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Nov 5, 2004

Against all odds

LONDON -- Wigan is a town steeped in sporting history but soccer has never contributed much to the silverware collection in a hotbed of rugby league.

That could all be about to change, however, with Wigan Athletic six points clear at the top of the second division, unbeaten this season and poised to complete an extraordinary 27-year journey from non-league football to the Premier League.

The rapid rise of the soccer team in Wigan, around 10 miles north of Manchester, has been bank-rolled by businessman Dave Whelan, who broke his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 FA Cup final - before becoming the multi-millionaire head of the JJB sports retail empire.

He took control of the club in 1995 when it was in the fourth division and now, under manager Paul Jewell, the team has a place in the top flight firmly in its sights.

"If we ever get to the Premier League I think we would have a very good chance of staying up there," said Jewell, a former Wigan player who has experience as a Premier League manager with Bradford City.

"The Chairman has huge resources and we could have the financial muscle to compete with anyone outside the top six," he added.

Jewell has used Whelan's money well since taking charge in 2001, twice smashing the club's transfer record to recruit strikers Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts whose goals are spearheading Wigan's promotion campaign.

Ellington, nicknamed Duke, arrived from Bristol Rovers for 1.2 million pounds ($2.21 million) in 2002, while Grenadian Roberts cost 1.4 million pounds from West Bromwich Albion in January and scored 30 seconds into his debut against Preston North End.

Wigan's average attendance is over 9,000, compared with just 1,800 when Whelan took over, and the club is confident that will increase to 11,000 by the end of the season, despite the existence of six Premier League clubs within a 15-mile radius of the town.

"We had a crowd of over 20,000 for the last game of last season against West Ham," spokesman Chris Ammonds said.

"The problem we have is that we've only been in the league since 1978 so a lot people in Wigan already supported other teams like Manchester United, City, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn or Bolton, but we are trying to attract youngsters who choose us as their team."

The Latics and the Warriors rugby league team play home matches at the same JJB Stadium and while football crowds have been steadily rising, rugby attendances have dropped from an average of 18,000 in the early 1990s to 12,500 last season.

That may be partly explained by the Warriors' move away from their long-time home of Central Park and also perhaps by the decline in fortunes of the most successful club in English rugby league history.

The 17-time rugby champions have failed to win the title since 1998 and, having claimed their eighth successive Challenge Cup in 1995, have lifted that famous knockout trophy only once since.

That creaking trophy cabinet contrasts markedly with the football club's meager haul of the Freight Rover Tophy in 1985 and the Auto Windscreens Shield in 1999.

"Historically, there has been a bit of animosity between the fans but there is no reason why Wigan cannot have a successful football and rugby league team," Ammonds said.

Jewell also played down the rivalry with the rugby league team, particularly as the seasons of the two sports overlap only by about three months since rugby league's switch to a summer game.

"There is a visible divide between football and rugby," Jewell said. "If they win something then that's great, I think we should be united in celebrating sporting success in this town and give support to both teams."

"I don't really pay too much attention to how the rugby club gets on in this town because my focus is on the football club."

At the moment, Jewell's focus is proving highly successful.

Tuesday's 1-0 win at Stoke City maintained Wigan's status as the only unbeaten team in England this season, and the club entertains Plymouth Argyle on Saturday seeking a 12th victory in the first 18 games of a season it hopes will end in the promised land.