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Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Play of Wigan Athletic is story of Premier League season


Here's a good trivia question -- name a Wigan Athletic player.

Christopher Davies

Don't worry if you are scratching your head, because a random visit to any football pub in England would no doubt find Premiership followers struggling to name more than two players from the team that has taken English football by storm.

Nobody in their wildest dreams could have predicted that after almost a third of the season Wigan would be the closest challenger to runaway leader Chelsea.

It is more than simply a good start, and though the suspicion remains that Wigan will still heave a sigh of relief when it reaches the 40-point mark that is accepted as the survival barrier, it has been the biggest breath of Premiership fresh air for years.

Two men have masterminded the astonishing rise of Wigan, which is in the Premiership for the first time in its history, having made a remarkable climb in the last decade under owner and chairman Dave Whelan, and latterly with manager Paul Jewell at the helm.

As Manchester United was winning the inaugural Premiership in 1993, Wigan was being relegated to the new Third Division -- the following year it finished 19th, its lowest ever league position.

Two years later Whelan, the owner of JJB Sports and a former Blackburn player, took over and under former Norwich City manager John Deehan it won promotion to the Second Division in 1997.

In 1999, Wigan left Springfield Park for its impressive new home, the JJB Stadium, while in 2001 the then-manager Steve Bruce left to join Crystal Palace after just six weeks in charge.

Former player Paul Jewell was installed as his replacement and, under the man whose surname is a headline writers' dream, Wigan clinched the Second Division title in 2003 by 14 points, amassing 100 points in the process.

After just missing out on the playoffs in 2004, Wigan completed its astonishing climb to the top flight last May, securing promotion from the Championship with a 3-1 win over Reading in the final game.

The bookmakers made Wigan among the favorites to be relegated, but Jewell's Jewels, as they have inevitably been labeled, are more on target for Europe rather than a return to the Championship.

On Saturday Wigan will play Arsenal, which is three places below Wigan, and Jewell -- the first man in 4 1/2 years to win successive Manager of the Month awards -- admitted: "I still can't believe we are where we are. I always said we would surprise a few people but I never thought I would be surprised myself.

"If someone had said we would have 12 points by now I would have been pleased. That would have put us about 15th, but here we are second with 25 points, though the aim is still survival.

"I would still probably take fourth bottom -- grudgingly, but I hope there comes a time when that changes. At the moment every game is a test for us, but we've passed more than we've failed."

Among the Wigan "no names" are Pascal Chimbonda, a full-back from Guadeloupe who scored in the 2-0 win over Portsmouth on Nov. 5, for the team's sixth successive Premiership victory.

In defense the experience of former Liverpool stopper Stephane Henchoz and Arjen de Zeeuwe has been crucial, while the midfield pairing of Lee McCulloch and Graeme Kavanagh have not been overawed by or outplayed by Premiership household names.

Striker Jason Roberts was recruited from West Bromwich and is developing a useful partnership with Henri Camara.

It is Wigan's defensive organization that has been the springboard for its success, and it has gone 39 Premiership and Championship games since losing by more than one goal.

Relegation would mean one of the most remarkable collapses in top division history. A mid-table finish is the most likely outcome for Wigan's debut season in the promised land of the Premiership, which would still be a magnificent achievement for the smallest squad in the league.

THE FULL STORY may never be told, but how Vladimir Romanov, the Lithuanian millionaire chairman of Hearts, chose Graham Rix as head coach is one of football's most intriguing appointments.

Rix made his name as an Arsenal midfielder before becoming a coach at Chelsea. In 1999, Rix spent six months in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old girl which he has never sought to justify nor has he profited from subsequently by "telling all" to a newspaper.

He did the crime, served his time and was placed on the sex offenders register for 12 years. While there was more to what happened than meets the eye which cannot be revealed, those who know Rix -- still full of remorse for the hurt he caused his family -- would never in their wildest dreams consider him to be a danger to children.

Rix has tried to rebuild his career, which was never going to be easy, and at Portsmouth his shrewd management saw the club establish financial security during his year in charge from 2001. His eight months at Oxford last year were less successful and his "previous" obviously went against him when applying for subsequent jobs.

Football, like life, can be full of hypocrisy and double standards. Those guilty of drunken driving are welcomed back into the fold, the belief almost "there but for the grace of God . . ."

Managers guilty of taking "bungs" have found their way back into the sport, while some players, guilty of horrendous acts of on-field violence, are forgiven if they play well for their club.

Rix, since remarried and now with a five-year-old daughter, knows that his crime will never be forgotten, yet as he was introduced as the new Hearts head coach the hostility shown toward someone who is essentially a decent man with a genuine love of football was over and above even his worst nightmares.

To be asked whether he could understand fears Hearts supporters might have in bringing teenage daughters to Tynecastle was beyond belief.

It has not helped Rix that he has taken over from the popular George Burley, who had guided Hearts to the top of the Scottish Premier League but was unwilling to work for a chairman who has added a new dimension to the phrases "control freak" and "hands on."

Presumably an agent "sold" Rix to Romanov which, if the case, would make him surely the Agent of the Year. Handed a contract until the end of the season, Rix knows that if Hearts do not qualify for the Champions League he will be history.

He also knows he will always be the butt of chants and songs from supporters, but if Rix is judged purely and simply on his achievements as a coach and takes Hearts into Europe then perhaps public perceptions will change.

If only life was that easy.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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