x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ali Al Habsi takes the gloves off in Wigan's relegation battle

Andy Mitten speaks to Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, the only player from the Arabian Gulf currently playing in the English Premier League

Oman and Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Oman and Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.

One year ago, Wigan Athletic were at the bottom of the Premier League, and had won just one home game. Astonishingly, they avoided relegation and finished 15th after a barnstorming late revival that included victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United at home.

A year on and Wigan face a similar predicament.

With the worst home record in the league, 18th rather than 20th, they have enjoyed one solitary league victory in 2013. So why is the mood so buoyant around the club's training ground on the northern edge of the town of 80,000 in the north-west of England?

"It's because we have belief that we can do it again," Ali Al Habsi, their 31-year-old Omani goalkeeper, said. "It was special last year, beating all those teams. We can repeat that."

Why are Wigan in such a position, with the worst home form in the league?

"We've had a lot of injuries, especially in defence," he said.

"The defence and the goalkeeper are the most important part of a team and when it's broken up by injury, it's difficult. I know the regular players and know what they are going to do, that becomes harder when the team has to change. Now, everyone is back and we feel confident."

Rightly so. Two days after The National sat down with Al Habsi amid the whirring washing machines and tea mugs in the kit room, Wigan scored three goals in three minutes to beat Everton 3-0 away in the FA Cup quarter-final.

Al Habsi did not play as manager Roberto Martinez rested some of his biggest stars including the club's undisputed first-choice goalkeeper, the man who has started all 28 league games, a league ever-present last term.

"Ali is ultra professional," club captain Gary Caldwell said.

"Shot-stopping is his best skill and he's kept us in so many games. He's also a great person to have around the place, because he has time for everyone.

"He shakes everyone's hand each morning, from the other players to the kit man and the canteen girls. And he works as hard as anyone in training. Ali needed Wigan, but Wigan needs Ali."

Championship side Millwall await in the semi-finals of the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium.

In the league, their run is potentially easier than last season, starting with Newcastle United at home tomorrow, then Norwich City, Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City, West Ham United and a Tottenham Hotspur team they beat away from home earlier in the season. With their final games against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal and Aston Villa, the only teams from the top seven they will face are Spurs and Arsenal.

Al Habsi is ready.

"I improve and learn every day," he said. "A goalkeeper is better at 31 than 21, more solid and confident."

Whatever happens at Wigan, his life as a goalkeeper has been a dream, "playing at a level I would I would never have imagined growing up in Oman".

He did not follow a team as a youngster "because international matches rather than leagues were on television then". Instead, he admired the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel, Gianluigi Buffon and Oliver Khan. Like almost every top goalkeeper, he started as an outfield player.

"I didn't become a goalkeeper until 16 when my brother, who was a football coach in my village, told me that I would be better suited to being a goalkeeper. I tried it and I loved it."

Playing local football, the 6ft 5ins Al Habsi was spotted by Al Nasr from the Omani top-flight. After one season, 2002/03, during which he made the first of 79 appearances for Oman's national team, he moved for three seasons to Lynn Olso in the Norwegian first division.

The Norwegian league may not be a major one in Europe, but it was still a significant jump in quality from Oman, and he was the first Omani to play in a top European league. Off the field, he found the adjustment tough.

"It was my first time away from Oman and the weather was the opposite of home. There were no direct flights home and I was young."

Named Goalkeeper of the Year in Norway for 2004, he began to attract bigger suitors and moved to the-then Premier League team Bolton Wanderers that year.

"I waited a long time for a chance at Bolton," he said. "At first, I was happy to wait. I was 23 and just happy to be in England. I could understand why Jussi Jaaskelainen was the first-choice goalkeeper. But after two years, I wanted to play. After three-and-a-half years I wanted to leave. I knew I had the quality to play in the Premier League and I was ready to prove it."

Al Habsi went to see Bolton manager Owen Coyle.

"I told him that I couldn't sit on the bench for another year, that I had to go on loan. He told me that if any club came in then they wouldn't stop me."

Wigan Athletic made an approach in 2010.

"That was brilliant for me, a Premier League club just a few miles from where I lived in Bolton," he said. "I was so excited."

Wigan already had Chris Kirkland and Mike Pollitt and, while Al Habsi did not sign as first-choice goalkeeper, he was told he would get a chance. His opportunity came sooner than expected after Wigan were hammered in their opening games of the season, a 4-0 defeat at home to promoted Blackpool, followed by a 6-0 humiliation by visitors Chelsea. Changes were made.

"I got my chance against Hartlepool in the League Cup and kept a clean sheet, then Tottenham in the league four days later when we won 1-0."

By the end of the season, the loanee was named Wigan's Player of the Year. Wigan made his move permanent in a £4 million (Dh22m) deal.

England's north-west felt like home. "There's a big Middle East community here, many students in Manchester from Oman and the UAE. Knowing that I had friends here made things much easier for me, and especially for my wife."

Another bonus was the increasing ease of air travel.

"To fly from Norway to Oman was difficult, but direct flights from Oman to Manchester take just six hours.

"Since being married, I don't miss Oman so much. My family is here, my friends and family come all the time to visit. My wife makes Omani food, the lamb, chicken and fish dishes.

"We're also happy at our mosque in Bolton. The people treat me normally there. And I'm happy in England, where you are respected whether you are Muslim or Christian. It's a tolerant society."

Al Habsi's wife Bemsa is studying at Salford University.

"It's not easy, me being a footballer, my wife studying and looking after two kids, aged 5 and 6 months, but we really enjoy the life here."

Although he is in England, he is watched closely from afar.

"There's a lot of pressure - in a good way - from my part of the world because I'm the only player from the Middle East in the Premier League," he said.

"The people love football there and I feel that, with messages on Twitter [Al Habsi has 240,000 followers] and Facebook. I want to do something for them, to set a good example."

His teammates think he is doing so. "He's a fine man, that's the greatest compliment I can give him," said Shaun Maloney, the Scottish winger.

Al Habsi is grateful to manager Martinez. "He gives you confidence, and he keeps this football club in the Premier League season after season," Al Habsi said. "He creates a family atmosphere at the club."

Al Habsi feels honoured to play for Oman. After four consecutive Gulf Cups in which he was named best goalkeeper, he was a winner in 2009, keeping a clean sheet in the whole tournament.

However, because it is not a Fifa-recognised tournament, he has not been released by Wigan for subsequent competitions, including the tournament in January in Bahrain that the UAE won.

"The Gulf Cup is a huge tournament and it was very frustrating not to play," he says.

"But the UAE are the holders and they deserved to win it, they were the best team."

For now, his eyes are on club rather than international football, on the fight for Premier League survival.

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