On Saturday, 99% of English football fans undoubtedly became Wigan supporters for 90 minutes. But rather than it being a case of the British knack of favouring the underdog in every situation they are naturally neutral to, the love affair with Wigan, shared by many across the country regardless of what club they’d pledge their undying loyalty to, spans far beyond the simple notion of a David and Goliath contest in an FA Cup final.
The Latics are forever the underdog, defying logic, reasoning, resources and finance year upon year to maintain Premier League survival, labelled as the cockroaches of the English top flight. But the description which implies grotesqueness, cunning and cowardice couldn’t be further from the truth; the overall adoration of Wigan, hailed by many as their second club or at least their second most favoured, has been bred through their underlying philosophy of playing attractive, attacking football, full of confidence and always without fear, despite their constant impending doom – a combination which never fails to capture the hearts and imagination of the neutrals.
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The persistent efforts of Roberto Martinez at the DW Stadium have always been well documented in the media, with the Spaniard being the constant recipient of rave reviews and often linked to vacancies at bigger clubs, but this year, the Latics have finally received a material reward to signify their achievements in the form of the FA Cup. Yet it could prove to mean very little in the grand scheme of things should they fail to claim all six points from their final two Premier League fixtures, the first coming tonight against Arsenal, and in the process secure their fate of playing Championship football next season.
No one doubts the tough task Roberto Martinez has undertook in keeping Wigan’s heads above water since his appointment in 2009, but with yet another year of no progress and the Greater Manchester club continually flirting with the prospect of relegation, is the philosophical football which has earned them so many admirers actually paying off? Is it time for a change of tact, on and off the pitch?
The eternal problem at the DW Stadium has been holding onto key players. Every season, a select few personnel step up their game, or progress naturally to a higher level, which in the summer leads to an exodus of the club’s top talent. The Wigan alumni now contains so many noteworthy individuals you could make a Premier League team out of them, including the likes of Leighton Baines, Antonio Valencia, Mohamed Diame, Wilson Palacios, Lee Cattermole, Hugo Rodallega, Titus Bramble, Victor Moses and Ryan Taylor to name a few who’ve gone on to bigger, better paying top flight clubs.
The trend will continue yet again in the summer, with James McCarthy, Callum Mcmanaman and Arouna Kone set to be figures of interest for those on the prowl for new recruits, and furthermore, should the Latics fail to avoid the drop, even their more rank and file players, such as Shaun Maloney, Ali Al-Habsi and Jordi Gomez could well be given the opportunity to remain in the top tier of English football by other clubs, rather than take their chances in the ever-unpredictable Championship.
Amid the continual in-goings and out-going of the club’s top talent, it makes sense that the one constant that remains is Martinez’s expansive brand of football. It’s created a level of consistency from season to season under the Spaniard, and furthermore brought the fans to the DW stadium.
Yet the club’s most successful league standing was not under the 39 year old, but rather Steve Bruce, a polar opposite in terms of tactic, manner and philosophy. He may not have the credentials to lead Wigan to an FA Cup final, but the former United defender certainly made a lighter task of Premier League survival, finishing up in 11th place during the 2008/2009 season, all be it with better players in Palacios and Valencia at his disposal.
It does beg the question however; would Wigan be better off with a hint of pragmatism mixed into their attractive style of football? The Latics certainly play to their strengths, but for all the attacking flair and ball retention, their continual lack of quality in defence has become a constant thorn in their side throughout the Martinez era, and furthermore, being solid at the back has always been a pre-requisite in the Premier League. It will surely be his first port of call in the summer transfer window, pending Wigan’s Premier League status, Martinez not being poached by another club and whether or not their star players will need replacing yet again.
Finance will undoubtedly get in the way. The club’s record transfer fee of just £7million, paid to Newcastle for Charles N’Zogbia, tells its own story regarding the lack of resources at the DW stadium, and match-day profit will always be limited in a rugby town where the stands on a Saturday always remain half empty.
But clearly something has to give; the way it stands, Wigan will either slowly but surely solidify themselves as a Premier League club at a snail’s pace, never far from the threat of relegation, or as they may well do this season, go down with their sinking philosophical ship, with the players jumping at the point of its submergence into the Championship.
A sense of identity is an unquantifiable, intrinsic asset that is often over-looked in the modern era, with foreign owners preferring the power of the purse as a means of progress rather than forging success via a club’s development on the football pitch itself. Furthermore, Martinez should always be praised not only for his ability to get the best out of his players and avoid relegation, but additionally his insistence on playing attractive, exciting football, with the beautiful game’s equivalent of morality at its core.
The identity itself is often more important than the quality of football on display. We’ve seen it with the likes of Stoke, Norwich, Everton, West Ham and Swansea and the solidarity it has brought to them, and we’ve seen the adverse effects of lacking identity with the poor seasons of Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle. And thus, the worst thing Wigan could do would be to abandon their brand of football in its entirety, even if it were to hypothetically allow them to sign a higher class of footballer.
But I believe this season, despite the FA Cup triumphs, has made it clear that resting on their laurels presents as much of a serious risk as it does to bring in a fresh approach, with an element of balance, pragmatism and Englishness to it. It is hard to envisage the process taking place under Roberto Martinez, and perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that the Spaniard and his beloved club will be expected to part company in the summer. Furthermore, the players would almost certainly be unable to replicate the confidence in which they play their expansive brand of football without their talented manager at the helm.