Latics ensured their Premier League survival with a significant away win, only their fourth of the season but arguably the most decisive. The tension and nerves of last week’s classic encounter with West Ham were simply hors d’oeuvres for today’s main course, which predictably proved nigh on indigestible for great periods. But did Martinez’s side get their just desserts for a season of toil at the foot of the table?
At half time, prospects for survival weren’t looking too great. Outmuscled and outplayed in all areas of the park, the visitors couldn’t string together two passes to save their Premier League life and only Momo Diame managed to even get a (misdirected) shot away. Their hosts could easily have scored from any of Rory Delap’s thunderbolt throw-ins, and managed to scramble the ball over Wigan’s goal line on one occasion. Thankfully for Latics, Jonathan Walters was standing right in front of Al Habsi and in an offside position when Kenwyne Jones’s header hit the back of the net. Wigan collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief, but there was more to come.
Wigan Player of the Season Ali Al Habsi was in commanding form, producing two fantastic saves to deny Jones then Pennant, and controlling the six-yard area with some authority. Emmerson Boyce, too, took charge to clear yet another Jones effort off the goal line in spectacular fashion. Each of their team-mates, by contrast, was visibly nervous and could count themselves lucky not to be a goal (or two) down going into the break.
News of other scores filtered through to the visiting fans, who learned not much had changed from 45 minutes earlier – though a point would give their side a chance of survival, a win would more than likely be sufficient. One last fighting half of football would still be enough to grab the club a place in England’s top flight for 2011-12.
I’m not sure what Martinez said to the boys during that half time interval, but it seemed to have some effect. His team began the second stanza with more enthusiasm, producing their best attacking move of the game within seconds of the restart. Though the goalmouth was not threatened on this occasion, it signalled the visitors’ intent – they weren’t about to sit back and let other teams do the job for them. Latics continued to press, and Charles N’Zogbia worked his way into a great position before skying the ball over the bar from just inside the area. After a dismal first 45, there were now signs that Latics could get what would surely be an all-important goal.
Conor Sammon, one of the heroes of last Sunday, got away his side’s best effort yet only to be almost immediately replaced by Tom Cleverley, the very man he had ousted from the Latics starting XI. The Man United loanee was in the action right away, sprinting into the Stoke area and threatening the opposition goalmouth with his very first touches of the ball. Wigan were beginning to look a bit more like their usual selves, wresting significant periods of possession and now seemingly the more likely to score.
As if the tension needed cranking even higher, the visitors survived a penalty appeal from Kenwyne Jones, who seemed to be fouled by Antolin Alcaraz, but the referee was having none of it. Wigan were actually experiencing a better run of the ball since the break, and again Andre Marriner ruled in favour of the relegation battlers just when they really needed him to.
Then, on 78 minutes, Figueroa stormed into the Stoke 18-yard box and chipped an inch perfect ball onto the head of a waiting Rodallega. The Colombian succeeded in steering the ball past Begovic for a rare headed goal this campaign, and my goodness was it important. Hugo wheeled away to celebrate with his team mates in front of a delighted visiting faithful. The chants began to ring out, “we are staying up”, but it wasn’t over yet.
Cue a Stoke siege of the Wigan goal. If you thought the final ten minutes of last week’s corker went relatively slowly, that was nothing compared to the proverbial treacle through which the players were trudging in the equivalent period today. Wigan fans were helped, though, by the knowledge that a goal for Tottenham at White Hart Lane would probably prove enough as the game at the Britannia entered its final throes.
There was an audible groan when the fourth official signalled an astounding five minutes of injury time, to be replaced by rapturous applause for Charles N’Zogbia, who was withdrawn with less than 90 seconds to play. Was this his final game in a Wigan shirt? Whatever the case, it was a more than deserved reception for the Frenchman, whose performances this season have undoubtedly ensured Latics’ survival.
When it became apparent Birmingham had gone 2-1 down at White Hart Lane, it was party time. With Blackpool also losing 4-2 at Old Trafford, Wigan played out the final seconds in the knowledge it would take two Stoke goals to relegate them now. Even better, a win on the road ensures a greater points tally than last year, even if we have only matched our position in the table from that campaign.
Just two months ago, Latics sat bottom of the Barclays Premier League, struggling to score and just about hanging on in there with a shaky defence liable to break at any time. Whilst some things haven’t changed, the vital statistic is that Wigan Athletic managed to keep out the Potters for 90 minutes and get the job done. It was just the time to pull out successive wins under Martinez, though the road hasn’t half been rocky. I have to admit I have been rather pessimistic of late, even through some greatly improved performances by a rejuvenated Latics team, but how glad I am the boys proved me wrong.
Hard lines to Birmingham and Blackpool, who pushed it all the way to the final minutes of the season; the former deservedly won the Carling Cup whilst the latter gave a magnificent account of themselves in England’s higher echelons. But here’s to another year in the Premier League for Latics, and hopefully a European place! After all, if Stoke and Birmingham could do it, then why can’t Wigan?