Redskin

Wigan Athletic’s League One title: staring at oblivion to back in the Championship inside two years


“I’m a firm believer that if you want to make God laugh, you tell him your plans,” says Wigan Athletic chief executive Mal Brannigan, who laughs himself as he ponders what the future will bring for the League One champions.

Watching on as Leam Richardson’s team’s 3-0 win against Shrewsbury Town secured promotion to the Championship on the final day of the season, Brannigan and his colleagues, backed by new owners Phoenix 2021, could hardly have planned for a better season.

Just over a year since they rescued the Lancashire club, Wigan are back in the second tier — a result their chief executive says they “would have dreamed about” when they walked in the door 13 months ago. 

Their season has been built on many things: Richardson’s tactical nous, an ability to draw together an entirely new and well-backed squad of players and many hard hours behind the scenes to reassemble a club that had been pulled apart after nearly a year in administration. Above all, though, this has been a season built on belief.

“Believe” is a word impossible to escape at the DW Stadium — it is printed large on a banner running across the main entrance over the statue of former owner and club legend Dave Whelan, displayed on hoardings running around the pitch and on the front of each match-day programme.

It courses through the fans who have not wavered in their support of the club over the last few seasons and, in particular, it has carried them through the final stage of the season where promotion could have been won twice before finally happening at Shrewsbury.

They only needed a win in their final home game of the season against Plymouth Argyle, which Brannigan says would have been “the perfect way” to do it, but could only draw. A point a few days later away at Portsmouth would have been enough, too, but they lost 3-2 — having been 2-0 up.

From absolute confidence came a wave of cynical disbelief that promotion might be snatched away from them at the last minute but in the end, they get the job done comprehensively with a brace from top scorer Will Keane and an own goal from Josh Vela enough to secure the win and promotion against Shrewsbury.

For Richardson’s side to have hauled in Rotherham United, who at one stage had an 11-point lead at the top of the table, is impressive. For them to be going up so soon after their recent troubles speaks to the turbulent fortunes of a club that has existed in the extremes for the last 15 years.

Since their first promotion to the top flight in 2005 and eight-year stay in the Premier League, Wigan have been to the League Cup final and lost, the FA Cup final and won, have been relegated four times and promoted three times as they have bounced between the Championship and League One.

Their last relegation from the second tier came in 2019-20 after a 12-point deduction for entering administration — when their very existence was under threat. They would have been clear of the drop by 10 points had they not been sanctioned after a valiant season under Paul Cook.

But the highs of this season, after the trials of last year, have been night and day. A year ago, they managed to avoid the drop into League Two by one point following the takeover by Phoenix 2021 in March of that year which brought an end to 272 days of administration.

The board, consisting of Brannigan, Bahrain businessman and chairman Tamal Al Hammad, non-executive directors Oliver Gottmann and Tom Markham and chief financial officer Richard Bramwell, showed faith in Richardson who they kept on as manager after the takeover. That faith has been repaid on both sides, with Brannigan saying that the 42-year-old manager “had to work out whether we were a good ownership group and a good management team. Thankfully, it’s worked out for everyone”.

“Don’t ever underestimate the hard work, commitment and moral we’ve put in,” Richardson told his players in a rousing dressing room speech after securing promotion. “For the staff and the challenge for the organisation to come from only three players to throw a group of talented, high-performing elite athletes together and get you performing like you have done with all the challenges that you’ve faced personally and collectively to then go and achieve that, you’re commendable. Don’t ever forget the people who support you, the sacrifice you make, the investment in yourself.

“The sport will never change, it’s a game of inches and margins. When you turn up on time every day and work as hard as you do, them little margins add up. The little inches add up all the time.”

It has been a busy season behind the scenes with the new owners investing in improving the stadium, reducing ticket prices to 2019 levels and making the decision to keep last season’s home shirt for a second season in a bid to keep costs down for fans hit by COVID-19.

On the side of one stand at the DW, a banner carrying the names of every season ticket holder this season thanks supporters, just the latest tribute to a fanbase that went above and beyond to ensure the survival of their club. The “Believe” campaign was launched as a callback to a similar campaign used across the town in the 2013 season, which saw Wigan lift the FA Cup as well as a league and cup double for the town’s rugby league giants, Wigan Warriors.

That’s part of the mantra that we have, which is that we’d rather have consequences from actions than words,” Brannigan says. “Putting that banner for the season ticket holders up there, showing that we care and giving people a little bit of pride in being part of the club is important. That comes from the chairman all the way down.

You submerge yourself in it. It’s the same with any chief exec, if you don’t submerge yourself in it and let it become part of you then you don’t expect any results at the end of the year. If you’ve done it and done your best, you’ve supported every other member of staff alongside that to allow them to do the job to the best of their ability then you are content with whatever result comes out at the end.

“From where we thought we were at the start, how fresh everything was at the time, working with a brand new set of staff, manager, set of players, board, has been a good coming together. A lot of that has been mirrored by how we have interacted with the fans.”

After losing Kieffer Moore, Antonee Robinson and Joel Gelhardt in a raft of player exits to cut costs last season, which left Richardson with just three senior players at the start of the summer window, came heavy investment to build a squad packed with top players at this level.

Among the 18 new arrivals were Sunderland top scorer Charlie Wyke, Portsmouth’s Jack Whatmough and the return of fan favourite Max Power, who has 13 assists and four goals from midfield, and although financial backing guarantees little in this league of fallen giants, it did not hurt Wigan’s ambitions of a third promotion in six years.

Will Keane, another redemption story on his own after a career beset by serious injuries, has scored 27 goals, former Everton forward Callum Lang has notched 17 times and James McClean has returned for a second spell at the club and been a class apart on the left wing.

WILL-KEANE-WIGAN-


Keane’s form has earned Republic of Ireland honours (Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

There have been few slip-ups — just eight defeats all season and only 11 match days spent outside the automatic promotion places tells the story of a team that have been dominant. Even so, this is Wigan so there have been serious hurdles to get over.

In November, Wyke collapsed in training after suffering a cardiac arrest. Only the fast thinking of Richardson and the medical team at the training ground — all of whom had recently received CPR training — saved his life.

There is hope on the horizon for the 29-year-old, however, as he has recently taken part in training under the guidance of a cardiologist and is targeting a pre-season return after undergoing a planned medical procedure.

In a statement released in March, Wyke said that he had “felt really good and have rebuilt a lot of my physical strength”, adding that he was “delighted and inspired to see Christian Eriksen return to play for Brentford in the Premier League this weekend, eight months on from his collapse at the Euros”.

The squad was fuelled by his absence, wearing “Wyke 9” shirts during the warm-up in the matches following the incident while doing their best to ensure he returns to pre-season as a Championship player. And achieving it, finally, has been no mean feat with the final game of the season away at Shrewsbury their 61st in all competitions this season.

Since the start of the year, there have been 30 games in 116 days — illustrating the importance of their impressive squad depth — only pausing before their match at Portsmouth to celebrate at the annual EFL Awards where they were crowned team of the season and Richardson collected his award for League One manager of the season.

As for the future, Wigan’s ambitions are measured despite their relatively recent Premier League status. Consolidating in the Championship will be the priority along with further stability for a fanbase that has barely had time to catch its breath in the last few years.

As a collective, we are proud of what we’ve achieved,” Brannigan says. “What we will do is consistent with what we said we’d do in our vision to become a Championship club that will be managed successfully, on a financial basis aligned with what our investors want to do.

“Having done all the work that has allowed us to become a Championship club this year, it makes sense to aim to become to be a stable Championship club and beyond that, there are too many circumstances that are hard to predict.

“After promotion, it’s about bringing stability again.”

(Design: Tom Slator for The Athletic; Photos: Getty Images)





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