If you reckoned nothing could top Wigan-West Ham, then the almost excruciating events of yesterday may well force you to rethink. It wasn’t a classic game of football by any means, and by pure footballing standards it was relatively tame in comparison. In football, however, context is everything, and you’d have been a fool to ignore the connotations of a Latics win.
Ultimately, the final day survival battle came down to quality of opposition – even though Blackpool and Birmingham put in the expected spirited performances, it is extremely difficult to go to a top-of-the-table club and snatch three points. Granted, on another, less crucial day, a draw would not have been out of the question for Birmingham in particular. They were unlucky to concede a superb effort late on, but their hands were forced by scorelines elsewhere. Sure, Tottenham dominated for large chunks of the game, but just like against us way back in August of last year, didn’t make that count. Birmingham almost seized their opportunity and can count themselves a tad unlucky that Blackburn weren’t quite the force in their second half against Wolves.
Of the relegated bosses, it is Alex McLeish I feel most sorry for. Avram Grant may be out of a job but he hasn’t overseen a four-year transformation of fortunes in quite the same way as the Scotsman. Besides, I’m sure he’ll be back, as will West Ham. Ian Holloway always knew he was up against it and the really hard stuff began in earnest after Christmas when wins for Blackpool were almost as rare as a Mauro Boselli shot on target. When things were looking ominous, it was unfortunate his attacking style of play came back to bite him in the bottom.
Post-game, McLeish looked absolutely devastated on Match of the Day, more so than Grant or Holloway, who took it all in his stride. When it really mattered, injuries to crucial players took their toll on Birmingham. The fantastic European-challenging season of 2009/10 (well, almost) must seem an awful long time ago now, but under McLeish there is always the chance of his side propelling itself back into the Prem at the first opportunity. They have the support and, I believe, the manager to do it.
I’m always on shaky ground when commenting on other teams because I do not feel fully qualified to do so. As a Latics fan I am almost entirely blinkered and prone to systematic bias which has, in the past, induced many an angry comment from fans of other teams. Personally, I do get quite annoyed when so-called ‘journalists’ publish poorly-researched articles on teams they haven’t the first idea about. Wigan seems to be a favourite of the press in this regard, but I’m sure it’s the same for other clubs, so guys, feel free to put me right on any issue of your clubs’ situations.
I can’t pretend to know the full extent of the other teams’ relegation plights, though I will say I have seen some defending far clumsier than our own from teams that haven’t gone down. As has been reiterated on many an occasion, those that dropped to the Championship were unlucky to have lost out in one of the closest relegation battles I’ve ever witnessed. Eighth-placed Fulham finished just ten points off the relegation places and, much like last season, any team from about seventh place downwards could easily have beaten any of the others. Unlike last campaign, however, there weren’t any nailed-on fall guys that looked to be going down from day one. Well, except Wigan, of course, and we all know how incorrect that proved to be.
Though the win against Stoke proved massive, one must also look at the games against teams around us in the table. Victories over Blackburn, Wolves (twice), Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham were integral to our survival and I guess you have to concede we pulled out the victories when they really mattered. Of course, two of them —Birmingham and West Ham at home– came in rather fortunate fashion in the very last minute, but you could say we deserved a bit of luck after our increasingly pleasing performances. It makes up for Coloccini’s last minute equaliser away at Newcastle, Gohouri’s goal erroneously ruled out for offside at West Ham (which could have been important in the grand scheme of things) and so on. It’s that old footballing adage that everything evens itself out eventually.
Wigan Athletic’s top flight adventure will continue for at least another season, and after the celebrations will come the serious business of hiring and firing. And selling. It’s pretty much odds on that Charles N’Zogbia will depart during the summer, the question is to whom and for how much? Elsewhere, I’d think we have a good chance of holding on to Ali Al Habsi, albeit for around £5million. I think it would be worth it, however, for a player with proper Premier League experience and a Player of the Season under his belt. Jeez, famous last words, eh? As for the others involved in speculation (McCarthy to Liverpool? Rodallega to Villa?), who knows what might transpire in the coming months. Whatever happens, we can look forward to Premier League football at the DW Stadium commencing this August. I already can’t wait!