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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 May, 2005, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
Wigan dreams become reality
By Dan Warren

Wigan boss Paul Jewell

A decade ago Wigan Athletic lost 1-0 to Rochdale in front of less than 2,000 fans at Spotland in the Football League's basement division.

Fast-forward to the present, and the Latics are preparing for their debut season in the Premiership after one of football's more unlikely success stories.

Those Latics fans who were at Spotland 10 years ago - and, frankly, there were not many - will know more than anyone how extraordinary their ascent has been.

Back then, even the most optimistic of supporters would not have dreamt that trips to the likes of Rochdale, Carlisle and Altrincham would be replaced by visits to Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Now that dream has come true.

It sounds like something from the pages of Roy of the Rovers, but this is no comic-book fantasy fairytale.

This is another tale of a businessman transforming the fortunes of a football club.

That season one decade ago - which ended with a mediocre 14th-place finish in the table - was the first of Dave Whelan's chairmanship.

Whelan, the owner of JJB Sports, bought into a club which was not exactly brimming with potential.

Crowds were around the 1,500 mark and success was a far-fetched concept.

CHAMPIONSHIP ATTENDANCES
1 Leeds 29,130
2 Sunderland 27,978
3 West Ham 27,127
4 Wolves 26,582

20 Wigan 11,194

Source: Football League
Averages for 2004-05 season

The Latics only entered the Football League at the expense of Southport in 1978 - at the 34th time of asking.

And they did not exactly set the league alight. While Wimbledon - elected a season earlier - became top-division stalwarts and FA Cup winners, Wigan wallowed in mediocrity.

The 17 years before Whelan's arrival saw just one promotion and one relegation.

But after he came in, things changed rapidly.

The Division Three title came in 1996-97 and the club moved from the dilapidated Springfield Park to begin the 1999-2000 season in the all-seater 25,000 JJB Stadium.

Such a venue demanded a higher grade of football and that was realised with the Division Two title in the 2002-03 season which saw them gain 100 points.

Wigan were already spending like a club with high ambitions - the 1.2m capture of Nathan Ellington from Bristol Rovers in 2002 proved that, financially at least, Wigan were already in a different league to their rivals.

Ellington's red-hot partnership with Jason Roberts has grabbed the headlines, but the club has become a force to be reckoned with under the shrewd managership of Paul Jewell.

Wigan are the second club the Liverpudlian has taken to the Premiership, having previously guided Bradford into the top flight.

But there is still plenty for Wigan to do if they want to establish themselves as a genuine force among football's elite.

The fanbase remains remarkably small.

It has grown many times over, admittedly, but Wigan's average home gate of 11,194 is small - and would not even put them in the top four best-supported clubs in League One.

Wigan is a predominantly rugby league town and the question remains over about how many will be attracted to the JJB next season.

Nevertheless, if Whelan knew after that Rochdale match that one decade on he would be in charge of the team with the smallest crowds in the Premiership, he would have been delighted.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Interview: Paul Jewell praises Wigan's staff after promotion


Interview: Wigan rugby league legend Andy Gregory on Latics promotion


Interview: James Pearce talks to Wigan chairman Dave Whelan



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