"That time of the year already?"
After such a heart-stopping spring, we’ll all have been grateful of three months’ rest and relaxation. I know I certainly was, but the new season is almost here and it’s time to dig out the old scarf and Thermos for another hard-fought campaign. At the moment, I’m slightly apprehensive, but I’m sure this Sunday’s contest with La Liga’s Villarreal will blow out the cobwebs with the force of an Alex Ferguson hairdryer. It isn’t likely to be easy – the Yellow Submarine (not to be confused with Swindon Supermarine) completed the 2010-11 season in 4th ahead of Athletico Madrid, Espanyol and our conquerors of last pre-season, Zaragoza.
Roberto has once again been working his European contacts to attract a high-profile Spanish side to the DW for Wigan’s final pre-season friendly, but when you delve a bit deeper, the two teams are more closely related than one may initially think. Not in terms of success, mind, for Latics could only dream of a place in the Champions League play-offs, but in terms of size. Villarreal has never been the most fashionable of clubs, at least not with the Spanish national press, and as such has slipped under the radar to a certain extent. What’s more, the 25,000-capacity Estadio El Madrigal, where the Valencian team play their home games, may draw comparison with a certain multi-purpose sports stadium in south Lancashire. And I’m not talking about the Reebok. Or Prenton Park. But you got the idea, and now I’m being picky.
Thus, you could argue it is fitting for the two teams to share a football field, even if only for a friendly. Villarreal will, however, provide a stern test for a still-rusty Latics, whose squad members will be squabbling for a starting berth against Norwich a week on Saturday. Of course, we mustn’t forget the overriding goal here – a win on Sunday would be fantastic, but getting our Premier League season off to a winning start would be even better.
There is, as ever, great hope that further progress will be made as Martinez looks, in his own words, to build upon the base he has created. With the dismal start to last season still fresh in everyone’s minds, however, Latics’ feet will be firmly planted upon planet Earth while such superstars as Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney continue to ply their trade on a playing field in Wigan. I know, it still seems a bit strange, but the DW Stadium shall once again play host to a selection of Europe’s finest as Latics bid to improve on their highest Premier League finish of 10th, achieved in 2005-06. Will this happen? Well, the realist in me bellows a firm ‘no’, but not even the Wigan public would have predicted a top-10 finish in our first Premier League season.
Off the back of a momentous First Division campaign, Paul Jewell’s Wigan almost held Chelsea to a highly admirable draw as their top-flight adventure began in earnest six years ago. A full house of 25,000 contributed to an atmosphere never before seen at the JJB Stadium, and continued vociferous support propelled Latics to unimaginable heights, including a Carling Cup final.
From our own achievements we can learn two lessons. Firstly, the full backing of the town of Wigan can and will spur the side on to greater things, and with a reported 11,000 season tickets already sold, the ‘missing’ fans seem to be trickling back. Secondly, however, one will do well to beware the newly-promoted Canaries and Swans (I swear there’s a joke in there somewhere), whose confidence will be majorly inflated by successful Championship seasons. It shall be almost as tough a test as Arsenal or Manchester United, so we should set out to play as if we were facing Champions League opposition. This, my friends, is why I believe Villarreal is an excellent choice of friendly, one which will stand us in great stead for the challenges ahead.