After avoiding relegation to League Two in the penultimate game of last season, there was an outpouring of relief among Wigan Athletic’s players and staff, a little respite after the slog of administration. On Saturday the atmosphere inside the DW Stadium against Rotherham promises to be equally supercharged, not only because it is their first home game with supporters for 17 months but because Abdulrahman al-Jasmi, whose consortium took ownership of the club in March, is in town to take in his first live match.
After that game at Hull in May, a defeat that felt like a victory, Jasmi outlined his vision on a video call along with the Wigan chairman, Talal al-Hammad, and congratulated a team propped up by academy youngsters and players on short-term deals on achieving survival. The squad gathered by a big screen and Leam Richardson, the manager, and Jamie Jones, the club captain, expressed their gratitude to the owners. “They were saying: ‘Well done for staying up,’ but we wanted to say thank you back because they kept us alive, really,” says the Wigan forward Callum Lang.
Hammad spent Thursday mingling with the community, visiting the mayor and local council before being inducted into the official Wigan Supporters Club. He visited Wigan’s Christopher Park training base last week – their Euxton facility was sold to Preston last year – and when he and Jasmi are introduced on to the pitch before kick-off they will receive a heroes’ welcome. “A lot of fans are still happy just to have a club,” says Lang. “We all saw what happened with Bury and it’s scary. I think it will be quite emotional for the fans and it will hopefully be the first time I’ll play at the DW in a league game [in front of fans] with a first-team shirt on so it’s really exciting.”
Administration brought 75 support staff redundancies, though many returned in April after the takeover. The sales of the teenagers Joe Gelhardt, Alfie Devine and Jensen Weir to Premier League clubs helped to cover the wages. Supporters set up two crowdfunders: one to help pay for essential operational costs, such as travel and accommodation for away matches; and another totalling almost £650,000 (since refunded) to potentially take over the club. Jones auctioned his 2017-18 League One winner’s medal to raise funds via a raffle but the supporter who won the medal returned it to the goalkeeper as a gesture of appreciation.
“It was quite a close-knit club anyway but things like that have brought everyone closer than ever,” says Lang, who joined as an under-13. “I feel like I’ve seen it all, from them winning the FA Cup [in 2013] to being in admin – it has been a bit of a crazy ride. When I saw the crowdfunders, I was proud to say I am a Wigan Athletic player. We’ve all got the same views on this very special club. Now there is a really good feeling around the place.”
Wigan had to start again from scratch – they had only six contracted players at the start of July – and, in some ways, they are still refinding their feet, having lived hand-to-mouth for the majority of the past 13 months. They have lured key players from league rivals, including Charlie Wyke, who scored 31 goals for Sunderland last season; Ben Amos, the former Charlton goalkeeper; and Tom Naylor, the former Portsmouth captain.
“Have we spent more than some teams? We have, but when we put it back into perspective, we’ve done what every other club would have done,” says the chief executive, Mal Brannigan. “We’ve probably had to pay a slight premium on some of the players but the challenges that were faced by the team, the manager and by the ownership group were enormous, starting from such a low base.”
Jasmi, a Bahraini banker, fronts the consortium Phoenix 2021 Ltd, the majority shareholder of which is Europa Point Sports Holdings Ltd, a company incorporated in Gibraltar. The parent company of Europa Point Sports Holdings is Epic Investment Holding Company Ltd, also registered in Gibraltar, in which Jasmi holds a “significant interest”. Jasmi is said on his company’s website to specialise in “private equity and venture capital focusing on … real estate, hospitality, healthcare, and energy in emerging and developed markets”.
“Are we ambitious? Yes,” says Brannigan. “We would like to be one division up but that isn’t the whole aim for this year. It’s all about bringing stability.”
Wigan’s academy continues to feed their first team, with Thelo Aasgaard and Luke Robinson breaking in last season, and the centre-back James Carragher, son of the former Liverpool defender Jamie who captained Wigan’s under-18s last season, made his first-team debut as Wigan advanced in the Carabao Cup in midweek. Carragher recently signed a professional contract amid top-flight interest. “He’s very similar to his dad in the way he plays and he’s got a bright future,” says Lang.
The stadium exterior has been jetwashed and repainted and the mood is markedly different from the gloom this time last year. “There seems to be a sense of renewed energy,” says Brannigan. “That comes from what an ownership change can do, when it is seen as a positive change, and staff that have been able to continue their employment here see there is a sense of hope about bringing belief back. I think supporters feel there is now an ownership group that will make sure the club is put on a firm foundation. There seems to be a good buzz around the club and the town.”