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One of the more enticing titbits on Saturday's English football fixture list is Wigan Athletic v West Ham United. It sounds like a cup tie: plucky little northerners hoping to fell the metropolitan maestros.

Nothing of the kind. Wigan, barely a quarter of a century after being grudgingly admitted to the Football League and 10 years after they were rock-bottom of it, are on the brink of promotion to the Premiership. West Ham, unsettled and disgruntled, have a slender chance of joining them but are more likely to be on the brink of firing their manager. Wigan have two home games in four days; if they win today and beat their chief rivals Sunderland on Tuesday, they may be close to unstoppable.

This is the sort of fantasy that is not supposed to happen any more. The purpose of the breakaway that led to the Premiership in 1992 was partly to ensure that the elite would not again be sullied by upstarts with no support base.

That's Wigan all right. Even now, their attendances are pathetic when they play teams without many travelling fans: their last home match, against Millwall, drew fewer than 10,000. Since, unusually, Wigan place their supporters behind both goals and the away fans along the touchline, visiting teams often emerge from the dressing rooms and think they are playing behind closed doors.

That is unlikely to happen in the Premiership when a 25,000 full house would be the norm, especially as almost half the matches would be local derbies. Wigan is only a cough and spit away from the four Manchester and Liverpool clubs, plus Bolton and Blackburn. It's possible Preston could be promoted, too. But these are traditional football-mad towns. Wigan was, and is, primarily devoted to rugby league and the home fans will have to scream to out-shout the others.

The town's footballing rise derives from one man alone. What the Premiership clubs failed to anticipate was the rise of the one-man band - a club owned by someone with enough money, devotion, ego, drive and commitment to sustain a team wherever they play, whether or not anyone watches or cares.

Elton John paved the way at Watford. Jack Walker sold his steel business and spent the proceeds taking Blackburn to the title in 1995. Roman Abramovich is busting all records at Chelsea. And Dave Whelan is doing the same thing at Wigan.

Whelan broke his leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 Cup final. He went on to turn an Edwardian firm of Wigan sporting outfitters, JJ Broughton, into the JJB Sports chain. He bought the football club 10 years ago and built the JJB Stadium, shared with the rugby league team, to replace Springfield Park in 1999.

He has the ego (it's his picture that greets you on Wigan's website); he has the commitment; and he has the money. There is talk that Whelan will give his skilful manager, Paul Jewell, £40m to spend if Wigan do go up. Rivals stand aghast. Sam Allardyce, the Bolton manager, thinks Wigan could yet build a squad to challenge the Premiership's oligarchs.

But that depends almost entirely on Whelan's continuing health and strength, personal and financial. He is 67. JJB's shares have fallen far from their turn-of-the-century peak - and sooner or later kids may finally start thinking it's naff to go round wearing overpriced replica shirts and glorified plimsolls. Maybe he'll just decide to spend on his money on widows and orphans, or a string of racehorses.

There is no sign of that yet. And the players themselves seem rock-solid. Wigan's success is based on sound defence, and the top two scorers in the Championship - Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, with 41 league goals between them.

But Whelan is far more central to Wigan's success than anyone else. And if anything happens to him, Wigan's fall might make all previous footballing collapses look like gentle stumbles. There are plenty of precedents: Wimbledon have mutated into the struggling MK Dons. Oxford, Oldham and Notts County have fallen even further from grace. Northampton Town went up through all the divisions and back again in the 1960s. Thirty years ago, Carlisle United momentarily stood on top of the entire League; last week they were playing away in the Conference to Canvey Island, whose stand has three rows of seats.

And Wigan do not have the advantage of any worthwhile past. They were unjustly kept out of the League until 1978 and an old manager I knew swore blind this was because the town was never forgiven after the club's precursor, Wigan Borough, went bust and out of the League in 1931. The then chairman issued a statement: "The association football public in Wigan have shown once again they have no desire to maintain league football."

One wonders if Dave Whelan is ever haunted by history.

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