When you think of Wigan Athletic, you probably think of the incredible Ben Watson header that won them the 2013 FA Cup against Manchester City. It has almost been a decade since that historic moment and so much has happened in that time. Four relegations, two promotions and administration have headlined the turbulent period that followed that momentous day at Wembley Stadium and it has carried a heavy emotional toll on the supporters.
The last few years have been among the bleakest in the Latics’ 90-year history, but amidst all the adversity they faced they have found a way to overcome it and are now on the cusp of returning to the Championship, two years after they went down with their future uncertain.
Everyone remembers former owner Dave Whelan’s jubilant celebrations at Wembley in 2013. The guy was overwhelmed at the way his £1 million investment to buy the club back in 1995 had borne such fruit.
The one-time professional footballer turned business tycoon was one of the last, true honest British owners in the higher divisions of English football. You knew how much the club meant to him and he was taken in by the supporters as one of their own. When the time came for him to move the club on in 2018, three years after stepping down as chairman, Whelan believed that he was leaving the Latics in safe hands with Hong Kong-based International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) after selling up for £22m, but things quickly took a turn for the worse.
The club was ripped apart in a short space of time and the DW Stadium, which Whelan pumped in £30m to construct, looked a shadow of what it had been only a few years prior. Bad investments were made and the financial pinch of the Covid-19 pandemic intensified Wigan’s problems. Shortly before the 2019-20 season resumed after a three-month lockdown, IEC announced that the club had been sold for £17.5m to fellow Hong Kong business Next Leader Fund (NLF) with general partner Au Yeung Wai Kay, who became a club director.
Inheriting the financial chaos left by the previous owners, Au Yeung placed the club into administration a week after the takeover was complete with £6m owed to non-football creditors, and he refused to put more money into the club.
This cast a shadow over the DW, and the English Football League (EFL) were scrutinised for approving the ownerships that have since devastated the local community in Wigan, adding to the misery caused by the social and economic consequences of the pandemic itself. A deduction of 12 points saw the club confined to League One despite a valiant effort from then-manager Paul Cook and his players to defy the odds.
Things almost got worse for Wigan last season as they narrowly avoided relegation to League Two, finishing one point above Rochdale who fell through the trap door. The Latics were incredibly lucky, and for the sake of the fans it was a huge relief but the future of the club remained shrouded. In the trickiest of circumstances, boss Leam Richardson did extremely well to get them over the line.
Wigan managed to rise from the apparent ashes following a takeover by the appropriately named Phoenix 2021 Ltd, led by Bahrain businessman Talal Mubarak al-Hammad in March 2021. They helped Richardson acquire 20 new faces this season, immediately rejuvenating the football and fostering a positive atmosphere around the town once more.
Over the course of the 2021-22 campaign the Latics have been the best team in the division, and they are just one win away from confirming their return to the Championship. It is remarkable to process just how far they’ve come in the space of a single year. It just highlights the strength a club has with stable ownership who are managing the finances competently while making sure the footballing side of the business is in the strongest position it can be, which is where Richardson’s impeccable coaching comes in.
Smiles are well and truly back on the faces of everyone associated with Wigan, and for the first time in a long time it feels as though all the stakeholders can look ahead to a brighter future. This is a bad news story with a happy ending.
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