Wigan Athletic have enjoyed some unforgettable moments in the FA Cup. My fondest memory remains a trip to Maine Road to play European Cup Winners Cup holders Manchester City, in January 1971. A fine Man City footballing team full of household names like Bell, Summerbee, and Young, playing against non-league Wigan. There were more than 45,000 people there that day, estimates of 20,000 of them traveling from Wigan. Those were the days of Geoff Davies as Latics’ centre forward. Signed from Northwich for £800, Geoff scored five hat tricks in his first three months, ending up with 42 goals for the season. Latics were unlucky to be losing 1-0 to a Colin Bell goal after 83 minutes following a bad goal kick from their admirable goalkeeper, Dennis Reeves. He had split his boot but apparently did not want to lose his concentration by stopping the play. You can see it here. In the last minute, Geoff Davies had a superb header pawed onto the post by the excellent Joe Corrigan. An unlucky ending for Gordon Milne’s Latics team whose performance brought great pride to its supporters.
I also recall watching Latics play Leeds United in the sixth round of the FA Cup in 1987. It was a scrappy affair played at a windswept Springfield Park. Sixth round remains the furthest Latics have reached in the FA Cup. When I was a little kid my Dad would talk about the epic cup ties with First Division Newcastle United in the 1953-54 season, with Latics drawing away 3-3 and being on the side of unfortunate refereeing decisions in the 2-3 reverse in the replay. That was the same season a crowd of 27,526 watched them beat non-league Hereford at Springfield Park. The figure remains a record home crowd for Wigan Athletic and also a record for two non-league teams playing at a non-league ground.
Then things changed. In the summer of 1999, Manchester United were given the opportunity to withdraw from the FA Cup for the 1999-2000 season. The reason was political: the FA wanted them to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil. Alex Ferguson was later quoted “I regretted it because we got nothing but stick and terrible criticism for not being in the FA Cup when really, it wasn’t our fault. The FA and the government felt that playing in this tournament would help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. There was a lot of undue criticism – but it was a great two-week break.” United crashed out in the first round in Brazil, England would fail in their World Cup bid, but Ferguson’s team would go on to win the Premier League by an unbelievable 18 points.
The world’s oldest competition has never recovered from that. United’s withdrawal sparked a downward spiral. How sad it is these days to see Premier League clubs fielding weak teams, citing the overriding importance of their league position. Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup record since joining the Premier League has been less than impressive. They have won 3, drawn 4 and lost 6 in the FA Cup. Last week’s debacle at Swindon is the second time they have lost to a League 2 side, having been defeated 2-0 by Notts County at the DW Stadium in 2009-2010. They have not progressed beyond the fourth round since arriving in the Premier League.
I have read some really good articles on Latics fan sites about last week’s performance against Swindon. I commend those Latics fanatics for the way they have tried to provide a factual kind of report, rather than lambast the players involved. Being Latics fans we need to have thick skins, having been through the real lows of 9-1 and 8-0 defeats to London sides in recent years. However, capitulation to big clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea is one thing, but losing so badly to teams from League 2 twice in three years is hard to take. Roberto Martinez has a great knack of stressing the positives and this time he singled out the performances of Callum McManaman and Jordan Mustoe in the Swindon game. McManaman was excellent during the first half, although he faded out in the second. Mustoe did not look out of place, but hardly excelled. Apart from the goalkeeper the rest were truly mediocre. In the second half it looked like Latics were going through a training exercise, there being so little dynamism and commitment. Supposedly the team was composed largely of fringe players bursting to prove themselves and get into the first team. That certainly did not look the case. Frankly it looked like many of them did not care. The stats show that Latics committed 4 fouls, a long way from their season’s Premier League average of 13 per game. Despite only committing so few fouls they received 3 yellow cards. Hard stats to digest! Moreover if either team played the classier football it was almost certainly Swindon. Hats off to Di Canio for his approach, but let’s not forget they were aided and abetted by a lack of commitment by their opponents.
So what is it with Latics and the FA Cup these days? Although there were two young players in the starting lineup the rest were seasoned Premier League squad players. Did those fringe players really believe that a good performance could edge them back into the first team? If so why did we not visibly see more effort from them? Was it already in their heads that the result did not matter? I simply cannot fathom this. Following the Tottenham drubbing a group of players got together to offer traveling fans their money back. Given how low those players must have felt at the time it was a magnificent gesture. I wonder if the players who underperformed at Swindon would think in a similar way?
Latics need to decide what they want from the FA Cup and give their fans due notice. I feel sorry for the dedicated fans who traveled to Swindon to watch that match. What alternatives do Latics have if they remain in the Premier League next year and the FA Cup comes up once again? One is to put their strongest team on the pitch and actually try to win. Another is to do what they have done in recent years and frustrate their fans to the point of losing their support. A third is to play the development squad and not worry about the result. A fourth is to seek FA approval to withdraw from the competition. Whatever the decision it is my view that the FA needs to take a look at how it can revive the world’s oldest football competition, so that teams like Wigan Athletic will once again treat it seriously.