FOX Soccer Exclusive
Wigan must now fight to survive
No wonder Roberto Martinez warned his players to stick to Irn-Bru as a celebration drink if they won the FA Cup – the Wigan Athletic manager knew a game just as important as Saturday’s final would be starting just over 72 hours later.
In fact Martinez probably felt relief as much as elation when substitute Ben Watson’s late header all but ensured there would be no extra time or penalties at Wembley. He needed every hour he could get to ensure his men were as well prepared as possible for Tuesday’s must-win Premier League collision with Arsenal at the Emirates (LIVE, FOX Soccer, 2:30 PM ET).
Lose that and Wigan will be on course for a unique double – the FA Cup and relegation in the same season. Win and they could go into their concluding League fixture at home to Aston Villa with survival the prize for both teams. At least their historic triumph at Wembley will have done wonders for morale, whatever its effect may be on end-of-season legs.
And that’s where Irn-Bru comes in. For the uninitiated, it’s the national soft drink of Scotland, allegedly made from steel girders and therefore a source of reinforcement (though the energy derived from the sugar content is probably more scientifically verifiable).
Wigan have four Scots-born players in their squad. Hence Martinez’s declaration. But he was only half-joking. There would have been no champagne at the dinner to hail the heroes who overcame Manchester City – not with so much riding on the game at the Emirates.
It’s cruel scheduling that sends Wigan back to north London so soon, for Arsenal are not only well rested after their victory over Queens Park Rangers – 10 days separate the fixtures – but desperate for points to maintain their challenge for a Champions League spot.
So it will be tough, but Wigan cannot afford defeat - even a draw will probably send the Latics into the second tier. Going down is bad enough at any time – yet when a new Premier League television deal is about to kick in, guaranteeing even the lowliest clubs more than the champions get under the current arrangement, it’s going to feel like disaster.
Even if you’re Wigan. Little Wigan, geographically squeezed between the soccer strongholds of Manchester and Liverpool, still struggling to overcome your town’s great passion for rugby league, still unable to fill your modest stadium for games at the English game’s top level, best by the widespread assumption that you’ll find your true status somewhere below.
For little Wigan – not even members of the Football League until 1978 – have a big backer. Dave Whelan used to play for Blackburn Rovers until, in the 1960 Cup final, he had a leg broken so badly his career was all but over. He got $600 compensation and invested it in a stall on his local market, starting a process that led to him becoming one of the biggest names in sportswear retail.
But he was determined to pay something back to his home town and, luckily for Wigan Athletic and the town’s rugby club, he wanted to do it through sports. So Saturday at Wembley was a dream come true. "I’ve been repaid for 1960," he said, as he kissed the Cup.
They can’t take that away from him. And no one can take the memories of the day from the fans who had traveled south. But these people will be watching Barnsley next season, not Manchester City, if something cannot somehow be taken from the home of Arsenal.
Can it be done? It will take more than a pre-match swig of Irn-Bru. Fortunately, Wigan proved at Wembley that they have the spirit, skill and (through Martinez) tactical guidance for such a task. True, City were very poor by their own standards, giving a performance that seemed to point Roberto Mancini to the exit door. But Wigan were good. And it seems they have found a big-occasion player in Callum McManaman.
Even the FA Cup doesn’t often write stories like his. A Scouser from Merseyside, he supported Everton and was on the club’s books from the ages of seven to 16. Then he was released. But Wigan saw something in McManaman and, although it has taken a long time to come out, the boundaries of where his talent might take him are suddenly being extended.
A winger, he can dribble. But not just that: he has such pace that three City players were yellow-carded and one sent off for trying to curb his inroads into their left flank. Arsenal will even now be working on plans to curb him. You can be sure of that after a performance more than equaling that of his distant relative Steve McManaman in the final of 1992, when the elder Macca’s display for Liverpool against Sunderland saw him walk off the old Wembley with man-of-the-match honors.
And yet Callum would not have been playing if some of us had had their way. In mid-March, making his Premier League debut against Newcastle United, he made a challenge on Massadio Haidara so ugly that there were calls for a long ban.
Some, notably Martinez and Whelan, argued that it had been accidental – and pointed out that he had been quick to apologize to the Newcastle player. The Football Association nevertheless explored every disciplinary avenue before reluctantly deciding that, since an assistant referee had seen the incident, nothing further could be done.
On Saturday the FA’s flagship occasion was graced by an unforgettable exhibition from the same McManaman. So he’s already traveled from zero to hero and now let’s see where the journey takes him – there is even speculation about an England call-up for the end-of-season internationals against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil.
Don’t bet against it. This is soccer.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.