And so it came to pass that on Sunday, 13 May 2012, Wigan Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers would do battle on the green (well alright, slightly brown) pastures of the DW. But it wasn’t quite the crucial relegation contest many predicted and perhaps expected, what with the fate of both sides already decided. What happened there, eh? It wasn’t supposed to be like this – Latics always take it right down to the wire, pulling out their greatest battling performances on the final day to seal survival in the most exciting manner possible. It actually made a pleasant change, because it’s about time we had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy some football without the spectre of relegation hanging over us.
Yesterday, to put it simply, was a great big excuse for a party. A near-full house for Wigan’s 1500th league game, the grand unveiling of next season’s kit, the 2pm crush outside the newly-opened Sharpy’s Restaurant, the traditional end-of-season lap of honour… we haven’t seen this much activity in Wigan since they opened that Ann Summers store on Crompton Street.
Then there was the small matter of a football match. Latics have truly been in the form of their Premier League lives, blistering their way to the top of the form league with an incredible six wins in eight games. Though Wolves’ record in the equivalent eight matches is less impressive, it must be said that it takes some quality to score four goals at the Liberty Stadium and keep a clean sheet against Everton, even with nothing of real meaning left to play for. Everton will of course contest this statement with inter-city bragging rights at stake, but the point stands – that’s two decent draws for Wolves. A pity then, that they have been sure of their own relegation for some weeks now.
Wigan made one change from the lineup that won 1-0 at Blackburn on Monday night, with Adrian Lopez replacing goalscorer Antolin Alcaraz in the centre of defence. The reason for the Paraguayan’s absence is as-yet unexplained, but after such an important goal, I’d say he deserved a day off to kick back and watch his team-mates complete a third straight victory.
A relieved jubilance welcomed Latics to the pitch for their final game of the season, and the home side dominated possession in the first five minutes, a period which saw them win a corner after just ten seconds of play. But Wolves were to score with their first real attack of the game, Matt Jarvis’ fine curling finish past Al Habsi’s left hand from the right side of the penalty area spoiling the planned minute’s applause to celebrate Wigan’s 8 years in the Premier League. Couldn’t he have waited a few seconds for the clock tick over to the ninth minute? At least the travelling faithful enjoyed it immensely, and continued to be cheerful even when their side went behind on the 13 minute mark. Yes indeed, Latics were to produce another of those fantastic bursts of attacking play which yielded two goals in five minutes.
There was a sliver of fortune about Wigan’s first goal as Franco Di Flecto struck in fitting fashion – via the leg, back, side, or even backside of a defender unlucky enough to get in the way of his strike. Or maybe it just went through his legs. Whatever the case, it was Wigan Athletic’s 2000th league goal and would earn the Argentine the Latics Golden Boot 2011-12. Fun fact: at least 71% of Di Santo’s goals this campaign have come from deflections. Nah, just like the mainstream media, I made that up – he’s improved so much this last 18 months we certainly shan’t begrudge him any of his goals.
Wigan were in front two minutes later, when from a Jean Beausejour corner, Emmerson Boyce was afforded plenty of room to beat Dorus De Vries all ends up. As the ball came in from the Wigan left, Boyce leapt like a salmon (Sammon?) to emulate Antolin Alcaraz’s effort on Monday night, powering home a fantastic short-range header to complete the comeback and round off a thoroughly entertaining 15 minutes of football.
Wolves responded with a couple of efforts through Doyle and Hunt, but the hosts remained lively and Shaun Maloney was causing some trouble in the centre of midfield. On more than one occasion the Scot found himself free to run at the Wolves defence, and drew a save from De Vries just before Boyce’s goal. By contrast, though Victor Moses found himself with the ball a couple of times, he was relatively quiet and didn’t make as much impact on the right wing. Suggestions that he might already be sat on a beach in Barbados were a little cruel, but there was a touch of end-of-season syndrome about his game. Remember the same happening with Charles N’Zobgia last season?
The home side almost made it 3-1 on 27 minutes, when Franco Di Santo was only denied a short-range tap-in by a decent last-gasp block. Figueroa played the initial probing ball through to Beausejour on the left wing, whose cross was cleared wonderfully at the near post. Victor Moses also saw a shot deflected by Ronald Zubar soon after, and Franco Di Santo couldn’t direct his 38th minute header goalwards to trouble De Vries.
Though both Latics and Wolves created one or two decent half-chances towards the back end of the half, it wasn’t enough to really challenge either keeper. Wigan finished the stronger, but the score remained 2-1 going into the break at a sunny DW Stadium.
The wounded Wolves began the half with a ‘special teams’ substitution; Carl Ikeme replaced Dorus De Vries in goal on 50 minutes. Wigan would soon make their own change, Victor Moses receiving hearty applause for his season’s efforts when he was replaced by Lil’ Bert Crusat just before the hour mark. He had a part to play as Latics were still searching for goals – Franco Di Santo and Jean Beausejour fired successive strikes at Ikeme shortly after. Right on cue, Kevin Doyle would also execute his own successive shots, as if to prove Wolves weren’t about to just give up with Premier League points at stake. Al Habsi was equal to both efforts, but you just knew someone was about to make a breakthrough.
The visitors looked to commit a few more men to their attack line, but this left them vulnerable at the back, a perceived weakness that Maloney, McCarthy and Crusat all attempted to exploit with efforts in the next five minutes. With time ticking away, Wolves introduced Steven Fletcher for Ebanks-Blake, who had earlier headed over Al Habsi’s crossbar from short range. Latics also made a change up front, Di Santo making way for Hugo Rodallega, who graced the DW turf for what must surely be the final time in his 3½ year career at Wigan. Both parties were warmly applauded for their contributions this year and in seasons past.
The Colombian made an almost immediate impact in his brief 13-minute return to action for Latics, setting up Emmerson Boyce for a spectacular volley from 19 yards out. Ikeme was left with no chance as the Barbadian unleashed a vicious right-foot strike into the top corner of the South Stand goal, causing 20,000 Latics fans to raise the roof. It was the perfect goal to round off a magnificent end to the season, a right-footed finish worthy of the Outstanding Achievement Award Boyce received on the pitch before kick-off. Perhaps it spurred him on, as this was positively his most impressive attacking performance to date – if you thought Boycey’s goal against Fulham was good, wait until you see the two he scored yesterday.
With 12 minutes to play, the game wasn’t quite over yet. There was still time for Adrian Lopez to fluff his lines and gift Steven Fletcher a consolation, a throwback to the early half of the season when Wigan were making crucial defensive mistakes week in, week out. Lopez and Caldwell attempted to salvage the situation, but Fletcher bisected them perfectly to bring the game back to 3-2.
There were a few nerves when Matt Jarvis delivered a 87th minute corner deep into the Wigan area, but Ali Al Habsi took the ball quite comfortably and Latics were mere minutes away from a 15th place finish. Hugo Rodallega almost put that final bit of gloss on a solid team performance in the last minute of stoppage time, but only succeeded in jabbing the ball against the post from a relatively acute angle. It would have been a fitting send-off for Rodders, but in terms of the result, it mattered not – Michael Oliver blew for full time seconds later and the season was over. The obligatory kiddies’ pitch invasion ensued, followed by a lap of honour to celebrate the efforts of each and every player that contributed to what was arguably a pretty successful year’s football.
We shall leave any detailed analysis of the campaign for another day, but yesterday was, in a sense, Wigan Athletic’s season in microcosm; dizzying heights, reflected in Boyce’s superb volley, tempered by groan-inducing lows, represented by Adrian Lopez’s 85th minute howler. Ultimately, it ended well enough with Latics prevailing for the three points. One would have to say it was deserved, even if there was a ‘foot off the gas’ approach to defending at times – which reminds me, we’re going to need another central defender before August.
The result could have been more comfortable, as Latics created enough to be completely out of sight before the final ten minutes. As I expected, Wolves put in a better effort than Blackburn on Monday – they finished the game having won greater possession, and credit must go to Matt Jarvis for his excellent goal. Granted, that was the visitors’ only real threat in the first half, but they worked two or three great (perhaps even better) openings during the second and might have exploited one or two more end-of-season defensive lapses as the game drew to a close.
Now it’s time to party before the inevitable madness of the summer months. Who knows what the media’s ‘silly season’ might bring? Perhaps Wayne Rooney, impressed by the Martinez brand of football, will be persuaded to take a wage cut and make the short move west to Wigan? Maybe Robin van Persie will strike up a similar deal with Dave Whelan that will see him spend a year on loan at the DW? Maybe Victor Moses will make that move to Barcelona? Well perhaps not the last one, but you get the idea – much like your celebratory chips, take anything you read in the next three months with a pinch of sodium chloride.