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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 22/01/05, 3.00pm
Wigan Athletic
It's a fair cop*
By Matt Rowson

It's a fact oft repeated that football clubs have it rather easy when it comes to "brand loyalty". Success (or otherwise), pricing, the weather, the attractiveness of the opposition and so forth will all affect matchday attendances but how ever rubbish things get, most of us will essentially remain supporters of our own club, liable to be wooed back when things get a bit better or we remember how irritating Saturday afternoons without football can be.

The same doesn't apply in other industries. A brewery that only half-filled cans of lager would go out of business. A newspaper that leaves a few pages blank on a regular basis because it really can't be arsed will lose readers quickly (insert your own punchline here). And yet we can all remember shocking non-performances from our team over the years. A statement which says it all... because they're still "our team" despite everything. It takes a conscious effort on the part of the club actually to lose customers for the most part (hello, Franchise) because that inclination to forgive, to regard yourself as part of the entity that you're purchasing a product from, is part of what you're paying money for.

Stretching the point a little, each club might even be seen as holding a monopoly over its supporters' affections; there's only one Watford after all, and I'm hardly likely to bugger off and start supporting anyone else. Abuse of this privileged position by any club consequently riles the supporters involved.

Another body in the privileged position of being a legal monopoly is the police force, and they will tend to get rather shorter shrift than any football club when they start taking the piss. We pay for them indirectly via our taxes, of course, but football clubs have a more explicit customer relationship than most through the charges levied by the force for policing games.

This has become something of a centre of attention in Wigan, where charges levied by Greater Manchester Police have, in part, gone unpaid by Chairman Dave Whelan, leading to not-terribly-veiled threats of withdrawal of policing and the implied suspension of a safety certificate and the playing of games behind closed doors (I just typed "clothes drawers", why did I do that? Another preview...).

The bone of contention is the level of the charges being levied at the Latics in comparison to those charged to their neighbours, in the light of which it's difficult not to sympathise with the football club. According to Whelan, for their respective home games with Sheffield United, neighbours Burnley and Preston North End were both charged around 4,000. Wigan were charged nearly 15,000 for the same fixture (in front of a significantly smaller crowd). Whilst Burnley and Preston both fall under the jurisdiction of the Lancashire police force, the comparison to the 10,000 levied by Greater Manchester Police on Bolton for their match with Liverpool (in front of two and a half times the gate) makes the whole thing sound very odd.

The bottom line seems to be that GM Police employ regular policing at Bolton, whilst staffing Wigan via overtime and charging the club accordingly. It's not difficult to appreciate how the JJB's ten-thousand-or-so crowds and (reportedly) high-tech policing centre are a more attractive overtime proposition than a heaving crowd at the Reebok. To my innocent eyes, the whole thing looks like a bit of a con, but who am I to judge. Assistant Constable Steve Thomas assures us that his force is "entirely consistent with ACPO procedure in the way we charge for stewarding matches". So that's okay, then. Except that in any other walk of life, a customer would be quite at liberty to take their custom elsewhere. Even a football fan, strictly speaking.

Football. Oh yes. Well, the Latics were struggling for form a little bit around Christmas, losing their last three games of 2004 but have won their first three League games of this year, each by two goals to zip, although a weakened side also exited the FA Cup to Derby County.

Our game against Athletic at Vicarage Road at the end of September produced arguably our strongest League performance of the season; that our visitors left with a clean sheet despite this bears testimony to the best defence in the Division. Australian John Filan will have had flashbacks on that occasion of his visit to the Vic last season, when H soared above him to score our goal. Heidar wasn't quite high enough when the same situation suggested itself four months ago. Filan is a fine keeper though, and has experienced backup in former Manchester United and Bradford stopper Gary Walsh.

Nicky Eaden, who spent a season in the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) with Barnsley has fought off stiff competition from former Crewe captain David Wright and less stiff competition from Paul Mitchell (now on loan at Franchise) to make right back his own. The highly rated Leighton Baines, who scored a bomb of a goal at Portman Road just before Christmas, holds off Scot Steve McMillan on the left.

In the centre, former Everton and Norwich stopper Matt Jackson has just signed a new contract; he's partnering Brazilian Emerson Thome with Ian Breckin relegated to the subs' bench.

Midfield is probably where Wigan have been found short, a situation not helped an early-season injury to Per Frandsen. Swedish Andreas Johansson has arrived from Djurgaardens, ultimately to replace Gareth Whalley and partner playmaker Jimmy Bullard in the centre one suspects, however he is still short of match fitness and is unlikely to be fit in time for Saturday. The enormous Lee McCulloch, who scored the only tie of this round last season, plays on the left in preference to Alan Mahon, whilst the pacy but unreliable Gary Teale vies with another Scot, former Torquay striker David Graham on the right. Welshman Mike Flynn's performances have been praised this week, however these have mostly been from the bench and Johansson's arrival won't add to his chances. Jason Jarrett has just joined Stoke on loan, and whilst Stig Tofting has been training with the Latics, Ray Lewington will be relieved to learn that the ankles and shins of our own midfielders are relatively safe as Jewell has no intention of offering Thomas Gravesen's doorman sidekick a playing contract.

Up front, the vaunted partnership of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington appears to be under threat. Ellington, with seventeen goals to his name this season, is reportedly in need of a shoulder op and playing nervously as if protecting the injury. That sounds familiar. Interestingly, that his contract has a 3m automatic release clause has somehow appeared in the press during the transfer window. Jason Roberts meanwhile, who has impressed greatly on his way to thirteen this season, is being linked with a move to West Ham who appear to have finally given up on Bobby Zamora. Wigan aren't overburdened with attacking alternatives; the two playing wide midfield are the likeliest deputies.

We've got a big game on Tuesday, apparently, so a match away from home against the side that impressed the most in the first half of the season is something we could probably do without at this stage. Nonetheless, those who make the journey will have the consolation of knowing that there'll be plenty of coppers able to stand in the burger queue for you whilst you take a leak at half time. And on good money to do so.

* Arf, arf.