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No bridge too far for Jewell's Latics

Published: Monday 23 January 2006, 11.38CET
With a 3-2 away win at the weekend and a League Cup semi-final to come, Wigan Athletic FC could be on course for an improbable place in Europe.
by Jim Wirth
from London

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Published: Monday 23 January 2006, 11.38CET

No bridge too far for Jewell's Latics

With a 3-2 away win at the weekend and a League Cup semi-final to come, Wigan Athletic FC could be on course for an improbable place in Europe.

With a 3-2 away win at the weekend and a League Cup semi-final to come, Wigan Athletic FC could be on course for an improbable place in Europe.

Late goal
On Saturday, a late goal from Neil Mellor in his first game since joining on loan from Liverpool FC earned the Latics a 3-2 win at troubled Middlesbrough FC. Sixth in the Premiership, they could also be on course for a major cup final appearance as they lead Arsenal FC 1-0 ahead of their semi-final second leg in London on Tuesday.

Impossible dream
A decade ago, anyone who predicted that Wigan would one day play in the Premiership, let alone dream of European football, would have received some very strange looks. Overshadowed by the success of the local rugby league team, Wigan Warriors FC, the Lancashire side were ekeing out a fairly meagre existence.

Humble origins
Their old stadium, Springfield Park, was regarded as down-at-heel, even by the standards of the English third division (now League Two) while the club were barely hanging on in professional football with crowds rarely much higher than 2,000, even after being taken over by sports retail millionaire Dave Whelan in 1995.

Big push
Wigan won promotion to the second division (now League One) in 1996/97 but it was only when they moved to Whelan's new JJB stadium - which they share with Wigan Warriors - and later brought in former player Paul Jewell as manager in 2001 that their assault on the summit began in earnest.

Bitter experience
Having survived a season in the Premiership as manager of Bradford City AFC before enduring relegation as coach of Sheffield Wednesday FC, Jewell resolved to back his footballing judgement at Wigan and keep spending sensible. "The world is riddled with teams paying over the odds," he said.

'A pub team'
Such instincts saw Wigan promoted to the second tier in 2002/03. Derided as "a pub team" and predicted for an early return to the lower leagues, Wigan survived comfortably in their first season in that division thanks to some astute signings before winning promotion to the Premiership in 2004/05.

'No money, no fans'
Nonetheless, despite the presence of highly-rated midfielder Jimmy Bullard and new signings like Switzerland defender Stéphane Henchoz, Wigan were once more predicted to struggle this term. The Times's assessment was typically blunt: "No money, no fans. Will need a miracle if they are to survive."

Whelan drive
However, Whelan was more ambitious, saying: "I won't be saying to Paul Jewell 'I want you to survive', I will be saying 'let's get into Europe now, let's go'. Once we're where we want to be, the next step is Europe. It's about ambition and in football you must have something to drive and push for."

Successful season
Now, thanks to consistent results and an awesome team spirit, Europe is a real possibility. Wigan's miserly spending has already set a new standard for promoted Premiership clubs to aspire to. Who knows how far it could take them if they manage to reach the UEFA Cup?

Last updated: 23/01/06 19.05CET

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