WIGAN, England (AP) — Entry signs on roads approaching the town center are adorned with the word "Believe." Paving stones in the town's busy high streets have been painted blue in the team's colors and decorated with messages of support.
Long known for the exploits of its successful rugby league side, Wigan — a former mill town located just west of Manchester in northern England — has been generating even more publicity locally and globally over the last 12 months through the achievements of its football club.
Wigan Athletic hadn't won a piece of major silverware in its 81-year history until last May, when it pulled off one of the great FA Cup upsets by beating big-spending Manchester City in the final. Now, despite dropping out of the Premier League at the end of last season, it is on course to retain the famous trophy against all the odds.
On Saturday, Wigan's giddy fans will make their fourth trip to Wembley Stadium in the space of 12 months for a semifinal against Arsenal. No need for the road maps or the sat nav; they are getting to know the 400-mile round trip off by heart and could be back at the national arena two more times next month — in the final if the team brings down the fourth Premier League side of its remarkable cup run and potentially in the second-tier League Championship playoffs.
"Football is becoming much more important to Wigan," Lord Peter Smith, the leader of the town council, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "At one time, it was very clearly a rugby league town. It's now evening up.
"And it's given everyone a feel-good factor. To have 600 million people watching the FA Cup final last year, wanting to know about Wigan, where it was, what was happening ... It's a great boost for the town."
The rugby league team that shares Wigan's DW Stadium with the football club is more used to those treks down south. The Wigan Warriors are Britain's most decorated side in the 13-man rugby code, and among their haul of silverware are 19 Challenge Cup final victories earned on the hallowed Wembley turf.
The latest was achieved last year, meaning Wigan became the first town or city to own both the FA Cup and Challenge Cup trophies. For the moment, the focus is back on the football club and its bid to become the first team from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup in 34 years.
The club has come a long way since 1995, when it was in the fourth tier of English football and getting attendances of barely 2,000 people. That was the year Dave Whelan, a footballer-turned-millionaire businessman, bought Wigan and made good his bold pledge to take Latics into the Premier League within 10 years.
Wigan's relegation last year ended an eight-year stay in the top flight, but football is now ingrained in the local public's consciousness and more than 20,000 fans are expected to cheer the team on at Wembley on Saturday. The town council's "Believe in Wigan" campaign is hitting home and Wigan even has an official FA Cup semifinal song, entitled "I'm from Wigan, Me," written by local band Chonkinfeckle and featuring Whelan playing a tub bass and a harmonica.
"We always felt from the beginning when the competition started that we were going to do well," Wigan manager Uwe Rosler said. "There was always positive vibes, positive memories about the cup." Rosler is continuing the good work of Roberto Martinez, who led Wigan to the FA Cup title last year before leaving to joining Everton. Martinez brought an attractive, stylish brand of football in his four years with Wigan and that hasn't been lost under Rosler, whose side played excellently in the quarterfinals to beat Man City away and join Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Chelsea as the only teams to win at Etihad Stadium this season.
Steering Wigan back into the Premier League is Rosler's priority — the team is fifth in the League Championship five matches left and likely to be in the playoffs — but the German isn't going to waste a chance to make some FA Cup history.
Arsenal, seeking to end a nine-year wait for silverware, will be the huge favourite on Saturday but so too was City against Wigan, both last year and this. And look how those games turned out. "We've made our supporters proud and we're going to Wembley again — we can't lose, we only can win," Rosler said. "I don't think they will be underestimating us."