Saturday marks our first FA Cup game since that magical day in May, the day when the footballing world if they hadn’t already stood up and paid attention to Wigan Athletic. A lot has changed since that fateful day but nothing will ever takeaway the unbridled feeling of joy as Ben Watson’s header hit the back of the net.
As important as our eight years in the Premier League were for the obvious financialrewards and the continued recognition of Wigan being amongst the footballing elite I would say our FA Cup win was equal to it. As a child growing up the FA Cup was the ultimate and despite what the pundits and Premier League focussed press tell you it still is the ultimate.
Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup pedigree prior to last season had wavered in recent years, the fight to reach the Premier League and then stay there had relegated the cup competition to a distraction. Ironically Roberto Martinez was subjected to constant criticism over his team selections in the cup often accused of ‘disrespecting’ the oldest cup competition in the world.
I was lucky enough to attend all but one of our games in the FA Cup run last season, from a supporter’s point of view I don’t think we ever thought about winning it. Well not at first we didn’t, winning the FA Cup doesn’t happen to clubs like ours anymore. It was a chance for me to visit grounds I hadn’t been to before (Bournemouth, Macclesfield and Huddersfield) and have a good time watching football without the pressure of yet another relegation battle over our heads.
After the draw at home to Bournemouth I decided I would make the trip to the South Coast for the replay. Travelling by train to Bournemouth is an adventure itself and with the arctic conditions covering the country it was touch and go if the game would go ahead. But go ahead it did and it was one of those rare sights a Mauro Boselli goal (his final one for the club).
The FA Cup offered those of us who love our away days some fantastic trips, none more so than the trip to Macclesfield in round four. One of the few games that beat the weather that weekend Latics made hard work of beating the non-league side but win they did and all of a sudden the Latics had reached the fifth round. Another favourable draw both footballing wise and away day enjoyment wise meant a Sunday trip to Yorkshire.
The performance against Huddersfield was one of the most comprehensive of the season, racing in to a 2-0 lead before halftime further goals in the second half ensured progress through to the quarterfinal for only the second time in our history and the first time since Leeds in 1986. After being handed what were arguably favourable draws throughout the tournament our quarter final destiny laid down the East Lancs road against an Everton team still smarting from the semi-final defeat to Liverpool the previous season.
Latics came in to the game on the back of a 4-0 defeat at home to Liverpool and as per usual apart from a small band of optimistic Wiganer’s many expected us to be heading to Goodison simply to roll over as Everton made their way to Wembley. So confident were the Everton faithful that certain supporter groups were already offering ‘executive coach travel’ to the semi-final.
I have never known an atmosphere before like the one that greeted us as we entered Goodison that afternoon, a wall of sound from 2000 Wiganer’s. The atmosphere must have had the same effect on the players as it had had on our support as a Wigan Athletic side in mesmerising form took apart the leagues in form side with three outstanding goals in just over three minutes.
It started with Maynor Figueroa’s header, got better with Callum McManaman’s wonder goal and was rounded off by Jordi Gomez’s cool finish. Before you knew it Wigan Athletic were back at Wembley for the first time in 13 years, I and am sure many others thought this was where the ‘journey’ would end. We had got to Wembley and would be drawn against one of the giants and that would be it for our FA Cup campaign.
I was wrong and hadn’t considered the impact of one time Dutch international and Milan maestro Edgar Davids. Edgar mustn’t have read the script properly as he paired Latics with Championship strugglers Millwall leaving Chelsea and Manchester City to battle it out in the other semi-final.
I interviewed Ray Mathias in the build up to the semi-final a man who had managed a Wigan Athletic side against Millwall at Wembley previously and he was full of confidence that the side could do it. We were favourites of course but with a sizeable ‘London’ following for Millwall anything could have happened. The build up to the game was over shadowed as Wigan Athletic were laughably criticised for their failure to sell over 30,000 tickets for the semi-final. In fact well over 25,000 travelled down to North London for the semi-final and out sang the Millwall ‘fans’ from start to finish.
Jordi Gomez and Callum McManaman were once again in imperious form for the semi-final and although it was a tense game there was always the feeling that we would have enough which we certainly did when Jordi Gomez’s through pass found Callum McManaman and over a quarter of the population of Wigan partied in the North London rain.
I was still in a sense of disbelief when we reached the final, reaching the FA Cup final was the absolute pinnacle. Everything you dream of as a kid happening in front of you, it didn’t matter that the FA and TV Companies conspired to make it as hard as possible to get to Wembley, it didn’t matter that it cost a small ransom to get a ticket, it didn’t matter that we were outnumbered by Manchester City fans. None of it mattered as we were in the FA Cup final.
I travelled down to London on the Friday afternoon from Manchester and the train was packed full of polite but overly confident City fans who were expecting an easy win and a second FA Cup win in three seasons. They clearly hadn’t watched us in the cup last season and perhaps as well they hadn’t watched us in the league game where we had already comprehensively outplayed Manchester City only to come away from the Etihad with nothing apart from a severe dent to our hopes of survival.
I couldn’t sleep on the Friday night, a mixture of expectation, trepidation and hoping for the love of god that we could keep the score line respectable. I was desperate for it not to follow the same lines as Cardiff seven years previously.
Heading out in to London before the game I met up with my Dad back from Spain for the occasion, I met up with fellow Wiganers and I saw friends old and new. The afternoon passed in a blur as we made our way over to Wembley and down the steps from Wembley Park tube I could see images of each and every goal from our cup run. They were all there, Jordi’s penalty at Macclesfield, Arouna’s thunderbolt at Huddersfield, Callum’s lob at Everton and the goal that set us on our way to the final – Shaun Maloney’s against Millwall.
I can’t remember much about arriving at Wembley until the players entered the pitch and there they were the multi-millionaires and world stars of Manchester City against our team of youngsters and elder statesman all moulded in to the philosophy of one Roberto Martinez. I welled up as the players entered the pitch led by Dave Whelan, followed by Roberto Martinez and his captain Emmerson Boyce holding little Joseph Kendrick it was the symbol of Wigan Athletic and why this club of ours is so special.
I found it difficult to get in to the game for the first five minutes, I was in disbelief each time I looked around, this wasn’t like Cardiff. It felt different, it was different. Latics lined up like they had done so often over the last two seasons in the infamous 3-5-2 formation preferred by Roberto. The side showed no fear and from the off attacked City, there was no sitting back, there was no inviting pressure just relentless attacking and committed football.
The game reached half time and amazingly we were still in it, not only in it but were dominating and had been the better side throughout. We could conceivably had been one or two goals in front, the second half continued as the first had started. Latics attacking and looking to break in behind Manchester City whilst being strong in defence, the second half flew by. Before I knew it we were at the 80 minute mark and we were still in this.
The red card that followed for City followed and not only still in it but we had a real chance of taking Manchester City to extra time and possibly penalties. As Shaun Maloney lined up the corner kick I can remember thinking to myself “fairy tales don’t come true” as the ball swerved out towards the edge of the area it felt as though it stopped in flight as Ben Watson’s head connected. I spent a split second looking for that inevitable flag, there must have been something wrong with that. “He’s not raising his flag, we’re still celebrating – he’s given it.”
Pure unadulterated joy gave way to terror, knowing there was still three minutes of injury time left and this feeling could be taken away from us. It felt like the longest three minutes of my life waiting for that whistle to blow, but blow it did and Wigan Athletic did win the FA Cup.
I can safely say nothing in my life compared to that moment and nothing ever will again, getting promotion to the Premier League was great as was staying there and competing with the biggest names in the world but as Dave Whelan said “it’s the FA Cup, nothing is bigger”.
The FA Cup win in my mind should be dedicated to those who fought the hardest to get us there, those who fought to keep football in the town of Wigan, those who fought to get us to the league and those who fought to keep us alive. Be they supporters, be they directors, be they businessmen, be they councillors, be they players or be they managers. The FA Cup was for all of those who have been part of our wonderful football club.
Those who say there is no room for sentiment in football don’t know anything about football, Dave Whelan’s whole time in charge of Wigan Athletic has been built on sentiment. It was a sentiment that he had unfinished business in football and wanted to fulfil that business with his home town club. He’s done that and more. The sentiment also stretches to the management team, Roberto Martinez and Greame Jones regardless of your respective opinions of them have been a massive part of the modern Wigan Athletic. To have Roberto in charge of Wigan Athletic in their finest moment for me is wholly in keeping with the sentiment of our club.
The saddest part of the cup win wasn’t the relegation that followed, it wasn’t even Roberto Martinez leaving us behind which for me personally was hard to take. It was the realisation that we will never ever have it as good as that again.
Regardless of relegation, 2013 has been and always will be ‘our’ year.
Originally published in the Wigan Evening Post – Friday 3rd January 2014