May is the month of the football season that crystallises, give or take, a year’s work. Judgements are made on progress, or lack or it. Sometimes, however, events stop you in your tracks and make you realise why sport is, as I once heard it referred to, a glorious irrelevance.
The finale to Saturday’s FA Cup final was one such moment. Wigan Athletic, from a town of fewer than 100,000 people, and with one of rugby league’s most famous clubs dominating the local sporting landscape until a decade ago, won their first major honour against the odds with a team modestly assembled by a bright and thoughtful manager with a deep affection for the club.
I remember seeing Roberto Martinez playing for Wigan in a televised FA Cup tie. It was 1995, and Wigan were the fall guys – or so the cameras hoped – at non league Runcorn. Such nights clearly didn’t put off a Spaniard who was very much the exception to the rule as a foreign player in the lower divisions 18 years ago, and it could hardly have provided a greater contrast to the surroundings of Wigan’s greatest result. Yet Martinez and chairman Dave Whelan are the constants in both situations.
The bond was clearly made when Martinez played at Wigan for the first six seasons after Whelan took over. Now, with Whelan’s backing having driven Wigan to the Premier League, Martinez has delivered an emotional FA Cup triumph to a man who was carried off in the 1960 final when playing for Blackburn Rovers. Ben Watson’s goal will cushion that memory, and it strengthened the feeling that the Wigan boss could be a man in demand this summer.
He became the third Roberto to win the FA Cup in successive seasons, after Mancini and Di Matteo, but the difference is Martinez’s stock, even if Wigan go down, is rising. The style of his team is pleasing on the eye, and he’s not working with the telephone number budgets afforded to the out of work Di Matteo, and to Mancini, who may soon be in the same boat. With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes’ move from Everton to Old Trafford, there’s significant change coming for some of the longest serving managers. A switch for Martinez could mean four men losing their places in the current top ten.
Back in the world where Martinez started his association with Wigan, it’s crunch time for those players out of contract at the end of the season. Typically, contracts run until June 30th, but with only the play-off finals remaining, most clubs have told their squads who is getting the offer of a new deal.
Decisions by Fleetwood, Oxford and Rochdale to release 12 players each show how brutal a time this can be, and it’s not unreasonable to think there will be over 400 players looking for a club this summer. All face decisions which could involve less money, a lower grade of football, a geographical move, or even all three just to keep playing. Not all of them will get fixed up. It’s not an enviable time.
Wigan, though, are the story of the moment. Their Wembley win was not a fluke. On the balance of the game, the result was deserved, even if you wondered where they might find a goal from. Many a team has won a match with one good set piece, and the timing could hardly have been better.
It means European football at the DW Stadium next season, but there will also be visits from Bournemouth and Barnsley unless Wigan can win both their last two Premier League fixtures away at Arsenal and at home to Aston Villa. The measured man-management skills of Martinez will never have faced a sterner examination, but after Saturday, you would be a fool to write them off.
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