To many who know no better the words “sport” and “Wigan” conjure up thoughts of a game with an oval ball. But football, as we know it, has a long and proud tradition in the town. Many attempts to establish a senior club led to a proliferation of names. A closer look at the earlier Wigan clubs is both a justification to appreciate the efforts to produce a successful club in the town, as well as a researcher’s nightmare. The first club in town were Wigan, formed from the Wigan Cricket Club on 21 November 1872 at the Royal Hotel. In October 1876 they combined with Upholland FC to become Wigan&District, only to disband in February 1878. With the formation of Wigan AFC in 1883 another brave attempt was made to establish football in what was already a haven of rugby, but the club folded in 1890, without ever having entered a league.
A club by the name of Wigan County took over the association game in 1897. The club was formed by the Wigan Trotting and Athletic Company who built the Springfield Park Ground, and hence Wigan County were the first of several clubs to have this enclosure as their home base. Interestingly the lease of Springfield Park insisted that greyhound racing must never take place at the ground.
In 1899 County made a somewhat audicious bid for Football League status, but were not voted in. This rebuff disheartened the club and eventually they folded in 1900, as interest and finance receded. At the time of County’s demise, Wigan United appeared and they took over where their predecessors left off, playing at Springfield Park. They were never able to make it in the shadow of Wigan RLFC, resulting in a folding in the summer of 1903, their lifespan lasting only three years.
The next attempt at producing a senior team in town came about with the establishment of Wigan Town in December 1905. They also unsuccessfully applied for membership of the Football League twice and by the outbreak of the 1st World War they too had faded away. Meanwhile, another local team of reasonable status around was Wigan Amateurs. Yet, they achieved little of real note and since the 1st World War was a time for little football, they were sent into oblivion and the football enthusiasts of Wigan decided it was time to launch yet another senior club……
And so, at last, we come to a club that was the forerunner of Wigan Borough, the team that finally brought Football League status to the town. In November 1919 Wigan United was formed, in no way related to that of the 1901 vintage United. Their application to join the Lancashire Combination was accepted during the summer of 1920 and Springfield Park was used for all home matches. Unfortunately events on the field were very soon overshadowed by the actual running of the club, for the Lancashire FA confronted the club with their serious breach of regulations. Apparently the club had been paying its amateur players for ‘lost’ time. Shades of Leeds City….The local FA took a draconian step and directed that Wigan United would need to re-constructure itself as a professional club. The club would be reformed by the 31st October 1920 with no involvement of past or current members of Wigan United.
So, in essence from that date on Wigan United no longer existed and the new club were left in a state of limbo for a month, known as Wigan Assocation FC, having taking over the fixtures of Wigan United. Eventually this club became known as Wigan Borough FC since the rugby authorities and the FA were anxious that the club was not mistaken for the rugby team Wigan FC. Wigan Borough joined the newly formed League Divison Three North in 1921, playing in amber and black shirts at Springfield Park. After ten fairly unspectacular years however they had to resign on 26 October 1931 because of insolvency, the result of a sorry mess of falling support, poor management and seriously dwindling finances.
The following year Wigan Athletic was formed after a public meeting was called at the Queen’s Hall in May 1932. They bought Springfield Park from its liquiditators and established themselves as one of the top non-league clubs in the country. They eventually successfully applied for membership of the Football League in 1978 at the expense of Southport.
In 2000 Wigan Athletic, by now under the chairmanship of Dave Whelan, multi-millionaire owner of JJB Sports, moved to a brand new 25,000 all-seater home, the JJB Stadium. The club share the ground with Wigan Warriors rugby league team, now finally on an equal footing with their neighbours.
For a fairly obvious reason Wigan’s nickname is The Latics, inspired by local pronunciation of the suffix. The first Latics team in season 1932/3, playing in the Cheshire League, wore red and white halved shirts. The same coloured shirts were worn throughout the Thirties up until the outbreak of the Second World War. In some seasons the team wore white shorts and hooped socks. After the War due to clothing shortages the club, by now playing in the Lancashire Combination, could only get blue shirts from the local sports shop, and so blue and white were adopted as the club colours.
This kit with Arsenal-style white sleeves was worn in the 1947/8 season. By the late fifties English clubs had been competing in Europe for a number of years, and the continental influence was beginning to be felt, even in Wigan. The old jerseys with buttoned collars made way for lighter V-neck short-sleeved shirts, and this simple but quite stylish Latics kit was worn for the 1959/60 season in the Lancashire Combination.
By the mid-sixties Latics were back playing in the Cheshire League, and in 1966, Latics were emulating FA Cup-Winners Everton with a nearly identical kit and in 1968/9 Latics wore an innovative kit of all blue with two white braces. Finally in 1978, when the Latics made it into the League, the team started wearing what many fans still consider to be one of the smartest kits the team has turned out in – blue and white stripes with blue collars. It was during one of the club’s golden periods, and many look back on the old kit with affection.
The kit saga turns a bit dull for a few years with basically plain blue shirts, but some innovative designs including white shirts with blue shoulder flashes and black and blue stripes a la Inter Milan were worn, before JJB’s corporate blue, green and white became fashionable.
Wigan Athletic’s first emblem was the County Borough Council’s coat of arms, granted in 1922. It is certainly a very privileged coat of arms, as few if any coats bear so many symbols of royal favour. The castle in the shield is derived from the towered of castled gateway, that appears in the town’s earliest seal, dating from the 12th century. The crown of fleurs-de-lis in the shield approximates to the type worn by Plantagenet kings.
The king’s head in the crest is intended to be a conventional likeness to an early English monarch, but from the point of view of the town it symbolises especially Henry I, whose likeness it is that appears above the gateway in the above mentioned seal. The Royal lion, again, marks another important period in Wigan’s history. Edward III, by charter of 1350, granted Wigan the right to use a royal seal known as the “King’s Recognaisance Seal”, on which was figured the King’s head and the royal lion. The supporting lions give fine distinction to a highly dignified and privileged coat of arms. The branches of mountain ash, known in northern dialects as the Wiggin or Wigan tree, form a rebus (pun) on the name of the town. The wiggin tree has tradition behind it, for it is a prominent feature of several of the town’s medieval seals.
The motto adopted, Ancient and Loyal, is in keeping with arms, with its many symbols of antiquity and royal favour.
During most of their League career Latics have sported an emblem comprising two of the elements of the previous arms: a Wiggin tree encircled by a crown. The badge has appeared in slightly differing forms, usually surrounded by the club name, but the essence has remained the same. This badge is one of the most popular with the fans, and constant calls for its return are heard.
Wigan Athletic’s current emblem is the Borough’s coat of arms. ‘Progress with Unity’, the motto of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, is an apt one for an authority which embraces 14 former districts. We see black lozenges (diamond shapes) alluding to coal mining and reflecting the arms of Atherton UDC, Golborne UDC and Hindley UDC. The red roses refer to the County of Lancashire. The gold lion couchant in the shield is taken from the crest of the former arms, again refering to the “Kings’s Recognaisance Seal”.
The crowned castle, taken from the shield of the former arms, together with the wiggin tree, now appear in the crest. One of the supporters is taken from the achievement of the Borough of Wigan. This lion now wears a crown of the type which features in the crest. The sparrowhawk occurs in the Arms of the Borough of Leigh and in the crest of the Atherton UDC. The sparrowhawk is from the arms of the Atherton family.
Interestingly, because the aforementioned rugby team now carry the original arms (the red shield with the castle), Wigan Athletic must be the only team in the country who play their games at a stadium showing proudly both their first and current badges!