Gianfranco Zola: Safe for another season?
Readers that regularly frequent the DW, and indeed any other football ground at which Wigan Athletic may currently be playing, can’t have failed to noticed the flag marked ‘WAFC: The Religion’ resting proudly amongst the hardy band of Latics hardcore supporters — who some might term ‘nutjobs’, but not I — chuntering amongst each other in a typically northern fashion.
In many ways, football is indeed very much like a religion, a sentiment I’m sure millions of supporters nation- and even worldwide will readily echo. For starters, it seems crazy that anyone would deliberately put themselves through the catastrophic lows and often unbearable suffering of another straight defeat or loss to a passionately hated local rival. Yet, just like a ‘proper’, ‘officially’ established religion, they continue to do so, retaining their blind faith in the hope they will be rewarded next Saturday. Or Sunday, Monday or Tuesday if you’re one of the Big Four. Cheers, Sky.
Without going too deep into the ‘money in football’ argument (which I also discuss briefly in an interview for the Bert Trautmann’s Neck blog, which, by the way, is certainly worth a read) or indeed any sort of sociological theories that will most likely bore you to tears, it seems strange that we put our faith in a team of businessmen more intent on making money than seeing the club they actually have some sort of emotional attachment to do well (Liverpool, Manchester United, numerous other top flight teams). In some cases, the overwhelming urge to succeed can lead to financial ruin (Portsmouth) and the almost unthinkable: complete disappearance from the face of the earth (Chester City, Scarborough FC etc.).
Yes, religion and money are undoubtedly interlinked in a greater capacity than we would care to imagine. It’s a sad fact that these days football clubs are marketed as brands you might casually subscribe to just to ‘look cool’, when in actual fact one’s fanaticism for runs much deeper than that. For evidence of this, you need look no further than the recent spate of what have been termed ‘phoenix clubs’, fans’ attempts to re-establish another club and start afresh at a lower league level. The real fans, the ones that travel to watch their team each weekend, don’t care about the money or pretty much anything else apart from football.
Which brings me on to yesterday’s game, which the media built up as a ‘crucial relegation battle’. Well, I think it would have been, had Hull or Burnley even looked like winning a game or two. However, since their challenge seems to have petered out in recent weeks, the smart money was undoubtedly on those two for the drop. Even West Ham, with only a three point gap to the relegation zone, were sitting relatively comfortably thanks to the Tigers’ and Clarets’ inability to plug their slightly leaky defences.
Yet there was still much to play for: whilst there was still a chance of a Fulham-esque comeback the likes of which hasn’t been seen since, well, last week at the DW, this matchup remained a somewhat vital fixture. More so for West Ham than Wigan, but credit to our lads, we actually set out to get the result rather than sit back and settle for a point which, before this weekend, I would have readily settled for.
You could argue the balance of play suggested an honourable draw, and I tend to think 3-3 would have been a fairer reflection of the game as a whole. In truth, it was an afternoon littered with defensive cock-ups tempered by a good measure of attacking football, but this at the very least made for an engaging and evenly matched contest at Upton Park. Funny how sometimes the games between so-called ‘inferior’ teams can far outshine those played contested by the big money big hitters at the other end of the table. By which I mean ‘up there’, the dizzying heights little Wigan couldn’t ever even dream of hitting.
Wigan got off to a dream start when a threatening corner from Ben Watson somehow found its way into the West Ham net. As the Latics players wheeled away to celebrate, it was quickly apparent none of them had actually got anywhere near the ball and a spectacular miskick from Hammers defender Spector had somehow contrived to find its way past Robert Green. An own goal. How we would have killed for one of those in many games this season; the irony is mildly astounding.
Just minutes later, West Ham were down the other end of the field and forcing Caldwell to clear off his own goal line. Carlton Cole, who caused the Latics defence problems all through the first half, stormed his way through our centre halves as if they weren’t there. It almost seemed as though the big Scot was struggling to find his feet in the first team after a three-match absence, but that would be an unfair criticism, especially considering the biggest frontman we’ve had to deal with this season has been Peter Crouch. Actually, that argument is pretty moot, so we shall swiftly move on.
Chris Kirkland played most of the game looking like a Batman villain
During the same incident, Chris Kirkland sustained what looked like a nasty injury. When he goes down, more often than not his back has been put out of joint again, and with only the calamitous Stojkovic on the bench for Latics, things were not looking too good. Kirkland lay almost motionless as he was tended to for five minutes, after which he gingerly walked over to his net for a drink of water. The problem, it seemed, was not Kirky’s troublesome back, but a rather large cut that had opened up by the side of his mouth, a gash the paramedics took the time to presumably stitch up there and then.
As of the time of writing, no official confirmation is available as to the extent of Kirkland’s injury, though I guess we can expect him back on Bank Holiday Monday for the clash with Hull. Heck, considering he played eighty minutes looking like Two Face out of Batman we can probably expect him to play with one arm.
James McCarthy forced a good save from Green on the half hour mark
The Caldwell goal-line clearance would be a precursor to some of the defensive problems Latics would experience later in the game, and especially when Ilan, the bloke named after a Lotus, easily side footed past the Wigan keeper from a Cole cross on 31 minutes. Oh dear.
Still, you could say it was an apt reflection of the game going into half time… except not quite. On the stroke of the break, Cole earned a free kick on the edge of the visitors’ box. Noble’s free kick brought about a palm away from Kirkland, the ball fell straight to Nico Kovac for an easy goal. You could say it was slightly fortuitous, but had the Wigan keeper and Caldwell communicated better, perhaps the former would have parried the ball to safety and the half time whistle.
As it was, Caldwell seemed to get in Kirkland’s way as he dived to his right. Defensive error or bad luck? A bit of both, I would say. Whatever, Wigan were somehow 2-1 down going into half time.
But things were back on level terms on 52 minutes. Following a spell of pressure on the West Ham goal, Wigan earned a corner, and again, Watson only had to put the ball somewhere near the middle of the Hammers goal to cause problems. This time, they were spared the blushes of putting through their own net as the ball found its way in off Hugo Rodallega’s thigh. It wasn’t much of a consolation to the home side, who were now becoming very tense as Wigan wrested some control of the game, and not for the first time.
Victor Moses was introduced for Moreno on 38 minutes
The next 25 minutes or so were relatively uneventful, a looping Kovac header that rebounded off the top of the crossbar the closest anyone would come to breaking the deadlock. Then, on 77 minutes, a failure to close down Scott ‘I hate Wigan’ Parker led to the ultimate embarrassment – conceding a goal from the little so-and-so from thirty yards.
We’ll let the defence off, however, as nineteen times out of twenty, Parker’s strike would have sailed out of the stadium and halfway across London. Still, it wasn’t an isolated incident, so there is much to work on.
Wigan really were beginning to make heavy weather of things. Though the visitors pushed for another equaliser, the closest we even came to threatening was via a Titus Bramble 60-yard attempt that actually only flew a few yards over the bar. Actually, if that went in I think I would have had to eat not only my hat, but my socks and (Rodallega’s?) gloves as well.
Never mind, though, as safety for both teams is all but assured as Hull lost 1-0 to Sunderland. Of those in the bottom three, only Burnley can now catch us, but that would require them winning three out of three. In truth, I’d be surprised if they even won one of their remaining fixtures, so, on behalf of myself you can allow yourself a sigh of relief this weekend. Yes, it’s another defeat in a game we could and really should have got something from, but did you really expect us to? I mean, we haven’t won two Premier League games in a row since 1872.
Next stop the DW Stadium, and a warmup for the ‘big’ game with Chelski on the 9th May. Will there be collusion? Or will Latics rob them of the title? I think I, and certain a other north-west based group of fans would definitely prefer the latter. We shall see what happens there, but for now, settle down to watch Burnley get beaten by Liverpool to ensure our mathematical safety.
Little Wigan, Premier League for a sixth season. Who’d have thought it?