How can a team who wins the FA Cup by beating the reigning Premier League Champions in the final still be one of the three worst teams in the league? Wigan Athletic can. The Lancashire club finally ended their 8 year stay in the top flight with an abject defeat away to Arsenal on Tuesday night. It concludes a mad, topsy-turvy season where Wigan have been utterly terrible one week (witness the 4-0 defeat at home to Liverpool on March 2nd) and then outrageously brilliant the next week (the 3-0 victory away to Everton in the FA Cup 6th round). In reality, Wigan aren’t the 18th best side in the Premier League; for the style of football they play and the exceptional performances they are sometimes capable of producing they should be at least three or four positions higher. They are a much more talented side than Stoke City and Sunderland, both of whom play diabolical route-one shite, yet still manage to retain their Premier League status every year (I’ve got my fingers crossed both go down next season). Ultimately, football is a results-based business and Wigan haven’t got enough positive ones; hence they can look forward to delightful away trips to the likes of Milwall and Doncaster.
During their 8 seasons in the Premier League, Wigan have only failed to be involved in a relegation scrap three times, the last of which was in 2008/09 – Steve Bruce’s final season in charge. Their current manager, Roberto Martinez, is feted all over the country as one of the best young managers around, yet his team are consistently in the bottom 5 of the table every season. Is this a performance of an outstanding young manager? True, Martinez has a very limited budget with which to operate and has had to deal with an alarming turnover of players, but surely the club had a plan to improve long-term instead of just aiming to scrape survival every season?
One of Wigan’s major problems is their supporter base, or lack of it. In an area with Liverpool, Everton, both Manchester clubs, Blackpool, Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers, Rochdale, Oldham Athletic and Stockport County within a 40 mile radius, they are up against some stiff competition for fans and consequently, they struggle to contend with the more established clubs. Moreover, Wigan is predominantly a Rugby League town whose team, the Wigan Warriors, have rich history of success and a wider, die-hard support. Throw in the mix the fact that Wigan is not exactly the most affluent of areas and you have a very difficult climate in which to compete. Money talks in the game of football and Wigan understand their status as one of the smaller teams so they struggle to attract the top-level players. Often they have to wheel and deal ‘Arry Redknapp style to build a squad. Credit must go to the owner, Dave Whelan, a local man who has built up this Wigan side since the early days when they were playing in the old Fourth Division to crowds of less than a thousand. Whelan is an astute businessman and will not overspend and put the club at serious financial risk. This is all well and good but to guarantee safety in the Premier League, you have to at least spend some money. Since their arrival 8 years ago, Wigan have consistently had to over-achieve just to stay in the top flight. Sooner or later, the team will simply ‘achieve’ their potential or under-achieve – like the current season. The players have made too many mistakes, the team has been consistently inconsistent and their defence has been leakier than a colander.
Wigan’s lack of financial clout has resulted in their star players being tempted elsewhere. Key players such as Antonio Valencia, Wilson Palacios, Leighton Baines, Lee Cattermole, Emile Heskey (stop sniggering at the back), Titus Bramble (I said stop sniggering!), Hugo Rodallega and Mohammed Diame to name but a few have all left the club, the majority of which still had their best years ahead of them. It is therefore very difficult to build a team around key individuals if said individuals keep leaving every year. Martinez especially has had to work with almost a blank canvas at the start of every season. With such a high turnover of players, it takes time for the team to gel which explains Wigan’s pedestrian starts to almost every Premier League season. Consequently they have to turn it on in the second half of the season against teams who are desperate for points at both ends of the table. This season it has just proved beyond them and ironically it is probably their finest moment which has contributed the most to their downfall. Winning the FA Cup is a terrific achievement and to overcome the superstars of Manchester City in the manner they did in the final is a testament to the team’s ability (which has been all too absent this season) but like Middlesborough, who were finalists in 1997, it has come at the expense of their Premier League status.
After 2012’s Great Escape, I genuinely thought Wigan were going to be OK this season. They seemed to have a (relatively) settled side which played attractive, penetrative football and crucially, a home-nations spine to the team in the shapes of Scotsmen Gary Caldwell, Shaun Maloney and James McCarthur and Irishman James McCarthy. The likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, McCarthur, McCarthy, Maloney, Jean Beausejour and Franco Di Santo had been at the club for a good two years or more and there was a sense that they could really kick on and finally establish themselves in mid-table security. They acquired a true goalscorer in Arouna Kone from Levante after a productive season in La Liga and with the likes of exciting young winger Calum McManaman coming through the ranks, the future looked bright.
Instead what happened was an unmitigated disaster, winning only four league matches before Christmas, collecting a mere 15 points with half the season already gone. Wigan’s defence was wonderfully accommodating if you were an opposition striker and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was giving away goals like he was having a yard-sale. January and February were an improvement but again the defence was the problem conceding four against Manchester United and Chelsea and three in a painful home defeat to Sunderland. Crippling injuries played a key part because there was never a settled back four (or three depending on the system Martinez played) and often they looked like they had just met each other five minutes before the match. At various points in the season, Spanish centre-back Ivan Ramis (who looked very promising) and Alcaraz were sidelined for significant periods of time and Martinez had to sign the Austrian utility player Paul Scharner on loan for his second spell at the club to provide cover.
By the beginning of March it was clear that Wigan needed a revival of Lazarus proportions to stay in the Premier League, but they just left themselves with too much to do. They were relying on the fact that they had done it the previous year but calamitous mistakes at key points in the season proved too costly. Drab performances against Liverpool and more recently at QPR provided them with a mountain to climb meaning that they effectively needed to win at least three out of their last four games. Ultimately, this metaphorical mountain was insurmountable but all is not lost for the discerning Wigan supporter.
The team is in a healthy financial position; at the helm is a promising, if slightly overrated manager and vitally, the club will not have to sell too many of its first-team players. If the club can hold on to the likes of McCarthy, McCarthur, McManaman and do some shrewd business in the transfer market (preferably with a name beginning with Mc), a rapid return to the top flight is not out of the question. I expect Kone, Figeuroa and Maloney and maybe a few others to leave in order to trim the wage bill and free up some extra funds but the basis of the football club is there. Wigan have a clear footballing philosophy and in Dave Whelan, they have a chairman who has the best interests of the club at heart. Plus there is the added bonus of European football for the first time. I really like Wigan Athletic and I hope to see them gracing the Premier League again. Preferably at the expense of Stoke City. Or Sunderland. Or West Ham.