They are five points adrift in a relegation struggle, with just seven matches to go. Failure to win points in the next couple of games could practically seal the saddest of ends to a troubled season for Wigan Athletic.
Moreover one of those games is against a Middlesbrough team currently one point from an automatic promotion place with the joint best home record in the division. The second is a home game against a Derby County team that many of us thought was the best in the division, but has suffered a series of adverse results over recent weeks. Derby too will be desperate for a good result to get themselves back on track. Eyeing a Latics home record of W2 D8 L10 they must fancy their chances.
Supporters of many clubs would have psychologically thrown in the towel at this stage, given such a scenario. But optimism still remains among many Wigan Athletic supporters. There are people who believe that Malky Mackay’s patched up team of journeymen and short term signings can get the results needed to avoid the drop. After all, as supporters they have faced adversity before and given their full weight of support to their struggling teams with startling results. The neutral observer would be well advised never to count out Wigan Athletic.
It was looking ominous in the 2006-07 season when Latics went into the last match at Sheffield United needing a win to stay in the Premier League. But a fine finish by Paul Scharner, an ice-cool penalty from David Unsworth and gritty backs-to the-wall defending in the closing minutes helped keep the Blades out, consign them to relegation and keep Latics up.
The 2010-11 season also had a remarkable finale. Latics had gone into their penultimate game at home to West Ham, three points adrift of safety with a goal difference that was inferior to the teams above them. The Hammers were 2-0 up after just 26 minutes and Latics were a shambles. But they kept plugging away and scored two good goals through Charles N’Zogbia and Conor Sammon. However, the scores were tied as the game went into time added on. Four minutes later West Ham keeper Robert Green allowed a weak shot from N’Zogbia to squirm under his body to give Latics an invaluable three points, consigning his own team to relegation in the process.
Latics went into the last match of the season at Stoke level in 19th place, level on points with Blackpool and Birmingham, but with an inferior goal difference. Wolves and Blackburn stood just one point above them. It looked like Wigan had to win at the Stadium against a home side that had only lost four out of the eighteen home games they had played. But Hugo Rodallega’s header from Maynor Figueroa’s cross was to prove sufficient for a remarkable 1-0 win. In the event a draw would have been sufficient to keep Latics up as Blackpool and Birmingham both lost on that fateful day.
The following season Latics were once more locked in a relegation struggle and by the end of January they were in bottom place. Then came a slight upturn in results over February and March, but relegation looked certain. The revival that took place from late March onwards was nothing short of miraculous, with wins following against Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Latics were to win 7 of their last 9 matches to finish in 15th place, seven points clear of relegation.
Can Wigan Athletic achieve yet another great escape this season? Can Mackay inspire his team to get the results needed to avoid the drop in the same way as his predecessors Paul Jewell and Roberto Martinez? Fan support was crucial in such situations in the past. Will it be an essential element again? Will “Believe” come to the fore once more?
The current situation is serious. Latics remain 5 points behind 21st placed Rotherham and 8 points behind Fulham a place above the Yorkshire outfit. Either of the two could drop into the relegation zone should Latics get a good run of results. The pressure is on all teams in that relegation zone at this time of the season and teams can often go into freefall.
The last round of games was certainly eventful. Latics got a point through a 94th equalizer against Bolton, Fulham won 2-0 at Huddersfield with Nakhi Wells missing two penalties for the home team and Rotherham went down 3-2 at home to Sheffield Wednesday despite leading 2-1 after the regular 90 minutes.
Prior to that win Fulham had only won one of their last 13. It remains to be seen whether their win at Huddersfield will have boosted their sagging confidence sufficiently to end the season well. Like Latics they were one of the teams favoured by the bookies for promotion at the start of the season. Moreover they had paid around £12m for the striking duo of Ross McCormack and Matt Smith.
Rotherham’s defeat after being so close to a vital victory must have been hard for them to bear. After being beaten at home by Latics in mid-March they lost at Nottingham Forest before that fateful game with Wednesday. The question is whether they have the resilience to pick themselves up after such a cruel loss.
Despite a series of bad results and sacking their manager Millwall can still avoid relegation. They have drawn the last two games, 1-1 at home to Brighton and 2-2 away at promotion-chasing Brentford. They are just two points behind Wigan.
Wigan Athletic meanwhile continue to fail at home, despite four consecutive wins on the road. It is to be hoped that the failure to beat a poor Bolton side will not haunt them later. Mackay has put together a team that is willing to scrap for victory, which was not the case when he first arrived. However, it is doubtful whether his squad has the quality to get the kinds of results in the remaining matches that would render those of the other relegation candidates close to irrelevant.
Put simply Mackay needs either Fulham or Rotherham to fall apart while his own team narrows the gap. He also has to hope that Millwall cannot finish with a flurry. Should this not happen Latics will surely be doomed.
The next two games will go a long way towards deciding Wigan Athletic’s future in the Championship division. Tomorrow while Latics are away to Middlesbrough, Fulham play at home to Brentford, Rotherham travel to Birmingham and Millwall have a London derby at home to Charlton. Both Latics and Rotherham face games on Easter Monday, at home to Derby and Brighton respectively. Fulham have a day’s grace and play away at Charlton on Tuesday. Millwall have an eight day break before their next game on April 11th.
During the days of Roberto Martinez he would typically focus on his own team’s performances and results, rather than those of other teams in the danger zone. However, the results of the other teams certainly had an impact on where Latics were to end up.
Providing Latics can get good results in the final seven matches they will have a chance of staying up. Ideally they would win at least five of them, but given the squad they have it seems unlikely. The hope is that Fulham and Rotherham will fare much worse and Millwall no better.
Wigan Athletic’s hopes of avoiding relegation are very much dependent on the implosion of teams above them. Stranger things than that have happened in the past, but it surely should not be counted upon.