Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man

We asked our panel of Latics experts a simple question: What was your favourite campaign supporting the club? And it was far from unanimous!
Paul Jewell congratulates Jason Roberts, whose late goal at Arsenal sent Latics to the Carling Cup final in 2005/06 - a popular pick among our 12th Man panel for 'best season ever'Paul Jewell congratulates Jason Roberts, whose late goal at Arsenal sent Latics to the Carling Cup final in 2005/06 - a popular pick among our 12th Man panel for 'best season ever'
Paul Jewell congratulates Jason Roberts, whose late goal at Arsenal sent Latics to the Carling Cup final in 2005/06 - a popular pick among our 12th Man panel for 'best season ever'

Paul Middleton: 1996/7.

I started watching Latics in 1977 and had my first season ticket in the 1978/79 season, our first in the Football League. Despite this, and all the great things the club has achieved in the intervening 40-odd years, one of my most cherished memories was our 1996/97 promotion season. It had been a couple of years since Dave Whelan took over, and things were looking so much different from just a handful of years earlier, when we teetered between dropping out of the league and going bankrupt. Whelan, despite the inbuilt suspicions many fans had after a string of dodgy owners and chairmen, was actually putting his considerable money where his often even more considerable mouth was. He’d promised us Premier League football, and here we were just two years later, taking that first step towards that goal. We had a trio of young Spanish players who got us headlines we never would have had, and all of them actually turned out to be really decent players. Jesus Seba, ironically the biggest name of the three, was the one who never quite lived up to the hype. One of the others, though, went on to be probably the biggest name in the club’s history. It was a season in which we put seven past Scarborough, and in which we scored three or more goals no fewer than 13 times. Graeme Jones scored 31 goals, still a Latics single season record, and became the reason Whelan would never pay top dollar for a striker ever again. Jones signed a much-improved contract based on the fact he was the foundation for that push towards the Premier League, but could only return nine goals the next year. After that, it was like Whelan blamed Jones every time we signed a striker that didn’t score 30 goals in a season. We had nothing in the way of cup runs this season, as it turned out. In fact, we lost all four games we played in the FA Cup, League Cup and FL Trophy, having clearly been concentrating on the league… But what a league season it was.

Up to that point, my two favourite season watching Latics had been our first league season, and the first promotion season of 1981/82. But that was when I was a much younger man, and the youth that was full of enthusiasm and fire had been replaced by a man now in his 30s, with a mortgage and bills to pay. With this new perspective on life, I was much harder to please, but the team in 1996/97, and the way it played, just lit up my love for football once again after what were a grim few years for Latics. But forget everything I’ve said. This season is more memorable for a reason altogether different. My dad was born in Rochdale, and grew up fond of both ‘Dale and Manchester City. Actually, he was fond of every team that wasn’t Manchester United, but that’s another story altogether. He’d lived in Ashton since the early ‘60s, and always kept an eye on Latics without ever really being a fan. He was now into his 70s, and suddenly announced he’d like to go to the last home game of the season against Mansfield. It was the game that, if we won, would see us win the title. We did win, 2-0 against Mansfield, but that hardly matters now. It was the only Latics game my dad ever attended with me, and I’m glad that it was the game which launched the next 20 years. The Premier League, the FA Cup win, Europe...it all started there, and I saw it stood next to my dad. He died a few years later, still loving City, still hating United, but with a fondness for Latics that only really took hold that day against Mansfield, despite already having lived in the borough for over 30 years. The 1996/97 is, and will always be, my favourite Latics season, but it’s never been about the football. Not really.

Craig Wigan: 2005/6.

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My favourite season just had to be that first one in the Premier League. I was living in Kent at the time and my dad, who grew up next door to Springfield Park, used to only give into my pressures of going to the home games once or twice a season and only the most local London based away games. But the lure of the Premier League (and let’s be honest, the thought that it would only ever be for one season) convinced him to get the whole family home and away season tickets. I was working abroad for that infamous first game of the season against Chelsea, but my first game back was a 1-0 home win against Newcastle, where Alan Shearer had a goal ruled as not crossing the line – when from my seat in ES2 that day definitely looked like it had. Upsetting one of my boyhood heroes just felt surreal, our little Wigan was competing at this level and even silencing an away end packed with 4,800 Geordie die-hards. But I think my favourite memory was a late Saturday kick-off on fireworks night in Portsmouth. We won 2-0, with Pascal Chimbonda scoring and assisting in front of the away fans. My friends were all calling me saying I was live on tv celebrating in the away end and, as we walked away from that game, fireworks were going off all around us. We were second in the Premier League, in November, with a gap between us and third. It felt like a dream and we found a few Wiganers around Gunwharf Quays that evening in just as happy a mood. Even though we fell away from those lofty heights, we still had plenty more to cheer about. That night at Highbury in the semi final, second leg of the Carling Cup, while the final itself remains one of my favourite days in existence (aside from the 90 minutes...having one half of Cardiff run blue with Wiganers was something I never thought I’d see at a football game.

Then there was the final game of the season, to finish it all off. Yes we lost at the final ever game to be played at Highbury, but what a spectacle and we certainly played our part. I was 22 at the time, had no commitments, and just felt incredibly lucky to have my team peak in those years of my life, and be part of so many of the memories, good, bad and the oh-so-nearlys at the stadiums all around the country. Especially as my Latics love affair was historically a long distance one, with more time spent watching highlights and getting minimal coverage on national tv, similar to what it is now. But going through the turnstiles of a new big stadium every other week, hearing the latest on Sky Sports News and everyone finally knowing about this little Wigan, who I’d been harping on about for so many years prior. It was the season that changed everything, so how could it not be my favourite?

Statto: 2002/3.

My favourite season was probably the season we won the old Division Two under Paul Jewell. We played some great football with the team coming together that eventually took us to the Premier League. Going the game week in, week out, with the same set of daft lads, be it on coaches, mini buses or trains..just mad, daft great days, with tales you could never publish in a family paper.

David Perry: 2012/13.

Obviously, as it was our greatest ever achievement – winning the FA Cup - despite our relegation being confirmed only a few days later at the Emirates. Joy and despair in a few short days. I would like to take the chance to remember the season, not just that wonderful day at Wembley, and also challenge some enduring myths. While I look back at that campaign with immense pride, I also feel we were dealt a bad hand, and things beyond our control conspired against us in our fight to stay in the top flight. But first the cup run itself, which started at home to Bournemouth with a 1-1 draw, and a 1-0 win in the replay. A cup run looked way down our list of priorities on that bleak January night, and Roberto Martinez’s team selection suggested we just wanted to get the games out of the way. Round four saw us draw Macclesfield away which, for us oldies, was a throwback to non-league days when the Silkmen were our fierce rivals. A Friday night blizzard put the game in grave doubt, but a hardy band of local volunteers put their shovels to good use to ensure the tie went ahead. The orange ball, a raucous away following in a small stadium made for a great atmosphere, and maybe a somewhat fortunate win. Huddersfield away came next, and the pay-on-the-day policy meant a large away support played its part in a deserved win as the bandwagon rolled on. The sublime victory at Everton and beating Millwall when it matters – like we do – at Wembley, and the stage was set.

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But back to the myths previously mentioned, not least that the cup run contributed to our relegation. It takes five games to get to Wembley from the third round – six in our case, including a replay. That should not be too taxing, but I do understand the argument about priorities. What really didn’t help us was the unusual football calendar in 2012/13, or at least one significant change. The FA Cup final is usually the last game of the domestic season, and a football calendar showpiece. Not for us. The FA had bid for the Champions League final of 2013, and duly won the right to stage it, which meant the FA Cup final was brought forward by two weeks into the domestic season. There were actually Premier League fixtures on cup final day which, in my view, slightly devalued the occasion as a spectacle for the worldwide audience. But more importantly, it made our league survival bid that more difficult. While we only had ourselves to blame for being in a relegation place, the fixture dates became a real issue. When we played Arsenal, we were dead on our feet, and the Gunners – who had to beat us to secure the fourth Champions League spot – had not played for 10 days. It is all hypothetical but I still feel, with a traditional fixture list, we would have fared better. After beating Millwall, we could have put the cup to one side, rolled our sleeves up and got stuck into our league games with a passionate resolve. As things panned out, the two competitions got intertwined and affected our mindset, as more players were getting injured. There is still a myth that Wigan fans would have traded the cup win for survival. We are also often used as a warning example to clubs in the Premier League, about what could happen if you get embroiled in a cup run and extra fixtures. Nothing will surpass the moment of unconfined joy as Ben Watson scored, and the most incredible roar of delight. Relegation was painful, but there is no choice to make. This was our finest hour.

Daniel Bayliss: 2005/6.

My favourite season was our first season in the top flight. Just the magical feeling and excitement, as it became real that we were gonna be playing against all the best players and teams you watch on the TV – that you never thought little Wigan would play against. Thinking we would never be there due to the size of the task made it all the better! That was the proper little ‘Wigan Vs everyone else’ attitude. And to top it all off after a wonderful season, a top-10 finish and a League Cup final appearance as well. What more could you ask for? We really have been spoilt.

Andy Carey: 2003/4.

With around 25 years to look back on, picking my favourite season meant there were around 20 seasons in contention, there’s been that many good times. Premier League, Championship, League One and even promotion under John Deehan from the fourth tier were all in the mix. After narrowing it down, I’ve gone for 2003/4 under Paul Jewell.I could have picked any season under Jewell with the exception of his first. We had steamrolled the previous season in a league where we were head and shoulders above the rest. Jewell had put together a squad with the foundations that would take us to the Premier League. Not being disrespectful of where we came from and who we’d been playing, but this was the first time in my life that we had big clubs coming to town and new grounds to go to. The stadium was still shiny new and it was starting to get busier – and let’s face it, it’s a dull place when it’s 25 per cent full. The season started well with derbies against PNE and Burnley, and we went on a run with only one defeat up towards the end of October. We destroyed Palace 5-0 live on Sky and Jason Roberts made his memorable debut at PNE. I was in my last year at university and would bang on to my house mates about how we were going places. My student loan was wisely spent on match tickets and fuel travelling up and down the country to games. I had a £500 Micra (which later got stolen) and would drag non-Latics fans with me to games. I remember setting off from the North East to West Brom with a Southend fan and Rotherham fan, proud as punch that we were competing at the top with the likes of Norwich, West Ham, West Brom and Sheffield United. Although the season ended with Brian Deane ruining things for us, maybe we just weren’t quite ready - and the season which followed sent us on our way.

Sean Livesey: 2005/06.

In the dark times, it’s important to look back at the good times and – make no doubt about it – these are some very dark times that we are currently facing. This week, we were asked if we could explain what our favourite season was watching Latics – a difficult question considering the last 25 years of watching Wigan Athletic. More than any other club over the last quarter of a century, we truly have been on an amazing ride, something to be happy upon while football temporarily disappears from our lives. There are so many season’s I could talk about in my time watching Latics. Seeing us lift the Division Three trophy at Springfield Park as the Dave Whelan revolution got underway; the Premier League promotion-winning campaign; the FA Cup winning season; the half-year under Uwe Rosler which may have ended in heartbreak, but we very nearly made it back to the Premier League and that FA Cup run will live long in the memory. Seven minutes from reaching a second consecutive final could well have meant we would have retained our FA Cup. The four years under Roberto Martinez had their ups and downs but, looking back now and seeing how far we did fall, they were certainly good days. Staying up against the odds in both 2011 and the unbelievable finish to the season that saw us beat every top side in the country in 2012. The FA Cup-winning season may well have ended in relegation, but it’s a memorable season nonetheless - for our first and only major trophy and another example of little Wigan upsetting the odds. In recent years, both Gary Caldwell and Paul Cook have managed to give us seasons that will live long in the memory. The 2015/16 campaign managed to bring the club back from a terribly dark place following Malky Mackay’s disastrous reign as manager, and also introduced a number of players such as Michael Jacobs, Max Power and Will Grigg who would go on to become bona fide Wigan Athletic stars. Cook took it one step further in 2017/18, where a Grigg-and-Nick-Powell-powered Latics returned to the Championship at the first time of asking, while also knocking out three Premier League sides in an FA Cup run that should have seen us return to Wembley for a semi-final against Chelsea. Unfortunately the newly-installed Mark Hughes managed one of his handful of wins as Southampton manager against us in the quarter-final.

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But all that being said there really is only one season that I could choose. After promotion to the Premier League in 2005, most commentators – as they have always done – wrote Latics off before we had even kicked a ball. None more so than Rodney Marsh, who predicted we wouldn’t win more than seven games all season – in fact we managed to smash Rodney’s target before November was complete. Latics had swept everyone aside in the Championship the previous season, culminating in that glorious day in May against Reading that sealed our promotion. But how would some of the Latics players that had been part of Paul Jewell’s set-up since the Division Two days (League One kids – ask your parents) make the step up? We needn’t have worried, that first 90 minutes against Chelsea was one of the most nervous I’ve ever experienced at a Latics match but, despite losing to a Hernan Crespo goal in the last minute, Jewell’s side more than held their own against one of the best Premier League sides there has ever been. As the season went on, Latics got better and better. It took until the third game to get points on the board against Sunderland but, after that, Latics showed their absolute class. The thrill of seeing us beat the likes of Everton, Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Ham and countless other sides while travelling in huge numbers to these famous old clubs was something many of us who stood on the terraces at Springfield Park would never have thought possible. To cap that off with a League Cup final appearance made for an amazing year and, after thinking we may only get one season in the Premier League, it became the platform for everything else that followed, including another seven years of Premier League football. The lads who played for us that season – many who had come up with us through the divisions - went down in Latics folklore. The only regret was we couldn’t see Nathan Ellington play alongside Jason Roberts in the Premier League, but a certain Henri Camara was a more than decent replacement. It may well have turned sour for Jewell at Wigan, but he’ll always be remembered as the manager who made Whelan’s dream a reality and, as we now look back, nearly 15 years later, it’s a season that we can all be proud of...as little Wigan once again upset the odds.