Seriously, eat your heart out, Harry Houdini. Another year, another great relegation escape by Wigan Athletic, the little Lancashire team that could. Easily one of the most unfashionable teams to ever experience any kind of extended stay in the Premiership, one can be forgiven for thinking that the Latics have outlived their shelf life in the top flight. After all, other than their inaugural season in the top flight, one in which they finished comfortably in mid-table and never really saw any danger, every single season has been battle to avoid relegation. Some have been more harrowing than others; a late penalty from David Unsworth against Sheffield United in the last game to secure safety, a 1-0 win away to Stoke in the last game of last season after a stoppage time winner from Charles N’Zogbia against West Ham to keep hope alive the previous week. Every other season has seen Wigan finally clinch safety right around Game 37.
Then there was this year. Roll the calendar back to March, and there are the Latics, firmly anchored to the bottom of the table, multiple wins adrift from safety. The officiating has done them no favors, ranging from the comically bad to the blatantly biased, and with 9 games to go, a veritable Murderers’ Row of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Champions League hopefuls Newcastle remain on the docket. When you’re a minnow like Wigan, every match is an uphill battle. Those against the top 6 might as well be the Plight of Syssiphus.
The following run of games really should be the stuff of legend. Wins away to Liverpool and Arsenal, home against Man U and Newcastle (not to mention another robbery from the officials depriving them of a deserved win against Chelsea) away to Stoke (no slouches at the Brittania), and finally the clincher away to Blackburn and it’s another year in the top flight for the Latics. This wasn’t David slaying Goliath. This was David slaying four Goliaths, a schoolyard bully and then (admittedly picking on someone its own size
You can argue all day long about how they somehow manage to pull off great escape after great escape. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe God loves them. But whatever it is, the circumstances under which they do it are what make their accomplishments truly remarkable. This isn’t your Moneyball Oakland Athletics competing with bigger and richer baseball squads using algorithms and innovative analysis to determine what slightly undervalued players might perform at a high enough level for a bargain salary to make the playing field less slanted. This is a team that loses its best players to greener (both in the money sense and the other cliché) pastures after every year. The players they’ve lost over the years would make up a pretty good side. Jimmy Bullard, Leighton Baines, Jason Roberts, Henri Camara, Antonio Valencia, Wilson Palacios, Charles N’Zogbia, Emile Heskey, Paul Scharner, and the list goes on to include other lesser known but influential players like Pascal Chimbonda and Lee Cattermole. Heck, even Titus Bramble fled town for the relative comforts of Sunderland.
Every year, they’re forced to replenish the roster with a new batch of players who must somehow be good enough to keep them up again. And it’s not as if they can shrug their shoulders and just grab players who are established equals of the departed. Wigan isn’t exactly a desirable club in a desirable location! The weather sucks, the team is a preseason pick for the drop every year, and they can barely get enough fans to a home game to populate a nightclub. They have to troll the lower divisions, vulture the relegated teams, venture to far off continents in hopes of unearthing gems who can compete in the World’s best league, with the full knowledge that those who prove to be the elusive gems will merely be using Wigan as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. It’s a battle inside of a vicious cycle.
After this year, they figure to lose Victor Moses, their brightest young star. Hugo Rodallega also figures to exit stage elsewhere, despite an unimpressive campaign. Midfield dynamo James McCarthy is another who might be gone. They’ll likely have to fend off advances for Ali Al Habsi, and maybe even James McArthur, whose late season emergence as a destroyer in the defensive midfield likely drove his stock up. Once again, they’ll hang their hats on soldiers like the dependable Emerson Boyce, whose tenure with the team is surpassed only by backup goalie, Mike Pollitt. And captain Gary Caldwell, who somehow transformed himself from calamity-prone joke punchline to uncompromising titan in defense over the last two months. And Franco Di Santo, whose general inability to score goals might be overlooked due to his top drawer work rate. And Antolin Alcaraz, he of the safety-clinching goal against Blackburn. And whomever else Roberto Martinez can convince to stay on, as well as join his little, unheralded squad, perhaps using the skill-oriented attractive style he imported as bait.
That is of course, if Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t retire and choose Martinez as his hand-picked replacement in the city of Manchester. Because that’s going to happen one day. Carve it in stone. It’s going to happen. Just hopefully not yet.