I wasn’t fortunate enough to be among the 6,700 spectators that witnessed Wigan play Manchester City at Springfield Park in May 1999.
It was the biggest day in the club’s history to date in more ways than one – not only was a place in the Division 2 play-off finals up for grabs, but it was to be the final match at Springfield Park, home to football (and for a short time rugby, but don’t tell that to a Warriors fan) in Wigan for more than a century.
Wigan lost 2-1 and would ultimately crash out on aggregate, but spirits were high – a new era was dawning at the club. Work on the Latics’ brand new, state-of-the-art sports stadium was complete, and just weeks later, on 4th August, the town was welcoming European Champions Manchester United in a pre-season curtain raiser to the 1999-2000 campaign.
The pristine, clean and shiny JJB Stadium was the vision of local businessman and ex-Blackburn player Dave Whelan, who harboured ambitions of bringing top-flight football to the town of Wigan. Even he, a man so famously hard to please, must be pleasantly surprised, nay, delighted that this dream was fulfilled within ten years of him taking over.
In the decade of football since the final game at Springy, Wigan have jumped from third division also-rans to Premier League mainstays – a meteoric rise through the Football League rivalling that of Wimbledon, and later Manchester City. It could be argued that Wigan haven’t had a single bad season at the JJB, with the possible exception of 2006/07 in which Latics narrowly avoided relegation to Division One.
Attendances, the subject of much mainstream media discussion, tripled, rising from under 6,000 in 1999/2000 to around 18,000 in the 2008/09 season. In 2005, the Latics’ first season in the Premier League, the average attendance (20,904) totalled more than that of Wigan Warriors Rugby Club (13,894) for the first time at the JJB, ensuring Wigan would no longer be considered just a ‘rugby town’.
Fun fact: In a strange quirk, Wigan Athletic were actually the first away team to win a competitive game at the JJB – their FA Cup tie against Cambridge City in October 1999 was switched to the JJB after Cambridge’s City Ground was deemed unsuitable to host the match. Wigan would wear their change strip, since it was technically an away match.
The 1st of August will mark the end of an era as the JJB is renamed the DW Stadium after Dave Whelan’s new sports retail venture. If the next decade of football Wigan Athletic is as successful as the last, we can expect some great occasions at the newly-branded Robin Park ground, and who knows? Maybe we might outgrow the DW Stadium too. Here’s to Premier League dominance in ten years’ time.