When Ben Watson scored that wonderful last minute header at Wembley he changed the face of Wigan Athletic FC, as we had known it.
Latics had announced themselves on the global map.
For so many years Latics had to put up with the “little club” tag, seemingly doomed to the lower reaches of the Football League. Outsiders viewed Wigan as a rugby town, a view more than supported by Maurice Lindsay in an infamous television interview in the 1980’s. His stance was symptomatic of the condescending attitude of rugby league followers of the time. It made Latics supporters’ blood boil. Was the club ever going to rid itself of that image?
How times have changed. After eight years in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup, the name of Wigan Athletic is now known worldwide. Although the rugby club remain a big fish in a small pond their football counterpart has moved on.
Latics now have an opportunity to gain further prestige through their participation in the Europa League.
In the days prior to the FA Cup final so many Latics fans were saying that, if they had the choice of staying in the Premier League or winning the FA Cup, they would choose the former. One wonders how many were to think differently when the Cup came to Wigan.
So what would be the priority this time around – promotion out of the Championship or progression in the Europa League?
It could be argued that Latics’ FA Cup run had an adverse effect on their league position in the last campaign. The end of season fixture congestion that resulted in them having to play a make-or-break match at Highbury only three days after the Cup Final victory was cruel and merciless.
However, if anything put Latics out of the Premier League last season it was injuries. The result was a lack of continuity in team selection and a cruel decimation of playing resources at the end of the season when all those fixtures came raining in.
Owen Coyle has worked wonders in the transfer market by bringing in 12 new players since he started in July. It leaves him with a squad of 30 players – marginally bigger than that of Roberto Martinez last season – but containing Ali Al-Habsi, Gary Caldwell and Ivan Ramis who are still out of action due to long term injuries.
Much will depend on his deployment of the young professionals contained therein. Last year Callum McManaman and Roman Golobart were the ones who made the starting lineup in the league. We will have to wait to see if Coyle will include the other young pros – Adam Buxton, Nouha Dicko, Rob Kiernan, Jordan Mustoe, Lee Nicholls and Danny Redmond – in the rotations.
If Coyle’s squad has a weakness then it is in the area of attack, with only two central strikers available. With Grant Holt already out until October Latics fans will pray that Marc-Antoine Fortune avoids injury. Coyle continues to look for forwards through the loan market. Speculation suggests that he wants to bring Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn initially on loan with a view to a £9 m permanent move in January. But, however cash-strapped Blackburn might be, they are unlikely to want to lose their most prized asset to local rivals. Moreover Dave Whelan is going to think twice about spending so much on a player who has never played at the highest level of English football.
It will be interesting to see what kind of lineup Coyle chooses for the Zulte Waregem tie on Thursday. It will be an indication of how important he sees the Europa League compared with the Championship.
Latics fans will hope they give a good account of themselves in both.