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FA Cup town's sporting divide

The FA Cup final is a chance to end the strange rivalry between two teams who will never meet on the field.
Last modified: 14 Apr 2013 16:42
Jason Robinson sports a Wigan Athletic shirt while holding the Wigan rugby colours he ruled the world in [Paul Rhys]

First off, a disclaimer. The above image is for illustrative purposes only and I deeply apologise if it causes anyone any offence.

If you know what I'm talking about, then I’m afraid what you're seeing really did happen. This is the first recorded instance of Jason Robinson wearing a Wigan Athletic shirt.

It might even be the first time any Wigan Rugby League player has worn a Latics shirt, at least in public (if I'm wrong, tweet the evidence to @PaulRhys_Sport).

If you don't know what I'm on about, then here's the gist. One town, two teams, two different sports. But the feelings that each has for the other can sometimes make it feel like River Plate against Boca Juniors – even though they'll never play each other, and never will.

And the rivalry has just reached a landmark date – April 13, 2013. The day Wigan Athletic Football Club reached an FA Cup final.

When I was growing up, the cherry-and-white hooped jersey that Mr Robinson is holding in his hands was the symbol of the town, and signified our place on the world stage. Such was its importance that it came as a shock to me, when I grew up, to find that not everyone in the world had heard of the place where I was born.

Were they mad? Wigan. You know, where WIGAN are from. The most dominant team in the history of northern hemisphere Rugby League, and one that wasn't bad at thrashing the Aussies in the World Club Challenge either, when it came down to it.

Robinson was part of that, and such a great player that he had to switch codes and win the Rugby Union World Cup for England as well, just because he'd run out of things to do in Rugby League.

In the background was a team that barely put itself on the map in Wigan, let alone the world.

I've written about Wigan Athletic's improbable rise to the English Premier League before, so I won't go over old ground. But the day after my team reached the FA Cup final, I'm wondering – can Wigan (now Wigan Warriors) rugby fans be pleased for, or even support, Wigan Athletic, and can Latics fans stop gloating about being the new sporting force in the town?

Jason Robinson hopes so.

"When I started at Wigan, I was quite aware that the town had a football team but that they were in a lower division," he told me at a grassroots rugby festival in Doha.

"I think because Wigan rugby were so dominant in the 1980s and 90s, the football fans used to be a bit jealous of the success. But I'm hoping now that maybe they can just be pleased that they've got two fantastic sporting clubs in Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic.

"I think as long as Wigan does well and prospers and is putting sport on the map, I think that's what counts."

Well, Wigan is certainly now on the map. Now, wherever I go, people have heard of Wigan – and it's because of the football team, even if Wigan Warriors are top of the Super League.

But why the rivalry? Why did one of my Wigan Athletic mates hate Wigan's rugby team so much that he used to turn up at their games wearing the jersey of the opposition?

I suspect Robinson is right – jealousy, and the fact that the rugby fans' part of the rivalry was really just not caring about Wigan Athletic at all. When I started watching Wigan Athletic in the 80s and 90s, we were getting crowds of 1,000-ish at Springfield Park, while many thousands packed the terraces to watch the rugby at Central Park. Both had more atmosphere than the soulless DW Stadium, where the teams now play.

I suspect also that football left a bad taste in the mouths of many rugby fans. Their bitterest rivals are St Helens – but at Central Park, the rival sets of supporters could stand shoulder to shoulder, insult each other and gloat, but generally just laugh about it. And many of these were big lads, too.

Across town, I would leave Springfield Park after a defeat, look down an alley and see one of the opposition fans getting smashed in the face by a Wigan supporter holding a half-brick.

A fourth-tier home defeat to Hull City saw packs of fans charging each other on the street, pub windows smashing so that drinkers could throw pint glasses and bar stools at the Hull faction outside, and mounted police swinging batons in the melee. Me and my best friend just wandered through it – it was weirdly normal.

So in football, it's not just Millwall fans who have had reason to be ashamed of themselves. And it was the sort of thing that made rugby fans feel like just supporting the one team, thanks.

But back to the good stuff. The town of Wigan can go to an FA Cup final at Wembley – a game that no-one thought we would ever be a part of. Perhaps the only man to have ever had that dream is the one who made it happen – Dave Whelan. Wigan's owner – Wigan's saviour – will be in an FA Cup final for the first time since breaking his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers in 1960.

His work since then has given Wigan Athletic players the chance to give the town the same sort of moments that Robinson gave us in cherry and white.

That chance comes at Wembley on May 11, against Manchester City or Chelsea. If we win, the colours of celebration should be cherry, white, and blue.