x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Albert Crusat is giving Wigan Athletic at Catalan feel

With Crusat and Gomez, Martinez has a Spanish armada in Wigan.

Wigan’s Jordi Gomez, second right, scores against Chelsea.
Wigan’s Jordi Gomez, second right, scores against Chelsea.

Barcelona were not the only Catalans celebrating on a foreign field at the weekend.

As Barca became world champions in Japan, Wigan Athletic's very own Catalans celebrated an 88th-minute equaliser at home to Chelsea in freezing Lancashire.

It did not matter that the goal came about because of a mistake by goalkeeper Petr Cech, beggars cannot be choosers and struggling Wigan need all the help they can muster if they are to stay up.

The goalscorer was Jordi Gomez, the Barcelona-born midfielder who started out at Barca B before moving to neighbours Espanyol. Roberto Martinez, Wigan's Catalan manager, knows the talent in his homeland better than anyone in Britain.

Aware of the outstanding technical levels of players who are unable to break into the first team at Barca or Espanyol, Martinez brought Gomez (and other Catalans) to Swansea City, the Welsh club where he managed with great success before taking the job at Wigan, the club where he had been an idol as a player, in 2009.

Gomez followed Martinez and is a regular in Wigan's starting XI. The pair celebrated wildly against Chelsea, while on the bench another Catalan, Albert Crusat, punched the air.

Usually a left winger who can also function anywhere across the middle or as a forward-lying player supporting the front two, the 29 year old joined Wigan from Almeria for a fee of £2 million (Dh11.4m) in the June 2011. He had been happy and enjoyed the stability of being at one club in Spain's dusty south-east corner, but relegation meant Almeria had to sell their best.

Crusat had spent the previous six seasons with Almeria, where he accumulated over 200 appearances and earned a reputation as one of the fastest footballers in Iberia.

Speed has always been his greatest asset, but the player from the working-class town of Rubi just outside Barcelona was not a one-trick pony. Like Gomez, he rose through the ranks at Espanyol and he also represented Spain at three different age groups up to Under 18s.

"Crusat wasn't lucky with Espanyol," says Espanyol journalist Andres Mello. "He was one of the best players in the youth system and everybody thought that he would be a big star.

"The manager had the confidence to give him a debut against Real Madrid, but he didn't finish the game because he was fouled and injured by Zinedine Zidane. He never seemed to be free of injury and managed just five appearances for the first team, despite the manager Juande Ramos [later with Sevilla, Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid] having confidence in his skills."

Three changes of coach at Espanyol did not help Crusat's cause and he was sent on to second division sides Rayo Vallecano and then Lleida. He did not stand out at Rayo, but found his feet back in Catalonia at Lleida where he blossomed in the 2003/04 season, making 39 appearances and scoring five times.

A wealthier second division club, Almeria, bought Crusat in 2005. He was a revelation and his 11 goals helped them to Spain's top flight for the first time in 2007. His partnership with striker Alvaro Negredo, who had been signed from Real, was crucial in them staying up.

Negredo moved to Sevilla for €15 million (Dh70.5m) in 2009, but Crusat was not deemed consistent enough to warrant such a big transfer away and only left when Almeria went down.

The move to Wigan meant a big lifestyle change, but Crusat has impressed. Insiders talk not of someone who came to pick up Premier League wages, but of a dedicated trainer who is popular in the dressing room. Martinez has been adept at importing foreigners, but believes they need time to settle.

Gomez was initially blooded gently, just as Crusat is currently used as an impact substitute, with the desired effect.

"Albert, which is a proper footballer's name, is quick, direct, pacey and skilful," says Martin Tarbuck of the Wigan fanzine Mudhutter. "And he scored what should have been the winner in the Blackburn home game."

Crusat had come off the bench in the 61st minute and netted, but Blackburn's 97th-minute equaliser spoiled his day and cost Wigan two valuable points.

"He also impressed on his full debut at Newcastle," adds Tarbuck. "He's undoubtedly still adjusting to the English game and is likely to be still be used as a sub in the coming months, especially since Martinez's move to utilise wing backs in the last few games."

Crusat and his family have been helped to settle in Lancashire by his fellow Catalans. He is training hard and performing well when called upon. The tiny winger could be crucial to Wigan's Premier League survival.

sports@thenational.ae