Proud Wigan slip away

2013-relegation

The week that brought Wigan Athletic its greatest moment in football has ended in sadness as the club’s eight-year Premier League history has been placed in the to-be-continued pile along with so many others.

Few Wigan supporters will feel anything but overwhelming pride tonight despite being relegated, as an injury-plagued and thoroughly exhausted squad gave Arsenal a real scare amidst rainy scenes at the Emirates. With the scores equal in the second half, it was Wigan playing the better football, narrowly failing to take the lead on several occasions before an Arsenal counter-attack swung the match and ultimately put Latics down.

Ensuing weeks will address questions about who will stay and who will go. For the time being, it is safe to say that the work of Roberto Martinez’s staff has ensured that Wigan is in very strong shape to bounce back in short order. When the club was first promoted in 2005 there was little in the way of youth development or reserves. Times are different — so much Latics progressed through the FA Cup using squad and youth players and, despite a number of injuries to key players, won the bloody thing.

Many have been mystified by Martinez’s Wigan. Capable of beating absolutely anyone on their day — often in style — they have found themselves embroiled in relegation battles more times than not in the Premier League years. Why wait until the final stretch to get going? The yearly process of replacing first team players lost in the summer window plays a key role and certainly did this season. Not until the rise of Callum McManaman a couple months ago were Wigan able to replace the direct and skillful Victor Moses. But the funds raised from the Moses sale are exactly what have aided the rise of young players like McManaman and the purchases and development of talents such as Roman Golobart, Nouha Dicko and others that may become key players in the Championship next year. Those sales and that period of rebuilding were necessary for the model. Wigan have taken a gamble with said strategy for the past number of years and it has paid off, allowing the club to maintain Premier League status while building behind the scenes. This year, they lost the gamble with Premier League salvation, but Wigan won the FA Cup and qualified for European football for the first time in the club’s history, a stunning achievement. True to form, Wigan Athletic have been relegated in what is arguably the club’s most successful season ever.

On the pitch, the obvious deficiencies this season were defensive. Last year’s player of the season and club captain Gary Caldwell was dogged by a troublesome hip injury from beginning to end, the excellent Antolin Alcaraz missed more than two thirds of the campaign, new signing Ivan Ramis has been out since January, while Maynor Figueroa, Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam were all injured in the crucial final stretch. Ali Al-Habsi, so influential in previous seasons, made several high profile mistakes and was dropped. Fixture congestion — with the FA Cup final played only three days before today’s match — certainly didn’t help. When yet another influential player, McManaman, went off injured in today’s match, you got the sense it was the final straw for Martinez’s ailing squad.

So an end has come to Wigan’s memorable maiden Premier League voyage. Detailed analysis will follow but the lingering feeling remains that of pride in the achievements of a small town club that has graced the Premier League with unpredictable, exciting football over the past decade, climaxing at Wembley last Saturday. Today is a sad day, but keep an eye on those plucky Latics and their unique brand of underdog football — they’ll be back.

Proud day for Wigan as the fairy tale rolls into Wembley

Latics' team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,  Thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

Latics’ team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,
With thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

* this post was co-written by the father and son writing team, from the perspective of the Jakarta Jack, the father. 

My father loved Wigan Athletic Football Club. Hardly a minute would go by after the final whistle before he would launch into talk about the next match. Conversations – and in some cases, monologues – about line-ups, tactics and referees were a feature of my life as long as I can remember.

His love affair with the Latics began the year the club was formed in 1932, and never wavered until his passing in 2005. His devotion to such a modest club was difficult for others to understand in a region saturated with prestigious football clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton. It was especially difficult to understand for the rugby fans in the area.

But my dad wasn’t too perturbed by that. In his 73 years as a supporter, he witnessed the transition from non-league to Division 4, all the way up to the Championship, or second division as it was known for most of his time. Wigan were second in the Championship under the leadership of Paul Jewell, propelled by the dazzling strike partnership of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, when he passed away. The Latics were promoted to the Premier League four months later. They have remained there ever since.

Were you to tell my father that his Wigan Athletic would go on to spend eight consecutive years in the Premier League and reach both the League Cup and FA Cup finals during that period – he almost certainly would not have believed you. He would have beamed with pride.

Thankfully, pride is something that is passed down. My son and co-writer, Ned, once told me that,  while the inspiration for the name of this fan site was a tip of the hat to the symbolic arrival of Wigan’s Three Amigos from Spain –  a pivotal moment in Wigan’s rise up the tables and Whelan’s revolution – it also on a more personal level represented the relationship between himself, his dad and grandad, who all shared that same passion for the club.

Neither Ned nor I were at that very first Wigan Athletic match back against Port Vale Reserves back in 1932, but we each remember our first Latics experience and know the previous history thanks to my dad. We know where the club came from, and we know we are living the Wigan Athletic dream.

No matter what the result is on Cup Final Saturday, or the outcome of the relegation fight in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic have confounded people with their achievements. The club has come farther than any of us imagined in our wildest dreams, and their achievements will leave an indelible memory.

What’s more – the work that Roberto Martinez has done in his return as manager of the club has been transformative. Rather than playing the role of the little fish up for a Premier League cameo, his plan has been one of consolidation.

While Steve Bruce did a job in keeping the club in the top flight, the money he spent on players and their wages was hardly sustainable if Latics were to suffer a bad season and go down. There was no investment in youth development or infrastructure.

Martinez’s work to cut operating budgets, sell the top players in order to fund long-term growth sets the club up to survive for years to come. Sure – relegation is a threat each year and is to many clubs with more money, more fans and so on — but the club and its support are rapidly growing behind the scenes with every year that passes.

It is somewhat fitting, then, that Wigan’s rival in the final is Manchester City – not only a club with massive support, but also the beneficiary of the largest cash injection in world football thanks to their billionaire owner. In comparison with Wigan Athletic and Manchester City even David and Goliath seem evenly matched!

Only a deluded romantic would expect a Wigan Athletic squad depleted by injury, mentally worn-down, in the middle of the most intense Premier League survival fight to date, to beat Manchester City on Saturday. But if the club’s history is anything to go by, the seemingly  impossible can happen. The supporters of this club believe anything is possible because they are continuing to live it.

The Wigan Athletic story is far from over. Three matches in less than 10 days will determine whether the 2012-2013 season goes down in history as the year Wigan conquered the FA Cup, or survived for a ninth consecutive Premier League season against all odds.

But even if neither materialises, we could not be more proud of our club which takes pride in doing things in a sensible way and never gives up. Just to be in the FA Cup final, with the guarantee of Europa League football next season boggles the mind. A win on Saturday would just be icing on the cake.

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Defensive frailties cost down-but-not-out Wigan

2013-swans

The defensive lapses that got Wigan in trouble in the first place resurfaced at the worst possible time to sink them into the deepest waters yet as Swansea ran out unlikely 3-2 winners at the DW.

Despite twice taking the lead and appearing in control against an organized but relaxed Swansea side enjoying the comforts of mid-table football, Roberto Martinez’s team now finds itself three points behind the pack, with two games to go.

An incident following a late double substitution summed up the ill-fortune Wigan have suffered over the course of the season with respect to injuries, as Ronnie Stam lasted a mere 10 seconds before hobbling off with a suspected broken leg — leaving his team to play the final 15 minutes a man down.

One need only to look at Wigan’s win-rate with Antolin Alcaraz in the team versus without him to know what an important player he is at the centre of Wigan’s defence. His three years at the club have been blighted by injury, but his return to the team in each of those seasons has coincided with an upturn in fortunes. This year was no exception — the defence has shipped an average of two goals a game since his most recent injury at West Ham.

Add to that the long-term injury of Ivan Ramis, the recent losses of Maynor Figueroa and Jean Beausejour, and captain Gary Caldwell’s ongoing struggles with a hip injury that have sidelined him for much of 2013 — and you have yourself a crisis.

And lets not forget that Ben Watson — the team’s most specialised defensive midfielder — has just returned from a broken leg that kept him out for five months. Now Wigan have to cope without Stam. There aren’t many left.

It was ironic then, that Roger Espinoza, a holding midfielder standing in for Jean Beausejour and Maynor Figueroa at left wingback, put Wigan ahead with a well-taken volley late in the first half. He was later caught napping by Angel Rangel’s strike early in the second half, before James McCarthy scored to put Latics back in the driver’s seat.

Then came the capitulation. Returning captain Gary Caldwell, who had passed the ball very well indeed up until that point, left his defence totally exposed with an awful pass, from which Swansea would score via a fortuitous deflected finish. Minutes later, an overhit cross by Pablo Hernandez was met by Shaun Maloney’s chest as James McArthur approached, but instead of clearing the ball the pair froze, allowing a scrappy effort to bounce over the line.

Wigan went in search of an equalizer — but reduced to 10 men and with signs of exhaustion showing — could not find it.

The Good:

Our collective hearts sank yesterday, but hope is not lost. Two years ago, Wigan were 2-0 down to West Ham at half-time on the second-to-last match of the season, needing not only to overcome the deficit in the next 45 minutes but then travel to loudest stadium in England and beat Stoke City to stay up. They did it amidst unforgettable scenes.

This time, the club needs a little luck from results elsewhere, but both Newcastle and Norwich are within touching distance. Wigan’s presence in the Cup final provides the advantage of knowing how the Ns fare in their penultimate fixtures before we take the field against Arsenal. Goal difference could be crucial when all things are said and done — knowing what is needed could be important before the trip to the Emirates.

The Bad:

The defence is a mess. It was against West Brom, but the attack compensated for it. Too many injuries, too many players out of position, too many people being rushed back from injury to fill gaps. They can’t go on conceding two goals a game. It’s too much to ask from an attack that has performed very, very well to give the team a fighting chance.

Having to rely on favours from QPR, already relegated, and West Brom, safe in mid-table, is not ideal. But both Norwich and Newcastle are in very poor form. They could slip in their weekend fixtures against West Brom and QPR respectively, just as we did yesterday. Their final matches of the season are against Man City and Arsenal — causes for optimism.

Another defensive injury, this time to Stam. This forces Martinez to play Boyce wide, which in turn forces him to pick between Caldwell or the young Roman Golobart to partner Paul Scharner in defence.

Fatigue is setting in. The team now has three crucial games in the space of ten days, and a number of injuries to contend with. Does Martinez prioritize cup glory and field his strongest line-up, or field a mixed team with all three matches in mind?

The League Table:

There are three possible scenarios for salvation. The first and least likely is victory over both Arsenal and Villa. The second is a draw against Arsenal, victory over Villa, and either Norwich or Newcastle failing to gain more than one point from their final two games. The final and least likely — though not impossible — is that Norwich or Newcastle lose both their matches, and Wigan beats Villa. This scenario will hinge on goal difference.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals though you get the sense he might have done better. He did, however, make a couple excellent saves and spared a -2 goal difference in the last minute which could be crucial.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — One of the better performers at the back with some good tackles.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — Has been vilified for his mistake, and there is no denying it was a costly one. But his passing up until that point had been outstanding and he’d made some good interceptions.

Paul Scharner: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals but his partnership with Caldwell, and Watson, was always stretched and vulnerable.

Roger Espinoza: 6 — Asked to play out of position for the benefit of the team, he did as well as could be expected. Some nervy passing at the beginning of the match that put his defending under pressure, but he grew into the game and contributed a very well-taken goal. Caught for the equaliser but chased and worked, and should retain his place.

Ben Watson: 6 — Doesn’t have the pace to play in two positions at once, which is what was asked of him. Didn’t do much wrong, but could be more adventurous with his passing. The one time he put the ball into the box from open play, Wigan scored.

James McArthur: 6 — A very mixed game. He was at times excellent with very skillful midfield play and a real drive. But he missed a glorious chance that would have killed the game in Wigan’s favour, and was then involved in the mix-up that led to Swansea’s winner.

James McCarthy: 7 — Wigan’s best performer. An exceptional talent with the work-rate to match. Scored a well-taken goal. One hopes it will give him the confidence to get forward like that more often.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — Not his day. Had clearly been asked to put in extra defensive miles to aid Espinoza on the left, but it left him too tired to create at the other end. It was his defensive mistake that led to the Swansea winner, but he should’t have had to have been there helping out in the first place.

Callum McManaman: 6 — A little overconfident perhaps, he tormented left-back Ben Davies with his dribbling but produced no end result. Quiet second half before his substitution.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Went close on three occasions with very little service.

Subs:

Franco Di Santo: 5 — Unable to affect the game from his left-wing position.

Jordi Gomez: Some nice touches.

Ronnie Stam: Injured before he could say Doei.

Dream alive as Wigan edge Hawthorns thriller

macca

A wounded and embattled Wigan Athletic side somewhat miraculously emerged with three points to keep their dream of a survival and FA Cup double very much alive. Despite fielding a makeshift defence, going behind twice, and suffering yet another injury to an important first team player, Wigan pulled three exquisite finishes out of the hat and then held on to the 3-2 result for dear life.

Results elsewhere saw Aston Villa defeat Norwich, who may well become Wigan’s chief relegation rival with only a three-point lead and games against West Brom and Manchester City to follow. Newcastle’s draw at West Ham keeps them two points ahead with games against QPR and Arsenal. A victory for Wigan against Swansea on Tuesday would really shake up the table, potentially even meaning a draw on the last day of the season against Villa could be enough for both sides to survive.

Back at the Hawthorns, a nervy first half exposed Wigan’s defensive frailties with West Brom’s speedy front trio of Shane Long, Romelu Lukaku and Markus Rosenborg causing all sorts of problems. Employing Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam as orthodox full-backs was always likely to heap pressure on the central pairing of Paul Scharner and Emmerson Boyce, but with Ben Watson making his first appearance since breaking his leg back in 2012, no one was breathing easily. The opening goal stemmed from a loss of possession in midfield by Scharner. Lukaku’s excellent through pass caught the Austrian out of position, and Rosenborg sped past Watson before squaring for Long to score.

Wigan’s response was encouraging. Shaun Maloney won a free-kick on the edge of the box and shot narrowly wide, before being fouled in the build-up to the first equalizer. Referee Lee Probert thankfully played the advantage allowing Beausejour to bend a cross in from the left for Arouna Koné to expertly finish.

The Latics started the second half energetically but were soon pegged back after the unmarked Gareth McAuley buried a towering header from a corner. Minutes passed before Roberto Martinez made an influential double substitution, replacing the defensively poor Stam with Roman Golobart and midfielder Jordi Gomez with James McArthur, whose first touch was a spectacular goal. A lovely bit of skill and another lovely left-footed cross — this time by Maloney — was curled to the far post past West Brom keeper Ben Foster, where McArthur was waiting to finish with a diving header.

With the excellent traveling support now in full voice, Wigan went in search of the three points but were still unable to boss the midfield. Minutes slipped away and West Brom threatened to take the lead a third time before Maloney — the team’s heartbeat — created another moment of magic. Receiving the ball from Roger Espinoza — on for the injured Beausejour at left-back — the Scot left two defenders for dead with a stepover and a shimmy before slipping the ball into the path of Callum McManaman who made no mistake.

An incredibly nervy fifteen minutes ensued, but Wigan held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

Not many teams beat West Brom at The Hawthorns, and you can see why. Wigan had very little in the way of chances but scored three excellent goals. West Brom went close on a number of occasions. This was arguably the trickiest of the three “winnable” fixtures left in Wigan’s season, and they got the job done.

Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s little magician, did it again. The finishes were excellent, but it was the skill he mustered to create the chances when no one else could that won Latics the game.

The Bad:

Beausejour’s injury is another cruel blow after losing the other left-sided defender on the books, Maynor Figueroa, a week earlier. The Honduran Espinoza looks set to play an important role in what remains of the season, unless a central defender is pushed wide.

Wigan cannot keep shipping two goals a game and expect to win. Thankfully, the finishing was of the highest order today. All fingers will be crossed for an Antolin Alcaraz return against Swansea.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Showed safe hands and dealt with crosses with more authority than previous matches. Made two or three very good saves.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Deserves huge credit leading a patchwork defence, made several crucial blocks.

Paul Scharner: 6 — Worked his socks off, covered lots of ground, and you can see what it meant to him. But he did make some mistakes, one of which proved costly.

Ronnie Stam: 5 — Good in attack, bad in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Beautiful cross for the goal. Did better than Stam but struggles in one-on-ones with faster players. Still, will be sorely missed.

Ben Watson: 6 — Assumed the defensive midfielder slash centre-back role that James McCarthy played against Spurs. Did well, given his lengthy absence, but attempted far too many cross-pitch Hollywood passes for a man who hadn’t played a competitive match for five months. Still, some good interceptions and tackling and a welcome return.

James McCarthy: 7 — Worked very hard and did a lot of important tackling but gave the ball away a few times and couldn’t control the midfield as he so often does. Headed off the line in the last minute to save the three points.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Not a major contributor, substituted for James McArthur.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Wigan’s best player. Although limited to a wing role for most of the match, he created two of the goals single-handedly and was involved in the build-up of the other. Relieved the pressure on his defence by drawing fouls in crucial moments.

Callum McManaman: 7 — Very positive. Unlucky with his finishing until he got the winner. Took it very well.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Fantastic finish from a quality centre-forward who really looks at home at Wigan.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Fantastic finish and good midfield shift. Surely he will start the next match?

Roman Golobart: 6 — Very nervy upon introduction. Earned a yellow card with a crude lunge, put his keeper under pressure with an over-hit backpass, but his physical presence and Boyce’s help at right-back somewhat stabilized the defence.

Roger Espinoza: 6 — Looked uncomfortable at left-back but did a job for the team.

Expecting the unexpected

Wigan - down, but not out.

Wigan Athletic – down, but don’t count them out.

Aston Villa’s amazing 6-1 scoreline against Sunderland last night was certainly unexpected. One single result has lifted the midland club level on points with both Newcastle and Sunderland, only one point behind Norwich who they play on Saturday. Moreover their previously poor record for goal difference has been transformed by the +5 they got last night.

Villa’s win will send shock waves among Wigan Athletic supporters, who were hoping their team could overtake the midlanders. However, Latics are now 5 points behind the pack that Villa have now joined. Things are looking pretty grim.

Around the 85 minute mark of the Tottenham game on Saturday,  I was beginning to believe in my heart that Latics were going to come away with the three  points. Wigan’s second half display was quite superb. A wonderful goal from Callum McManaman had put Latics ahead. Roberto Martinez’ tactics were spot-on and Tottenham just didn’t look like scoring.

However, my head told me something different and I had to brace myself for what was to follow. Could Wigan keep up this vast effort  in those tired closing minutes? Stifling a Tottenham team brimming with talent is a not easy and takes its mental and physical toll.

Latics supporters have come to expect the unexpected from their team and Tottenham’s lucky late goal was probably not a surprise to many of them. So many times this season Latics have not had luck on their side and they have come away short-changed.

Despite much focus being on Aston Villa as relegation rivals, Roberto Martinez has constantly said that other teams will get dragged down into the fray. Let’s hope he is right. At the moment Wigan just do not have enough points, but with good results in the next two matches against West Bromwich and Swansea they can narrow the gap.

Maynor Figueroa’s injury in the Tottenham game will put him out for the rest of the season. A bitter pill for Latics to swallow, given that they were already without key central defenders, Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis.

Martinez resisted the urge to put in Gary Caldwell, when the Honduran went off injured. His decision to put in the faster Ronnie Stam proved to be tactically justified, as Tottenham’s speedy forwards were repelled. However, Caldwell will surely return for the upcoming matches, when a back three is likely to be used.

Things are looking bleak. But with Wigan Athletic, one can continue to expect the unexpected. Wigan may be down, but don’t count them out at this stage.

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