The Pie Dome, Robin Park, Wigan
The older generation often speak of games that live long in their memory, untinged by the passage of years. The younger generation generally speak of Big Brother, but we’re not here to offer damning indictments of society, at least not today. In the spirit of the very manager that guided Wigan to this competition, I shall almost exclusively discuss positive matters, give or take the odd leather-smacking session. Hey, it’s only right to acknowledge the tactical mastermind watching from the stands yesterday evening… namely Owen Coyle.
That previous comment may or may not have been in jest, but what about that alcohol, eh? Nasty stuff that turns your insides brown, so it’s a good job they weren’t selling it at the squeaky-clean, sponsorship-free Wigan Athletic Stadium. Bit of a hurriedly-chosen name, that – would have preferred the Pie Dome or at the very least the DeeDub. Incidentally, Mr Whelan, you owe me royalties if you ever adopt that moniker to break into the rap music industry.
It seems the trappings of a European tie truly inspired Wigan fan and player alike. The eleven men in blue and white ont’ pitch settled into a comfortable passing game very quickly, and only part-time Disney princess Jasmin Handanovic prevented them capitalising upon this in the first ten minutes. But after he expertly deflected Nick Powell’s toe-poke wide of the post, the sometime Slovenian international would magically transform into a Jafar-esque supervillain.
Thanks to a volleyball punch almost as comical as his name, Handanovic gifted Powell a straightforward 5-yard header home. I am sure the vast majority of spectators did not cheer, rather roar with laughter as Powell hurriedly scribbled his name into the pub quiz books of years to come. And before you accuse me of being harsh, any inclination to blame Handanovic’s aberration on the slightly damp conditions is completely banished by his decidedly dodgy performance in what remained of the contest. Yeah.
At least the Maribor travelling support, who were heartily vociferous from start to finish, appeared to be enjoying their evening. They even joined in the celebrations when Ben Watson doubled the hosts’ advantage, nodding home Beausejour’s keeper-befuddling ball from the left. Surely Europe was supposed to be more difficult than this?
From there until their half-time standing ovation, Wigan proceeded to utilise Maribor as a mellow yellow floor cleaning implement, and nobody quite knows how they did not score again in the next twelve minutes. Not even Powell, who, latching onto another Maribor defensive error, cleared the crossbar by less than a foot. Not even McManaman, who, storming past two defenders, slid one mere inches wide of the post.
Who *is* that man? Graeme Jones, maybe?
That seemingly inevitable third goal continued to elude the home side into the second half. Powell, who could by now have conceivably pinched himself a relatively simple hat-trick, saw his latest effort spin off the inside of the post to be booted way into the South Stand by a relieved defender. It had been back-breakingly difficult work for the accident-prone Purples, but they were to be handed a welcome reprieve.
Jean-Philippe Mendy, possibly the only Maribor player to emerge with any credit thus far, would help create an opening for the surprisingly pronounceable Marcos Tavares to side-foot home with great ease. Hey, wait! This game was supposed to be over, you little rascals!
Whether it was that Maribor finally conjured some decent football or that Wigan’s fuel had been replaced with non-alcoholic beer, this was somehow a contest once more. Surely Europe was supposed to be easier than this?
But Latics kept stretching a ball-pilfering foot –almost literally in the case of Beausejour, who performed a goal-saving last gasp lunge– to thwart their opponents. The criminally underworked Scott Carson would also recover from a knock to push Tavares’ last-minute thunderbolt past his left hand post. Way to mark your first real save of the game, Carse!
Some 45 minutes later than expected, the third and killer goal finally arrived. And you have no idea how hard it was for me to finish that sentence without making some sarcastic comment about public transport. But Nick Powell eventually had his second, skipping past three defenders before wrongfooting the keeper and placing the ball into the centre of the goal. The net billowed to signal a glorious and well-deserved three European group stage points, which are like Nectar points but infinitely more valuable and without the hassle of wasting wallet space on a piece of plastic.
Wannabe centre forward Barnett almost added a fourth, but that his breakaway strike was cleared from the line does not matter – at least for those who chose not to bet on a 4-1 scoreline. This Europe stuff’s brilliant, i’nt it?