Farewell Wigan Athletic, a flawed yet loveable Premier League team

Wigan Athletic FA Cup winners 2013

by Matt MacKenzie

Despite their frankly astonishing FA Cup triumph, the axe has finally fallen on one of the Premier League’s most appreciated sides. A neutral’s favourite throughout this season in particular, Wigan Athletic have become the latest victims of relegation to the Championship.

Perennial escapologists, Wigan have clung on to Premier League status by their fingernails for the last eight years. Promoted in 2005 and expected to go straight back down, they managed to frustrate expectations for longer than any could have envisaged; finally, though, their luck ran out with a 4-1 capitulation to Arsenal on May 14th. As so often, their defensive organisation proved their undoing.

Eminently watchable, occasionally scintillating in attack and often shambolic in defence, they will be missed by most. It is likely, too, that their eviction will be long-lasting. Yet with Wigan there was always hope, and it is a shame that their penultimate match proved a bridge too far for an already stretched squad.

Their squad contains talent that deserved better. Even their much-criticised defence, the Premier League’s joint worst, is not utterly hopeless. Ivan Ramis, signed in the summer of 2012 from this year’s La Liga strugglers Real Mallorca, looked promising before succumbing to injury. But it is clear that their real stars operate further up the field.

James McCarthy has been earning rave reviews all season for his consistently composed, impressive performances in the middle of the park. By all accounts an extremely pleasant, modest man – his national team manager Giovanni Trapattoni has jokingly threatened to punch him for being too shy – McCarthy turned down overtures from Liverpool and Arsenal in favour of regular playing time at Wigan, and looks set to depart following another excellent season.

McCarthy is a midfield general of moderate stature but exceptional authority, dictating play and distributing precisely off both feet. His 12 caps in a currently poor Ireland side will multiply many times over before his career draws to a close.

Ivorian striker Arouna Kone has long ploughed a lonely furrow up front, and his 11 goals in 36 games for a club of comparatively low standing tell their own story. Creative attacking player Shaun Maloney too has finally begun to fulfil his enormous potential, scoring arguably their most important league goal of the season with his dipping free-kick against QPR in early April.

Much has been made recently of winger Callum McManaman, who has done well to perform strongly in the face of media condemnation for an (admittedly) dreadful tackle on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara. Wigan’s FA Cup success will have been particularly sweet for McManaman. His man-of-the-match performance, throughout which his pace and persistence tortured City left-back Gael Clichy, was discussed in glowing terms by the British media.

Wigan Athletic – The entertainers?

Opinion divides over the root of Wigan’s relative successes. While languishing in a lowly league position, fans and pundits alike agree that Wigan’s approach is entertaining and not entirely ineffective.

Manager Roberto Martinez, a true football man renowned even during his comparatively undistinguished playing career as a student of the game, is regularly in the frame for more prestigious positions and it is hoped by many that he remains in his job.

Chairman Dave Whelan, even in this era of cut-throat competition, has repeatedly and openly demonstrated real faith in his manager, something perhaps belying his popular perception as an opinionated, right-wing rent-a-gob. Certainly, his shrewd stewardship has done Wigan proud.

A solid structure remains in place if Martinez does not depart, something that bodes well for the club’s future.

Martinez’ tactical approach earns much praise, although his detractors point to relegation as evidence of his deficiencies. It is commented often that while Wigan are an attractive side to watch, they can be embarrassingly easy to break down.

Is this, though, something that could be expected? The side has never been of more than sporadic footballing quality. Moreover, it almost always loses key players at season’s end.

Eight years without relegation, in view of these circumstances, is in my mind an underrated achievement. Much was made, after all, of Blackpool’s footballing approach during the 2010/11 season, but their maiden adventure in the top flight proved to be their last.

It is true that Wigan have survived narrowly on multiple occasions, but performances such as their 3-0 defeat of David Moyes’ well-drilled Everton side indicate that on their day Wigan were a cut above other relegation candidates in terms of style and end product. The Premier League, after all, is not without its teams whose philosophy consists of simply hoofing it to the big man up top.

Wigan, though, are the only side in the league to regularly play with a back three and espouse a free-flowing, attacking style that comes unstuck primarily because of the paucity of quality within the ranks.

With 47 league goals (the equal of Swansea, more than Newcastle, Sunderland, Norwich, West Ham and others) Wigan did have firepower. 73 goals conceded however was the league’s joint worst tally. It is this as much as their periodic attacking flair that endears them to neutrals. Fans love goals, after all.

Some say Martinez’ tactical approach is simply too open, others point to poor-quality defenders, arguing no feats of tactical alchemy could turn the likes of Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce into gold-standard players. Yet regardless of the reason why, Wigan’s games have not often been boring.

Natural order

But even more than this it could be argued Wigan’s very existence as a top-flight football team is a surprise. Wigan are without doubt the Premier League’s least fashionable club.

Opposition fans sometimes consider Wigan’s poor away attendance a personal slight; a sign of disrespect. But this view fails to take into account the difficulties Wigan have had in establishing a support base.

Not only are they surrounded by nine ‘bigger’ clubs, one of which (yesteryear’s Lancashire giants Preston North End) plays in League One, they inhabit also a part of Greater Manchester solidly wedded to the sport of rugby league.

Further complicating the issue is Wigan’s dearth of home-grown talent. As a consequence of their circumstances, their young talent is in large part composed of cast-offs from these larger clubs. Some have succeeded at Wigan through poor judgement on the part of others. It is frankly astonishing, for example, that Liverpool deemed the young Leighton Baines insufficiently talented, or Everton Callum McManaman.

Even so, a club reliant on talent slipping through the net takes its own life into its hands. This fact almost makes their slickness and success perverse, particularly within the context of the comparatively unreconstructed English league.

As such, many neutrals will hope that they haven’t seen the last of Wigan, existing and playing as they do so precariously.

Matt Mackenzie is a guest contributor to Just Football. Follow him on Twitter @oagmackenzie.

(photo credit: inmediahk via Flickr Creative Commons)

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