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.