“The reason we struggled to beat any of the Big Four for so long,” spake the sage of Latics legend, “is because we gave them all too much respect.”
I can’t remember whether it was Paul ‘2 Cup Finals’ Scharner or Arjan ‘2 Big Elbows’ de Zeeuw that uttered those fabled words. Which is tantamount to blasphemy, as that single sentence drew the most positive reaction from every soul present at the Scharner-de Zeeuw Q&A evening.
Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration – Scharnie’s repeated ‘folk’ impressions of Paul Jewell evoked far greater emotion than any nuggets of genuine footballing wisdom. But that golden titbit about Latics’ failure to scrape even a measly point from Fergie United and co. evidently flicked a mental light switch in 200 Ticsmen (and Ticswomen).
Instant flashback to 2012.
When Shaun Maloney rippled the inside of David de Gea’s netting, seven years of buttcheek-aching turmoil suddenly seemed far less significant. ‘Beat Manchester United’ was the only item remaining on Wigan’s Premier League bucket list, and they could now accept relegation – whenever that might come – content in the knowledge that they had achieved everything they legally could from their top flight adventure.
At that time, Wigan Athletic feared no man, team or beast underneath the (heavily punctured) Ozone layer. No longer were they an anonymous mint ball mining town known only as ‘that team Man United play twice a season’. No longer were they like priests lost in the women’s lingerie section of a large department store.
Ahh, I miss Father Ted.
You can come back to the present now. *Clicks fingers*
Perhaps it was the fact this was *just* a friendly. Granted, a friendly played out in front of 15,000 immediate spectators and (probably) upwards of a kerspillion on television stations from Preston to Prestwick to Phnom Penh to Sealand (see AGL12).
But this factory reset set of ‘brave’ ‘new’ Wigan Athletic troopers were every bit as fearless as their proud FA Cup-destroying predecessors.
Don’t get me wrong, Latics’ newbies were mostly to completely outplayed this afternoon, but pure ability was always bound to be a factor the hosts couldn’t control, at least not in a single day.
The first half was competitive enough… by which I mean they just about survived alongside their international superstar counterparts.
The yes-no game
Yeah, it was a near full strength Wigan Athletic first eleven. Nope, it wasn’t quite up to speed yet.
Yeah, Jacobs smashed through that formidable United backline a couple of times. Nope, there was never anyone floating in Will Grigg 6 yard territory –not even Mr Golden Boot himself– to offer even an inquisitive toe to his crosses.
And yeah, the home side eked out a few free kicks and corners. But no, each of them was passed to non-existence with a quiet ‘I’m sorry, Mr Mourinho’.
Even the returning Ryan Taylor – today assuming the amusing moniker A Trialist – thought better of shooting first time from the edge of the area. On that particular occasion, hesitancy bought time for three flailing defenders to baulk his strike before it was even conceived. And this incident was certainly representative of the first 45 minutes.
So yeah, there was definitely no fear or desertion, only the general relaxed atmosphere of a July friendly.
Jose’s party of one
Some were more relaxed than others. On the touchline, the Special One delighted in his non-involvement with the United carnival. When asked to ‘give us a wave’, he moved only to pick his nose, then adjust his tracksuit trousers that were so tight they could have been hosiery. Evidently, there ain’t no party like an Ann Summ- er, a Jose Mourinho party.
Half time heralded the arrival of more all-stars – Ashley ‘Offside’ Young, Phil ‘Bondi Beach’ Jones, Antonio ‘Legend’ Valencia, Juan ‘Can’t Think of a Funny Nickname’ Mata… and Craig ‘Can I Play Too?’ Davies.
I don’t think Jussi Jaaskelainen was necessarily intimidated by any of those names (apart from Davies, of course), it’s just, well… his legs weren’t properly functioning yet. Like your trusty (or maybe rusty) ’74 Mini Cooper, they just need a run around the block to get going, you know? Jasker’s clearance was meant for the exciting Dan Burn, but found only the excited Mata, who gracefully awarded Will Keane a tap-in against his former club.
This was United Time.
When Andreas Pereira cleaned up Ander Herrera’s misguided strike for 2-0, the aforementioned Man U jamboree was already into its umpteenth crate of Fanta (no beer on the terraces, remember!).
At this point, the hosts would have been happy enough to introduce half a dozen academy players simply to rest ailing legs. But said reserves had been cryogenically frozen and placed in secure storage until the visit of Liverpool the following afternoon.
When more substitutions came on 72 minutes, they were a mere two in number. Nick Powell and James Barrigan, to be precise.
Maybe I’m a touch slow, or perhaps I was (Daley) blinded by dazzling hype. But it was at this moment that Wigan Athletic’s true role in this show struck me like an oversized bucket of tickertape ‘water’.
With thanks to United We Stand.
We were merely puppets. Accessories. Support clowns in the Special One circus, bolted firmly into rotten fruit-stained pillaries like grubby extras from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
In a bewildered daze, I did the unthinkable: I left five minutes early.
None of it felt real. But not the good kind of unreal, like Ben Watson had just scored a 91st minute winner in the FA Cup Final. It was a sort of ‘we’re only doing this because Mr Mourinho told us to’, and the DW Stadium was simply the venue for a Smashie and Nicey roadshow.
In that moment, football became irrelevant. I stared back through several hundred people participating in the ‘Wigan Walk’ away from the West Stand.
“Plastic Latics, Oldham call us. For the first time, I see what they mean.”
But there’s no time for philosophical contemplation, marrer!
There’s no time for anything when a second dream XI is arriving at the DW Oval for day 2 of the cricket carnival. Quick, you’ve got just 12 hours to pack your ice cream sandwiches for the second Twenty20 against Merseyside Marauders!