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Feb 7, 2013

Wigan swimming against financial tide

The British fondness for the underdog is well known. It is a reason why the FA Cup differs from its counterparts in other countries. It has been proved in the last fortnight, as the numbers of supposed neutrals cheering for Luton, Brentford, Oldham and even a club of the size of Leeds shows. Typically for the competition, they stretched far beyond those with a dislike of Norwich, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham respectively.

But the FA Cup is expected to provide contests of richer and poorer, bigger and smaller. The Premier League relegation battle is not. Yet while some are bunched together in the table, the gulf between the haves and have nots has grown. If anything, it may increase. Next season marks the first in a three-year deal where greater broadcast rights are worth more than £3 billion to the clubs. Some are speculating to accumulate, others seem to be putting money into a slot machine in the hope they hit the jackpot.

Yet if QPR stand at one end of the spectrum, Wigan are at the other. If the Latics have been defying predictions and footballing gravity in the eight years among the rarefied air of the Premier League, their task has grown harder this year. They are almost alone in balancing the books.

Because, while QPR are the most extreme example, others are spending. Newcastle, who were frugal last summer, paid out £18 million in January for their five French recruits. Southampton's £30 million close-season expenditure was among the highest in Europe and, in Vegard Forren, they have bought again this year. Sunderland, under that Teflon spender Martin O'Neill, have forked out £30 million for Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Danny Graham and Alfred N'Diaye. West Ham's outlay is nearer £20 million, as well as the considerable cost of Andy Carroll's wages during his loan from Liverpool.

Aston Villa may be in an age of austerity, and there is little doubt owner Randy Lerner wants a younger squad and a lower wage bill, but the fact remains that they spent £23 million before August 31 and a further £2 million in January to add to a squad with an £18 million striker (Darren Bent), two more players who cost £18 million between them (Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia) and, until the latter completed a permanent move to Leeds, two £7 million signings, Jean Makoun and Stephen Warnock, out on loan.

Even Norwich broke their transfer record to sign Sebastien Bassong and attempted to do so again to get Gary Hooper to Carrow Road. Reading twice failed to top theirs, with bids for Thomas Ince and Gylfi Sigurdsson failing. As it is, Pavel Pogbrebnyak is very much the exception in a squad with ample Championship experience.

But Wigan still stand out. The fact is that, with Victor Moses' £10 million move to Chelsea, Roberto Martinez is in the black in the last 12 months. His four January acquisitions consisted of a free transfer from Major League Soccer, in Roger Espinoza, plus three men borrowed, in Joel Robles, Paul Scharner and Angelo Henriquez, none of whom was getting first-team football for his parent club. Admittedly, Martinez had an interest in Aiden McGeady, who would not have proved as cheap, but the reality is that the game has changed. Wigan, owned by local sports store magnate Dave Whelan, increasingly look an anachronism.

That is because their previous miraculous recoveries to escape relegation have come when the playing field was more level. The trio who were eventually demoted last season - Wolves, Bolton and Blackburn - spent comparatively little in January and even then, the biggest of their buys, Bolton's £3 million signing Marvin Sordell, was a long-term recruit. Two years before, Burnley, Hull and a rather impoverished Portsmouth scarcely broke the bank in January (even if Pompey had previously). Birmingham and West Ham, relegated in 2011 despite fairly substantial spending, were the anomalies.

Not that their experiences, or City's subsequent financial problems, appear to have deterred QPR. Harry Redknapp argued that, should they go down, there would be no shortage of purchasers for Christopher Samba and Loic Remy, ignoring that, in transfer fees and salaries, Rangers have committed around £60 million to those two alone and have a wage bill that could bankrupt Bill Gates. They may well find it hard to shift failing players.

Should they stay up and Wigan go down, then the "financial doping" argument favoured by Arsene Wenger will be heard with increasing regularity. And while many may not miss Wigan - amiable as Martinez is and pleasing as their passing football can be, the novelty factor has long since faded - the Premier League would be all the worse for the absence of clubs of their ilk. Wigan are already a throwback, reminders of Wimbledon, Barnsley, Swindon and other outsiders to rub shoulders with the elite.

Shorn of them, the Premier League could become a division for big-city clubs and those with billionaire backers - they would be the wrong representatives for a country where, as the knockout competitions show, sympathy for the small fry prevails. So while the resident cliché is that the relegation-threatened teams have 13 cup finals ahead of them, that has a double meaning in Wigan's case.

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