WE’VE had over four months to get used to the idea. But still it’s not sunk in. Not even close. But tonight, Wigan Athletic will take to the field for their first ever European fixture.
Barely three and a half decades since playing non-league football, Latics are about to write the latest page in the most remarkable of football stories.
They could barely have picked a better setting than the picturesque city of Bruges – European Capital of Culture in 2002 – to begin their Euro adventure.
Dubbed ‘the Venice of the north’, Bruges simply won’t know what’s hit it when around 3,000 Wiganers make their arrival by land, sea and air.
As opening fixtures go, it’s the perfect place in which to dip their feet into European combat.
Barely an hour from the other side of the Channel Tunnel, it’s still far enough to get out the suitcase and plan a real adventure, and close enough to do it on a budget.
Wigan’s opponents tonight are Zulte Waregem, whose Regenboogstadion doesn’t meet the minimum critieria laid down by UEFA for European competition.
As a result, the match will be played here in Bruges – at the magnificent Jan Breydel Stadium, just outside the city centre.
Wigan fans would at least have been made to feel welcome on their arrival.
It absolutely bucketed it down for the first 24 hours we were here.
Thankfully, the clouds made way to some blue sky yesterday, and we even saw some sun for a time in the magnificent city square.
Not that the army of Wigan supporters have come for the weather – you don’t tend to get wet inside the pub unless a tray of drinks gets knocked over.
But those who opt for a short walk between drinks will find plenty to keep them occupied.
The old town of Bruges is a tranquil island of well-preserved medieval buildings surrounded by canals, windmills, locks and quiet leafy walks, where you can feel detached from the pace and stress of the modern world. You can tour the city by boat, by horse and carriage or by what appears to be most popular – by slowly walking round from cafe to cafe, enjoying superb coffee, any number of local (mostly strong) beers and just absorbing the unique atmosphere.
At the centre of city life is the Markt, a large cobbled square which is surrounded by old cafes and restaurants, which offer traditional meals such as Flemish stew, Moules and chips and river eels (maybe after a few bottles of Kwak).
But that’s for tomorrow.
There’s a game to take care of before then.
It’s been pretty low-key here so far.
Most of the bar owners and hotel managers we’ve spoken to didn’t even know there was a game this week, let alone heard of Ben Watson.
But all that will change today as a steady stream of Wiganers converge on Bruges, determined to make the most of their trip.
Just another day in the life of a Wigan Athletic supporter.