When we sit and look back upon Latics’ spell in the Premiership, whether it be a period of six years or longer, there will be certain encounters that really stand out. Games you can be proud to say “I was there,” moments that will stay with you forever – Charlie’s winner against Arsenal last year, Hugo’s smash and grab job at Tottenham earlier this season. I’d be willing to place a bet that Sunday’s game will certainly come high on the list, if not for the relative lack of real memorable moments this campaign, then for sheer drama created by the importance of a win in this situation.
In some ways, it was reminiscent of Wigan’s win over Burnley towards the end of last season thanks to Hugo Rodallega’s late, late show in what was, at the time, a rather important clash. As a whole, however, Wigan v West Ham 2010-11 was actually nothing like that game. For one, the quality of football was a bit higher (well, for the most part), and a total of five goals will be more than enough to satisfy a neutral. Add into the equation a (wholly necessary) ‘do or die’ attitude on the part of both teams and you have a fantastic game that will go down in Premier League history as a classic relegation battle.
You wouldn’t have been able to predict at half time, however, the events which would transpire between 5.00 and 6.00pm that afternoon. West Ham led 2-0 thanks to a Demba Ba headed brace, and as it was announced over the tannoy that fellow relegation-battlers Birmingham were 1-0 down against Fulham, everything was going to plan for the Hammers.
Whilst the visitors didn’t exactly control the first half, they were by far the better in front of goal, managing to snaffle two of the three great chances they created amid some panicky defending. Latics can count themselves unlucky not to have had one for themselves, but some wayward striking from outside the area from Cleverley and Diame greatly damaged Wigan’s shots on/off target percentage. The latter actually had a sterling game, really putting himself about, leading the charge through the first half and putting in a good defensive stint in the second – Latics were immensely glad to have him back.
Apart from the two obvious lapses in defensive concentration, Wigan played a decent first 45 in terms of possession and chances. They could have been ahead after just a minute, but thanks to Hammers goalie Rob Green, the visitors’ clean sheet remained intact. He repelled Momo Diame’s shot from eight yards to deny the Senegalese a deserved goal. From the resulting corner, Hugo Rodallega came close for Latics with just minutes remaining in the half, seeing his effort also blocked by the England keeper. The Colombian will have been forgiven for thinking it wasn’t his day as he sat there contemplating the chance he had just narrowly missed.
Recognising the blindingly obvious fact that things had to change, Roberto Martinez made a half time double substitution, a move which would prove a masterstroke. Conor Sammon and Victor Moses were introduced as Cleverley and McCarthy made way, and what a difference they would make. Combined with N’Zogbia and Rodallega, they set about attempting to cut the deficit, a seemingly impossible task, but one they had to at least try and close. I mean, one early(ish) goal might change the complexion of the whole game, and a loss for either team would relegate them to the Championship that afternoon.
The damp conditions were now starting to affect play with the number of players falling flat on their backsides starting to increase. It was of no help to Wigan, who persisted with the tried-and-tested method of keeping the ball low in midfield. Things would start to swing their way, however, as they enjoyed the odd spell of possession in opposition territory.
Latics’ prayers were answered on 57 minutes as Charles N’Zogbia curled a free kick perfectly in the right hand corner of Robert Green’s net from just outside the area. It was a very well placed, potential goal of the season strike which gave his side a sniff of a chance. The home faithful could smell West Ham’s fear, becoming ever more vociferous as their team continued to push for an equaliser. The visiting contingent, who had remained relatively cheerful throughout the first 20 minutes of the second stanza, started getting nervous for perhaps the first time. As it happened, they had every reason to be.
It was Conor Sammon who grabbed the equaliser with a fine finish low past Rob Green’s left hand on 68 minutes. His first of the season, you have to say it has been threatening for some time and only prevented from coming earlier by lack of match time. What a crucial time to score, too, to put the match back in the balance at 2-2 with a little over 20 minutes to go. From thereon in, things became extremely hectic as it began to sink in that a draw for either side would not suffice. The last ten minutes were an absolute madcap scramble and seemed to last a whole half of football in themselves, the teams trading blows and shots at an incredible rate.
For a while it looked as though the Hammers would win the day, attacking with purpose and carving out some superb opportunities. Unfortunately for the visitors, they seemed to have contracted the non-finishing virus from Latics’ first half performance and could not muster a shot on goal that would trouble Al Habsi. Carlton Cole almost grabbed a late equaliser but could not steer the ball towards the Latics net, instead only succeeding in finding touch. Most of the West Ham XI had a go from 80 minutes onwards, but none could find that crucial goal to survive another week in the Premier League.
Whilst the Irons were committing eleven men to the opposition half, however, they remained susceptible to counter attacks from their hosts. Latics had an equal number of opportunities in those final minutes, and as the game ticked into stoppage time Conor Sammon saw his attempt bravely saved by Robert Green. In a chance-a-minute scenario, Wigan began to inch their way into the ascendancy, Ben Watson unlucky not to have scored as he saw his shot rebound off the post and into Green’s waiting arms.
Then came the game winner, or loser, depending on your allegiance. The final minute of the game. Charles N’Zogbia once again found himself in possession deep into the West Ham half directly from a rebounded Hugo Rodallega shot. The opportunity looked to have passed, but the Frenchman jinked his way into the area and took a shot right at the heart of the North Stand goal. Much to the home fans’ delight, though, the ball slid underneath Rob Green and across the goal line for what would prove to be the winner. Indeed, there were mere seconds to play and the ref blew for full time almost immediately after the game restarted.
Latics’ third and decisive goal was extremely hard on the West Ham keeper, who turned out some great saves in the first half and pulled off another couple in the second. The climactic conditions did not work in his favour this time, the slippery surface making it hard to grasp the ball as it came towards him.
The visiting faithful’s attention quickly turned to the man stood on the West Stand touchline, a man who prior to the two clubs’ last encounter six months ago was given three games to transform fortunes at the club or face the chop. Whilst he survived that particular contest, he could not last this one. Following the defeat, he was berated by West Ham followers and, just hours later, relieved of his duties for the forthcoming Championship season.
I know it will come as little consolation, but West Ham deserve a fantastic amount of credit for their efforts on Sunday. It could so easily have been their day, and but for some desperate finishing late on it could well have been so different.
From a Wigan perspective, it was a dramatic win the likes of which we don’t often see at the DW. Sure, we witnessed one just the other month against Birmingham (which could prove just as crucial), but this one seemed all the more heart-stopping for the circumstances in which it came. With another round of matches to come on Sunday, this season isn’t quite over yet, however. There is still plenty of work to do, but somehow Latics remain alive in 2010-2011. It truly would be a great escape considering our position at half time yesterday.
In six days, the hard work shall resume, but for now we should savour the win – I think we shall remember this one for a long while. Does it live up to Arsenal 2010? Yes, I think it just about does. Roll on Stoke and (hopefully) survival.