Remember that Saturday evening television show Gladiators? The one with John Fashanu in a ‘trendy’ deep blue blazer and a bunch of unrealistically muscular types employed specifically to beat up members of the public? Then you may remember The Wall – no, not the Pink Floyd album (though it would have been fantastic for Wolf to have performed a full-costume rendition of ‘In the Flesh’), but that event in which contenders would race to the top of a specially-constructed climbing wall. Well, if the Wigan survival fight were equated to a typical staging of said event, we would be the weedy little guy clinging on valiantly, constantly battling their own deficiencies but determined to make at least some progress. Opponents are faltering and squabbling amongst themselves, winding each other up as they step in each others’ footholds, but Wigan are still there, in with a chance to pounce should the moment arise.
With their nearest competitors not in Premier League action, this weekend posed an opportunity for Latics to pull themselves ahead of the relegation zone and ease some of the pressure of an intense bottom-of-the-table fistfight, at least temporarily. In a bid to inject some attacking impetus, Shaun Maloney was drafted into the first XI ahead of the out-of sorts Jordi Gomez. The Scot’s exemplary second half performance against Norwich was more than enough to oust the Spaniard, and boy did he make an impact on Saturday; Martinez’s change was fully justified as Maloney turned in a sterling man of the match performance. He was instrumental in much of Wigan’s early forward play, and the opening 240 seconds of the game saw three Franco Di Santo attempts on the West Brom goal, while Emmerson Boyce would have two further chances in the next ten minutes – one of which cannoned into Ben Foster’s crossbar.
After an almost relentless first 20 minutes, West Brom had successfully soaked up all pressure and were now able to start making their own in-roads. Gareth McAuley headed wide of Al Habsi’s goal from a Brunt cross, and the visitors looked to be just about settling into the game. But Wigan experienced a second wind towards the back end of the half, unsettling the Baggies defensive line on a further four or five occasions. James McCarthy, battered and bruised from a bit of physical ‘treatment’ (of the truly Gladiatorial kind) throughout the first half, rattled the North Stand bar via Foster’s fingertips, but the West Brom clean sheet remained intact even after wave upon wave of Wigan attacks.
The breakthrough for Latics finally came on 53 minutes. Victor Moses cut into the West Brom box close to the byline and delivered a threatening cross, which rebounded off a limb or two before settling in the back of the net. James McArthur was Johnny-on-the-spot to stick the ball away at the near post and Wigan went into a deserved 1-0 lead, albeit in slightly scrappy fashion.
A second period of possession for the visitors ensued. Once the team looking to score on the break, they were the new aggressors, starting to build some pressure on Al Habsi’s goal. The ball deflected off Boyce’s leg for another corner to be delivered by Chris Brunt, and… guess who was on hand to haunt his old club? That’s right, it’s O Scharner. I call him that because it seems I spent the vast majority of the 2009/10 season exclaiming “oh, Scharner” followed by a torrent of expletives, or at least a mixed oath or two. The ball landed perfectly on the Austrian’s head for him to beat Al Habsi at the far post, causing me to utter those horrible words once more. Wigan’s inability to defend a lead was again exposed, and with Albion now looking better in the final third, we were set for 25 minutes of madcap action as both sides scrambled for the points.
Wigan, in greater need of a win, would have to find another goal before the match was out or risk extending their run of home games without a win to who knows how many months. Things were a bit twitchy at first, however, and the temperature began to rise as Boyce, Jerome Thomas and Youssuf Mulumbu became embroiled in a bit of a barney in the centre of the pitch. Following a particularly intense passage of play, James McCarthur must have done or said something to annoy Mulumbu, who completely lost his cool and seemed to aim a punch, or at least a pimp slap, at the startled Scot. An ugly large-scale brawl ensued and Thomas could be described as attempting to strangle Boyce, who, from what I could see, was only trying to break things up. Of course, I would say that because I’m a Laticsman, but the important men (and uh, woman) decided such actions were only worthy of yellow cards for each of the competitors. Huh, I tend to think John Anderson would have taken a much harder line and awarded at least one red card – this isn’t rugby, after all. Michael Oliver, you just lost your chance to referee in a Gladiators comeback.
After that performance, both sides were now competing for the points. As time passed, however, Wigan enjoyed more and more possession and as the final ten minutes arrived, they looked the more likely to score. West Brom were always there, getting away the odd shot on the break, but suffered from much the same problem as their opponents, except to not quite the same extent – they couldn’t finish. It was Wigan who created the better chances to win the game, which they almost did with but minutes remaining. All attacks were focused down the left channel, and Jean Beausejour was seeing more of the ball than a contestant running the Danger Zone. (Yeah, it’s another Gladiators event.)
Sub Momo Diame had a golden chance to make it 2-1 and surely win the game for his side (sound familiar?), but only succeeded in hitting the post when presented with a snap-shot chance just feet from Ben Foster’s goal line. The ball was cleared, and Wigan were guilty of missing another magnificent opportunity. Before the 94 minutes were up, Wigan would hit the woodwork again –the fourth time in the game– via the leg of a scrambling defender, but the ball just would not cross that goal line. I swear, Wigan would be a mid-table side if they had someone that could actually finish, someone with the confidence to put the ball away… an attacker, perchance?
On the whole, it was a decent performance that probably deserved more. It’s ultimately frustrating as there’s some real quality at times, and it certainly doesn’t seem as though we’re playing like a team at the foot of the table. A point moves us level on points with Wolves and QPR, and with a bit of luck we could be off the bottom without kicking a ball – a 2-0 Wolves loss against Man United would drop them down a place to rock bottom. Bolton and Blackburn play Tuesday while QPR are in action on Wednesday, however, so Latics fans will be crossing their fingers we don’t lose too much ground in this round of Premier League games.
Next comes the Month of Truth: the next five fixtures are Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal. If Wigan are still clinging onto the wall after clashes with the Premier League’s most formidable Gladiators, we can be nothing but pleased.
- This post has been held over to Sunday as a mark of respect to Fabrice Muamba.