The Latics story is surely a fairytale with few parallels in modern football...
Established in 1932, the club would establish itself as a big name in non-league football over the forthcoming 46 years, claiming four Cheshire League and Lancashire Combination titles, as well as two Northern Premier League honours shortly before their election to the Football League in 1978.
Former Latics player and European Cup winner Larry Lloyd helped achieve promotion for the very first time in 1982, moving into the Third Division where they remained until 1993 before suffering relegation back to the bottom tier of league football.
Larry Lloyd's 1981-82 promotion winning side.
In 1985, victory at Wembley was tasted for the first time, defeating Brentford in the Freight Rover Trophy Final 3-1, with Mike Newell, Tony Kelly and David Lowe scoring the goals for Bryan Hamilton’s team.
As for league competition, the club’s rise from the foot of the Fourth Division to the peak of the Premier League was unique, and was catalysed following the arrival of local businessman David Whelan, who bought the club in 1995 and powered an incredible rise through the leagues in the space of ten fantastic years.
When Whelan’s football career as an uncompromising defender Blackburn Rovers was cruelly cut short after breaking his leg in the 1960 FA Cup Final against Wolverhampton Wanderers, he used the compensation to build his JJB Sports business empire. He purchased Wigan Athletic for around £400,000, and has so far invested an estimated £100 million into his home-town club. The enduring legacy of his backing is undoubtedly the DW Stadium. Opened in 1999, the 25,000 capacity all-seater stadium replaced the club’s former Springfield Park home and provides a setting fit for the Premier League.
He forecast shortly after his arrival that Wigan Athletic would one day be playing Premier League football, and although many scoffed at the thought, the vision became a little clearer in 1997 when the team were crowned Division Three Champions under the guidance of Manager John Deehan.
Two years later, Latics were back at Wembley to contest the Auto Windscreens Shield Final against Millwall with Ray Mathias the man in charge. Paul Rogers’ late goal sealed another victory for the club under the twin towers where they would return barely a year later to take on Gillingham in the Division Two Play Off Final, now managed by John Benson.
Paul Rogers and Dave Whelan with the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield.
However, it was a heartbreaking final, losing to Gillingham 3-2 after extra time, despite a late equaliser from Stuart Barlow to take the team within touching distance of the second tier.
That honour would have to wait until a record-breaking 2002/03 season in which 100 points were put on the board as Paul Jewell’s side swept aside all before them and were crowned champions – destined for the First Division a huge step closer to Whelan’s Premier League dream being realised.
2005 marked the club’s ascension into the top-flight, finishing second in the newly-named Championship to clinch an automatic promotion place into the promised land of the Premier League.
2005 Latics Premier League promotion celebrations.
Over the following eight years the club would continually defy the odds, and the critics, to remain in the top flight and, before their relegation in 2013, proudly stand as the ninth longest serving team in the division.
2013 of course also marked the year of one of the club’s greatest achievements...being crowned as FA Cup winners for the first time after a dramatic Wembley win against Manchester City, the likes of which the famous competition has rarely seen nor will see again.
Roberto Martinez, at the helm for four years guided the team, led onto the pitch at the start of the day by Whelan, to glory against one of the world’s richest clubs with a starting eleven assembled after spending over £100million.
Ben Watson’s injury-time header was the difference, not only closing a remarkable chapter in Wigan Athletic’s history, but also one in the Chairman’s returning to the venue of one of his darkest days to celebrate one of the proudest.
2013 FA Cup final celebrations.
Sadly, relegation from the Premier League followed days after the FA Cup win and manager Martinez left to join Everton.
Uwe Rosler followed Owen Coyle’s brief reign as Latics boss and took the club back to Wembley again in the FA Cup semi-finals, where his side lost to Arsenal on penalties. Having also competed in the UEFA Europa League for the first time, Rosler’s side battled to a play-off place in the Sky Bet Championship but their race was won as they lost to eventual promotion winners QPR over two legs.
A season later and a second relegation in three seasons was confirmed as Latics dropped to the third tier for the first time in 12 years. Whelan handed over the chairmanship of the club to his grandson, David Sharpe towards the end of the 2014-15 campaign after over two decades at the helm.
Sharpe’s first big decision saw him appoint former captain Gary Caldwell as manager ahead of the 2015-16 League One season. Caldwell immediately repaying Sharpe’s faith as he led the club to the title and a return to the second tier for 2016-17.