Frank Keating

Wigan’s peers

Wigan’s peers

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Premiership soccer begins today. The poor prancing zillionaires do not get much respite from it, do they? Nor, alas, do we. Newcastle United at Arsenal for starters is a result to watch out for, ditto when Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United make the short journey to Wayne Rooney’s former Everton. Also on day one, folks, the first of the relegation heartstoppers already — Albion at Man. City and Brum at Fulham. I’m afraid the Premiership these days must be regarded as a four-division league in itself — those clubs seethingly fighting relegation, those in relieved but meaningless limbo, the handful scrapping for a minnow’s place in Europe, and that elite, permanent moneybags trio vying for the championship. The top and bottom of the whole story, alas.

Most tickle-your-fancy fixture today is unquestionably Wigan Athletic’s heady bow in the bigtime — at home to champions Chelsea. Say it again, it seems unreal, surreal: Wigan Athletic v. Chelsea. When the sportshop magnate David Whelan bought the club just 10 years ago, it was in its death throes in the bottom basement division. He watched his Latics play Hartlepool United in front of 1,452 wearily faithful cynics, who became all the more scoffing when — as self-made local entrepreneur-aldermen have done since Arnold Bennett first logged them — he promptly promised not only a gleaming new stadium but the Premiership as well. Down-at-heel Springfield Park, a bleak scrubby patch peeking from a network of narrow streets, had been crumbling since 1897 and been home — successively for the next 40 years spent keeping the liquidators busy — to Wigan County, Wigan Town, Wigan United and Wigan Borough. In the 1930s came the Athletic to non-League football, but dear, dilapidated Springfield (for years, record attendance was for a match against Hereford United) was always in the shadow of rugby’s red-and-white downtown strutters at Central Park, where I was often sent to pay homage and sing hymns as all the grandest rugby leaguers of legend passed through.

The club was elected to the old Fourth Division only in 1978. Whelan has resplendently fulfilled his promise and the swish and elegant new JJB stadium has put the rugby boys in second place. On rugby matchdays I would arrive early to make sure of a drink next door at the venerably sooty-bricked inner-city Griffin to sit at the feet of mine host, fabled old rugby speedster Billy Boston. Now the JJB stands storeyed suburban sentinel in more airy Burger King–Pizza Hut country.

Today, Whelan is loaning Chelsea’s Croesus, Abramovich, his bespoke helipad alongside his stadium and, as well, he’s promised the Russian a complimentary bag of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, the local delicacy. Meanwhile the throng of 25,000 and more will drop in for a pre-match aperitivo, not at the smoky old Griffin, but at the more salubrious Bowling Green or the Douglas Bank. Afterwards, perhaps supper down at Wigan Pier, certainly if that excellent Orwell Restaurant is still there. If it is, aptly we can chew the footie fat and relish a brand new winter odyssey by debating the great sceptic’s 60-year-old prophetic definition of the Premiership in ‘The Sporting Spirit’: ‘Nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.’ Spot on, George. Ah me, ’ere we go, ’ere we go.