It had been a PR disaster week for Wigan Athletic and events off the field looked certain to keep the club in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons, for a few weeks to come. In 2013, when the Latics won the FA Cup, they were everyone’s darlings. Their manager, Roberto Martinez, was a sought-after commodity, and their Chairman, Dave Whelan, and his persona of “straight-talking good bloke”, was admired by everyone. Wigan were a great example of a small club that had “got it right”, we were told.
Whelan and Mackay
In the past week, they have hired Malky Mackay, whose controversial SMS texting has been the subject of investigation, and Whelan has made some ill-timed and inappropriate comments about Jewish people while also undermining Sino-British relations. It has created a mess that may end in tears in the Lancashire town.
Mackay’s case has been gathering momentum. It is certainly true that the former Cardiff City manager made comments that are unacceptable in the modern age. They make you cringe and the current TV series on how we lived in the 1970s underlines how society has moved on when it comes to race, homosexuality and sexual equality. There’s no point defending Mackay in any way because you would face a torrent of abuse from those that have been offended by his comments. But is his behaviour greatly different from many football people?. At Chelsea last season, Benteke took the field and people around me insisted on calling him a “BBB – Big Black Bastard” throughout the game. When I attended a Wingate & Finchley game, away supporters were calling the North Londoners “Jew Boys”, a reference to the heritage of that friendly, unassuming club. And only this season, I heard FC Romania referred to as “a bunch of benefit scrounging eastern Europeans.” It exists all over the game.
But Mackay is in the public eye and he should have been careful and aware of what is deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable. Should he be banned? Absolutely not. He should be disciplined, but he should pay his penalty and move on. Everyone makes mistakes and should have the opportunity to repair the damage they have caused.
Likewise, Dave Whelan. He has shown remarkable courage in employing Mackay, who had a good spell at Cardiff, far better than anyone could have expected. But he undermined his own support of Mackay by his comments. He becomes guilty by associating himself with the type of behaviour that Mackay is being accused of. Whelan, I am sure, is not a racist or anti-semite – he has used the time-honoured get-out clause of ‘some of my best friends’- but his comments were racist and anti-semitic. Ask the many black Wigan players down the years if Whelan has ever displayed racist gestures, I would wager they will not have a bad word to say about the man. Whelan is self-made, and he would surely set the narrative at the companies and organisations he has managed. Ask the people who have worked for Whelan what type of man they believe him to be.
He’s made a bad call and by doing so, he may, unwittingly, have made Mackay’s position far worse. Whelan has since said he will resign if anyone suggests he is a racist in the FA enquiry. That was also foolish, because that will severely punish Wigan Athletic.
It’s easy to associate Wigan with Rugby League. Those that recall BBC TV showing live second half action from a Rugby League game on Saturday afternoons will recall Eddie Waring talking of “up and unders” and teams like Wigan, Wakefield Trinity, Hull Kingston Rovers and Bradford Northern. They’ve all got marketing-driven names these days and Wigan, once the top sporting entity in town, are the Warriors. They share the DW stadium. Wigan is also one of the homes of Northern Soul, a music and dance movement that has attained cult status. The Wigan Casino was one of its most influential venues.
Wigan Athletic’s fans showed they have soul of a sort when Whelan took his seat in the West Stand. Call it human nature, or just the moral code of the game, but he was applauded by all and sundry. “They’re calling us a town of racists,” said one blue and white scarved fan. “Bloody top man, Dave.”
“You’re just a town full of racists”, was exactly the soundtrack coming from the 5,000-plus Middlesbrough fans who visited the DW Stadium on November 22, 2014. They had come en masse from the North East, creating havoc with Wigan’s ticketing arrangements.
We were told when we arrived at the box office that because we were not “on the database”, we had “no chance” of getting a ticket. Now Wigan is hardly Millwall circa 1970s or Leeds United, and crowds at the DW averaged 15,000 in 2013-14 and in 2014-15, they have dipped to less than 13,000. The fine Wigan stadium has a capacity of 25,000 so it’s been 50% full this season. The locals are not exactly clambering over themselves to get in, so supply certainly exceeds demand.
Explaining that we had come up from London to see the game had no effect. “We are turning people away from Scandinavia, New Zealand and all other the country,” the steward proudly said, which begs the question why a solution hasn’t been found. “It’s not us, it’s the police and the owner,” came the reply, hinting at some discontent with Mr Whelan. “This is a one-eyed town,” he added in what seemed like an accent honed on the Liverpool Kop.
We persuaded a tame local to buy tickets for us, good value at £ 20, but the aggravation was not welcomed. Surely Wigan need all the friends they can get – especially in the current climate?
Whelan’s ovation does typify the game of football, though. For example, bad boys always get a rousing reception when they return from prison or suspension. While other strands of society would express embarrassment in such adversity, football seems to revel in embracing those stepping out of line with a collective reaction of, “he’s one of us”. The sentiment around Mackay was generally positive, too.
The reason Mackay has been installed at Wigan is to try and rekindle a club that has lost its way since relegation from the Premier in 2013. They finished fifth in 2013-14 under Uwe Rosler, but missed out in the play-offs. Rosler took over in December 2013 from Owen Coyle, who had replaced Everton-bound Martinez following the FA Cup triumph. Rosler didn’t last long as Wigan started the 2014-15 poorly.
On the day Mackay took over, Wigan were third from bottom in the Championship and had won three of their 17 games. They had won once in 13 games, a 2-1 success at Derby County. Middlesbrough, though, have genuine hopes of a promotion campaign. Sitting third in the table, they underlined their credentials with a 4-0 victory against Norwich recently. Their form has reawakened local passions and their travelling support was impressive at Wigan.
Despite the noise made by the Boro fans, Wigan went ahead in the 25th minute with a superbly- taken free kick by Shaun Maloney that gave Middlesbrough’s veteran Greek goalkeeper, Dimi Konstantopoulous, little chance. Middlesbrough enjoyed plenty of possession, with Adam Reach’s left foot causing problems for Wigan. The home side relied a lot on the virtuosity of Honduran winger Roger Espinoza, but although he had skill in abundance, he looked a frustrating individual to play alongside, his final ball often wayward or over-ambitious.
Just on the interval, Adam Forshaw almost added another goal for Wigan, but his volley went wide.
Middlesbrough equalised in the 58th minute, Patrick Bamford sliding the ball through the legs of Konstantonpoulous after exchanging passes with Spanish striker Kike. Bamford is on loan from Chelsea, one of many players sent out from Stamford Bridge to learn their trade. His loping style may not be to the taste of his boss at Chelsea, but he looked able to hold his own at Championship level.
Wigan almost regained the lead when Chris McCann struck a post and Bamford should have done better in the closing stages from a George Friend cross. If referee David Webb had been a shade more generous, Middlesbrough would have been awarded at least one penalty right at the death. Final score 1-1. Fair result.
And what’s next?
The Wigan saga will roll on. I wouldn’t bet on Mackay being in the job by the end of the season as the investigation unfolds. Wigan Athletic fans better hope that the outcome doesn’t result in Whelan leaving, because it really would mean the Road to Wigan Pier would be a very rocky one.