A brief history of Wigan Athletic

November 11, 2010
By Rob Smyth

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Formed: 1932
Admitted to Football League: 1978
Second Division: 1

Sporting tales don't come much more unexpected than that of Wigan Athletic, who had to overcome all manner of obstacles to reach the upper echelons of English football. The widespread apathy of a town that puts rugby first, second and third has been a recurring problem, and Wigan also had to deal with a history of failure. They are the fifth football side in the town, with Wigan County, Wigan United, Wigan Town and Wigan Borough all folding.

Wigan Athletic were founded in 1932 but had to wait 46 years to reach the Football League. That was because of the old system, which existed until 1987, whereby teams had to be voted into the Football League. Wigan consistently excelled in non-league football - their 6-1 win over Carlisle in 1934-35 remains an FA Cup record for a non-league side against a league side, and they did not lose a match between September 1962 and November 1966 - but they had 34 failed election attempts, including one to join the Scottish Second Division in 1972.

They were finally admitted to the Football League in 1978, after winning a re-vote with Southport, but their journey to the top flight would take almost another 30 years. Wigan had a mostly anonymous existence in that time, but there were exceptions: promotion in 1981-82, a brief spell with Bobby Charlton as caretaker manager in 1983, winning the Football League Trophy in 1984-85 and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals - still their best run - in 1986-87.

Things really got going when the multi-millionaire Dave Whelan, who broke his leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final and made his fortune with JJB Sports, bought the club in February 1995. A new era was symbolised that summer when Wigan famously brought in three Spaniards: Roberto Martinez, who would go on to manage the club, Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba. They were inevitably dubbed the Three Amigos, and Martinez and Diaz became the first Spaniards to play in the FA Cup.

Wigan won the third division in 1996-97 and then, in 1999, moved from Springfield Park to the JJB Stadium (now known as the DW Stadium). Under Paul Jewell, they won the second division in 2002-03 with a massive 100 points; then, in 2004-05, Jewell's side achieved the unthinkable: promotion to the Premier League.

The first season in the top flight was a fairytale. Wigan finished 10th and reached their first major final, the Carling Cup, disposing of Arsenal in a famous semi-final before losing 4-0 to Manchester United in Cardiff. Reality bit thereafter, and Wigan needed to win at Sheffield United on the final day of the following season to avoid relegation.

Jewell resigned the following day, but Steve Bruce and the returning Martinez carried on the good work; Wigan excelled in finding bargains from the Americas, such as Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios, who would be sold on for an enormous profit. At the end of the decade they were still in the top flight, still quietly defying gravity and occasionally upsetting the odds in 2012 under the impressive Martinez.