They escaped by the skin of their teeth last season, but for Wigan Athletic there has been little to get excited about this summer and there remains the distinct possibility of another long, hard winter ahead for a club that has, over the last few seasons, battled against all odds to keep hold of this most unexpected of Premier League places. This is a club that has become dependent upon Premier League television money and the continuing goodwill of its chief benefactor – in this case, Dave Whelan – to the extent that we might ask what, exactly, the plan is for a scenario in which the club were to get relegated from the Premier League.
It’s a question that is worth asking, of course. Wigan had looked dead and buried last season, until Roberto Martinez managed to rally his team to losing just two of their last nine matches, hauling themselves over the safety line with a win on the last day of the season at Stoke City, thanks to a goal twelve minutes from time from Hugo Rodallega. It was a narrow escape, of that there can be very little doubt, and the good news for Wigan supporters is that the club has at least managed to retain the services of Martinez for the start of the new season, in spite of rumours linking him with other, arguably higher profile, jobs.
This, though, is not far short of where the “good” news ends for Wigan Athletic this summer. The club’s financial position seems to be one that encapsulates the madness of Premier League finances. This is a club with considerable debt and a wages to turnover ratio running at ninety per cent. In January, Dave Whelan converted of £48m debt into equity – effectively an admission that this was money that he was never going to see again, and it must concern supporters of the club that whilst Whelan is still a wealthy man, he is not a young man either. This is, reportedly, something that Whelan has been concerned about, but the question of who is going to come in and eventually take over and run the club whilst either underwriting continuing losses or turning those losses around through cost-cutting is not a question that is easily answered.
Set against this sort of background, the sale of Charles N’Zogbia is not merely unsurprising, but a piece of business that the club actively needed. The £9.5m that the club is to receive for this particular sale is money that it could ill-afford to lose, and a few bills will be dependent upon this money coming into the club. N’Zogbia isn’t the only departure from the club, either. Tom Cleverly, who spent last season on loan at The DW Stadium from Manchester United, has been recalled by his club and, in a moment which tidily encapsulates the gap between the haves and have nots of the Premier League, has been called to to the England squad for their scheduled friendly match against the Netherlands. The signature of goalkeeper Ali al-Habsi for £4m from Bolton Wanderers, meanwhile, represents a reasonable signature for a goalkeeper that impressed the club during his loan spell at the club last season. Meanwhile, the signing of the former Wolverhampton Wanderers David Jones on a free transfer is a solid one, but not one to set the hairs on the the back of the neck on end.
Yet, if there is a man that is capable of turning Wigan Athletic around, it is probably the man currently in charge, Roberto Martinez. Martinez’s departure from Wigan from Swansea City in 2009 left a sour taste in the mouth among many at The Liberty Stadium, and the owners of the club made the right desicion in not replacing him whilst things were not going well last season, if the run that he managed to put together at the very end of the season was anything to go by. This sort of narrow escape, however, is not one that the club can afford to repeat in the future, though, because the fall in television revenue alone if the club were to be relegated could be ruinous for it.
Part of the problem for Wigan Athletic is its location and its ongoing struggle to raise revenue other that the patronage of Whelan and the television money that it receives from the Premier League. Wigan have made done what they can to get their home crowds up since getting into the Premier League, but crowds have fallen since the end of the 2005/06 season – their first in the Premier League – from an average of 20,610 then to 16,812 last season. Coupled with this, the club’s cheapest season ticket retails at £270, the third lowest in the Premier League after Blackburn Rovers and a club that can afford to lose a few pounds if it guarantees a full house every other Saturday, Manchester City.
Losing money, however, is not a luxury that Wigan Athletic can afford, and this is one of the more intractable of their problems. Wigan isn’t a particularly big town and, of course traditionally the football club has had to share its support with the local rugby league club. Of course, there are a proportion that will watch both and the fact that rugby league is now played during the summer facilitates those that wish to watch both, so this is not a clear black and white issue that can be answered by saying that “Wigan is a rugby league town”, but there is also a considerable amount of competition for support in Lancashire and the truth of the matter is that match-day and ticket revenue, which should make up part of the bread and butter of the revenue for a football club, are considerably lower than we might consider healthy.
So, Wigan Athletic are likely to find themselves in a financial tight spot for as long as they are in the Premier League. They have, however, managed to keep themselves at this level for five years so far and they may well point to this as evidence that they can continue to survive there. This survival, however, has come at a financial cost to the club and Dave Whelan and it is likely that a time will come when this will have to, for whatever reason, change. Should the club be relegated, this would be likely to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in this respect. Otherwise, push may come to shove should Whelan decide that he cannot sustain these losses any more, or should anything happen to him. The Whelan family are the owners of the club, and some other members of his family may be less than happy at the prospect of funding the lifestyles of footballers and their agents.
These are stark facts, but they are unlikely to become major issues over the next few months and should Wigan hang on to their Premier League status and rein in their dependency on Whelan’s money, there is no reason to expect oblivion to follow. Roberto Martinez is probably the best man to help ensure this for the club, so it is to be hoped that the club keeps a steady hand on the tiller and that it doesn’t get carried away and push him towards the gang-plank should they have a rocky start to the season. There are sufficient teams that will be starting the season in an even gloomier state of mind than Wigan to mean that surviving the drop remains a possibility, although they cannot afford to leave things as late as they did last season in order to retain their Premier League status. Should they fall at the end of this season, and there are probably five or six clubs that we can perm three from as those that will be relegated come next May, the Premier League parachute payments will cushion that fall, but it will still be an almighty bump for a club like Wigan Athletic. On the pitch, Martinez’s immediate aim will be seventeenth place. Behind the scenes, though Wigan’s main aim must be to move towards a more financially sustainable model. It’s a challenge that the club’s long-term viability may come to depend upon.
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