Following their defeat to West Ham, Wigan Athletic find themselves in the bottom three with six games left to their season; five in the league, and one at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final. After they host Tottenham at home on 27th of April, Wigan face three tricky games in a week: a trip to West Brom, a home game against Swansea three days later, and a final played in front of nearly four times the capacity of the DW Stadium the following Saturday. Due to this year’s Champions League final being held at Wembley, the FA Cup final will be played on May 11th, following which Wigan still face an away trip to Champions League chasing Arsenal, and a potential ‘final’ in its own right when Aston Villa visit the DW Stadium. Thankfully for Wigan, Aston Villa (currently only three points ahead of Wigan with a worse goal-difference) also face a difficult run-in to the season; however if worst comes to worst, and Wigan find themselves relegated come the final whistle against Aston Villa, would a cup win soften the pain of dropping into the second division of English football?
In 2011, Birmingham City found themselves in this exact position. Having won the League Cup on 27th February, Alex McLeish’s side went on a shocking run of form, which eventually saw them relegated on the final day of the season. They now sit 10th in the Championship, having now twice failed to return back into the Premier League, despite being stuck with high-earning players from the 2011 squad including Nikola Žigić, who earns a reported weekly salary of £50,000. During the summer window following their relegation, Birmingham City let over 12 players go, leaving them with a depleted squad which is still in the process of being rebuilt. Had they stayed in the Premier League, the vast amount of sponsorship and television money they were entitled to would have allowed Birmingham to maintain the contracts of the players they were forced to get rid of; thus raising the question as to where the club would be now had they not been relegated. Would they be challenging for trophies whilst sitting in a comfortable position in the league… Who can say? What is for certain is that unlike in years gone by, immediate promotion back into the Premier League is now a far bigger task, therefore staying in the top division has become paramount for the likes of Wigan Athletic who are in danger of dropping out of the division.
Though Wigan’s squad works on a far smaller wage bill than Birmingham City in 2011, and Queens Park Rangers this season (who themselves face the precarious task of Championship football with multiple players on £50,000+ a week) the income the club looks set to receive in the Championship may hamper their chances gaining promotion out of the second division. Considering their average home attendance in the Premier League is around 17,000 fans, Wigan’s revenue from ticket-sales in the Championship would be far lower – due to the likely reduction in ticket prices as a result of no longer being able to offer top-class opposition every game. Furthermore, the drop in television and sponsorship income would mean that in order to maintain the service of a majority of their current squad, Wigan would be forced to sell the likes of Shaun Maloney and Arouna Koné who have impressed this season in both the league and FA Cup. The rest of the squad could feasibly remain at the club, although Dave Whelan may face a struggle to hold on to manager Roberto Martínez, bearing in mind that Everton, Stoke and West Ham could all be looking to replace their current managers come the end of the season. Now I must state that I am being hypothetical here, but of all the teams relegated from the Premier League in recent seasons, Wigan are still probably in the best position; for despite a loss of income through the ‘brand’ of the club, they would still receive £40 million through parachute-payments – thus covering the reduction in gate-receipts and sponsorship. Whelan has also previously stressed the reason he has never considered sacking Martínez is that he has faith in him to guide Wigan back into the Premier League if they were to get relegated. This therefore means the topic of relegation has come up before in board meetings, possibly suggesting that Martínez would be happy to stay on at the club regardless of which league they find themselves in. This makes me wonder whether fans of Wigan Athletic would be willing to drop out of the Premier League so long as the club’s name is engraved onto the prestigious FA Cup trophy on the 11th of May?
There are parallels to be made between Wigan’s position and that of Arsenal in the past seven seasons. There seems to be no general consensus within the Arsenal supporters as to whether they would prefer Arsène Wenger to prioritise winning a trophy over qualifying for the Champions League. Some argue that the revenue generated by Elite European football is imperative, while others are simply desperate to add a trophy to the parodic banner that surrounds the pitch at The Emirates. Winning a trophy is an event that fans of a club will forever remember; while qualifying for the top-four, or gaining promotion back into the Premier League (potentially by coming second in the Championship and not even winning the league) may not stick in fans’ minds so prominently. Personally, I believe Arsenal would be better off competing to win trophies; for strangely, despite claiming Champions League football is paramount in order to attract high quality footballers, Arsenal are yet to sign a so called ‘top-name player’. The chances of Arsenal winning the Champions League are also extremely slim, so why is so much importance attached to winning the trophy? Income from The Emirates Stadium brings in around £50 million each season, therefore unlike Wigan, Arsenal’s need for revenue is lesser. Arsenal’s priority must surely therefore go towards winning the FA Cup, for a season without Champions League football is unlikely to financially ruin the club. If Wenger fails to guide his side into a top-four place this season, he can expect that next season the fans will turn and begin demanding success in a competition, thus forcing him to alter his priorities and attempt to fill the empty space along the Arsenal trophy timeline that surrounds The Emirates Stadium.
Wigan fans on the other hand do not expect trophies, and have come to accept Premier League football each year as a trophy in itself. Having never won the FA Cup before, Wigan are unlikely to get a better chance of getting their name engraved onto the trophy than when they face Manchester City this May. They undoubtedly go into the game as underdogs, however as shown on Wednesday when it took a late Carlos Tévez goal to give City a narrow 1-0 win, Wigan are capable of suppressing Man City’s attacking threat; and with a striker like Koné who will always present a threat on the counter-attack, Wigan’s chances of winning the cup are not as slim as some believe them to be. I must state that it is of course possible for Wigan to achieve both Premier League survival and an FA Cup victory; however as demonstrated by Birmingham, a post-cup ‘hangover’ period may impede their survival. Given the choice, I believe Birmingham City fans would still chose to keep the illustrious memory of lifting a trophy over staying in the league, therefore Wigan fans (whose club is in a far better state than Birmingham were at the time) should feel likewise.
Surely seeing your side win a trophy is a greater experience than simply staying in the same position as they were at the start of the season? It’s not like Wigan are progressing much, for each year they seem to find themselves struggling at the foot of the table. Furthermore, given the well-kept state of their squad, promotion from the Championship shouldn’t come as that great a challenge, and fans would be able to celebrate winning games on a more regular basis. Again, I must reinstate that this is all purely hypothetical, but I don’t see Wigan emulating the struggle of the likes of Burnley, Blackpool and Middlesbrough who have all failed to return to the Premier League. If Wigan were to win the FA Cup and go down, this time next year – with Wigan possibly sitting near the top of the Championship table – Wigan fans will surely be prouder than they have ever been before to support Wigan Football Club, knowing that for years to come the memory of their famous cup victory will be an eternal part of footballing history.