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MATCH OF THE MONTH

Wigan Athletic 1 Shrewsbury Town 0

For nearly a decade Wigan Athletic survived in the Premier League despite their perennial position as underdogs. However, after two quick relegations they find themselves – or at least their financial position – the envy of peers such as struggling Shrewsbury

Date NOVEMBER 21, 2015 Words ROB HUGHES Photos PAUL THOMPSON

Roadworks mean that the A49 into Wigan is no place for faint hearts, especially on a matchday afternoon. It doesn’t exactly help that the route to the DW Stadium also happens to pass the Robin Park retail complex, towards which shoppers are rushing to beat the early Christmas rush. Thankfully, it all calms down a bit once I’m past Pizza Hut and the local Fayre & Square, the stadium’s cantilevered trusses rising above this consumerist sprawl like a steel sentinel.

The commerce doesn’t end at the DW Stadium, it just takes a different turn. The South Stand backs onto the vast Robin Park Arena, a sports venue that boasts indoor tennis courts, an athletics track, synthetic pitches and gym halls. Like the stadium, it’s impressive without being ostentatious, a reminder that modern-day Wigan prides itself on a certain level of facilitative excellence.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been mirrored by results on the football field of late. The famous FA Cup win of 2013 coincided with their slide into the Championship, earning them the unwanted distinction of being the first team to lift the trophy and be relegated in the same season. Since then they’ve hired and fired three managers and slipped further down into League One. What’s more, DW himself – owner Dave Whelan – resigned as chairman last March.

Still, it isn’t quite the wholesale change it may appear. Whelan handed over the reins to his 23-year-old grandson, David Sharpe, ensuring that the family dynasty remains. And while this is no guarantee of great leadership or success – Sharpe’s slightly flaky credentials state that he’s been knocking around Wigan’s boardroom since Whelan bought the club in 1995 – he has reassured fans that things will carry on as normal.

But what constitutes normal for Wigan Athletic? Or, perhaps more pertinently, acceptable? New manager Gary Caldwell is faring well so far this season, his side cosying up to the play-off places before today’s game. This is scant comfort for some, however. One stoiclooking gent in a Latics beanie hat looks aghast when I ask if he’s optimistic about this season. He’s learned not to be, he tells me, especially after the previous campaign. “Last year was awful,” he says, stalking towards the turnstile with the kind of grim forbearance that suggests a football fan’s lot is more about dogged persistence than joyful promise.

Others are slightly more positive about Wigan’s current state. A father and son break into wry laughter when asked to sum up the pain of the last two seasons. One of them explains that he’s been following the club for 30 years, a time span that includes a spell at the foot of Division Four, so League One isn’t really a catastrophe.

Wigan fans are in agreement about one aspect of the current team though: they have some very good players. Caldwell’s first summer signing, on a free from Blackpool, was David Perkins. At the age of 33, Perkins is at the fag end of his career, but he’s the type of player they’ve been lacking. Tigerish and energetic, one Latics follower refers to him as “a hod carrier”, which is intended as a compliment even though it doesn’t sound like one. Then there’s the safe pair of mitts that is Jussi Jaaskelainen, released by West Ham in May and now in his 41st year. Meanwhile, the arrival of Northern Ireland international Will Grigg has gone some way to correcting the team’s shyness in front of goal, the striker averaging one every couple of games thus far. Indeed, Grigg’s fee from Brentford, reckoned to be around £1 million, has been seen by rival managers as an example of Wigan’s moneyed advantage over those around them. Rochdale boss Keith Hill, smarting from a 2-0 defeat a week earlier, even likened them to Manchester United.

But the player who’s got everyone talking is Dutch winger Yanic Wildschut. Currently on loan from Middlesbrough, the 24-year-old possesses a lethal combination of pace, flair

Above A signpost points the way; the DW fails to beat off the competition; visiting supporters settle into their seats; the 8,000-strong crowd are expectant as the game is about to commence and technique, bringing a fresh dynamic to the Wigan attack. “The Arjen Robben of League One,” blurts one enthusiastic Wiganer. Nodding expectantly, I envisage lots of unnecessary falling over and a sulky pout whenever he demands the ball and doesn’t get it.

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