TO someone my age, 1997 really doesn’t seem that long ago (it was the year I stopped being a teenager, although not the year I stopped behaving like one – that’s due to happen sometime around 2027).
Yet really, it’s another age. I could highlight this by making references to the Spice Girls, to Chumbawumba, to the Teletubbies. But the BBC did all of that in their nostalgia show I Love 1997 – which I was astonished to discover was itself made as long ago as 2001. (Where did the time go?)
Or I could talk about some of the bigger football stories of the year: Kevin Keegan quitting Newcastle, Manchester United winning the Premier League title, Middlesbrough getting relegated from the Premier League with a squad that should have stayed up comfortably. But you would just ask: “So what’s changed?”
Here’s what’s changed. Wigan Athletic and Fulham both started 1997 in Division Three. The Latics were playing at a ground (Springfield Park) which still had grass banks behind each goal. Both won promotion that year, and began a climb that would take them all the way to the Premier League.
Between them, they have been last on Match of the Day practically every week this season. But they’ve had to travel a long way just to get to that stage. Sometimes, when you’re having to wait until nearly midnight to watch four minutes of your team labouring to a dull goalless draw, it helps to remember where you’ve come from.
Last night’s final match: Wigan 0 Fulham 0
Commentator: Alistair Mann
When Fulham and Wigan drew 1-1 at Craven Cottage in a Third Division top-of-the-table clash 12 years ago next Sunday, I’m sure it was a far better game than the one served up at the JJB Stadium yesterday.
Bobby Zamora showed little of Mike Conroy’s goalscoring instinct as he failed with two half-decent chances. Conroy hit 21 goals when Fulham were promoted under Micky Adams in 1997. Zamora, by contrast, hasn’t scored in 18 matches.
Wigan have scored a grand total of two goals in six league games (one of them a penalty). Every one of their five Premier League goals since December 13 has come from a penalty, a free kick or a corner. They had no one who looked capable of matching Graeme Jones – who hit 31 goals when Wigan won the Third Division title in 1996/97. It’s still a club record.
Both Wigan and Fulham had a lot of fun, a few setbacks and a fair bit of drama on the trip from the fourth tier to the top flight, which began in 1997. Both endured promotion play-off near misses along the way: Fulham in 1998, Wigan in 1999 and 2000. And more recently, both secured last-day away wins to preserve that hard-won Premier League status: Wigan at Sheffield United in 2007, Fulham at Portsmouth last May.
Both have now dug in their heels as they bid to keep hold of that status. It’s working: Wigan are eighth, Fulham 10th.
It’s not always pretty to watch, as yesterday’s game proved. But maybe that’s the price of progress.
Wigan and Fulham may both have fond memories of 1997, but they wouldn’t want to go back there. And who can blame them? I’d be quite happy if I never heard Tubthumping again.
1. Fulham: 8 (GD: +1; CD: +1)
2. Wigan: 6 (GD: 0; CD: +2)
3. Middlesbrough: 6 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
4. West Brom: 5 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
5. Capello: 4 (GD: +1; CD: +4)
6=. Blackburn: 4 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
6=. Bolton: 4 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
8. West Ham: 3 (GD: 0; CD: +2)
9. Stoke: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
10=. Arsenal: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
10=. Newcastle: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
10=. Sunderland: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
13=. Gubba: 1 (GD: +1; CD: +1)
13=. Manchester City: 1 (GD: +1; CD +1)
15. Portsmouth: 1 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
16=. Everton: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
16=. Hull: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
16=. Tottenham: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
19=. Aston Villa: 0
19=. Chelsea: 0
19=. Liverpool: 0
19=. Manchester United: 0
(NB: Teams level on points will be separated by Gubba difference: the number of times a team is last on Match of the Day with Tony Gubba commentating. If they are still level, they will be separated by Capello difference: the number of times a team is last on MOTD with Fabio Capello present.)