side. They finished bottom of their league in the first season back. Despite their success pre-war, Wigan were forced to join the Lancashire Combination where they returned to success, winning the league in their first season. The success that continued after the war delivered hope that the club would be able to compete in the Football League.
Entrance to the Football League
The side regularly submitted applications to join the football league but were largely unsuccessful. In 1950 the side narrowly missed out on a spot to Scunthorpe United and Shrewsbury Town. After 34 failed attempts to join the Football League, Wigan were eventually elected to the Football League in 1978 after finishing second place in the Northern Premier League. The winners, Boston United did not meet the Football League criteria for a League club. As a result, Wigan took the spot in fortunate circumstances.
Early professional days
Wigan achieved promotion to the third tier of English Football in just their fourth season of league football, which began a ten year stay in the division. This included a fourth-place finish in the 1985-86 season, a club record high. However, their success was short lived. In 1992-3 the club was relegated for the first time in their history. The following season saw the continuation of the Latics demise. The Lancashire finished fourth from bottom in the fourth tier. There was no fear of relegation due to a lack of a promotable club from the Football Conference, nonetheless it remains the clubs lowest ever finish as a Football League side.
The Whelan era
In 1995 sports retailer Dave Whelan took over Wigan, who were lingering in the third tier at the time. In just the 1996/7 season, the club won their first ever Division Three title. The title win was followed with six seasons in Division Two this included three play-off defeats against Manchester City, Gillingham and Reading. In the 2004/5 season, Wigan Athletic finally joined the top division in
their 73-year history after achieving automatic promotion.
Wigan enjoyed a spell in the Premier League from 2005-2013. The first game in the top-flight saw Wigan host the champions, Chelsea in a sell out match at the JJB Stadium. The game was set to finish 0-0 until an injury time winner from Hernan Crespo broke the hearts of the home fans. The inaugural season saw Wigan finish 10th, the clubs highest ever league finish to date. The Latics flirted with relegation on several occasions, including narrowly surviving on the last day of the season by defeating fellow relegation candidates Sheffield United on the last day of the season. However, the period was extremely successful when you consider where the club had come from.
Most of Wigan’s achievements in the league included impressive survivals and mid-table security, which is fine. But their cup campaigns were certainly the highlights of their stint at the top level of English football. Their first season of Premier League football, along with a successful campaign, saw a cup run which led to the clubs first ever major cup final. Wigan were eventually defeated 4-0 by
their neighbours Manchester United but the run was one to be proud of as they knocked Arsenal out in the semi-final. The most impressive feat however was their FA Cup win in 2013. A goal in extra time by Ben Watson saw Wigan beat the financial powerhouse that is Manchester City to win their first ever major trophy. Unfortunately, they were relegated from the top-flight in the same season. A bittersweet ending to a successful era for the football club.