It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Four days ago the Wigan Athletic players lay on the turf at the DW Stadium knowing that their days in the Premier League were probably over after a 3-2 home defeat by Swansea City.
A chance of redemption would follow with the FA Cup Final, but who truly believed at kick off that two hours later their captain Emmerson Boyce would be lifting the famous trophy aloft in the torrential rain at Wembley? “I’ve seen movies with worse scripts than that”, a beaming Roberto Martinez remarked in his post-match press conference.
If Wigan somehow pull off the impossible and complete the double by staying up yet again, Martinez might be worthy of a knighthood – let alone a summer move to Everton. Even one of the most maddening men in football, his Chairman Dave Whelan, can tonight he can look over his development of the club with great pride.
Indeed, development is the key word at Wigan. On the biggest day in the club’s history, praise must be lavished upon their young players, who showed verve, skill and composure beyond their years on this biggest of occasions. Their trio of twenty-two year olds, Callum McManaman, James McCarthy and Joel Robles came of age in fine style, with McManaman comfortably deserving of the Man of the Match award.
McManaman, described by Martinez as “a man for the big occasion”, was exceptional, dropping his shoulder to glide past Clichy, finding an extra yard to draw Zabaleta in to a foul that resulted in a second yellow card, and consistently offering himself as an out-ball that pinned back the city defence.
Youthful exuberance was perhaps all that prevented McManaman from grabbing a brace of cup final goals as twice he dallied before shooting, but this didn’t detract from a performance where time and time again he ran the City defence ragged. Whether he will stay at Wigan should they be relegated is a question for another day, but after today’s performance and Martinez’s glowing endorsement of the youngster as “one of the biggest diamonds in English football”, interest from other clubs seems certain.
Another youngster deserving of great credit is James McCarthy, who demonstrated exquisite composure on the ball, silky passing and the hint that he will make an excellent captain in years to come.
McCarthy took up pockets of space, orchestrating the transition between the defence and the impressive Shaun Maloney, who wandered with intent in a free role. McCarthy’s positioning, passing range and strength in breaking up the play was especially important given the shortcomings of Wigan’s central defenders. As City probed the Wigan defence in a ponderous manner, McCarthy strode with arms outstretched, pointing out the danger to his teammates.
The final piece in the triumvirate was Joel Robles, on loan from Atletico Madrid. Despite earlier rumours to the contrary, Robles was selected ahead of Ali Al-Habsi, who has recently been a calamitous prescence in the Wigan goal. Robles was assured throughout, marshalling his defence when they threatened to drop too deep and making a stunning save from Tevez in the first half, where he somehow diverted the ball over the crossbar with his trailing leg.
Today Wigan played with a freedom that belies their poor Premier League position and makes neutrals wonder how they came to struggle so badly. Wigan’s season has been a story of missed opportunities and careless defending, but this bright spot will live with fans for decades to come.
Their manager claims the focus has immediately turned to Tuesday, and that there is no champagne in the Wigan dressing room this evening. But as he rightly remarked, Wigan aren’t used to celebrating.
Only the hardest of hearts would begrudge those young men a small tipple tonight.