SIX years in, and Premier League survival is not getting any easier for Wigan Athletic. It doesn’t help that rugby league appears to have regained supremacy in the town.
That much is clear from the road signs on entering the town, which proudly declare: ‘Wigan Warriors – Super League champions 2010.’ There’s no mention of the fact that the Latics, a non-league club as recently as 1978, have survived in the top flight during a period which has seen several bigger names take a tumble.
It is a different story in August 2005, the last time I visited the DW Stadium (when it went under different initials). Back then, Wigan’s newly-found status was considered worthy of mention. The road signs into town bore the message: ‘Home to Super League rugby and Premiership football.’
That day, I saw Wigan beat Sunderland 1-0 through an early Jason Roberts penalty, and secure their first win as a Premier League club. Afterwards, another reporter and I collared chairman Dave Whelan in reception, and he spoke excitedly of trying to sign Michael Owen. It didn’t happen, but it all added to the feeling that this was one exciting adventure for Wigan Athletic.
Wigan finished 10th in that first season, having climbed as high as second for a few weeks in the autumn. It remains their highest league finish, although Steve Bruce might have taken them into Europe a couple of seasons ago but for a springtime collapse.
Perhaps that was for the best. Most clubs in England’s top division view a Europa League run with the level of enthusiasm that most of us feel for cleaning the kitchen. The Champions League is different. But then the Champions League is not a realistic option for 14 of the 20 top-flight clubs.
Wigan, then, having put so much effort into climbing from the fourth tier to the first, have maybe travelled as far as the can. The test now is to stay there. But an even bigger test would be to get back if they were ever relegated.
For much of this season, the Latics have been in grave danger of getting relegated. The DW Stadium faithful had, before yesterday’s home game against Blackburn, been getting increasing impatient with manager Roberto Martinez.
A former Wigan player, Martinez’s managerial career is still at the ‘promising’ stage. He got Swansea playing the best football in the Championship, and was considered a serious contender to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United. He also equalled the Football League record of eight successive draws, suggesting that the Swans’ attractive passing wasn’t always matched with an ability to finish teams off.
Martinez, to his credit, has tried to adopt a similar passing philosophy at Wigan. He has been severely hampered by the lack of a Michael Owen-style goal poacher. Hugo Rodallega is a long way from double figures, Franco Di Santo has shown little sign of scoring since moving north from Chelsea, Mauro Boselli proved hopeless, and was quickly farmed out to Genoa on loan. The midfielders have not chipped in often enough.
Yesterday, Wigan needed both goals and points. Blackburn at home was a winnable game, even for a team who hadn’t won since Boxing Day. With the next three league matches coming against Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs, it was a must-win game. They did not start well.
Roberts, the Wigan goal hero from all those years ago, hovers on the fringes at Blackburn these days. He looked to be on his way out of Ewood Park a few months ago, when his relationship with Sam Allardyce deteriorated to such an extent that he started the season without a squad number.
That seems a long time ago now, given all that has happened at Blackburn since. Roberts’ earning of a contract until the end of next season wasn’t the most newsworthy event at Ewood Park this week – not with chairman John Williams leaving the club after 14 years, and not with Chris Samba withdrawing his threat to move on and signing a new contract of his own. It is, though, a great credit to Roberts’ sticking power.
He still speaks fondly of his time at Wigan, and pledged that he wouldn’t celebrate if he scored against them. When he turned in Brett Emerton’s cross from close range – after Junior Hoilett’s delightful ball out to the right flank has stretched the home defence – Roberts was true to his word.
As the rain hurtled down, Blackburn should have extended their lead. Benjani made a complete mess of a free header from Morten Gamst Pedersen’s free kick, heading the ball into the ground rather than the net.
“We needed that second goal when we were 1-0 up, and it certainly came back to cost us,” acknowledged Blackburn manager Steve Kean afterwards.
Wigan, spared a 2-0 deficit, rallied. They also continued trying to play attractive football. It might not have seemed the wisest strategy on a pitch that was starting to form puddles, but it paid off when Victor Moses darted in from the right and set up Emmerson Boyce to shoot. When keeper Paul Robinson pushed the ball aside, James McCarthy somehow kept his footing to steer in the rebound from a tight angle.
Few people would have expected this game to have contained as many as two goals. The first 20 minutes of the second half would give us another four. Astonishingly, three of them went to Wigan.
For all of Martinez’s insistence on playing the right way, the first of those three second-half goals were as direct as they come. Charles N’Zogbia flicked on a goalkeeper’s clearance, and Rodallega nipped in behind Samba to go round Robinson and score.
Then came an extraordinary goal. N’Zogbia, having just seen Robinson beat out one shot, tried to find a way through a mass of defenders in a quagmire. McCarthy almost seemed to be getting in his way. Then the ball dropped to the Scotland midfielder, who juggled it twice on his right foot before half-volleying it into the bottom corner with his left. Outstanding. Outrageous. McCarthy had no right to score a goal of that quality on a pitch that poor.
Still the goals kept coming. Samba headed in a Pedersen corner to make it 3-2, then Ben Watson restored Wigan’s two-goal lead from the penalty spot after Michel Salgado tripped Mohamed Diame. It was the first time Wigan had scored four goals in a Premier League match under Martinez. And still it almost wasn’t enough.
Nine minutes from the end, Blackburn substitute David Dunn slotted in a penalty after Boyce had brought him down. Rovers threw Samba up front. For Wigan’s fans, the closing minutes seemed to take forever. The final whistle was greeted with cheers of relief at a 4-3 victory. The chants of “We are staying up” still had an air of hope rather than expectation. But at least they have given themselves a chance.
A tricky fixture list might yet do for Wigan, though. And so might the rugby league team. The Super League season is about to start again, and the Warriors are unlikely to do much good to a pitch that was a muddy mess by the end of yesterday’s game.
“The pitch wasn’t a concern before kick-off,” Martinez said. “We had six hours of rain and the drainage worked really well. But in the last half-hour, the ball wasn’t rolling.
“The way we play, we need a proper pitch. We’ve got the rugby starting next month, so it’s becoming an issue again.
“We need a solution, and I’m sure the chairman will be in a good enough mood after this result to find one.”