When Wigan Athletic reached their first FA Cup final last month the Masters was taking place in America, and for a short time the local papers could not work out what would be the top sport story because a Wigan golfer had spent most of the first day in the lead. David Lynn's challenge fell away, though it was entirely typical of a town that has always punched above its weight to have two sporting majors going on at once.
Within 24 hours of becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France and giving his impromptu speech on the Champs Elysées last summer, Bradley Wiggins was to be found shunning the limelight in a coffee bar in the centre of Wigan. Lancashire cannot claim any credit for the Londoner's cycling prowess, yet having married a Wigan girl, enrolled his son into a junior rugby league club and become the Warriors' most high-profile supporter, Wiggins is the latest decoration to what Dave Johnson has described as "the capital of the sporting world".
Dave Johnson? He's Martin Johnson's father. It is a well known fact that practically everyone who is anyone in rugby union these days not only comes from Wigan but attended the same high school – Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell, Joe Lydon and Chris Ashton are all St John Fisher alumni – though less remarked on is that the only England captain to lift a rugby union World Cup was just one generation from being a Wiganer. Johnson Sr played rugby for Orrell before moving to the Midlands. When his son became the England coach, he succeeded Brian Ashton, also a Wiganer, whose father played professional rugby for Leigh.
It is fair to say Wigan is famous for rugby, though now it is famous for football too. Eight seasons of Premier League football and an FA Cup final have put the town on the map in a way that not even the rugby club's eight successive Challenge Cup victories in the Eighties and Nineties ever quite managed.
Football is the more global sport, and until recently Wiganers abroad who did not happen to be visiting Australia would have to explain they were from a former mining area between Liverpool and Manchester. Now just saying Wigan suffices. People have heard of the place, even if it conjures up images of annual relegation scraps or players who have been sold to bigger clubs.
Should the unthinkable happen and Roberto Martínez's side prevail against Manchester City on Saturday Wigan will become more famous still, legendary in fact . Cup upsets do not happen any more. Since the advent of the Premier League the big clubs have always won. Portsmouth are an exception of sorts, though not perhaps an honourable one, but they only played a Championship team, Cardiff, in the final. You have to go back to 1995, and Everton's victory over Manchester United, for a mildly surprising Cup final result, and further back to Wimbledon and Coventry in pre-Premier League days for a shock.
Although 18th in the table, Wigan under Martínez have become quite adept at achieving shock results, as they showed against Everton in the quarter-finals and Manchester United at the end of last season, though after the hapless 3-2 defeat at home to Swansea on Tuesday it would take a supreme optimist to expect them to do themselves justice at Wembley with their Premier League status hanging by a thread. Martínez is that man.
"It will be a difficult balancing act but we know the whole town is behind us and we will try not to let them down," the Wigan manager said. "If we are going to survive we have put ourselves in the worst possible starting position but I still feel we can gain the points we need to succeed. We have had great messages of support from the rugby side of town and we see this as a marvellous opportunity to bring the town together, and alter the perception people have of Wigan from outside. It might be a tall order but you have to dream high."
It is hard to know which is the biggest challenge; bringing the town together, altering perceptions or beating City. Perhaps Martínez should just concentrate on the football and leave the rest to take care of itself. If you look hard enough you can find Latics supporters who have followed the club since the days when Skelmersdale United were their main rivals, refer to the rugby team as egg-chasers and claim respective attendances at the DW Stadium (Athletic 19,173; Warriors 16,043) mean Wigan is now a football town.
By the same token, there are rugby league fans who dismiss the national sport as Wendyball, shake their heads with a mixture of contempt and pity at the sight of Premier League players on the pub television rolling around the floor in search of a free-kick, and are only interested in Wembley on the one day of the year when the rugby posts are up.
Yet those are simply the extremes. Most people are somewhere in the middle, with more complex allegiances, and most feel that if the town of Wigan is being represented in a major final then the town of Wigan should be supported.
Winston Higham is the chief executive of the DW Sports company based in Wigan, a member of the Warriors board and a good example of how complicated sporting loyalties in the town can be. Though a rugby follower through and through, described by his boss Dave Whelan as "a typical pie-eater", he will be at Wembley. He will not be in the posh seats though, or even at the Wigan end, for he is a Manchester City season-ticket holder. Yet part of him would not mind Wigan winning.
"It would be great for the town," he says. "It's already great that the town has another team at Wembley. I know I am supposed to be shouting for City in the final but I don't think I'll manage to shout very loud. I couldn't honestly say I'd be upset were City to lose. I'd be made up for Wigan and I'm not even a supporter."
Wigan's crowds are on the small side by Premier League standards , though not vastly inferior to those recorded by Bolton and Burnley in recent seasons and more than Queens Park Rangers have managed this term. What detractors from outside often fail to realise is that not only does the football club have a rival attraction to contend with, the fact that the town's league status was regained only in 1978 means many have opted to follow league clubs from the surrounding area. Latics are not just trying to win over support from the rugby, they have to compete with Liverpool, Everton and the Manchester clubs, as well as even Bolton.
Though a keen football follower and proud Wiganer, Bill Green, an employment law specialist, will not be going to Wembley because he has a season ticket at the Reebok. Bolton and Wigan are rivals and Green is not particularly excited about Wembley in any case because he goes every year to watch the rugby league final.
"Loads of Wiganers do that," he says. "It doesn't matter whether Wigan are playing in the final or not, in fact most years I don't even remember the final, it's just a great northern day out, the one weekend a year when all those cheerless London pubs are full of happy, friendly faces."
Wiganers' fondness for a drink impressed itself early on Martínez, who recalls being staggered by the amount of alcohol consumed by his team-mates on the coach home from his first FA Cup tie as a player in 1995, away to Runcorn. That's only a short journey, so the players must have been putting it away.The present team have come so far since those days they will not be allowed a drink on the way home from the FA Cup final.
"Celebrations will have to wait until we complete our season," Martínez says. "We are coming straight home from Wembley on the bus, and training on Sunday in preparation for Arsenal on Tuesday. We cannot be swigging champagne on the coach in the middle of such a crucial period and the players are responsible enough to understand that. We have a substantial Scottish contingent at the club, though, so I'm sure the Irn-Bru will be flowing."
Martínez does not want to consider the prospect but should Wigan be relegated the town will endlessly debate whether that stay in the top flight represents a greater achievement than the rugby team's eight Wembley wins in a row. Considering the relative size of the two sports it probably does. The rugby team bettered some notable opponents, particularly Warrington and Leeds sides who would have stood out in any other era, yet in the end they were harming the game by attracting all the available talent.
There was always a Wigan presence though, and even now the Warriors are coached by a Wiganer and have several home-grown players. Latics in their Premier League incarnation have nothing to match that.
The nearest to a home-grown talent has been Leighton Baines, a Liverpudlian, though they do boast a home-grown chairman who financed the club's rise through the divisions. Without Whelan's backing none of the above would have been possible, and that includes the rugby, where prior to saving the football club from extinction he used to take a keen shareholder's interest and help out behind the scenes.
If Wigan is no ordinary town, the former Blackburn Rovers player leading out his side at Wembley is no ordinary chairman. And if the Premier League run does stop at eight seasons and an FA Cup final, that is no ordinary achievement for a town of Wigan's size.