IT’S hard to believe it’s been only 3-and-a-half years since WIGAN ATHLETIC won the FA Cup. 5 managers, 2 relegations, 1 promotion and an unsuccessful play-off campaign – a lot’s happened since then.
Admittedly, when Ben Watson’s late header gave them a shock win over Man City in the 2013 final, they were already destined for relegation from the Premier League. Three days later it was confirmed.
And so a rollercoater period began for Latics. They almost bounced straight back in the 2014 play-offs, but 2014/15 was a disaster, with Latics having 3 managers as they tumbled out of the Championship. And despite the high of winning the League One title last term, this season has been another low as Gary Caldwell was sacked with Wigan in the Championship drop zone.
The appointment of Warren Joyce as his successor in November did not have an immediate effect. Latics won just 1 of his first 10 games in charge. So Saturday’s FA Cup third-round tie at home to Nottingham Forest promised to be a welcome distraction for both sides as Forest are also struggling near the bottom of the Championship.
Walking to the DW Stadium from the town centre takes you past Wigan Pier. Although it had been a big tourist attraction in the 80’s and 90’s, the museum closed in 2007, then The Orwell pub in 2009 and the infamous Pier Nightspot in 2011. While the nightclub’s now been demolished, The Orwell and the warehouse remain empty, a poignant reminder of Wigan’s former glory. Like the town’s football team, it’s fair to say they have seen better days.
Latics fans need no reminding that Wigan is a rugby league town. Indeed, on the side of the warehouse is a huge poster proclaiming Wigan Warriors’ Super League success in October. Latics’ Cup success has already been long forgotten. And so I continued along Wallgate and then the canal, and I must have got within 200 yards of a misty, drizzly DW Stadium before there was any sign that a game was on – fans pulling up in the club car park. Wigan was certainly not gripped by Cup fever!
There is one lasting reminder of their 2013 triumph though, a statue of Latics owner Dave Whelan holding the Cup aloft, outside the main entrance of the stadium which bears his initials. The former player, who broke his leg for Blackburn in the 1960 final, made his money from JJB Sports and bankrolled Wigan’s rise from the fourth tier to the top flight. When chairman he sometimes didn’t know when to stop talking, but thankfully the inscription on his statue is delightfully under-stated. It reads simply: ‘Professional Footballer, Entrepreneur, Wiganer’.
The town is almost as famous for Northern Soul as for its non-existent Pier and I’m glad they still play it at the DW, although there was only 5,163 there to enjoy it on Saturday (including 1,579 away fans). Latics have averaged almost 11,500 in the Championship this season but Joyce was unperturbed. He joked afterwards that some of his own family thought there were better things to do, especially given the weather.
Those away fans were cheering barely a minute into the game as Britt Assombalonga had the ball in the net but the flag had already gone up for offside. Then it was pretty much one-way traffic as Wigan dominated, with Nick Powell firing a 20-yard free-kick just wide. But the former Man United forward’s rotten luck with injuries continued as moments later he had to hobble off to be replaced by Jordi Gomez, the only Latics player who featured in the 2013 final.
Sam Morsy was a surprise inclusion in the Wigan line-up for the first time this season. A loan deal was agreed with Championship rivals Barnsley in the summer, giving them the option to buy him for a set amount. With Joyce now in charge, he’s recalled Morsy, but Barnsley have indicated they wish to take up their option to buy him. However, until the two parties agree personal terms, he remains a Wigan player.
Latics fans chanted that they want Morsy to stay, so too does Joyce, and his performance suggested he wants to stay too. He did scuff an early shooting opportunity from Yanic Wldschut’s cut-back, with Michael Jacobs dragging a shot wide after pouncing on the loose ball, but after that the 25-year-old pulled the strings effortlessly in midfield.
Unless Joyce hears different, he can pick Morsy again for Saturday’s trip to Burton. “It’s a difficult situation for any player but Sam’s attitude was fantastic,” he said. “It’s out of our hands but I’ve tried to persuade him that this would be the best solution for him.”
Gomez and Morsy were both off target from outside the box, and another Morsy effort was blocked before Jacobs’ low cross rebounded against Gomez and over the Forest bar. The visitors then finally enjoyed some possession yet still found themselves behind at the break. Wildschut released Stephen Warnock down the wing in first-half stoppage time and the ex-Liverpool left-back squared for Will Grigg to tap in from close range. He may have been on fire as Latics romped to the League One title this season but this term he’s barely simmered, with this his first goal since September. The Northern Ireland striker hasn’t lost his sense of humour, though, applauding the home end, which was empty but for a solitary ballboy.
Forest were booed off at half-time and little wonder. They were awful. And they weren’t much better after the break. Grigg went close right after the restart and Jacobs fired wide before being denied by Michael Mancienne’s last-ditch tackle.
Forest boss Philippe Montanier then chose to bring Lica on in the 56th minute for Assombalonga, who had been their best player (though that’s not saying much!) The away fans responded with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing”. An American consortium is set to complete a takeover this week, ending chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s 4-and-a-half-year tenure, so their fans also chanted “Fawaz is going home” and “Fawaz needs a pen”.
That substitution sparked little reaction from the visitors. Just a minute later Wigan went 2-0 up as Wildschut and Warnock exchanged passes down the left while the Forest defence stood off, allowing Wildschut to fire into the bottom corner from inside the box.
The Dutch winger soon made way for Adam Le Fondre, who fired straight at the Forest keeper, before the visitors were handed the chance to nick a goal they did not deserve. Gomez tripped Lica in the box, which was greeted with ironic cheers by the Forest fans, who celebrated as if they had scored.
And that was as close as they’d get as captain Eric Lichaj fired the spot-kick hard and low into the legs of Jakob Haugaard, making his Wigan debut after arriving on loan from Stoke till the end of the season. Forest managed only two shots the whole game, with that saved penalty the only one on target.
The home crowd took great pleasure in heaping misery on a side that may prove to be relegation rivals. Wiganers had seen their side win just twice at the DW all season and chanted “How s**t must you be? We’re winning at home”, along with the old favourite “Can we play you every week?”
And it was as if the Forest fans had time to think about it before deciding ‘they’re right, we are really that bad’. It took a good few minutes before they responded, repeatedly chanting “We’re f**king s**t”, as well as “Can you score a goal for us?” It was an embarrassing exit for a proud club. Now Montanier’s men return to league action at Birmingham this Saturday fifth-bottom in the table on the back of 5 straight defeats.
Wigan, meanwhile, celebrated their first win in 8. Joyce insists they’ve been playing well for a few weeks but managing to turn that form into a result is a timely boost. Although second-bottom Latics are 6 points from safety they can cut that gap on Saturday as they visit fourth-bottom Burton.
They also have a fourth-round tie at Old Trafford to look forward to after being drawn away to former Premier League foes United. Suddenly the good old days don’t seem so far away after all.