Season in review: One step back but a giant leap forward

Wigan celebrate FA Cup win with parade shortly after Premier League relegation - video

No sooner had the dust settled on Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup semifinal success over Millwall a month ago than a notion started circulating that the Latics could become the first club to win the FA Cup and suffer relegation during the same season.

Deep in their hearts, most Wigan supporters suspected that the combination of defensive injuries and late season fixture congestion would probably make the dream double of survival and FA Cup a step too far. By the time a ball was kicked in the FA Cup final, just about every Latics supporter in the world had been asked what they would prefer: stay up or win the cup?

Though a complicated question, the answer was never really in doubt. Thirty thousand people — three eighths the town’s population — coloured the town of Wigan blue for yesterday’s FA Cup victory parade, emphatically putting ignorant and outdated “rugby town” stereotypes to bed. They sang and cheered, and even drowned out their manager, on-stage with a microphone, with chants “Roberto Martinez, we want you to stay.” There was not a boo or a negative word to be heard — not at the parade, nor at the Emirates last Tuesday when the team was consigned to relegation. The enduring sentiment was and is one of sheer pride.

This is not to say that relegation doesn’t hurt. Football, and the Premier League in particular, is a game of fine margins. Matches turn on a single incident, and there were a host of them this season, that if reversed, probably would have kept Wigan up. James McArthur’s missed opportunity to seal the game against Swansea, Tottenham’s incredibly fortunate last-gasp equaliser at the DW, Joe Hart’s unbelievable save to deny Franco Di Santo — all recent — stick in the memory.

But relegation from the league was always a possibility — no, a probability — and has been for years. Sunderland, who finished three points above Wigan, signed Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N Diaye and Danny Graham within the past year alone for a total of 30 million pounds. Fellow relegation rivals Aston Villa, for context, signed Wigan’s best player two seasons ago for 9.5 million and kept him on the bench for most of the campaign — next to 18 million Darren Bent. They could afford to leave them out because they’d signed a gem of a player in Christian Benteke for 10 million pounds the previous summer. Newcastle spent more than 25 million this season. Southampton almost 33. Wigan’s total spending amounted to 9 million on four players, all of which were covered by the sale of Victor Moses to Chelsea. Conor Sammon’s 1.2 million deal to Sheffield Wednesday earned the club a net profit on transfers, something none of the aforementioned achieved. (Source: http://www.transferleague.co.uk/)

The good news when it comes to league status, as Martinez has said, is that it can be rectified. Not many teams bounce back up to the Premier League immediately following relegation. But not many teams that go down were living within their means during their Premier League stays like Wigan was. How many clubs have we seen promoted, overspend, get relegated and disband upon the realization that they cannot afford to keep paying the players they overspent on?

Sure, Latics will lose some of their stars — and those players deserve the chance to move to a top flight club. They were brought to Wigan on the promise that they would be allowed to move to a bigger club when the time was right for both parties. The stable financial footing Dave Whelan and Martinez have guided Wigan Athletic to means that they are not obligated to sell any of their players. They will, but only because it is beneficial to the club’s future. For every N’Zogbia or Moses — or this year probably McCarthy — that goes, four or five young talents are signed. Four such youngsters — Roman Golobart, Eduard Campabadal, Nouha Dicko, Fraser Fyvie — are likely to play big roles next season and cost Whelan very, very little.

A popular claim at the moment says that league status is temporary while trophies are forever. While certainly true, it does not quite sum up Wigan’s emotional season, or explain the absoluteness of their fans’ pride. If it had been QPR that had won the FA Cup but been relegated, it is highly doubtful that the overwhelming feeling at their parade would have been one of pride and progress. Their team has been messily run since being promoted two years ago, thrown money — a lots of it — at the problems and assembled an overpaid, overrated team of opportunists who will likely be sold off auction-style during the summer as they try to slash the astronomical wage bill they’ve created for themselves.

With apologies for harsh words to supporters of QPR, the point is that celebrations at yesterday’s parade were not solely focused on the amazing, unimaginable fairy-tale story of little Wigan spectacularly toppling the richest team in the land and defending league champions to lift the oldest football competition in the world. They were an acknowledgement of how far Wigan Athletic has come as an institution and the work of the last decade. The team will play in the Charity Shield and Europa League for the first time next season. A product of the youth and reserve squads was named man of the match in the FA Cup final. The New York Times has featured the Latics three times in the past month. Thirty thousand people came out to support the team. State of the art training facilities are on the horizon. Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup. Wigan won the FA Cup. The Latics won the bloody cup!

Relegation may be a step back, but the infrastructure is in place to keep this club in the Premier League or thereabouts for years to come. Of course, much hinges on the future of the iconic hero of this Wigan revolution, from player in the lower divisions to the manager who lifted the FA Cup, Roberto Martinez. But for now, it is safe to say that despite going down, Wigan Athletic is on the up.

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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.

Arsenal 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Giant-killers

Any concerns about the bubble being burst were laid to rest in emphatic fashion last night as Latics emerged from a traditionally nightmarish fixture with three points of gold and another famous scalp.

The scoreboard beggared belief after eight minutes of football, during which Franco Di Santo capped off a flowing breakaway and Jordi Gomez stabbed home a Victor Moses cross at the second attempt. Given the club’s dreadful record at the Emirates — no goals scored there since 2007, plenty conceded — this was a sight for sore eyes.

There is much to appreciate about Arsene Wenger, his teams, and his team’s form of late, but there was a dangerous air of arrogance evident in those opening passages of play. When asked about Wigan’s attacking threat a day earlier, the Frenchman err-ed and ahh-ed before mentioning Victor Moses, Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa. While inadvertently picking out three of Wigan’s top performers on the night, his response implied that he had not watched much of Wigan lately. Figueroa, of course, has been playing as a left-sided centre-back, while Boyce, an excellent defender, has not been a key contributor in attack. And Victor Moses — well, they clearly hadn’t watched enough of his recent play, because he ran rings around them all night.

Whether it was lack of homework or not, when James McCarthy nipped in to initiate a counter-attack on six minutes of play, it was clear Arsenal had committed too many men forward. The midfielder fed Victor Moses, who played Jordi Gomez into space. The Spaniard, back in the team after Shaun Maloney picked up a knee injury in training, threaded the ball into Franco Di Santo’s path, who poked at Arsenal keeper Szechzny, watched the ball balloon over him, then volleyed into the back of the net.

Moments later, with Latics’ first real possession of the match, patient build-up saw Victor Moses superbly spin past Bacary Sagna, drive a low cross into the box towards James McArthur. As with the first goal, the Scotsman’s first effort was blocked, but this time his teammate Gomez was ready to pounce, making it 2-0 after eight minutes of football.

Arsenal were shell-shocked, but quickly regained the initiative, with Tomas Rosicky looking particularly lively. Ali Al-Habsi made a superb flying save from a looping Yossi Benayoun header after sustained pressure. In the 20th minute, Rosicky shed his marker to deliver a beautifully balanced cross onto the on-running Vermaelen’s head. Al-Habsi was paralyzed, but there was little he could do such was the power behind the header.

The next stretch of play was crucial to the match as Arsenal piled on the pressure, urged to shoot on sight by their crowd. First, Van Persie struck a venomous shot straight at Al-Habsi from outside the box. Next, Johan Djorou went a fraction wide with a volleyed effort following a penalty box mixup. The key moment, however, came after James McCarthy — only seconds back on the pitch after receiving treatment for a knock — cheaply gifted Arsenal possession. With Rosicky and Van Persie bearing down on Caldwell and Al-Habsi things looked grim. But the Arsenal men fluffed their lines, not realizing it would be their best chance to equalize for the rest of the evening.

Wigan had a half chance on the stroke of half-time, with Jordi Gomez ballooning a shot from outside the box, but looked relieved to make it through the tunnel with their advantage intact.

The second half was a different beast. Arsenal dominated possession but Wigan defended exceptionally well and created three or four excellent goal-scoring opportunities. Victor Moses, who had already outwitted Bacary Sagna for the second goal, this time out-muscled him, barging into the box only to slam his effort straight at Szechzny. Minutes later, the Nigerian was barreling toward goal following a Maynor Figueroa long-throw, only to rush his shot at the Polish keeper. James McArthur, whose supply of energy and industry is bottomless, broke from his own box to release Moses down the left wing. The winger picked his head up this time, lofting a delightful far-post cross for Jordi Gomez, who mishit with his right boot.

Conor Sammon came on to replace the heroic Franco Di Santo, while Mo Diame relieved Jordi Gomez with about 10 minutes to go. Both subs made excellent contributions, injecting freshness of mind and body, providing relief for their tiring teammates. The big Senegalese midfielder might have added his name to the scoresheet in injury time after skillful dribbling opened up some space at the top of the box, but his left-footed strike failed to trouble Szechzny.

The final whistle predictably started a round of boos at the Emirates, but this was another terrific achievement for the Latics.

The Good:

We have gone from a team that needs 20 chances against weak opposition to score a goal, to a team that only needs one or two against a big team. It’s all down to confidence and a bit of luck. No one knows better than us — having spent most of the season in the relegation zone — that those two go hand-in-hand. It’s a been a pleasure and privilege to watch them come together against the biggest, most talented and most expensively assembled clubs in the land in recent weeks. The commentator assigned to the Manchester United match pointed out that Wigan’s entire starting XI costthe club  less than United’s Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea.

It’s now four wins out of five, including Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United. The 2-1 loss against Chelsea famously involved two offside goals. This is quite simply the best run of results and performances Wigan Athletic has seen at this level.

The defending had been absolutely terrific. Maynor Figueroa played the perfect match yesterday. Caldwell and Alcaraz were outstanding. Boyce and Beausejour plugged the wings. McCarthy and McArthur put in their usual shift. Di Santo works as hard for the team as any striker in the league.

No injuries or suspensions. Arsenal fouled us more than we fouled them.

The Bad:

Ironically — save for the goals — the first half was one of our weaker performances for a while. Understandable, playing away against an in-form Arsenal side. But the passing was at times sloppy, and we rode our luck in the period after Vermaelen’s goal.

Conclusions:

If you’d told me we’d get 6 points from 9 against Chelsea (away), Man United (home) and Arsenal (away) — with each of these clubs under pressure to get results for the title or a Champions League place — I wouldn’t have known how to respond. All the frustration from good performances earlier in the season that went without reward has been channeled into these characters wearing Wigan shirts. Their focus, determination, and talent is a delight to watch. Hard to imagine a prouder moment as a Latics supporter.

That said, we’re not quite there yet. The league table looks rosy, with Wolves pretty much already down and Blackburn six points behind, an inferior goal difference, and Chelsea and Spurs away in two of their last four matches. QPR also have a very difficult run-in against Chelsea, Spurs, Stoke and Man City — but like us, have produced results against the big teams that they have struggled to obtain against weaker opposition. Bolton may escape, with six winnable games to play, though they will have to improve dramatically. We face in-form sides Fulham and Newcastle, before a big one away at Blackburn, and Wolves on the final day of the season. Based of our rivals’ fixtures, three more points should do it. But there are surely a few more twists and turns to come. Lets hope Roberto’s men can maintain their superb form for another unforgettable end-of-season flourish.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 9 — Made one amazing save from a Benayoun header, and several more important blocks throughout the game. Missed a punch for one scary moment in the second half, but the man is in inspirational form. He gives his the defense and team confidence from the back.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Classy, strong defender in the best form of his Wigan career.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Did what no one else in the league has been able to do this season — kept Van Persie quiet. The Dutch striker, in jaw-dropping form of late, was limited to a couple shots from outside the box.

Maynor Figueroa: 9.5 — Hard to single out a man of the match in such a team performance, but if there is one it was him. Five or six breathtaking sliding challenges, all perfectly timed, to deny Arsenal goal-scoring opportunities. Excellent in possession, and cool as you like bringing the ball out of defense. Even managed to contribute what might have been an assist for a third goal from a long throw-in. We’re docking 0.5 points for the dangerous challenge on Theo Walcott in the second half that might have led to a red card, if a foul had been given.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 — Fantastic defensive performance. In truth, the wing-backs ended up playing more as traditional full-backs in this match. Boycey’s tackling and work-rate was great.

Jean Beausejour: 9 — Looked less comfortable in possession than usual, but did some amazing defending, keeping Theo Walcott under control most of the match. Showed he can defend.

James McArthur: 8.5 — A bulldog in midfield. Was everywhere.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Started the attack that led to the first goal. Made one mistake that could have proven costly, but put his usual hard-working but shift in, with a touch of class in his passing here or there.

Jordi Gomez: 9 — Many were concerned when Shaun Maloney’s absence was confirmed, but the Spaniard responded by setting up Di Santo for the first goal, and scoring the second himself. Squandered a real chance in the second half, but made a crucial contribution.

Victor Moses: 9 — Ran rings around Arsenal, as he had done to Manchester United and Chelsea before that. Finishing still needs a bit of work, although his cross for the second goal was great, as was the lofted ball he played Jordi in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 9 — Very pleased for the Argentine, who finally got the goal his effort and skill deserved. Brilliant target man play, rarely loses the ball. Rodallega is going to have a hard time breaking back into this lineup.

Roberto Martinez: 10 — When things were looking very grim indeed, towards the end of 2011, our manager decided to temporarily scrap his beloved 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 for a wing-back system that can look like a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 depending on the players on the pitch. It immediately produced improved performances, most of which ended frustratingly in draws. But he stuck to it, brought in a player who truly specializes in that wing-back position, and has enjoyed the amazing improvement since. Roberto said we would beat Manchester United this season, that we would shed that “mental block” against the big teams. He was right.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance, running around like a madman but also looking a useful outlet up front.

Mo Diame: 9 — Really enjoyed his 10 minutes on the pitch, skipping and dancing past Arsenal players as though they were training cones. Might have done better with an injury time effort — or might have walked it to the corner flag to ease our nerves! — but he is one hell of a useful substitute to bring on.

Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester United 0: Brilliant Latics finally get their reward

An inspirational Wigan Athletic performance characterized by confidence, style and determination earned the club its first ever win against Manchester United last night. Roberto’s men were thoroughly dominant until taking the lead, and resolute in their defense of it. United were limited to one shot on target and three corners, something I doubt any other club has managed this season.

It is hard to recall a prouder moment. This sort of form has been building for some time now. We deserved points at Stamford Bridge last weekend, and have now suffered from three unfairly disallowed goals in two matches. But there is real belief in this squad, from back to front. Indeed, before the famous wins of late we had outplayed Norwich, West Brom, Aston Villa and Everton without burying them. It is amazing what a bit of confidence does for you — goals are suddenly popping up from all sorts of places, from the center of defense, to super-subs, to the excellent and invigorated Shaun Maloney.

Roberto Martinez’s vision appears to be finally coming together. His team has shed the defensive fragility that cost us in the first half of the season with his three-man centre of defense. The Alcaraz-Caldwell-Figueroa axis gets stronger every match and has wonderful balance. His deployment of Emmerson Boyce as the right wingback — a decision questioned by some of us due to Ronnie Stam’s excellent mid-season form — has allowed him to seamlessly switch to a 4-5-1 when the team needs to re-gain possession or push forward in numbers. Jean Beausejour must go down in history as our best ever January transfer window signing, making a huge contribution in a problem position. Shaun Maloney has injected verve and direct, attacking play in his advanced midfield role.  The squad is strong, with replacements for just about everyone in the squad.

Wigan started this match with clear attacking intent. James McCarthy had a left-footed rocket tipped over the bar by De Gea; the lively Victor Moses zigzagged into the box only to smash his curled effort off Rio Ferdinand’s behind; James McArthur was first to every ball, while Antolin Alcaraz enjoyed a remarkable attacking performance with frequent surging runs. United threatened only twice; first through Chicharito Hernandez, who failed to sneak past Gary Caldwell, and later through Ryan Giggs, whose outside-of-the-boot cross was deflected for a corner by Maynor Figueroa. But the first half was really all Wigan, and pressure finally told when Victor Moses rose to head a Shaun Maloney cross into the back of the net. Celebrations ensued, with Phil Dowd appearing to give the goal, only for the linesman to call the goal back moments later. Latics had been denied a goal once again — the third in less than 90 minutes — by a linesman. This time, Gary Caldwell was adjudged to have impeded David De Gea’s path to the ball. Replays showed the Wigan man did nothing but stand his ground, and was in fact shoved toward De Gea by a United player. Martinez was furious, and Dowd’s reception by the crowd at half-time was not one he’ll have savoured.

Tom Cleverley was brought on in an attempt to regain possession, but Wigan started the second half as they ended the first. Jean Beausejour was busy down the left and his slightly clumsy attempt to get a cross past Johnny Evans while falling over was incorrectly given a corner. With the linesman on the other side of the pitch it was certainly a tough one for the referee — only one or two of the five or six camera angles in slow motion replay made it clear the ball had indeed bundled off Beausejour’s leg. But there was no question about what ensued. Shaun Maloney received a short pass, dummied past Rooney and sensationally curled the ball past De Gea to give his team the lead. This time the flags stayed down, and Latics celebrated.

The rest of the match was largely an exercise in patient, organized defending. That Wigan only picked up one yellow card — Di Santo for dissent after himself being fouled — is truly remarkable. There was no lunging, no diving in. There were tense moments, but the team was organized and never looked like falling apart. United had one or two half-chances, with Danny Wellbeck breaking but forced to shoot from a wide angle, and Nani causing a bit of panic with quick footwork and a low cross. But if anything, Latics had clearer chances to increase their lead than United did to equalise. Conor Sammon, on for Maloney, went on a fantastic run down the left wing and into the box, laying off neatly for Diame, who had an effort blocked before squaring to Moses, whose shot deflected wide. The Nigeria international was a constant threat with his strength and running.

It took five minutes of injury time, but the final whistle went and Wigan supporters from the DW to Jakarta and Boston jumped up and down to the tune of “We-Are-Staying-Up-WE-ARE-STAYING-UP!”

The Good:

Everything from the quality of football played, to the confidence it was played with, the effort and desire. The pride for the shirt. The support.

The Bad:

Nothing except the understandable signs of fatigue after two outstanding performances against the two most successful British teams of recent times.

Refereeing Decisions:

Lets get the facts straight amid media coverage of Fergie’s complaints. There were two controversial decisions each way. We had a goal disallowed incorrectly, and Johnny Evans should have been sent off for a second yellow card offense. They should have had a goal-kick instead of a corner, and did not get a penalty when a driven ball deflected off the sliding Maynor Figueroa’s leg, onto his arm. What would you rather have — 1-0 against 10 men? Or a goal-kick and a penalty?

Not Over Yet:

This was an unforgettable football match for all associated with the club, and we’re all buzzing with pride. But the relegation battle is tight. QPR beat Swansea and remain above us on goal difference. Bolton are two behind but have a game in hand. Blackburn are only three adrift. Save the Carling Cup memories of our first season, Arsenal away is typically a nightmare fixture for us, and could be a wake-up call. Specially with tired legs from last night’s exertions. Newcastle’s form is unbelievable, and Fulham have real quality this season. So there is a long road ahead. McArthur and Martinez himself came out with appropriate “Lets keep our feet on the ground” quotes this morning. Lets hope we can do it. If this level of performance can be sustained for five more matches, it will be an enjoyable month and a half — but it’s a big ask.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Only had to make one save, but it was an important one from a low Danny Wellbeck shot.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Outstanding in defense, but also got forward to good effect in the first half. Looked as comfortable on that ball as anyone.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — The captain is becoming a fan favorite. Clean sheet against Man United.

Maynor Figueroa: 9 — Fantastic from the Honduran. Took a few knocks. Has really thrived in the left-centre-half role.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Didn’t get forward as much as Beausejour, but kept Ashley Young out of the game.

Jean Beausejour: 8.5 — Caused trouble down the left in the first half, defended strongly in the second. Kept Valencia relatively quiet.

James McArthur: 9 — It’s amazing how much ground this fella covers. First to every ball. Sets an example.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Neat in possession, a good left-footed strike. Pace and power in midfield.

Shaun Maloney: 9 — Brilliant. Troubled United all game with his stepovers and flicks. In the same position, Jordi would pass the ball sideways far too often. Maloney is direct, positive, confident. What a finish.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Deserved a goal for his hard work. Ran his socks off with good skill, though lacked a cool head with the final shot on occasion.

Franco Di Santo: 8 — His work ethic and target man play are simply fantastic. If only we could all chip in and buy him a goal.

The Twelfth Man: 10 — The supporters are behind the team more than ever, and it shows. From those who have been gathering at the stadium hours early to greet the team as they arrive, to the Washington DC supporters club at Lucky Bar, and my amazing wife (chair of the Figueroa Fan Club) who has to try and watch these matches as her maniacal husband shouts, drools, laughs and cries his way through them. Lets enjoy this moment and keep it up for the remaining five fixtures.

Subs:

Mo Diame: 7 — Brought on for the tiring Franco Di Santo, who had also taken a few knocks, to help regain possession. Took about 10 minutes to get into the game, such was the pace of it. Unlucky to have his shot blocked, did some good tackling.

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance by the big man, putting in the miles but also showing some skill on a mazy run that might have ended in a second (or third) goal.