He wrote his name into history with a brilliant last-minute header that won the FA Cup. If you were in a room full of football fans from all over the world and asked them to name a Wigan Athletic player, you can guess whose name would be most likely to come up. That would be Ben Watson.
At his best he can look as classy as any midfield player in England. He is a strong tackler capable of making key interceptions. He has genuine football vision and can make forty yard passes with Beckham-like precision. He can certainly score goals and is not afraid to take penalties. One recalls the away game at Stoke last season when Tony Pulis was far from happy to see the Londoner brought off the bench to take a penalty, which he duly dispatched.
Watson’s peak time at Wigan was during the late rally in the 2010-11 season, when Latics produced a series of results that shocked the English football world and silenced even the most vile of their critics in the gutter press. Roberto Martinez had moved to a system with three central defenders, with Watson playing just in front of them, making up the extra man in the centre of defence when needed and playing a deep-lying midfield creator role.
You could say Martinez made the most inspired substitution of his career when he brought on Watson for a tiring Jordi Gomez after 81 minutes in the FA Cup Final. The end result was that a player who had never consistently commanded a first team place at the club became its most famous-ever player.
Ben Watson has his critics among Latics fans. They would say he is prone to lapses of concentration in defence, too one-paced in his play and inconsistent in his taking of set pieces. Far too often his shots on goal from free kicks have endangered supporters sitting in the back rows of the stands behind the goal.
However, the 28 year old has already started in 24 league games this season beating his previous best of 23 league starts in 2010-11.
Steve Bruce signed Watson from Crystal Palace in January 2009 for a fee of around £2m. He was to make 6 league starts with 2 goals under Bruce’s management.
Watson could not establish himself under new manager Martinez in 2009-10, being sent off on loan to Queens Park Rangers for the first half of the season. Coming back he could still not get into the Wigan team and was loaned to West Bromwich Albion in February 2010, but was recalled early in April. By the end of the season he was to make 5 appearances, getting a goal in the 3-2 home win against Arsenal on April 19.
The 2010-11 season was a mixed one for Watson, not being a regular starter until after Christmas, when he was to become a key player in that deep-lying midfield role.
After signing a new three year contract in August 2011, Watson could not settle into a rhythm in the 2011-12 season and started in only 14 Premier League matches.
Last season saw the Londoner make only 7 league starts, mainly down to the broken leg he received at Liverpool in the November. Watson was not to reappear until May when he played in the 3-2 away win at West Bromwich. He was soon to go on to score that all-important goal at Wembley.
Watson got off to a good start in Owen Coyle’s first league match in charge. His superb shot from 30 yards opened the scoring at Barnsley on the opening day of the season, leading to a 4-0 rout. He also scored a superb goal in the Europa League match at home to Maribor, running through from his own half to connect with Jean Beausejour’s cross. Coyle played him in that deep-lying midfield creator role but also further forward in midfield. In Shaun Maloney’s absence he became the main taker of set pieces.
Watson survived the ‘Coyle Revolution’ better than some of his teammates who had also been with the club in the Martinez era. Coyle certainly rated him and his set-piece deliveries were crucial to an attacking approach where Latics were looking for headers from their big men.
Many of us wondered how the new manager Uwe Rosler was going to use Watson in a high tempo game plan. But from the start the German was positive about Watson and he has publicly stated his hope that the player will sign a new contract.
Watson scored another good goal against Crystal Palace recently. Once again he ran in from a deep position to score an opportunist strike from James McClean’s low cross. Together with James McArthur and Chris McCann he makes up a formidable midfield trio, which has a high work rate and no mean level of skill. Roger Espinoza, Jordi Gomez and Josh McEachran will continue to challenge that trio for a place.
At 28 a midfield player is often around his peak. However, with Watson one has the feeling he can get better still. Rosler clearly has plans for the player and believes he can fit into his high-tempo style. Moreover if Watson can cut out the errors he can be prone to make through lack of concentration he will be a much better player. Rosler is keen to increase fitness levels of the squad and this will help Watson both physically and mentally.
Ben Watson has certainly had his ups and downs at Wigan, but has shown both patience and determination to get where he is now. He has the ability to be a top class footballer.
However, given the financial constraints that Latics are now facing it is unlikely that they will be able to offer Watson the kind of contract he seeks.
In the meantime Watson will continue to be a pivotal player in Wigan Athletic’s climb up the table.