x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

End looms for Wigan Athletic so soon after FA Cup bloom

Relegation for the FA Cup winners will see the squad who have continually upset the odds dismantled, writes Richard Jolly.

Wigan Athletic's Ben Watson, centre, was told his season was over after a broken leg, but on Saturday scored his and his club's defining goal to win the FA Cup final against Manchester City. Andrew Winning / Reuters
Wigan Athletic's Ben Watson, centre, was told his season was over after a broken leg, but on Saturday scored his and his club's defining goal to win the FA Cup final against Manchester City. Andrew Winning / Reuters

Try and try to try again, we are often told. Wigan Athletic did not just do that. They tried 35 times. On the first 34, they were unsuccessful.

But, finally, in 1978, the Football League accepted their application to join. So began one of the most remarkable stories in modern football, culminating in Saturday's FA Cup final victory over Manchester City.

That same year, 1978, also has significance in the FA Cup. The winning goal was scored by Roger Osborne, the Ipswich Town midfielder who went on to become a lorry driver.

The 1970s were a golden decade for underdogs in cup finals. The lower-profile the player, it appeared, the greater his chance of becoming the Wembley hero. Like Osborne, Sunderland's Ian Porterfield and Southampton's Bobby Stokes are remembered for one game and one goal.

So, Ben Watson, the Wigan substitute who headed in Shaun Maloney's injury-time corner, is a throwback to an earlier era. In truest cup tradition, his is a heartwarming tale.

Watson, 27, was told his season was over after he broke his leg in November's loss to Liverpool. Instead, it has provided the defining moment of his career, and indeed, of Wigan's history.

One footballer who suffered a broken leg enabled others to celebrate. Wigan owner Dave Whelan's playing career was never the same after, representing Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 final, he suffered a horrific injury.

And so, with the sense that things have finally come full circle, the last chapter can be written after perhaps the longest wait for a happy ending the FA Cup has known.

It looks like a bittersweet finale. When clubs the size of Wigan - the town's population is just 80,000 - secure silverware, there is the immediate sense it will be a one-off.

It is exacerbated by the probability they will complete a unique double. None of the previous 131 FA Cup winners have been relegated in the same season.

Unless Wigan beat Arsenal tonight and Aston Villa on Sunday, they will be sent down.

If so, the heroes of Wembley will be separated, never to reunite on a football field. A study of the smallest clubs to grace the top flight, outsiders such as Barnsley, Wimbledon, Carlisle and Northampton Town, shows they do not return.

Should Wigan be reassigned, many have enhanced their reputations to such a degree that it is improbable to envisage them in the Championship in August.

Manager Roberto Martinez has long attracted covetous glances. He was interviewed by Liverpool last year and is the front-runner to replace David Moyes at Everton.

Whelan has urged him to set his sights higher and as the Spaniard now has more trophies than the men who will manage Manchester United and Liverpool next season, the imminent demotion of a team constructed on a slender budget should not prove too much of a stain on his CV.

In James McCarthy, Martinez has unearthed a midfielder capable of playing for the elite.

In Maloney, he has one of the finest No 10s in England, a late bloomer finally realising his potential.

In Callum McManaman, man of the match at Wembley, he has a winger who has been a revelation over the last two months. Arouna Kone is a striker with pace who offers a genuine threat.

None should be in the second tier, and if it poses the question of why Wigan are in such a precarious position, the answers lie in defensive injuries. Antolin Alcaraz was a rock at the back against City but has only started seven league games this season.

That they have produced 12 points gives an indication of his importance.

But the Paraguayan, like fellow defender Maynor Figueroa, is out of a contract in the summer. Aware that much of their income comes from participating in the Premier League, Wigan give out shorter deals than most of their rivals.

They are not staring into financial apocalypse if they go down. They are also likely to lose virtually their entire team.

Indeed, they do not even own two of them. Goalkeeper Joel Robles and the returning Paul Scharner are on loan, anyway. They will return to their parent clubs having contributed to a remarkable upset. In past times, unlikely FA Cup winners often comprised groups of locals.

The sole common denominator in Wigan's dressing room has been an allegiance to their cause.

Eight different nationalities were in the Wembley starting XI, with a further three accommodated on the bench. They are, by necessity, a cosmopolitan bunch.

Wigan have avoided paying the inflated prices of the Premier League transfer market and have found players others admire.

They have been anomalies, different in their tactics and team-building, the small fry capable of defeating big favourites. They have sprung the biggest surprise in an FA Cup final for decades.

Normally when a club ends a wait for silverware, the temptation is to call it the start of something. For Wigan, it may also be the end.

Lose at Arsenal tonight and they are relegated. Their FA Cup win was simply one glorious moment in time, a peak they briefly, brilliantly scaled before a precipitous decline began.

 

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