To relieve some pre-Wembley tension, I took a walk round Wigan town centre on Friday lunchtime. Far from taking my mind off the game, the scarf sellers bellowing ‘get yer Latics flags ‘ere!’ from every street corner only served to remind me how dear the Wigan public hold a Wembley away day to their hearts.
Of course, those vendors probably drew the short straw and would have preferred to pitch up in Manchester city centre for the day, but their very presence in our humble town is heart-warming. They did no good for my clenching buttocks or blood pressure, but true to my word in this week’s Evening Post 12th Man, I resolved to wallow in cup fever as I headed down New Market Street towards the bus station. Because you never know when you’re going to get another chance of Wembley glory.
The last time I felt so excited was on Christmas morning as a kid. Although a couple of highly significant Charles N’Zogbia goals have come close in the past few years, this topped the lot. And the game wasn’t for hours yet! There were a bunch of Prem games to be played, but that competition might as well have been cancelled for all we cared. The task was simple: ninety minutes for a place in the final of the world’s most prestigious domestic cup competition.
Alright, I had to get all that clichéd, tabloid-esque stuff out of the way because it’s tough not to be swept up in the fervour. Even for a cynical soul such as myself, it’s pretty damn exciting. But the instant Michael Oliver blew his whistle at 5.15pm, the tension dissipated and the game was underway just like any other Saturday. Except this was the cup semi final! OK, forgive me for repeating that again.
Is this just fantasy?
Look, it says Wembley Stadium there. It’s *definitely* Wembley Stadium.
Much to the Wigan supporters’ delight, the game quickly settled into an anticipated rhythm with Latics patiently holding the ball and waiting for openings. Hey, why change a winning formula? Of those who took to the pitch at QPR, only Joel Robles missed out as fit-again Ali Al Habsi regained his position between the sticks. Of Wembley. Ahh, it still sends shivers down my spine to say that!
Callum McManaman was first to work David Forde, drawing a smart save from mid-range on 13 minutes. The Lions keeper’s credentials were subject to further examination by a threatening Arouna Kone, and though the Irishman passed this particular assignment, tougher tests were yet to come.
Sure enough, Millwall’s resistance would soon be broken by the expert combination of Kone and Maloney. Wigan’s leading goalscorer powered his way down the right, centring a perfect cross for the Scotland international to slot under Forde with a wonderful first touch for his second goal in as many games. And didn’t 21,000 excited Wiganers know it.
Provoked into action, the London side attempted to claw back that deficit but found themselves stymied by the opposition’s controlling play. Though they earned themselves a fair number of set pieces and corners in the first half, it is difficult to pinpoint a time when Al Habsi had anything to do. Andy Keogh (2mins), James Henry(11mins) both saw misdirected efforts fly wide of the target in a difficult first half.
Momentarily, another commendable passing move almost concluded with a superb Jordi Gomez goal, but Forde was once again on hand to repel the danger with an equally brilliant save and deny the men in red a cushion going into the break.
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Purple patch: Shaun Maloney
Wigan’s onslaught continued into the second period. McManaman skipped his way past numerous defenders on his way into the Millwall area, but could not find the finish to double his side’s lead from a narrow(ish) angle. He was getting closer, however, and one felt it was written that the man so vilified by certain sections of the mainstream media would have a say in the outcome of this FA Cup Semi Final.
First there was the small matter of a Millwall fightback. The nominated away side soon found themselves forced into a series of poor passes as the Lions increased the pressure on Al Habsi’s goalmouth. The tension kicked up a notch as the game entered its final 30 minutes, which just so happened to be the point at which Jackett’s side decided to really go for it.
The Lions earned a succession of corners to test Wigan’s defensive mettle. Paul Scharner looked a might unsure as he scrambled to clear over his own crossbar, and the Millwall fans could really sense something brewing – this was their side’s best spell of the game.
Wigan soon regained their composure, however, and were on the brink of finishing the job when Jordi Gomez narrowly failed to hit the target from close range. Unlucky not to score on the afternoon, the Spaniard was to turn provider for the clinching goal. Care to guess who scored it? Yep, your friend and the media’s, Callum Mac.
It was a wonderfully waited and weighted ball that set up McManaman for an unmissable opportunity. Watching replays brought a tear to my eye, not only for the quality of the move but out of joy for the man subject to so much hatred in recent times. Perhaps now opinions might change and McManaman can etch his name in stone for the right reasons, because –say it out loud– Latics are through to the FA Cup Final. Macca winning goal, anyone?
Wembley, here we come! Err, again.
“For Wigan, Roberto.” “For England, James.”
There were ten more minutes to play, but thanks to some solid punching from Al Habsi, Millwall could not make an impression and those remaining moments verily flew by. Ahh, it might have also been something to do with the great sing-along that did not stop until that (inaudible) final whistle, certainly a memory to savour.
So that’s the dry truth. Join me later in the week when my big Wembley hangover has subsided for a considerably more emotional view of proceedings once the enormity of this situation begins to sink in. As yet it has not but I’ve been back in Wigan less than 12 hours and thus far it feels like any other Sunday morning. Except that Latics are in the FA Cup Final, which is nice.
Click here for the Wembley road trip in pics!
Lead image of Wembley courtesy Jazza5 @ Wikipedia (CC3.0). Wembley Park stand pic courtesy Wembley Park at Wikipedia (CC3.0).