Just when you think you can have a quiet nap while watching Wigan they explode football all over you: here's how they have reached the semi-final of the FA Cup.
In all of the best thrillers, it’s always that event which catches you completely unawares which captivates you the most. Yes the suspense and build up can arrest your attention but you know what’s coming even though the tension is killing you. What about when you expect nothing though? Like the cool as f*** Stringer Bell’s just been confronted in a warehouse and BANG BANG BANG, Omar and Brother Mouzone have left him in a pool of blood. Even my missus cried, although I think it’s ‘cos she fancied him.
Something out of the blue which you just didn’t see coming and even though you were there, you just didn’t think it was possible. You see the Wigan Athletic story this year happens to have read like a particularly bad, dreary novel with each chapter of the season turning into a depressing dreary ending. We can’t repeat what we did last year – defying gravity by beating some of the best teams in the country to haul ourselves off the canvas with a fight back that Rocky Balboa would doff his trilby at. Or even the year before producing a devastating comeback from two goals down against West Ham to secure a last day shot at staying up and sending the Hammers down? Or doing exactly the same to Arsenal the year before with an injury time Charles N’Zogbia stunner to save our floundering season?
For a large part of the season, the Wigan Athletic story reads like a particularly woeful mid-afternoon film or dated charity shop novel. Cheap, sluggish and unspiring often causing the crowd (what crowd?) to walk out and then BANG – they spring into life again under the most stunning of circumstance. Between 1.15 and 1.19pm on Saturday afternoon the long dormant Wigan Athletic bomb was once again launched on an unsuspecting football audience across the globe.
I don’t think too many Evertonians could believe what they were seeing, indeed many of us travelling Latics fans were rubbing our eyes as three quickfire goals dumped a famous old football club out of the cup and took a relatively new one into unchartered territory.
Was this really the same team that rolled over the week before finding themselves four goals down at home to Liverpool after less than fifty minutes? Well almost, it was a team missing their captain and first choice ‘keeper and former players of the year, Gary Caldwell and Ali Al Habsi but that’s only part of the story. Roberto Martinez has pulled a tactical masterclass in each round of the cup so far despite fierce criticism from home fans in the early rounds for “disrespecting the cup” by playing a virtual reserve side to huff and puff past Bournemouth and Macclesfield. Yet each round he has swapped out one or two players, adding a bit more seniority and strength against Huddersfield and more again to face Everton and what appears to have started off as an experiment has taken Wigan Athletic all the way to Wembley.
The key to Saturday appears to have been keeping the Baines and Pienaar combination quiet with first former Everton youth player Callum McManaman and latterly Arsenal loanee Ryo Miyachi running at them, aided by Arouna Kone pulling wide to receive and hold the ball up. Even so, a trip to Goodison has not been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic for many years, a team who mix direct play with some pretty handy footballers as well and a baying home crowd – the pretty fancy passers of Wigan Athletic would surely wilt under such pressure? Changes at the back including Atletico Madrid rookie Joel Robles for Al Habsi, sadly a shadow of the ‘keeper he has been in previous seasons and the return of two classy centre halves in the form of Antolin Alcaraz and Paul Scharner dealt manfully with whatever Everton had to offer. With James McCarthy having his best game for months snapping at the ankles of the ruffled Fellaini and Shaun Maloney working tirelessly in the middle, the only question to be asked is: where has this team been hiding all season?
Who knows? Maybe it is just the Martinez way. He gives his players instructions a particular way and sets them free to do it, gives them the responsibility. He talks of only signing players who are intelligent, the right characters but ultimately they are still footballers right? They have a God given gift at their feet which can earn them millions of pounds but you wouldn’t fancy their chances at doing the Times crossword. So sometimes it doesn’t work and other times it does but when it does – oh my word! It’s an explosive orgasm of scintillating football which has simply given us small time fans of a small time club the sort of dreams we could never envisage.
Of course, there is another man we should mention at this point. You might have seen him on the news once or twice these past few weeks. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this story but he once broke his leg in an FA Cup final. I doubt it though because he doesn’t like to talk about it much. OK I’ll desist now. Listen we all like to think that our football club is more than Dave Whelan, it was here before he arrived and hopefully will be long after he’s gone - albeit in a very different form - but just like that dreary old BBC2 Monday afternoon film, it has felt for a while that the big man was winding up proceedings. He’s not getting any younger let’s face it. Yet it seems he’s also found his second wind and has set his heart on one last dream, a dream that we can all share: a trip to Wembley and more excitement than you can shake a broken leg set in plaster at.
Roll on Sunday and that dream is elevated further as his former club, Blackburn Rovers - you know - the team he broke his leg for playing in the FA Cup f…..sorry I’ll stop now are drawn out of the hat to face Wigan Athletic in the semi final. And let’s be honest, that is the draw we all wanted, and by “we” I undoubtedly include Blackburn and Millwall fans and a few other people besides within that collective. Maybe the TV companies and armchair masses weren’t best pleased with the outcome but at that exact moment in time I could have invited Edgar Davids to step through the TV screen and take me in whichever manner he wanted to.
What we essentially have now is a final within a final as the winners of this tie will most probably go on to play in Europe given their opponents will be in the Champions League. And setting aside the fact that we are somehow still a Premier League club, I still see us as underdogs as Millwall and Blackburn have both been there in recent times so in that sense we are the club with everything to play for. Whoever wins this game would be advised to hold off on ordering the triangular corner flags just yet as either Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea will await in the final but off the back of Swansea v Bradford in the League Cup final last month, the prospect of at least one team from outside the dominant big four taking their place in a major final and a potential European place will be enough to have some people salivating.
Of course, the stick has started: The Empty Seats mob have started to crank open their Jabba the Hutt sized lazy ar*ed gobs and slag off little Wigan Athletic. We’re a small club OK, we don’t pretend to be anything else otherwise. I’m sorry, we’ve only been going 80 years and half of them were spent in the non leagues. That we’re a small town sandwiched in between Liverpool and Manchester, that we’re not a large city with a behemoth of a football club: a Leeds, a Leicester or a Wolves. Can’t you just be pleased for us for once instead of foaming at the mouth at the possibility of some empty seats in a major football stadium?
That’s the ultimate irony - a semi final between Wigan v Blackburn at Old Trafford or even Wigan v Millwall at Villa Park would be more or less a sell out (as long as they don’t go daft on ticket pricing…but that’s for another day) and of course a trip to Wembley should be reserved only for a final. But then if that was the case we might never get there and of course both teams are now treating it as a cup final with the victors destined for a Europa League place.
The other unfortunate side effect of Wigan’s progress in the FA Cup is that it has only served to firmly entrench us in the bottom three with games in hand away at City and at home to Swansea looking particularly ominous. For quite a while a few of us have been touting this theory of “maybe a cup run will soften the blow if we do get relegated one year” but then I’ve got a big plate, a pair of cakes and two forks. Why should the two be mutually exclusive? Surely a run in the cup should get players performing for their places and building a winning mentality in the squad. It’s certainly not been unheard of before for a team to get to a major final and get relegated in the same year but watching such a complete performance as the one exhibited at Goodison Park on Saturday we are left scratching our heads as to what we are even doing anywhere near the drop zone.
For a team whose fans have got used to seeing their team lose more often than not this FA Cup run has restored a lot of faith in the club, be they young or old just because there’s fewer of us does not make us any less deserving. The sight of my former next door neighbour who must be nearly 80 doing a jig outside the toilets at Goodison Park at full time will live long in my memory……
Like Wigan Athletic and like Dave Whelan, I reckon he’s got a few more chapters in him yet.
Martin Tarbuck is editor of Wigan fanzine, The Mudhutter. The new issue is on sale this week and you can buy it from here.