Cardiff City supporters contemplating the riches to be found on reaching the Promised Land of the Premier League may be forgiven for daydreaming of improved press coverage and wider attention. They’ll imagine the club’s badge imprinted in the Match of the Day opening titles, approving remarks from Shearer and Hansen and lengthening column inches.
But Wigan Athletic fans will tell you how it really is – after a brief flurry of patronising welcomes, smaller clubs are soon relegated back to the box of afterthoughts. The legions of top flight followers will soon be no more familiar with your club’s players than if you had stayed below decks in the Championship and you’ll be restricted to 3 minutes of action from a 0-0 draw with Stoke at 11.55pm. To put it frankly – you might as well not be there at all.
The Latics’ plight is actually worse than that. If indifference is the overwhelming emotion when the name of Wigan Athletic crops up in conversation, the exception to that actually reveals a surprising hostility.
Wigan? Isn’t it about time they went down and stopped taking up valuable space in the Premier League? Why can’t they be replaced by a proper club – a Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest or Burnley? Look at their pathetic crowds? It’s a Rugby League town anyway.
Opprobrium directed towards Wigan resembles that arrowed at Wimbledon in the 1980s and 1990s – it was romantic to see them cocking snooks at the big boys for a season or two but woe betide that they might want to stay any longer than that – let’s pat them on the head and say goodbye to them like we did to Hull City, Blackpool and Reading (the 2008 vintage). Don’t overstay your welcome, or Premier League revenues will start to suffer.
The end of Dave Whelan’s project has long been foretold – and so far, the Lancashire club have steadfastly refused to play ball. 2007 was only the most famous of a series of narrow escapes – the Latics heading to Sheffield United and plundering a 2-1 win via David Unsworth’s penalty. At other times, including last season, a run of poor results has been rendered moot by spectacularly surprising successes – 5 wins out of 6 to cap the season completed the miracle with both Manchester United and Arsenal defeated across the space of five April days.
So what of 2012-13? The Latics have again struggled and at the moment , they find themselves as one of four teams from which three are very likely to tumble come May.
On Saturday, a run of six league games without a win came to an end with a convincing 3-0 victory at rivals Reading, the away side taking advantage of the occasion to leapfrog the Royals and Aston Villa to seventeenth spot and clear of the relegation zone. Having won by an identical score line against the Villans in December, this ability to defrock their fellow haunted will serve the Latics well.
But there is method behind this. Roberto Martinez’s managerial star stays undimmed and it’s generally reckoned that he gets the best out of those he employs. Sure, Athletic deployed financial resources far beyond those usually available to a club of their size to get into the Premier League, but since arriving, their spending has consistently been amongst the lowest in the division.
Add to that a style of play that is the polar opposite of that expounded by the aforementioned Dons of South West London. Wigan’s religion is keeping the ball on the floor and with Swansea, they glory in the incongruity of acute flair amid post-industrial surrounds.
Saturday’s win was aided by a Reading performance of apocalyptic awfulness – the home team refusing to get on the front foot and allowing Wigan to build up confidence on the ball throughout a dismal first half for both sides. Just as we were wondering what on earth we could discuss over the half time cuppas, a sleeping defence allowed the livewire Arouna Kone to chest the ball in unwittingly, while a few moments later, a Red Sea impression from Reading saw the Ivorian flick in a sublime finish.
Kone, whose sporting of the number 2 on his back will have offended traditionalists everywhere, formed a mobile strike partnership with Franco Di Santo, the Argentinian having earlier enjoyed a thrilling run that saw him do everything right aside from sliding the ball past Adam Federici’s right hand upright. The lithe movement of the pairing was simply too much for Sean Morrison’s mastodon like instincts while Adrian Mariappa also floundered.
The Latics’ formation is a fluid one and if it’s well chronicled that they play three at the back, the formation here most often resembled an old fashioned 4-4-2 – wingers Jean Beausejour and Sean Maloney were both ever dangerous and the latter has completely reinvented himself after his appallingly unsuccessful spell at Villa.
Indeed, Maloney’s presence reinforces a blueprint that resembles that of the wars of the Middle Ages – Scottish and European Kings often teaming up to get under the skin of the lumbering English – Wigan’s central midfield was characterized by two busy displays from Jameses McCarthy and McArthur, the latter sporting a warlike mask and about as welcome on English soil as William Wallace will have been. The mobility of the two bargain Scotsmen was every bit the equal of the non-British around them.
At the back, Maynor Figueroa strode purposefully through a supine Reading defence to put the match out of reach early in the second period, before he was nobbled by a crude Pavel Pogrebnyak challenge; a lunge for which the Muscovite saw red. The Honduran was outstanding in the left back position as was Emmerson Boyce, once a Reading target, on the opposite flank. In the centre, Gary Caldwell enjoyed total domination of Pogrebnyak, while Paul Scharner was left free to bring the ball out at will, to such an extent that muttered comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer were audible.
Ali El-Habsi had the quietest of afternoons and if he is probably not the best top flight keeper ever, he was faultless here – all of which leaves the question as to why Wigan haven’t used what looks like a very successful set of methods to launch themselves up the table, Swansea style?
Well it’s a tough league and most teams shine when they go ahead – even on this occasion, it took some time for the Lancastrians to spin the straw of possession into the gold of goals. Still, with three home games to come and an FA Cup quarter final to look forward to, I wouldn’t bet on Wigan Athletic doing the decent thing and relinquishing their place on Match of the Day just yet.