Wigan is the latest English football club to enter administration. It probably won’t be the last

The announcement that Wigan Athletic has entered administration has sent shivers of nervous apprehension rippling through fans of the lower leagues of English football.

That clubs would be sent to the wall by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic was not a surprise.

Back in May, when football authorities were trying to hammer out a plan for clubs to finish their seasons, English MP Damian Collins warned that as many as 10 of the Football League’s remaining 71 clubs could go into administration “within weeks”.

It’s taken a little longer than that, but there is a genuine fear that Wigan is simply the first domino to fall.

Wigan’s woes since FA Cup glory

Wigan were in the Premier League as recently as 2013 and famously won the FA Cup that year with a stunning, last-minute winner to beat Manchester City 1-0.

That the result came against a neighbouring club was sweet. But the fact that City were, and still are, brimming with the riches that have become so necessary to compete at the top level, made it even sweeter.

Wigan celebrates Cup final win

Wigan celebrates Cup final win

Roberto Martinez lead Wigan to a stunning FA Cup win. Things have gone downhill since.(Reuters: Darren Staples)

However, that joy was short-lived. The club was relegated from the Premier League just a matter of weeks later, and then suffered the indignity of a second relegation after just two seasons in the second-tier Championship.

Wigan yo-yoed between the second and third tiers a couple of times, winning the third-tier League One title twice before settling back in the Championship in the 2018 season.

At that point the club was sold by the son of long-term backer Dave Whelan — a former professional player who owned and was chairman of the club for the best past of 20 years — to Hong Kong investment group International Entertainment Corporation (IEC).

However, just four weeks ago, IEC sold up to the Next Leader Fund, citing the coronavirus pandemic as a major reason for them selling.

Is this the same situation as Bury?

Just 10 months ago, the English Football League (EFL) was reeling from the death of one of its founding members, the 125-year-old Bury FC.

One of the reasons for Bury’s expulsion from the football league was a result of poor financial management and a serious lapse from the much-maligned EFL, who failed to ensure then-owner Steve Dale complied with its “proof of funding” rules upon the conclusion of his takeover.

The EFL is under fire again from some quarters, with fans arguing that Next Leader Fund should not have been able to pass the financial aspect of the league’s fit and proper persons test.

Joint administrator Paul Stanley told Sky Sports that “from what we can see [the new owners] have just decided they don’t want to fund the club anymore.”

Unlike Bury, Wigan have not been expelled from the league, and Stanley said he was “confident” that a buyer could be found for the “well-run club”.

Whether that optimism is warranted in the midst of a coronavirus-fueled economic downturn, remains to be seen.

Why is Wigan’s plight pertinent to the rest of the football league?

Simply put, the coronavirus outbreak is not the sole reason for Wigan’s issues.

In fact, the accounts show Wigan was haemorrhaging money back when the prospect of a global pandemic was something contained within the realms of a Hollywood producer’s imagination.

The accounts show that Wigan lost more than 9 million pounds ($16.23 million) before coronavirus hit.

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Those losses are not uncommon in professional football.

Football finance expert Kieran Maguire told Sky Sports that although Wigan’s situation was “unique” in the sense that it was a case of a new owner immediately deciding not to put money into the club, Wigan is not the only club in trouble.

“They’ve got no money coming in from match day for the foreseeable future, the broadcast money in terms of the solidarity payments from the Premier League are likely to be reduced because of rebates that are due to broadcasters, and commercial partners will be unwilling to sponsor clubs if matches aren’t taking place.

“Put all of those three together and sadly it does look as if many clubs will be walking a very tight rope over the next few months.”

Is there any hope for lower league football clubs?

As coronavirus continues to rage in the UK, any thoughts of throwing open stadium turnstiles appear to be dead in the water, meaning clubs may well be without the lifeline of gate receipts for a fair while longer.

a green metal fence obscures the view of Etihad Stadium

a green metal fence obscures the view of Etihad Stadium

Fans have been locked out of stadiums since the coronavirus pandemic started, and are likely to remain so for many months.(AP: Jon Super)

Collins, the former chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, told Sky Sports News that government support, therefore, was essential to ensure the survival of some clubs.

“Without the government stepping in, those clubs could go to the wall, and there may be others that follow,” he said.

What would be most galling for Wigan fans is that on the field, things have been going brilliantly since the turn of the year.

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Under manager Paul Cook the Latics are unbeaten in nine games, are yet to concede in seven — a run that straddles the coronavirus pause — and are up to 14th on the ladder.

Now, with an automatic 12-point deduction from the Football League — the standard penalty for entering administration — hanging over the club, those recent successes are nothing more than Pyrrhic victories, with relegation almost a certainty.

With clubs across the country facing the prospect of not being able to welcome crowds when next season starts up again — robbing clubs lower down the leagues of vital match-day revenue — there is nothing to say that this will not precipitate a flurry of clubs being condemned to a similar fate.