Paul Scharner. There’s a name you probably haven’t heard in a long minute, or perhaps not at all depending on when you started your relationship with the beautiful game. For the uninitiated, Scharner was a man – a man’s man. A man who did whatever he damn well pleased with the hair on his head (greatest hits include a Mohawk dyed every color on the visible spectrum and one invisible without the aid of infrared, and of course the style that included having “THANX” spray-painted on the back of his neck in a tribute to the fans during his final game). He sometimes sported a Fu-Manchu, sometimes a goatee, and sometimes, he was just your average, clean-shaven, 6’3 Austrian dude. The first time I saw him play he scored a goal in a 5-3 defeat of Blackburn Rovers in December of 2007. Coincidentally, this was the first Premier League game I had ever been privileged to see on TV after my parents got cable, as European football in the United States around this time was nothing more than a cold, unpopped kernel that we have, only seven years later, just recently decided to give a go-around in the microwave.
I think I was lucky in that way. If I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that Wigan was a bottom-feeding Premier League team, who that very season would scrape together 40 points in a bated-breath effort for Premier League safety, and who in the coming years would fight to stay afloat for what would ultimately end in Championship tears, I probably would have never decided that this was the team with which I wanted to pledge my allegiance. I would have chosen a team like Manchester United or Real Madrid – easily digestible, one-size-fits-all teams that win often and look sexy doing it. I was 17, an awkward Yankee boy in the pressure cooker that is high school, struggling to find a kindred who could share what was my budding love for the soccer where you actually use your feet. When I saw Scharner wheel away from scoring that goal, in all his devil-may-care, bleach-blonde topped, goateed glory, I felt for the first time as though someone had let me in on a little secret.
In the next few months the best I could do was dig for highlights on slow loading football compiler sites, just to see what Wigan had done that week. This was when the true portrait of the club started to formulate before me. Aston Villa 2 – Wigan 1, Middlesbrough 1 – Wigan 0, Portsmouth 2 – Wigan 0. They finished in 13th place on 40 points that year and that was considered a massive achievement. The fact that Wigan’s version of success would likely be comparable to other, bigger clubs’ versions of failure made me like them even more. I didn’t care that they brought home no domestic trophies, or would not be plying their trade in Europe next season. I did care that they would live to see another Premier League day. To me, they represented everything worth resonating with – the spirit of competing against the odds, the knowledge of knowing there are no guarantees even when you’re at your very best, and the fight for the right to be beautiful and unique in the face of giants who want nothing more than to defeat you, a trait personified in exemplary fashion by a certain Austrian who would be named Wigan’s 2007/2008 player of the year.
That was seven years ago. One Scharner retirement, one (unbelievably real) FA Cup, and one relegation later, I find myself as a Wigan fan in a familiar, yet altogether unfamiliar, position. The Latics have overcome their fair share of adversity in the relatively short time I’ve been a fan. Wigan is a rugby town with an undersized, if not loyal, fan base for a soccer club. But recently they find themselves at the center of the English soccer world for all the wrong reasons. The club is in a bit of an early season crisis, culminated by the fall into a relegation spot that saw manager Uwe Rosler lose his job. Couple that with the recent hiring of the currently under investigation Malky Mackay and the moral question marks he brings to the club. One shirt sponsor has already pulled out of their contract with Wigan over the hiring, and chairman Dave Whelan, in a bid to quell concerns, somehow managed to fuel the fire. Nobody questions Mackay’s ability to manage a soccer team, in fact most Cardiff City fans will tell you he is a very good manager, but if the FA comes back with a report damning Mackay and his actions, the Latics could be looking at a scramble to hire their 3rd manager in the same season. It all just seems to give off the sound of bending wood, slowly splintering under a bridge that had questions of integrity to begin with.
The reason I’m writing this article is perspective. “It’s hard being a [insert club name here] fan” is a phrase I hear all too often from people supporting teams who often showcased on the European stage. And the clubs that are actually hard being fans who get less press, because as you might have guessed, these clubs are much smaller. Well I just want to say, for anyone out there who may have been wondering, it is truly hard being a Wigan fan, especially now.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Being a fan of this club has taught me things most other clubs never could. Patience, toughness, and maybe most importantly, hope. If it all works out with Mackay and we rise up the table in a bid for Premier League pastures, I’m not going anywhere. If it’s a catastrophic plunge into League One on the cards and we flagellate the club of any talent worth keeping due to financial needs, well I’m not going anywhere if that happens either. No matter the outcome, Wigan Athletic (yes, that Wigan Athletic) will always hold a special, if unlikely, spot in my heart for the way it helped to shape my love for the beautiful game, and for that, all I can say, is “THANX”.
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