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.

Proud day for Wigan as the fairy tale rolls into Wembley

Latics' team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,  Thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

Latics’ team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,
With thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

* this post was co-written by the father and son writing team, from the perspective of the Jakarta Jack, the father. 

My father loved Wigan Athletic Football Club. Hardly a minute would go by after the final whistle before he would launch into talk about the next match. Conversations – and in some cases, monologues – about line-ups, tactics and referees were a feature of my life as long as I can remember.

His love affair with the Latics began the year the club was formed in 1932, and never wavered until his passing in 2005. His devotion to such a modest club was difficult for others to understand in a region saturated with prestigious football clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton. It was especially difficult to understand for the rugby fans in the area.

But my dad wasn’t too perturbed by that. In his 73 years as a supporter, he witnessed the transition from non-league to Division 4, all the way up to the Championship, or second division as it was known for most of his time. Wigan were second in the Championship under the leadership of Paul Jewell, propelled by the dazzling strike partnership of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, when he passed away. The Latics were promoted to the Premier League four months later. They have remained there ever since.

Were you to tell my father that his Wigan Athletic would go on to spend eight consecutive years in the Premier League and reach both the League Cup and FA Cup finals during that period – he almost certainly would not have believed you. He would have beamed with pride.

Thankfully, pride is something that is passed down. My son and co-writer, Ned, once told me that,  while the inspiration for the name of this fan site was a tip of the hat to the symbolic arrival of Wigan’s Three Amigos from Spain –  a pivotal moment in Wigan’s rise up the tables and Whelan’s revolution – it also on a more personal level represented the relationship between himself, his dad and grandad, who all shared that same passion for the club.

Neither Ned nor I were at that very first Wigan Athletic match back against Port Vale Reserves back in 1932, but we each remember our first Latics experience and know the previous history thanks to my dad. We know where the club came from, and we know we are living the Wigan Athletic dream.

No matter what the result is on Cup Final Saturday, or the outcome of the relegation fight in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic have confounded people with their achievements. The club has come farther than any of us imagined in our wildest dreams, and their achievements will leave an indelible memory.

What’s more – the work that Roberto Martinez has done in his return as manager of the club has been transformative. Rather than playing the role of the little fish up for a Premier League cameo, his plan has been one of consolidation.

While Steve Bruce did a job in keeping the club in the top flight, the money he spent on players and their wages was hardly sustainable if Latics were to suffer a bad season and go down. There was no investment in youth development or infrastructure.

Martinez’s work to cut operating budgets, sell the top players in order to fund long-term growth sets the club up to survive for years to come. Sure – relegation is a threat each year and is to many clubs with more money, more fans and so on — but the club and its support are rapidly growing behind the scenes with every year that passes.

It is somewhat fitting, then, that Wigan’s rival in the final is Manchester City – not only a club with massive support, but also the beneficiary of the largest cash injection in world football thanks to their billionaire owner. In comparison with Wigan Athletic and Manchester City even David and Goliath seem evenly matched!

Only a deluded romantic would expect a Wigan Athletic squad depleted by injury, mentally worn-down, in the middle of the most intense Premier League survival fight to date, to beat Manchester City on Saturday. But if the club’s history is anything to go by, the seemingly  impossible can happen. The supporters of this club believe anything is possible because they are continuing to live it.

The Wigan Athletic story is far from over. Three matches in less than 10 days will determine whether the 2012-2013 season goes down in history as the year Wigan conquered the FA Cup, or survived for a ninth consecutive Premier League season against all odds.

But even if neither materialises, we could not be more proud of our club which takes pride in doing things in a sensible way and never gives up. Just to be in the FA Cup final, with the guarantee of Europa League football next season boggles the mind. A win on Saturday would just be icing on the cake.

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Twin strikers at Wigan Athletic — a trip down memory lane

1964-65 : Wigan Athletic 3 Oswestry 0. Harry Lyon gets on to a Walter Stanley cross as Carl Davenport lurks menacingly. Allan Brown looks on from midfield (photo from Wigan World). 

In the late 1970s, my Dad and I would typically go out for a beer on Friday nights. We would rarely discuss things like politics or the weather, preferring to focus our conversations on Wigan Athletic’s progress in the Cheshire League. Among our discussions would be recollections of trips to watch Latics in exotic places like Stalybridge, Mossley and Oswestry. We lived in the south of Wigan, rugby league territory, so the pubs around us were steeped in that kind of nostalgia. One of those was ‘The Waterwheel’, run by ex-Great Britain rugby player, John Stopford. In his heyday in the early 1960s Stopford had been a lightning-fast winger for Swinton. Although he never played for Wigan RLFC, Stopford would draw rugby enthusiasts to his pub. We mostly avoided such places, preferring to walk further afield to pubs that were more salubrious for Wigan Athletic supporters.

One rainy night we succumbed, and tried ‘The Waterwheel’. Upon opening the door and the sight of the scrum surrounding the bar we started to think twice about it. There were some burly men there, faces like boxers, some with arms in slings. We were just about to walk out when my Dad said “Look it’s Harry Lyon over there.” It was indeed my hero from my teenage years. Chatting with Harry was easy. He just made you feel comfortable talking with him. Although he had left the club a decade before you could tell that Wigan Athletic was his first love. He said that it was a wonderful feeling running down the tunnel at the start of a game at Springfield Park, with some 3,000 people urging you on.

Harry Lyon was a great favourite with the fans, Wiganers not only appreciating his incredible goalscoring record, but also loving his commitment on the pitch. I asked him who was the best manager he had worked under – he had 5 during his time at the club from 1962-1968 — his reply was Allan Brown. Brown caused waves in the non-league world in 1964 when he took over at Wigan as player/manager, hiring a swath of full time professionals in a semi-professional league. After training, Brown would sometimes take his players to the town centre restaurant where my mother worked. I would be thrilled when she would bring home players’ autographs, usually written on the backs of serviettes.

Brown’s teams played an attacking 4-2-4 with the manager orchestrating from the centre of midfield. Carl Davenport was Lyon’s striking partner in Brown’s first year. Like Lyon he was an excellent header of the ball. I recall going to the Anchor Ground – aptly named at the time, a real quagmire of a pitch – to watch Latics play Darwen in a cup match. My Dad would recall for many years how Davenport had risen so high that his head was well over the height of the crossbar as he put the ball in the opponents net. Although Davenport was often referred to as an inside forward in those days, he was in reality a twin striker with Lyon. No teams found it easy to cope with the two of them. That season Harry Lyon scored 67 goals!

However, when I asked Harry who was the best striking partner he had played with he immediately retorted: Bert Llewellyn. Unlike Carl Davenport, Bert Llewellyn was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. A headed goal was a rarity, but after joining Latics in the summer of 1965, he scored 49 goals in 39 league appearances over the course of the season. Llewellyn was far from an elegant player, but was a natural goalscorer, sniffing around the penalty box for deflections, toe-poking and scrambling the ball into the back of the net. In his four years at Springfield Park, Llewellyn scored 140 goals in 185 appearances in all competitions. Remarkably, he outscored Lyon in his time at the club. Check out this wonderful article on This Northern Soul on Bert Llewellyn.

Since that era there have been lots of twin striking partnerships at Wigan Athletic. What a pity that wonderful pairing of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington was broken up when Latics reached the Premier League. How refreshing that Robert Martinez has adjusted his tactical system to play with two big strikers this season. The interplay between Arouna Kone and Franco Di Santo is a joy to watch. It is almost like turning back the clock.

We would love to hear from our readers – which has been your favourite striking partnership at Wigan Athletic?

What happened to the FA Cup? A post mortem

Wigan Athletic have enjoyed some unforgettable moments in the FA Cup. My fondest memory remains a trip to Maine Road to play European Cup Winners Cup holders Manchester City, in January 1971. A fine Man City footballing team full of household names like Bell, Summerbee, and Young, playing against non-league Wigan. There were more than 45,000 people there that day, estimates of 20,000 of them traveling from Wigan. Those were the days of Geoff Davies as Latics’ centre forward. Signed from Northwich for £800, Geoff scored five hat tricks in his first three months, ending up with 42 goals for the season. Latics were unlucky to be losing 1-0 to a Colin Bell goal after 83 minutes following a bad goal kick from their admirable goalkeeper, Dennis Reeves. He had split his boot but apparently did not want to lose his concentration by stopping the play. You can see it here. In the last minute, Geoff Davies had a superb header pawed onto the post by the excellent Joe Corrigan. An unlucky ending for Gordon Milne’s  Latics team whose performance brought great pride to its supporters.

I also recall watching Latics play Leeds United in the sixth round of the FA Cup in 1987. It was a scrappy affair played at a windswept Springfield Park. Sixth round remains the furthest Latics have reached in the FA Cup. When I was a little kid my Dad would talk about the epic cup ties with First Division Newcastle United in the 1953-54 season, with Latics drawing away 3-3 and being on the side of unfortunate refereeing decisions in the 2-3 reverse in the replay. That was the same season a crowd of 27,526 watched them beat non-league Hereford at Springfield Park. The figure remains a record home crowd for Wigan Athletic and also a record for two non-league teams playing at a non-league ground.

Then things changed. In the summer of 1999, Manchester United were given the opportunity to withdraw from the FA Cup for the 1999-2000 season. The reason was political: the FA wanted them to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil. Alex Ferguson was later quoted “I regretted it because we got nothing but stick and terrible criticism for not being in the FA Cup when really, it wasn’t our fault. The FA and the government felt that playing in this tournament would help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. There was a lot of undue criticism – but it was a great two-week break.” United crashed out in the first round in Brazil, England would fail in their World Cup bid, but Ferguson’s team would go on to win the Premier League by an unbelievable 18 points.

The world’s oldest competition has never recovered from that. United’s withdrawal sparked a downward spiral. How sad it is these days to see Premier League clubs fielding weak teams, citing the overriding importance of their league position. Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup record since joining the Premier League has been less than impressive. They have won 3, drawn 4 and lost 6 in the FA Cup. Last week’s debacle at Swindon is the second time they have lost to a League 2 side, having been defeated 2-0 by Notts County at the DW Stadium in 2009-2010. They have not progressed beyond the fourth round since arriving in the Premier League.

I have read some really good articles on Latics fan sites about last week’s performance against Swindon. I commend those Latics fanatics for the way they have tried to provide a factual kind of report, rather than lambast the players involved. Being Latics fans we need to have thick skins, having been through the real lows of 9-1 and 8-0 defeats to London sides in recent years. However, capitulation to big clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea is one thing, but losing so badly to teams from League 2 twice in three years is hard to take. Roberto Martinez has a great knack of stressing the positives and this time he singled out the performances of Callum McManaman and Jordan Mustoe in the Swindon game. McManaman was excellent during the first half, although he faded out in the second. Mustoe did not look out of place, but hardly excelled. Apart from the goalkeeper the rest were truly mediocre. In the second half it looked like Latics were going through a training exercise, there being so little dynamism and commitment. Supposedly the team was composed largely of fringe players bursting to prove themselves and get into the first team. That certainly did not look the case. Frankly it looked like many of them did not care. The stats show that Latics committed 4 fouls, a long way from their season’s Premier League average of 13 per game. Despite only committing so few fouls they received 3 yellow cards. Hard stats to digest! Moreover if either team played the classier football it was almost certainly Swindon. Hats off to Di Canio for his approach, but let’s not forget they were aided and abetted by a lack of commitment by their opponents.

So what is it with Latics and the FA Cup these days? Although there were two young players in the starting lineup the rest were seasoned Premier League squad players. Did those fringe players really believe that a good performance could edge them back into the first team? If so why did we not visibly see more effort from them? Was it already in their heads that the result did not matter? I simply cannot fathom this. Following the Tottenham drubbing a group of players got together to offer traveling fans their money back. Given how low those players must have felt at the time it was a magnificent gesture. I wonder if the players who underperformed at Swindon would think in a similar way?

Latics need to decide what they want from the FA Cup and give their fans due notice. I feel sorry for the dedicated fans who traveled to Swindon to watch that match. What alternatives do Latics have if they remain in the Premier League next year and the FA Cup comes up once again? One is to put their strongest team on the pitch and actually try to win. Another is to do what they have done in recent years and frustrate their fans to the point of losing their support. A third is to play the development squad and not worry about the result. A  fourth is to seek FA approval to withdraw from the competition. Whatever the decision it is my view that the FA needs to take a look at how it can revive the world’s oldest football competition, so that teams like Wigan Athletic will once again treat it seriously.