Callum McManaman deservedly won the ‘Man of the Match’ award at the FA Cup Final, after a scintillating display. He had run the expensively-assembled Manchester City defence ragged and in doing so he won over many of the armchair critics who had condemned him following the “Horror Tackle” episode.
When McManaman walked onto the Wembley turf he had only started seven times for Wigan in a Premier League match. Seeing what he could do and that Latics were staring relegation in the face, even neutrals were asking why he had not been given more opportunities much earlier in the season. Wigan Athletic fans still ponder on what might have happened if Roberto Martinez had put him before it got too late.
McManaman was 22 years old when he helped his team win the FA Cup. He had joined Latics as a 16 year old after Everton had released him. Steve Bruce gave him his Premier League debut as an 18 year old, as a substitute for the final 12 minutes of the last match of the 2008-09 season at home to Portsmouth.
After that he did not make a Premier League start for three seasons. In 2011-12 he made four appearances for the England under-20 team and went on a successful loan spell at Blackpool. However, the winger could still not break through into the Premier League team, making just two appearances as a substitute.
Starved of Premier League action – other than late appearances as a substitute – his first team appearances were typically in cup ties, where he did well. After scoring a cracker in the stunning 3-0 FA Cup win at Everton in March, McManaman was given his first Premier League start of the season at home to Newcastle. What followed was his controversial tackle on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara that got huge media coverage.
It is to McManaman’s credit that he continued to be focused on his football despite the media hype. His well taken goal in the FA Cup semi final against Millwall once again showed what a match winner he could be. Given a run of consecutive games in the first team his game was coming on and his performance in the Cup Final was a revelation.
So why was Callum McManaman not brought into the starting lineup earlier in the season, when Latics’ play was looking predictable and short of a cutting edge? Did Martinez leave it too long?
Martinez fans would say that he nurtured the young player, weaning him into a more major role. There was a huge gulf between the level of play in the under 21 competition and the Premier League. Martinez had been waiting for the right time to bring McManaman in and his timing was just right
Critics would say that Martinez did not want to risk young players in the Premier League, given the pressure the team was under. McManaman’s contemporaries Lee Nicholls, Daniel Redmond and Jordan Mustoe still have not made the starting lineup for the first team in a competitive match. Nicholls has at least made it to the bench this season as backup goalkeeper, but Redmond and Mustoe have to compete in the Central League with the likes of the Morecambe under 21 side. Like McManaman they too will have to bide their time, but at 21-22 years of age they are not so young any more.
The recently concluded transfer window was kind to Wigan Athletic in more ways than one. The culmination was that they sold James McCarthy for a decent fee and got Nick Powell and Ryan Shotton on loan. The skilful Powell and the combative Shotton will have important roles to play.
However, it is not so much who came in, but who did not leave, that gives Wigan Athletic hope for promotion back to the Premier League. Shaun Maloney is a class above most players in the Championship. If Latics can keep the ball on the ground and feed him the ball he can cut open Championship defences.
When McManaman picked up an ankle injury at the end of last season it looked like a blow for Latics at the start of the current season. However, had he been fully fit and starring in Championship matches, the elite of the Premier League might well have moved in and taken him away. The red card he received at Bournemouth was ridiculous, but Latics wisely resisted appealing the three match suspension. To do so would have put the player back in the media spotlight. Moreover it gave him more time to get fully fit.
If Wigan Athletic are to gain promotion this year, you can bet that Callum McManaman will play a leading role, together with Shaun Maloney. They are the two who can best unlock opposition defences, making and scoring goals.
Callum McManaman remains a relatively inexperienced footballer. Some days are going to be better than others for him as he continues to mature professionally.
However, exciting times lie ahead for Latics with this talented player remaining on board.