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Financial reality has made it customary for officials of newly promoted sides to speak of fourth-bottom of the Premiership as a holy grail, but not Paul Jewell. While the Wigan Athletic manager would almost certainly privately accept that avoiding relegation is as much as his side can hope for, his public tone is refreshingly positive.
“I saw David O’Leary [Aston Villa’s manager] at a meeting,” he said. “He said he hope we stay up, so I told him I hoped they stay up as well. Other teams see us as cannon fodder.”
That is something Jewell is determined Wigan should not be, and he is equally adamant that his players should not be awe-struck tourists, a desire that will be strenuously tested tomorrow when the Latics host reigning champions Chelsea.
The mood is similar to that he instilled at Bradford City – whom he kept up in their first season in the Premiership – where he berated a player who had swapped shirts with an opponent from Newcastle. “I won’t say who it was, but I blew my top at him,” he said. “I don’t want to see them going out there with autograph books. We have as much right to be on the pitch as Chelsea do. We’ve earned it; we haven’t won Jim’ll Fix It.”
Yet there is an air of unlikely wish-fulfilment about Wigan’s ascent. When their chairman Dave Whelan, whose JJB sportswear company has provided the financial backing, took over as chairman in February 1995, only 1,452 turned out at the crumbling Springfield Park for a 2-0 win over Hartlepool. Last season, the average gate reached 11,571, and it is safe to assume the 25,000-capacity JJB Stadium will be full more often than not this season.
Even if Whelan’s estimated fortune of almost £300m has been crucial to Wigan’s rise, for those who see more to football than the obsession with money, there is something viscerally inspirational about a club that only entered the Football League in 1978 reaching the Premiership. Getting there, though, will not be fairy-tale enough for a manager as driven as Jewell.
“Gérard Houllier rang me after Bradford had beaten Liverpool to stay up and he said that our achievement was like winning the double,” he said. “We had an open-top bus tour for finishing fourth-bottom, but I stayed downstairs. I didn’t think it was quite right.”
That’s as may be, but Wigan fans would expect similar celebrations were Jewell to outrage expectations again this season.