You used to play for a big club

4 Sep

Saturday 31st August 2013

Wigan Athletic                 2.1          Nottingham Forest

(Moloney, Gomez)                         (Reid)

On the event of Wigan Athletic winning the FA Cup, I noticed that a friend celebrated this on Twitter by expressing his pleasure that a ‘proper’ club had vanquished those evil, corporate cheats at Manchester City. (To be fair, he didn’t label City as such but the implication was clear.) This sentiment seemed to capture most fans’ feelings at the time since everyone loves an underdog and Wigan encapsulated the classic ‘rags to riches’ narrative that we crave from The FA Cup, especially in the modern history of this competition which has been eroded by increased commercial/sponsorship deals, the fielding of reserve teams, continued hegemonic dominance of the ‘big’ clubs and well, put simply, ITV’s interference with kick off times and annoyingly poor highlights package. Their Saturday evening show makes you realise how much you miss the steadied and assured BBC treatment of highlights and at a time when Match of the Day features Michael Owen on the sofa, that is some statement. I will deal with Lineker and friends at a later date though. In short, well done, Wigan for showing us that even in a post Gareth Bale transfer and Moneyball era, the good guys can still win the cup and offer hope for other small and ‘proper’ clubs.

But are Wigan a ‘proper’ club and what constitutes one anyway?

Firstly, I wish to differentiate between a ‘proper’ club and a ‘big’ club. Defining a ‘big’ club seems to me to be far easier: factors such as average attendance, trophies won and annual turnover can all be blended into a magical formula like a cacophony of fruit and whizzed around in order to produce a pleasing and simple end product. Not by me, of course but by people who have a simple grasp of quadratic equations. Admittedly, finding consensus on such factors may well prove to be a little more difficult but defining the size of or standing of a club can be done.

A ‘proper’ club? That seems to be a little more esoteric. That seems to be more about history, tradition and doing things the ‘right’ way. The thing is though; this is all too easily equated with years of languishing around in the lower leagues and claiming a narrow defeat in the Quarter Final of the League Cup in 1971 as a high point. By this yardstick, there are a fair few ‘proper’ clubs kicking their heals about: step forward Rochdale, Bury, Grimsby Town, Leyton Orient, Brentford to name but a few. Of course, there is another way of looking at this: ‘proper’ clubs are, well, a bit crap really. But this isn’t getting us anywhere fast. Surely big and successful clubs can be ‘proper’ clubs.

The trip to Wigan on Saturday was a bit of an eye-opener. I remember back in the 80s going to see Rotherham United play at their old Springfield Park and standing in the away end on grass under a corrugated iron roof, huddling together with around 200 other unfortunate souls desperately trying to preserve some warmth while a storm-tossed-tempest deposited biblical amounts of precipitation on the already saturated ground. For any younger readers, the truth is that Wigan Athletic was, for an awful long time, not just a bit crap but incredibly crap. Ergo, them lifting the big sponsored cup at Wembley was a triumph for a ‘proper’ club. For any Wigan fans reading this, this is not meant to offend. You were undoubtedly crap for an awful long time and have now, after years of mediocrity, established yourselves as, if not quite a Premier League club, then very likely a Championship club to be reckoned with and quite possibly a club that may well go on to re- establish itself as a fixture in the Premier League. Good luck to you. But having endured crapness is not a necessarily a pre-requisite for being a ‘proper’ club. Let’s not forget either that the major catalyst that sprung Wigan from Springfield Park to silverware winners was a huge injection of everyone’s favourite avuncular uncle Dave Whelan’s money. For the footballing purist, this surely challenges Wigan’s claims to be a ‘proper’ club. After all, they bought their way up through the divisions through a generous benefactor and nobody these days claims Manchester City or Chelsea as ‘proper’ clubs even though they too were quite crap for a while in recent history before bucketloads of cash was poured into the hole of crapness.

My point then? I have many. First of all, good luck to Wigan – it looks like a lot of fun being a Wigan fan in recent years and to maintain it all on small attendances is a credit to them. In an ideal world, I’m sure Wigan fans would prefer to be playing in a smaller stadium more suited to their needs and in front of larger crowds but without the ground share with Wigan Warriors and Uncle Dave’s cash, they would probably be still languishing at Springfield Park and playing Grimsby Town or Lincoln City in non-league. The fact that such cash was required to achieve this transformation says more about the state of our game than anything about ‘proper’ clubs anyway. Secondly, clearly there is no such entity as a ‘proper’ club. You could maintain that being one of the founder members of the first league, small attendances, years of struggle and being Northern carries more kudos than Johnny-come-lately clubs such as Crawley Town. Perhaps it does but ask a Lincoln City fan or a Grimsby Town fan or an Accrington Town fan whether they take delight in being perceived as a ‘proper’ club. I’m sure they are quite proud to be associated with such a notion but would also probably express their angst towards the mismanagement of their clubs which has led to their current situation. They would probably wish that their ‘proper’ club was run a little more professionally, perhaps like Crawley Town or Wigan Athletic.

To any fan, their club is a ‘proper’ club.

I’ll tell you one more thing though, Wigan’s first half performance made them look like a ‘proper’ team. They were better than us and made some of our quality players chase shadows and look like mugs. Some may say that this is because we were below our best but I felt that it was more to do with them making us look poor. As we know though, football is a game of two halves and balls in the onion bag and suchlike and the second half was a different tale as their fans grew impatient and nervous as we piled on the pressure and generally camped in their half. The problem was that not a single decent chance was fashioned.

Disappointing for such a huge away following but not entirely unexpected – after Wigan’s dodgy start against supposedly lesser (‘proper’) clubs at home, I felt that they were going to get it together sooner or later and against one of the more ‘fancied’ teams like ours was always going to be a challenge that they would relish.

One final thing: Andy Reid is looking like a proper player at the moment.







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