In the furore surrounding the violence at Wembley during Saturday's FA Cup semi-final it is fair to say a few things may have got lost along the way. Not just the odd policeman's hat; or even the sense of managed oddity at witnessing a semi-final at a national stadium decorated with vast triangular slices of empty plastic seats. Mainly it is perhaps the scale and also the manner of Wigan's own achievement in reaching a first ever FA Cup final that has been a little overlooked.

From the replay victory at Bournemouth on a freezing January night in front of an upset-hungry media gallery, to the 3-0 defeat of Everton in the quarter-finals and two brilliantly clinical goals that saw off a game but limited Millwall, Wigan have scarcely looked like a club involved in a relegation struggle, instead producing throughout the compellingly light-footed passing football espoused by Roberto Martínez.

There is a lot to admire about these Lancashire flyweights. In profit in their last financial accounts, faithful in thin times to the progressive and coherent Martínez, and always eminently watchable, an overexcited BBC TV commentator might even be tempted to characterise a final involving Wigan and the billionaire incontinents of Manchester City as the culture gang against the crazy club. Albeit, almost a decade into their uninterrupted stay in the Premier League Wigan have yet to attract the kind of generalised affection afforded pre-franchise Wimbledon, or indeed the underdog chic often directed towards the overachieving small town club.

No doubt the outspoken ownership of Dave Whelan might have a little to do with this. After the victory against Millwall Martínez confirmed Whelan will be front and centre at Wembley in May, having received clearance to lead the team out on Wigan's big day. It is being cast as a form of personal resolution for Whelan, who suffered a horrendous broken leg while playing for Blackburn in the 1960 Cup final, one of several serious cup final injuries that, along with a similar injury in 1959 for Roy Dwight, Elton John's uncle, contributed to the idea of the Wembley curse.

More than this, though, it is recognition of Whelan's role in transforming the club with the help of a fortune founded in a chain of supermarkets later sold to Morrisons, and subsequently the fishing shop JJ Bradburns, transformed into the tracksuit giant JJB Sports.

Whelan bought Wigan in 1995 when the club was in the third division, sunk his own money into the construction of a new stadium, and had a Premier League club on his hands a decade after taking over.

Plus something more now: Wigan into Europe might sound like the title of a Tony Hancock TV sketch, but it is also very close to a reality whatever happens at Wembley.

What about that final anyway? History suggests Wigan will have to produce something additionally extraordinary to win it. Discounting Portsmouth's pre-bankruptcy Cup heist in 2008, the last FA Cup winners from outside England's Champions League clubs were Everton in 1994.

Plus, of course, Wigan themselves have no cup pedigree at all beyond a couple of Northern Premier League Challenge Cup trophies in the 1970s and a brace of Football League trophies in more recent times.

And yet what an achievement it would be if Wigan could take the Cup back to Lancashire. This is a club where sourcing, improving and selling players on is an aggressively pursued business model, and where the rhythm of every season involves an extended autumn period of bedding in as the team attempts to recover from the usual round of summer departures, followed by an invariable late season bloom as the component parts click together, ready to be harvested once again.

Wigan may have an average attendance of under 19,000 but the club is just £20m in debt now despite running a Premier League payroll for eight years. Hugo Rodallega and Victor Moses have departed in the last year, their places taken by a Martínez-style crop of the promising and the marketable – Arouna Koné, Callum McManaman, already being talked up as an England prospect – and some astute rescue jobs, most notably this season the influential Shaun Maloney.

This is a very modern model of a football club, taking its place for the first time in the final of football's oldest nationwide competition. And while Wigan's fans may once again struggle to fill an end at the North Circular's revamped concrete behemoth, simply being there is an achievement of sufficient scale.

Man of the match Callum McManaman (Wigan).

• This article was amended on 16 April 2013 to correct the year that Roy Dwight broke his leg at Wembley. It was 1959, not 1952.