The day Wigan established themselves among football’s elite

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When you watch it again on television, it is hard to tell that Ben Watson’s FA Cup winning header actually happened in slow motion. But from my bright red Wembley seat about 15 yards away, I can assure you that the world stopped for a magical 10 seconds as the ball sat up, suspended in mid-air, spinning. Then the world moved forward again, in freeze-frame snapshots. Joe Hart’s acrobatic leap and disbelieving eyes. Arouna Koné’s realization. My wife and brother-in-law, wearing moustaches and sombreros, shaking me with unbridled joy. A child on his father’s shoulders taking in a moment he is unlikely to forget. The passion — the release — in Callum McManaman’s celebrations. A supporter wearing the 2005 shirt from the club’s promotion season, the same one my Grandad had received autographed by the first team and subsequently passed on to me. Sheer euphoria.

My love of Wigan Athletic goes beyond my considerable love of the game. It is a personal and emotional connection to my roots; a source of pride, of enjoyment; a sporting fairy tale that I love sharing with people. It is the source of friendships, a topic of conversation, a hobby. As I took in the moments after the final whistle, I found myself wishing I knew the stories of all these singing and dancing men, women and children around me. I thought of my mother and father waking up the neighbours at 2:00 a.m. in Indonesia, my brother-in-law John who had flown over for the semi-final from Germany, friends watching from all corners of the world, neutrals hatching an interest for a club they previously knew little about. I saw a section of Omani supporters singing an Ali Al-Habsi-themed song in chorus with a group of Wiganers. Roger Espinoza receiving an Honduran flag from the crowd. It was a magical moment at Wembley. Football may just be a game, but its power to unite people and form lasting friendships — and memories — is unquestionable.

From a sporting perspective, this result was the equivalent of Honduras winning the World Cup — something I would also enjoy. Plenty of newspapers have since mapped out the financial mismatch between the finalists, the consensus being that Wigan’s entire starting XI had been assembled for less money than the average cost of a single player in Manchester City’s starting XI. Bookmakers were offering 10-1 odds for a Wigan Athletic victory before kick-off. Manchester City supporters on the London Tube appeared to be in town for a victory celebration rather than a football match, and indeed sang about off-the-pitch matters rather than supporting their players for the task at hand. Meanwhile, Wigan had played three games in 10 days, were missing five defenders to injury, and had a crucial match at Arsenal in the league three days after to keep in mind.

And yet it was Wigan that looked fresher, hungrier, that looked the better team. Save for a couple first half scares — most notably a superb save by keeper Joel Robles from a Sergio Aguero effort — Latics created more and probably should have been awarded a couple penalties before Pablo Zabaleta’s sending off and Ben Watson’s winner. It was a performance on par with any I can recall against such strong opposition, and worthy of the title. Aside from the eye-catching performance of McManaman, it was a true team performance where individuals did not stand-out. It put the magic back into the FA Cup.

There is, of course, no time to celebrate as two disastrous results in the Premier League on Sunday meant Wigan must beat Arsenal away and Aston Villa at home in order to achieve their other aim of staying in the Premier League. The daunting Arsenal fixture is due to take place only three days after the superhuman effort the players put in at Wembley, which is plain unfair.

But Wigan supporters will be relatively at ease. The FA Cup victory is an achievement on so many levels, not least in that most of the victories on the road to Wembley were achieved using squad and youth players. Indeed, the player of the tournament, McManaman, wasn’t even in contention for a spot on the bench in the league at the beginning of the season. Even if some certain were to leave the club in a relegation scenario, the squad is deep. They made easy work of Huddersfield and Millwall — admittedly both strugglers in the Championship, but fired up for the Cup ties. Players such as Shaun Maloney and Koné have voiced their commitment to the club. It is doubtful that Martinez would leave if the club were to be relegated. Plus, there would be Europa League action to look forward to next season, something most of the club’s players will be eager to experience for the first time in their careers.

What’s more, the FA Cup victory proves a real winning mentality at the club. Martinez has not been successful just because of his results — it’s the manner in which they have been achieved. They’re no longer scared of anyone. Most of Manchester City’s opponents on a budget like Wigan’s would have parked the team bus and hoped for a lucky goal or penalties. Martinez attacked City, played them evenly ending the game with the same number of shots. The difference in budgets may have told over the course of the full season, where Wigan have struggled to replace departed or injured players and dropped points as a result — but in the FA Cup final, his cheaply assembled XI were better than City’s.

What’s more, the trophy establishes Wigan in football’s elite. It will help with recruiting talented players. It puts the club on the map. It will bring the club new fans. It puts the club in Europe next season, regardless of the outcome in the relegation battle. Whether Martinez manages the impossible with another great escape or not, Wigan is now in the big leagues to stay. It’s another step in the rapid progression the club has made, another rung on the ladder.

But it’s not over yet. Wigan has two more finals, and two more opportunities to defy the odds. Their best work seems to happen just when success appears impossible — this is certainly the most difficult league Premier League situation yet. They’ll certainly need that winning mentality on Tuesday, not to mention several pain-killing injections before the match. But anyone who witnessed the magic at Wembley on Saturday — and there were 30,000 of us there, three eighths of the town’s population — knows that regardless of the outcome, our proud little club just got bigger.

Late heartbreak for classy Latics

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A very strong Wigan Athletic performance lacking only a goal ended in misery as a Carlos Tevez wonderstrike settled the affair with five minutes to go.

Wigan had been outstanding all over the pitch but more than once found themselves thwarted by excellent goalkeeping and defending at the crucial moment.

It is a cruel blow, but if ever a defeat could offer encouragement, this would be a good one to watch. For large periods of the match, Wigan out-passed and out-classed the defending champions on their own patch and deserved at least a point for their efforts.

Any concerns about the FA Cup being a distraction from league survival were put to bed in the first half, as Latics had earned two corners inside the first three minutes. Having reverted to the wingback formation with Franco Di Santo pairing Arouna Koné up front instead of a traditional right winger in Callum McManaman, Wigan enjoyed as much possession as their counterparts and without a doubt fashioned the best scoring opportunities. Di Santo was involved in two of them, first cutting his pass too far behind the on-rushing Koné, and then doing exceptionally well from a Shaun Maloney flick only to be sensationally stopped by Manchester City keeper Joe Hart.

Meanwhile, City were restricted to largely hopeful crossing although Paul Scharner’s struggles with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez foreshadowed trouble. The midfield duo of James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez were neat and incisive and continued to fine tune their blossoming partnership. All in all, things were going very well indeed, though you got the feeling the missed opportunities would eventually prove costly.

The second half continued in much the same vein with a Maloney shot cleared off the line, followed by a sensational one-touch move involving Jordi Gomez, Maloney, Di Santo and Kone foiled by Vincent Kompany at the last second. City grew into the game as time went on, but Wigan threatened on the break and good running by McManaman — on for the injured Di Santo — could have done with a more assertive finish.

The Good:

This was a team performance reminiscent of the golden run-in last year, on the defending champions’ home patch. The midfield was outstanding, the forward play was strong and positive, and the defending, save for Scharner who struggled throughout, was top class.

The Bad:

An opportunity lost, given the level of performance and chances squandered. Di Santo generally looked sharp and hungry but was unable to take his chance. A difficult loss to swallow.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Not much to do in first half, but made a couple very good saves in the second — one from Edin Dzeko in particular.

Paul Scharner: 5 — Had a hard time. Got beaten in one-on-ones, notably in the build-up to the goal, and gave away possession on several occasions.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Commanding, with some intelligent and controlled slide tackling.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Good shift from the Honduran despite making a mess of a very promising breakaway in the second half with an overhit pass.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Worked very hard defensively and had to cover for Scharner more than once.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Though his crosses were not finished off, he got forward frequently and played a number of them, some very tasty indeed. Also disciplined in defensive duties.

James McCarthy: 9 — Dominant in midfield, he grew as the match went on. Complete performance.

Jordi Gomez: 8 — Looking ever more comfortable in the holding role with some good positive passing and good break-up play. Showing more urgency and forward passing in recent weeks, which is great to see.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another excellent performer, denied on the line with a curling effort in the first half, and should have been on the assist sheet with a clever flick for Di Santo in the first. Was a pest all night darting, weaving and threading passes.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck that one away. Did extremely well to shrug off his defenders but telegraphed it. Still, it was an excellent save by Hart and the Argentine had a good game. Lets hope the injury is minor.

Arouna Koné: 8 — Confident and strong target man play, he was in the right place at the right time more than once only for City’s excellent defenders to make last ditch tackles.

Subs:

McManaman: Looked confident when he came on and quickly created a good shooting opportunity, but failed to trouble Hart.

McArthur: Came on right after the goal and didn’t have enough time to affect the game.

Espinoza: A late sub.

Wigan Athletic 1 Norwich City 0: Bottom half narrows as Kone does it again

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Arouna Koné scored another late goal to settle a poor contest against Norwich on a gusty day in Wigan. The lack of quality on display will be quickly forgotten by Latics fans, however, as a glance at the league table now reveals an amazingly slim six-point gap between 10th and 18th place. Wigan themselves have leapfrogged Aston Villa into 17th, and are now only a point behind Sunderland, three behind Newcastle, and four behind Norwich, Southampton and Stoke. All of which means there is no mid-table security this year.

The match itself was scrappy and characterised by misplaced passing and hopeful shooting from both sides. When Wigan did produce moments of quality, they were always born at the feet of Shaun Maloney and Jean Beausejour, while Norwich caused the occasional problem without looking an incisive threat. The goal came as a result from Wigan’s best passage of play, a period of quick, urgent passing football from minutes 70 to 80, in which they twice went close before Kone’s powerful strike beat Lee Camp at the near post.

The Good:

Another incredibly valuable three points at home. Despite not playing their best football, Martinez’s charges got the job done and kept a clean sheet in the process. Shaun Maloney was just fantastic, once again. Robles looked confident in goal, and Kone is enjoying his role as the main man up front. Jean Beausejour too, looks to be back to his best.

Despite Southampton’s second consecutive win against a big team, other results were positive. Sunderland lost at home to Manchester United, while Reading were thumped 4-1 by Arsenal. Newcastle lost to Manchester City, and Stoke are, at the time of writing, losing to Everton. The bottom half of the table is tight.

The Bad:

Despite laying on a nice pass for Kone to score from, Jordi Gomez put in an infuriating display, constantly slowing down Wigan’s attacks, forcing the team to go backwards rather than forwards, and dwelling on the ball far too long before being dispossessed. James McArthur, excellent upon introduction, may well have done enough to earn his place back into the starting lineup.

Paul Scharner had a wobbly game and did not look quite right. The clean sheet speaks well of the defence as a whole, but the Austrian looked off the pace today. His partnership with Antolin Alcaraz is potentially excellent, but showed signs of its relative youth at times.

Player Ratings: 

Joel Robles: 7 — Didn’t have a lot of shots to save, but showed good hands on crosses, catching the ball when it might have been tempting to punch. Promising.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Steady and uncomplicated.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Made some outstanding tackles and interceptions.

Paul Scharner: 6 –Wobbly at times, but kept them out in the end.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — One sloppy pass aside, did a professional job.

James McCarthy: 7 — His energy and running was important in regaining possession. Very unlucky with an excellent right-footed shot that kissed the upright. One magical nutmeg in the second half that the crowd savoured.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Poor. Slow and negative with his passing. The one time he sought to play a through ball it was an excellent one and led to the goal. May have been instructed to try and keep possession, but surely not every pass needs to go sideways.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another outstanding attacking performance with of sharp movement, passing and dribbling. One poor shot, but he was involved in everything positive today including the build-up to the goal.

Callum McManaman:  6 — Quiet game on the right flank, but perhaps that’s what he needed. Occasionally booed by traveling support, but got on with his job and was positive when he did see the ball.

Jean Beausejour: 8 — Played some top class crosses in both halves that should have resulted in goals.

Arouna Kone: 8 — Got the winner, and looked a threat throughout.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Looked hungry when he came on and moved the ball quickly and effectively.

Franco Di Santo: Brought on to waste time in the dying minutes of the game. Probably would have been brought on sooner if Kone had not found the back of the net.

Tottenham 0 Wigan Athletic 1: Return of the giant-killers

Wigan Athletic made up for their slow start to the season with an away performance reminiscent of the famous victories at Anfield and the Emirates of last term, climbing to 12th in the league table in doing so.

Tottenham’s starting XI — and indeed the thousands supporting them at White Hart Lane — appeared to approach the fixture as a foregone conclusion ahead of a series of tricky fixtures. Much will be criticized about their performance, but it won’t tell the whole story. While Villas Boas shifted and tweaked throughout and his players huffed and puffed in the second half, Roberto Martinez’s men knew exactly what their gameplan was and executed it to perfection.

In fact, so dominant were the Latics before Ben Watson’s breakthrough, they should have gone at least two or three up. While Gareth Bale was clearly the best player on the pitch, you got the sense that Spurs are at present just a team of expensively assembled individuals, while Wigan look an organized and well-oiled machine.

The Good: 

Roberto Martinez. The second youngest manager in the league put on a tactical masterclass for the youngest. This is the second 1-0 win in three away fixtures at White Hart Lane, against Spurs teams that have hardly struggled for goals. If you go back a fourth fixture, you get to the horrific 9-1 loss in Roberto’s first season. Where most chairmen would have panicked, Dave Whelan kept faith, and Martinez has repaid it. The team showed today it is already — this early in the season despite losing Victor Moses and having to bed in new signings — capable of the form shown that kept us up last year. Which bodes very well indeed.

The defence. Gary Caldwell was immense, as he was in the final stretch of last season. Ivan Ramis, next to him, had a brilliant match save one foul on the edge of the box that might have proven costly on another day. He looks comfortable in the league and tactical system, a quality signing. Figueroa had to cope with Lennon and Bale and got the job done, albeit with the occasional mistimed challenge. Emmerson Boyce, whose attacking play was non-existent, must receive huge praise for his defensive work as well.

Attacking link-up play. There are some excellent partnerships developing between the attacking trio. First, Maloney set up Kone. Then Kone returned the favour. Di Santo was quiet today but has been on the same wave length in recent fixtures. Latics created the five clearest chances of the match.

The Bad: 

Finishing. Both Kone and Maloney, when through with just the keeper to beat, shot straight at him. It comes down to confidence and composure. Both played very well otherwise, but you get the sense they each need a goal to get things going again. Ben Watson, who had an odd match — at times rusty, others very effective and ultimately scoring the winner — missed another sitter by blasting over.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 8.5 — Excellent. Held onto a couple stinging shots that other keepers would have spilled. Dominant in the air.

Ivan Ramis: 8.5 — Cracking performance from the Spaniard. Strong and excellent with his distribution. The way the back three knocks the ball around these days is a joy to watch. Very rarely is a ball hacked away in panic.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Man of the match. Didn’t put a foot wrong, he was dominant. His passing out of the back, under pressure, was fantastic.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Had a tough time with Bale and Lennon at times, but got a very difficult job done. Lucky not to be given a yellow card in the first half, which was fortunate as he received one in the second.

Emmerson Boyce: 7.5 — Passing was at times poor and didn’t get forward, but his primary function was defensive. He had Bale to watch for most of the match, and defended well on set pieces.

Jean Beausejour: 8 — In good form. Got forward on several occasions in the first half with some quality deliveries. Neat in footwork as always, and put a real defensive shift in.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Usual energetic, neat performance.

Ben Watson: 8 — Got the match winner. Going from Bradford to Spurs within the space of a few days must have been an adjustment, and his passing was a little wayward at times. But he was very frequently in the right place at the right time to make defensive interceptions, and stuck the ball in the back of the net — which no one else managed.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Top class in the first half, buzzing about and creating. Should have scored his one-on-one opportunity. Faded as the team retreated in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Couldn’t get going in this one, though he held the ball up well when required. Substituted with 20 minutes to go.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Another promising performance full of dangerous movement and skill but no goal. They’ll come.

Subs: 

Jordi Gomez: Played a couple delicious flicks that Kone and Maloney might have been quicker to pounce on. Drew a couple fouls that eased the pressure. Overall, did the job he was sent on to do quite well.

Missed chances rued as Webb steals the show

When I was younger my father used to say the benchmark of a good referee is how little you notice them, and yet whenever the World Cup Final referee Howard Webb is on the pitch, he appears to seek the exact opposite. You get the sense he enjoys the jeers from the terraces because they acknowledge his role as a protagonist. Indeed Sunderland fans spent much of the first half booing him after he correctly awarded a series of non-consequential professional fouls Wigan’s way. And he repaid them, true to form, by harshly dismissing Jordi Gomez and then ignoring worse tackles the other way.

Saturday’s 1-0 loss was a familiar story for Wigan Athletic, left to rue their excellent early chances after Webb’s decision-making effectively killed off the match. Roberto Martinez, a diplomat and gentleman not noted for vocal dissent, has now raised his voice twice in the last three league fixtures. In this instance, it was the sending off of Jordi Gomez — the least likely player on the pitch to deliberately injure another — that swung the game. It was a clumsy challenge, albeit studs up and therefore a defendable dismissal by the letter of the law. The chief complaint is not about the red card itself, but the double-standard when Seb Larsson and James McLean tried their hardest to join Gomez later in the match — with a nastier tackle and string of yellow card infractions respectively.

The Good:

Latics deserved to be up at half-time. James McCarthy’s early burst into the box resulted in a one-on-one that Mignolet somehow kept out. Jean Beausejour’s sensational skill and cross for Arouna Koné should have made it two. McCarthy was again unlucky with a viscious drive later in the half. Meanwhile, Sunderland were limited to set pieces and couldn’t find a way to break the defence down.

McCarthy’s performance was exceptional. He has been given license to venture forward in the last couple fixtures, and has the fitness to do so without neglecting his defensive duties. His technique is wonderful, and if he gets in shooting positions two or three times per match, the goals will come.

Maynor Figueroa’s first half passing stands out, despite the windy conditions. Despite being reduced to 10 men for half the match, Latics had the same number of shots, an equal amount of possession as their opponents, and the most clear-cut chances. The first half overall, was very heartening.

The Bad: 

This is the second game in a row where excellent chances have been created not been converted. Koné is getting in decent positions, but failing with his final shot. You do get the sense he is a confident finisher and will come good. But Mauro Boselli must have been frustrated to see those early chances go to waste after his brace at West Ham earlier in the week.

The substitutions came too late. It had been clear for much of the second half that Latics were not getting anywhere with 10 men, even after Di Santo came on. When McManaman and Miyaichi were finally introduced, there was an immediate injection of energy and urgency, if not any actual clear cut chances.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — A little wobbly on a windy day and Seb Larsson’s dangerous crossing. But kept the ball out and can’t be faulted for the goal.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — Gets better every match, although he did get beaten for pace on a couple occasions.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Resorted to hoofing the ball in the second half, which is unlike him and suggests desperation.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.5 — Some fantastic passing in the first half, but the cross for the goal came down his side.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Solid but not as much attacking thrust as Jean Beausejour on the other side. Having said that, more goals against seem to originate on the left, which is testament to the defensive solidity Boyce adds on the right.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — If Koné had managed to beat Mignolet with the far post tap in, Beausejour’s piece of skill that provided the chance would have gone down as the assist of the season. Faded as the game went on though.

James McArthur: 6 — Solid if unspectacular, occasionally rusty.

James McCarthy: 8 — Imposing performance by a player who is coming into his own. Has been unlucky not to score in the last couple matches. If he adds goals to his game he will be complete, and unfortunately probably gone to a top four club not too long after.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — A few useful touches in the first half, but unable to impact the match as he has in the past. Substituted after Jordi’s red card.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Of the two playmakers, he was actually having the better day, drifting in and out of dangerous positions and playing a lovely dinked through ball for Koné in the first half. But his lunge was unnecessary and the red card that ensued essentially lost us the match.

Arouna Koné: 5 — Didn’t have a tremendous amount of service, but fluffed his lines with the chances he had. Credit to Mignolet for an astonishing save, but we need our strikers to bury those chances. His opposite number, Steven Fletcher, only got on chance, a difficult one at that, but won them the match.

Subs:

Franco Di Santo: Unable to get on the ball and influence the match.

Callum McManaman: Energetic and positive.

Ryo Miyaichi: When he comes on, he sees a lot of the ball. Which means he wants it and is asking for it, but also that his teammates believe he can make something happen.