Are you a muppet or a goon? Words by Martin Tarbuck.

Are you a muppet or a goon? Words by Martin Tarbuck.

My football club is unique. Let me explain why. The above question was first asked in the late 80’s in an article in the seminal Wigan Athletic fanzine Cockney Latic. Essentially, it was a social study intended to break supporters into a number of categories based on their match day rituals.
Featured and written for the IMAGO Zine #1 | FANsided. Get your copy via the link here.

The muppets were the happy clappers. Clad head to toe in official club merchandise, travelling to away games on official coaches, and never a bad word to say about the football club. The goons, on the other hand, just liked punching rival fans. But that’s not to say they weren’t every bit as loyal as the muppets in supporting the club, when they weren’t looking for someone to hit in the face.

There were also the traditionalists: favourites sayings “He’s not a patch on Lyon”, “No, that game was March 1976, not April 1975”, who watch the game with a flask and a tartan blanket. And of course, the drunkards, who would treat the ninety minutes of football as a brief moment of a sobriety in a hazy weekend.

I rewrote the piece in the late 90’s, arguing that each classification was a phase, a rite of passage to travel through. Some fans would only ever fit into one box, but many would start off young, supportive and excitable (Muppet), then fall in love with the naughtier side of football in their teenage years (Goon), then decide that was too much like hard work and stay in the pub (drunkards) only to spend their senior years as a traditionalist, wistfully recalling the good old days.

IMAGO / Colorsport
Photo: IMAGO / Colorsport
IMAGO / Action Plus
Photo: IMAGO / Action Plus
THE POTTED HISTORY

This might not be unique to Wigan Athletic but we are certainly a unique club. We have had to be. We have had to adapt to a changing status that took us within a few decades, from the regional Cheshire League playing on pitches full of dog poo and tyre marks,  all the way to the English Premier League. Yep, and now back down again. Few clubs have risen so high, and then threatened to drop back to insignificance. 

That’s before we even start on the politics of history in the town, where there has long been an establishment that favours the advancement of the regional sport of Rugby League over the globally loved sport of football. Plus, with the cities of Liverpool and Manchester a mere twenty miles either side of Wigan, you’d have to be crazy to support us, with so many more palatable options on your doorstep. So that’s us: muppets, goons, drunks and oddballs. 

United with a common cause; the ones who didn’t go down the establishment route and saw our little club rise from the Northern Premier League to winning the FA Cup at Wembley in 2013, all of which has happened in my lifetime.

IMAGO / Action Plus
Photo: IMAGO / Action Plus
IMAGO / ZUMA Press
Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Press

Another way to look at our history is to define it as two eras: pre-Whelan and Post-Whelan. Dave Whelan, local lad made good who built a sports shop empire, decided to invest in his local football club in 1995 and promptly announced to a few hundred fans, huddled in the Supporters’ Club at the old ground, Springfield Park, that “he would take us to the Premier League”. A few fans choked in laughter. Or maybe it was the pie crumbs stuck in their throat. Yet he achieved it, in ten years and also built the 25,000 all seater DW Stadium, capable of hosting Premier League football for good measure.

The ambition was clear, if a little unbelievable, but it was executed: we will take this football club to the Premier League. Nobody bothered to ask the follow up question: “What happens when we get there?”

We arrived fully expecting to beat battered 10-0 every week, yet we were ecstatic to see Rooney, Gerrard, Henry and Berbatov gracing the DW Stadium. No surprises here but we gave a very good account of ourselves. On the very first day, we took current title holders Chelsea all the way to the wire before Hernan Crespo, having a rare good game, smashed home a screamer to snatch a 1-0 victory. We somehow finished 10th in that first season and made it to the League Cup Final, still with most of the team that came up through the divisions with us. 

IMAGO / Geoff Martin
Photo: IMAGO / Geoff Martin
IMAGO / Paul Marriott
Photo: IMAGO / Paul Marriott

Of course, the much vaunted “second season” syndrome hit us the year after, but we manged to stay up on the last day of the season, and indeed earned another six years in the Premier League, mainly under the astute leadership of Belgium coach and former Wigan player, Roberto Martinez.

The best was saved till last, on the glorious day off 11th May 2013, when little Wigan put Manchester City to the sword, with a last minute winner in the FA Cup Final. Sadly, it was achieved at the expense of our Premier League status, and we were relegated a few days later. So what’s the plan now then, Dave Whelan?

Nobody really knew. In the short term, a European tour was prominent on fans’ minds. As if little Wigan would be playing European football! Unfortunately, Martinez left for Everton and Dave Whelan appointed the awful 70’s footballing dinosaur, Owen Coyle. The landscape was changing regardless. Our millionaire chairman increasingly found himself in a billionaire’s playground in the Premier League, and now approaching 80 years old, was perhaps looking for an exit from the club. Easier said than done when you are subsidising it to the tune of £5-10m pounds per year once the parachute payments had dried up.

IMAGO / Xinhua
Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua
IMAGO / PA Images
Photo: IMAGO / PA Images

Whelan put his 23 year old grandson in charge for a year or two, and was spending considerably more time in his Barbados retirement home, only returning home occasionally to bait Leeds United fans on the DW pitch. He was actively looking to sell, but for a long time, nobody was buying, despite bringing on board ex-Man City fixer, Garry Cook. Hey, he found them some great owners didn’t he? Let’s not mention Thaksin Shinawatra though.

Eventually, and over a protracted period of twelve months, he sold up to a Hong Kong based group going by the exciting name of International Entertainment Corporation. With hotels and casinos across Philippines and the Far East, well it would make perfect sense to acquire a small, provincial football club in North West England for their portfolio, wouldn’t it?

For a while, everything was hunky dory. Sure, some of our fans weren’t happy with performances on the field, struggling near the bottom of the Championship and our owners weren’t exactly present, preferring to reside in Hong Kong whilst appointing Darren Royle (son of ex-Everton and Man City manager, Joe Royle) to run the UK operations. But bills were being paid, players signed and our existing CEO continued to build a strong relationship with the fans. But what is the plan now then?

IMAGO / Sportimage
Photo: IMAGO / Sportimage
IMAGO / Mary Evans
Photo: IMAGO / Mary Evans

DESTROY AND EXIT 

IEC were in charge for a sum total of 18 months, and their dramatic, calamitous exit will live long in the memory. Towards the end, their involvement had become more and more erratic. Small armies of board members were appointed and the holding company was delisted from the Hong Kong Stock exchange and moved to the Caymen Islands. There then became talk of a punitive loan to be placed on the club, with interest rates as high as 30% if any payments were defaulted. The one thing the owners had always managed to do, was to advance money each month, to fund operating losses of between £500k and £1m every month. Essentially, they put the money in as they were sold the Premier League dream. The reality was somewhat different, the Championship in particular is where fading clubs spin the roulette wheel, and gamble their whole existence to try and reach the promised land. IEC were poker players though, right? They knew what they were doing!

IMAGO / Shutterstock
Photo: IMAGO / Shutterstock

They didn’t. It was the 1st July 2020, when our world fell apart. Fresh from a 3-0 walloping of Stoke City the night before, relegation fears were finally quelled and our talented young side was eyeing up the top half of the table for the first time all year. Then the news broke. It was a journalist called Alan Nixon who broke it, it simply said “Drama at Wigan!” 

Well, that’s no big deal: there’s ALWAYS drama at Wigan!! Yet, this was serious, very serious. From nowhere, absolutely nowhere, out of the blue, Wigan Athletic were put into administration. The owners had pulled the plug. It was also payday.

Begbies Traynor were appointed as administrators and according to them, IEC had simply told them to wind the club up and liquidate everything, midway through a season. The poker players simply wanted to fold, with no concern for the football club, it’s staff or the fans. They had had enough.

Whereas the way it was executed was swift and savage, it should be pointed out that there were plenty warning signs in the months leading up to it. Taking the holding company private and moving it offshore was a sort of red flag, but we were certainly not the only club to do that. I was very much getting a “Carson Leung at perennially in financial trouble, Birmingham City” vibe here. Myself and my cohorts at the Mudhutter fanzine had been raising the questions for a while: just what do they want with our football club? What is their plan?

The sleight of hand which led to our demise was that the owner of IEC, one Stanley Choi, professional poker player had “sold” the holding company of Wigan Athletic to a gentleman called Wai Kay Au Yeung for £36m. Au Yeung was then, and still is now, a virtual ghost, who very few people are aware of his actual existence. Choi, however, had managed to wash his hands of this loss making business, that was dragging down the share price of his IEC property companies. Au Yeung never spoke to the fans, never put out a statement, never visited the club and you could spend a lifetime searching for information about him (and many of us did) and you will get very little in return.

It appears his only part to play in these proceedings was to unceremoniously throw the football club in the bin and walk away, as within a few weeks of taking over the club, he called Begbies Traynor via his lawyers, asking them to liquidate. 

Finding a paper trail was nigh on impossible, as the paperwork mainly resided in tax havens. A man who had no footprint, no assets and no significant business history of any kind had been allowed to wash his hands of a football club, he had only just “bought” causing a wave of destruction that still goes on to this day. 

The next task for the EFL (English Football League) who had gloriously waved this guy through the ownership test as being “fit and proper” just a few weeks earlier, was to immediately communicate to Wigan Athletic that they would face a 12 point deduction for going into administration. Well, gee, thanks guys! But you know what? Maybe you could have just….oh forget it!

In their eyes, they were applying the letter of the law but in our eyes the EFL had put us in this position by letting some bloke walk in off the street with a tatty bank statement, takeover our club and then attempt to wind it up immediately, because the real owner had got bored of it.

The administrators, Begbies, whom we had a love/hate relationship with from the second they came in (mainly hate) to their credit, set about trying to finish the football season for the sake of completeness, and also to see if they could find a buyer. 75 staff were made redundant, and these were low paid, behind the scenes backroom workers of long tenure, not highly paid players. Wigan Athletic’s academy had become our pride and joy over the past few years, beating top Premier League clubs and having players representing England at all levels, but young assets were flogged for scandalously low fees in order to fund the delayed payroll.

IMAGO / Uk Sports Pics Ltd
Photo: IMAGO / Uk Sports Pics Ltd

The players and the fans? Well, we just got on with being Wigan Athletic. The fans rallied around and raised a quarter of a million pounds to keep the club going until the end of the season. We’ve seen that when clubs enter administration and players aren’t paid, those players tend to get in a sulk or even go on strike. The Wigan Athletic players went out and smashed Hull City 8-0. Suddenly, we had to overcome a 12 point deduction that now threatened to move us from 13th to 23rd in the table. They were defiant. We had been f*cked over, we had all been f*cked over and we would fight tooth and nail to overcome it.

Suddenly, despite a global pandemic meaning we were sat at home, we were kicking every ball with them. Not just fighting to win a football match but fighting to keep our football club alive. Whereas the 8-0 took the headlines, it was a couple of dropped points at fellow relegation candidates, Barnsley and Charlton, which meant that the club fell short. Then an agonisingly soft free kick at home to Fulham on the last day of the season, which culminated in our fate being sealed.

IMAGO / Action Plus
Photo: IMAGO / Action Plus

Relegation, and the pain was about to get real as £30m of talent was sold off for a fraction of the price. Seven months later, just four players remained from the Championship squad and two of those spent most of last season on the treatment table (hmmm). Thankfully, our academy came to the rescue, and a whole crop of talented young players, who might have otherwise never got near the first team, put up an excellent fight in keeping the club within touching distance of safety at the bottom of League One. There were moments of real pride, and also some horrendous beatings, as you’d expect from a team with so little experience.

For most of the season it was in the balance whether we would sink back to the fourth tier or manage to stay up. The mantra was “as long as we have a club”. We’d watch them on the local park as long as we have a club. Who cares if we get beat five nil, as long as we have a club. It only holds truck for so long though. 

The truth is that Wigan Athletic are one of a long line of football clubs in the town, and all of it’s predecessors failed, or where pushed out by the rugby league fraternity in the corridors of power. The local council are viewed with great distrust. Throw them on the pile with the EFL, the administrators and essentially, the fans had nobody we could trust to do the right thing for our club, we are on our own.

ADMINISTRATIVE ERROR

The other thing nobody tells you about administration is the level of rumour and secrecy, it is absolutely tortuous. If Wigan Athletic fans had to hear the three letter acronym NDA once more in this, or the next lifetime, it would be once too many. If any other business goes into administration, yep, sure there can be uncertain times for the staff and concern from customers and suppliers but unlike any other business, football fan are not “customers”. We invest our lives in our football team and to be fed snippets, rumours and in many cases outright lies, over seven months with no idea what the future holds has been seriously testing. As the old adage goes, where information is sparse, rumours are rife.

Numerous people and groups have attempted to buy the club and either failed, or been outed as chancers and the politics and skullduggery at play has been evident throughout. There was a fallback plan, whereby the fans raised another half a million pounds to buy the club and training ground but it would require significant local and external investment, to even get close to being viable. In short, it wasn’t viable. The dream of a fan’s run utopia in the English Football League requires a) a lot of fans and b) a lot of money and in Wigan, we have neither.

Unfortunately, when you are in administration, you are only allowed to have a total of 23 players in your squad in any season. We started the season with a few players left over from the Championship, who promptly made their excuses and left. Several senior players have been mysteriously injured all season, which has absolutely nothing to do with them dropping a division and seeing their pay packet cut on half. So, we bring on young lads from the academy. The trouble is that once one young player has put his foot on the pitch, he counts towards the 23, so the ludicrous EFL rules mean that we have spent large parts of the season with a half empty subs bench and we are unable to sign or loan anyone, every time our threadbare squad gets another injury. 

IMAGO / Shutterstock
Photo: IMAGO / Shutterstock
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Photo: IMAGO / Focus Images

Just as well, we’re not in a global pandemic with players dropping out all the time with COVID, no income coming in and a drastically curtailed season, meaning that we are playing every Saturday and Tuesday from August to May. Not easy when your squad is made up of 19 year olds, who have no first team experience and 29 year olds, who have lots of experience but whose legs are made of pasta, and have only rocked up here because nobody else wants them.

Our world was ripped apart in a matter of months. The English Football League sanctioned the takeover. They then punished us when it went wrong, even though it was a deliberate stunt by a Far East consortium to briskly wash it’s hands of the football club. And they continued to sanction us throughout administration. I get the punishments, they are there to stop football clubs from spending big and waiving their obligations. But IEC didn’t want to stop paying creditors, they wanted to wind our football club up. Poker players folding their hand and exiting the game. This isn’t a game though, it is a football club that has served and been loved in it’s community for nearly 90 years now. And we have come so close to losing it.

We were, once again at the mercy of the administrators, one of whom who seemed to be enjoying playing at being a football chairman and, as time passed, finding a credible buyer looked more and more of a long shot. We would fall, we would fail, and who knows whether we would ever make it back. We were bumbling from own mishap to another, falling on hard times and we were turning into a club we hate. Yes, we were turning into Bolton Wanderers.

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Photo: IMAGO / MB Media Solutions
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Photo: IMAGO / Action Plus
BAHRAINI MEN, HALLELUJAH

Yet eventually, we had our white knight, from an unlikely source. A Gibraltar based Irish management team, funded by Bahrain money. Turns out Bahrain is a hotbed of Wigan Athletic support, who knew that eh? Aside from some up front concerns about where the money was coming from and ethical dilemmas about this small Arab nations dubious human rights methods, essentially it was all systems go. We are a football club up shit creek without a paddle, of course, we will take your money.

There were a full three months of torture (if you will pardon the pun) for Wigan Athletic fans from the first interest being registered to the takeover being completed on 30th March 2021 but on that day, tears were shed and champagne bottles were popped in kitchens all over the town. In part because we had been saved, but also because we were delighted to see the back of the awful Begbies Traynor.

Now the new owners are in situ, we can once again look forward to the future. So, what is the plan? What do these people want with us? Why is Bahrain any better than Hong Kong? Neither has any ties to the town so why would they give us money to spend on people kicking a ball about in a corner of South West Lancashire?

Throughout our period of destruction, one word was used more than any other: sustainability. To the extent that you could say, it is no longer sustainable. This is the thing with football fans, nobody cares how much money is being spent when the bills are getting paid. But when it stops, that’s when the trouble starts. The financial workings of a football club have been laid open to the world for the last year and it has not been a pretty sight. And I should add, that we are pretty well run by comparison. We only lost £9m in our last Championship season, the average loss per club is getting towards the £30m mark. Great news.

In truth, we don’t know how much money the Bahraini group have, or indeed how much they plan to invest. But for now, knowing that they can pay the bills is a million times more important than how much they plan to splurge on their latest project. The new chairman, Talal Al-Hammad, is engaging with the fans on Twitter and having a whale of a time. Though I do worry about the stick he’ll get after the first goal-less draw at home, let alone a 3-0 defeat. The owners have also brought in the vastly experienced Mal Brannigan as CEO, who has spent decades in football at clubs such as Sheffield United, Dundee United and Everton. 

The steps forward are tentative but are in the right direction, and that is all we need right now. A football club to watch and the safety of knowledge that someone can pay the bills. Although technically, there is nothing stopping them doing exactly what the last lot did, we’d have to be pretty bloody unlucky for that to happen.

Their plan, as indeed they have one, is to be a stable Championship club within five years. Essentially, right back where we were before administration. It is no over-exaggeration to suggest that any club going into administration typically gets set back five or even ten years, so that will do me fine.

The pain still hurts though. Watching Euro 2020 whilst our centre forward, Kieffer Moore scores, sold for less than we paid for him, a paltry £1.85m. That Scotland goalkeeper, David Marshall, who performed heroics in the shootout to get Scotland there, yep he was ours too, given away for free once we were relegated. We were building something specially and it was destroyed in an instant. Even now, our young players are being given away for free as we couldn’t offer them contracts sooner due to being in admin. These are not mediocre youngsters either, they are youth internationals, such as Kyle Joseph and Sean McGurk, who will go right to the top, alongside Joe Gelhardt, Jensen Weir and Alfie Devine. All three sold to Premier League clubs for buttons.

Never change, Wigan Athletic, never change.

Martin Tarbuck is a writer at Mudhutter, discussing the things that matter in Wigan: football, pies, ale, music, life and any other general monkey business

This article is featured and written for the IMAGO Zine #1 | FANsided. Get your copy via the link here and subscribe to the future issues.

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