“My time in Wigan was unforgettable.”
So said Jordi Gómez after he had cut his five year tie with Wigan Athletic by agreeing to join Sunderland.
The myriad of Latics fans that for months had been campaigning for him to stay through the social media were to be disappointed, although in their heart of hearts they probably knew it was not going to happen. The player who was transformed from scapegoat to hero is packing his bags for the north east. Emotion apart, a return to the Premier League and a lucrative three year contract makes sound sense to a player who is 29 years old.
It is ironic that Gómez should be leaving Wigan with his popularity ratings being at their highest point during his five year stay. His final season proved to be easily his best. The Spaniard had started to win over fans through playing a key role in the FA Cup run of the previous season. Moreover he had shown before what a force he could be playing in the Championship division. However, it took the departure of the hapless Owen Coyle to allow Gómez the chance to show what he was capable of. He was to shine under Uwe Rösler.
After suffering continual verbal abuse from sections of the crowd for so many years, Gómez had won over so many of them through his performances over these past months. Ice cool penalties dispatched in the cup run against Manchester City and Arsenal thrust him once again into the eye of the media. Spectacular goals from long range in open play and from free kicks, matched with a high work rate added to the impression of the Spaniard being a changed man under the management of Uwe Rösler.
In the end his displays managed to convince the majority of Latics fans that he was a player the club should keep if they were to keep pressing for promotion. The inability of the club to keep him leads supporters to worry about who next will jump ship.
But was it more than just financial security that helped the Spaniard decide to leave Wigan after five years?
If it had not been for an end of season rally, Sunderland would have been joining Latics in the Championship next season. Gus Poyet must have known it would be an uphill task to turn things around when he replaced Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland in October last year. Poyet had come in with a reputation for good football from his time at Brighton and the Mackems are a much more attractive side to watch now. It is a playing style that Gomez should find relatively easy to fit into.
Although the majority of Latics fans will be sad to see Gómez go, there will be others who won’t.
Jordi Gómez was a player who divided Latics fans. He was derided by those who preferred the more traditional English approach of “up and at ‘em” . His admirers would say he was a skilful player who could bring order to a game through his cultured technique, keeping the ball while under pressure, drawing fouls. It was sometimes said that we would never see how good Gomez could be until Latics were playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez sought.
The anti-Gomez lobby was strong during Martinez’ reign at Wigan. Jordi Gómez was identified as a player in whom the manager had faith beyond the norm. When the crowd lost their patience with the tiki-taka style of Martinez’ teams it was so often Gomez who suffered the brunt of their frustration .
I retain a vivid memory of the first match of what proved to be the last season for Martinez at Wigan. Latics had lost 2-0 at home to Chelsea. At the end of the match I was sheltering from the pouring rain outside, when I overheard a conversation where a group of Latics supporters came to the consensus that having Gomez in the team was like playing with ten men. These fans were infuriated by the team’s apparent unwillingness to go at Chelsea after falling behind. Jordi had come on in the second half for crowd favourite Shaun Maloney. Once again Jordi Gómez had become the scapegoat of a section of fans, who were above all frustrated by the manager’s tactical approach.
In those days, when Wigan fell behind there would be little increase in tempo, contrary to what one would expect in English football. In this particular game Latics had so often seemed languid after giving away a soft opening goal. In such circumstances the Englishman in me would get frustrated, even if I knew that Martinez’s teams would not follow the usual English pattern. Watch Barcelona fall behind and you would see no change in their brand of football: they would eventually grind you down and beat you. The Barcelona style was clearly an inspiration for Martinez, but he was savvy enough to know that Latics did not have the wherewithal to go with it fully.
Jordi had come through the youth ranks at La Masia, with the likes of Messi and Pique. The Barca style of play was in his blood and it was probably for that very reason that Martinez first signed him. Martinez espoused possession football and for Gómez had grown up playing that brand of tiki taka.
It was anathema for Gómez to waste the ball with a speculative pass. He would infuriate fans by passing the ball backwards or sideways, rather than risk losing possession. His detractors would label him as lazy, too slow and unwilling to go into 50/50 challenges.
If one looked at the stats for ground covered during his time on the pitch the ‘lazy’ tag would he hard to justify. When Latics’ defence or midfield was under pressure Gómez was invariably there to receive the ball, so often drawing free kicks which gave his side a breather. But too often Martinez would play Gómez in a role wide on the right where he did not have the pace to get past the full back on the outside. Inevitably he would have to cut the ball back inside, once again testing the patience of the fans. The manager was doing the player no favours using him in that position.
Over four years in the Premier League Gómez had mixed success. In the minds of many Wigan Athletic supporters Jordi Gómez never quite proved that he could handle the transition from the Championship to the Premier League. Too often he would get himself into great scoring positions, but not have the composure to put the ball in the net. However, Martinez continued to have faith in Gómez and the player persevered with the support of his manager, despite hostility from elements of the crowd, but never establishing himself as a regular starter.
In the 2012-13, his last season in the Premier League, Gómez scored three goals in 32 appearances However, those goals were memorable as they came in the same game, a thrilling 3-2 home win over Reading in November.
In that very game Gómez was booed early on following misplaced passes and poor finishing. A few minutes later he slipped an incisive short pass through to Kone who should have scored. But Gómez was back to showing his frustrating side just before half time, maneuvering past defenders with considerable skill in before shooting wide. Who would have thought that he would come to the rescue, winning this game for the Latics with a brilliant hat trick of second half goals? Even the most fair and open-minded of Latics supporters had been getting to the point where they would wince to see his name on the team sheet.
The game would be remembered as the day that Gómez showed the Wigan fans that his manager’s faith in his abilities might be justified after all. In the second half of this match he had looked a class act, threading through good passes and taking his chances with great aplomb. Sadly Gomez was unable to add to his goal tally in the league after that.
That hat trick against Reading really was something special, but Gómez’ outstanding contribution in the 2012-13 season was in the FA Cup. Gomez was pivotal in that cup run, scoring three goals and making four assists. His assist for Callum McManaman’s goal in the semi-final against Millwall will stick in the minds of Wigan supporters for years to come. In the FA Cup Final Gomez had played remarkably well in a midfield holding role, but as fate would decree, he was the one to go off after 81 minutes to allow Watson to come on.
Given his previous success in the Championship with Swansea, Gómez appeared to be a key player for Owen Coyle on his arrival at Wigan. However, the Scot did not get the best out of the player, sometimes following Martinez’s habit of playing him wide on the right.
The low point for the player under Coyle was in the Europa League home game against Zulte Waregem in early December. Coyle had put out a well-balanced starting lineup, omitting his two out-of-form central strikers and playing Nick Powell upfront. Callum McMananan and James McClean were on the wings and this time Gómez was played in his natural advanced midfield role.The four were to link up very well at times in the first half, showing the kind of movement and mutual understanding that had been sadly lacking for big chunks of the previous game against Brighton. Although he made mistakes at times, Gómez was a key link player in the first half.
Gómez had a bad start to the second half, with poor deliveries from set pieces followed by the crowd voicing their frustration with him after being caught unawares as an opponent robbed him of the ball. He was to be substituted soon after. Taking him off after the crowd got on his case was not going to help the player’s confidence. He needed a better level of support from a manager who had put him in the starting lineup.
However, the arrival of Rösler was to enable Gómez to play the football he was always capable of at Championship level, resulting in him being voted ‘Player of the Year’. But if fans would have voted for the award in December, Gómez would have been nowhere near the top of the charts.
Ironically Gómez only became a regular starter under Rösler in March. Prior to that he was in and out of the lineup, only once completing a full 90 minutes. However, following serious injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, Gómez’s name was to become one of the first to be written on the teamsheet. Spectacular and crucial goals, great assists and a willingness to cover every blade of grass of the pitch were to help Gómez win that ‘Player of the Year’ award. In doing so he leapfrogged over stalwarts like Emmerson Boyce and James McArthur who had played far more games and provided a real backbone for the team. However, given the abuse that Gómez had taken over the years, few would begrudge him the award.
In the minds of many Wigan Athletic supporters Jordi Gómez never quite proved that he could handle the transition from the Championship to the Premier League. He had a rare ability to drift in, seemingly unnoticed by a defence, but too often he would get himself into great scoring positions, but not have the composure to put the ball in the net. There had been so many times over the those years when Gómez had done everything right until his final touch has let him down, whether it will be a header, a shot or a defence-splitting pass. He just did not seem to have had the self-belief to deliver in the Premier League.
The stats show that in four years playing in the Premier League Gómez scored 7 goals in in 46 starts and 25 appearances as a substitute. He made no assists.
As Swansea’s ‘Player of the Year’ in the 2008-09 season he scored 12 goals in 38 starts and 6 substitute appearances, making 5 assists. As Wigan Athletic’s ‘Player of the Year’ he scored 12 goals and made 10 assists in 37 starts and 13 substitute appearances, in all competitions. The stats reveal the gulf between the player’s performances in the Premier League and the Championship.
However, whatever shortcomings he might have had at Premier League level, there could be no doubting his determination and commitment to the club. Gómez has learned to hassle and harry the opposition, and to cover a large number of yards of the pitch in each game he plays. At Swansea he played in a newly promoted team that was on the up. His role was to orchestrate the midfield and to score goals. When he arrived at Wigan he moved into a struggling team that was too often unable to get the lion’s share of the possession.
Latics fans will surely wish Jordi Gómez well at Sunderland. Despite constant abuse from some sections of the crowd he has maintained a positive and professional attitude. He will be long remembered for his role in helping Wigan Athletic win the FA Cup.
Jordi’s next challenge will be to prove, once and for all, that he is a true Premier League player. Sunderland might not be the best side in the elite division, but with Gus Poyet at the helm the Spaniard should be able to slot seamlessly into the style of play.