Wigan @ Wembley: A view from the press box
The magic of the FA Cup will be alive and well this weekend when Wigan travel south to face Millwall at Wembley.
The Latics produced arguably the performance of this season’s competition to set up Saturday’s semi-final date with the Championship side following a ruthless 3-0 win at Everton last month, with all three goals coming in the space of three first-half minutes.
Roberto Martinez’s men turned in an equally-emphatic display in a 4-1 victory over Huddersfield in the previous round.
The manner in which Wigan’s fortunes have improved since that televised triumph at the Galpharm Stadium has propelled them to an historic semi-final appearance and provided valuable momentum in the battle to beat the drop from the Premier League.
Only goal difference is preventing the Latics from climbing out of the bottom three, but attention this weekend switches to battling for a FA Cup final place.
Ahead of the game, we chatted with Paul Kendrick, football correspondent for the Wigan Evening Post and Wigan Observer and a life-long Latic, to get his thoughts on Wigan at Wembley.
Roll the clock back to the end of December and Wigan looked a world away from the side currently brimming with confidence after losing only one of their last seven games in all competitions and looking forward to a first-ever FA Cup semi-final. What has sparked this change in fortunes? The cup run?
Paul: It’s kind of snowballed since the turn of the year. At first the cup was a bit of a distraction, but with every passing round talk of Wembley has increased a whisper to a crescendo.
In truth, Wigan were pretty fortunate to get by both Bournemouth and Macclesfield in rounds three and four, but they hammered Huddersfield and then dismantled Everton in the last round.
But the lads who were given a chance in the cup, the likes of Callum McManaman and Joel Robles, have taken their chance with both hands and have now become established Premier League starters. And it’s probably that competition for places that has been the key to the recent resurgence.
While one sporting team in Wigan knows the route to Wembley very well, the Latics are more sporadic visitors, but one of their visits was an Auto Windscreens trophy final win over Millwall of all sides in 1999. Were you there that day? If so, what are your memories of it? Sum up the feeling around the town since Wigan booked their place in the semi-final?
Paul: Yes I was there on the famous day back in 1999.
There were six of us who went down from Wigan for the weekend, with plans to paint the capital red (or blue in our case) and obviously enjoy the game. The over-riding memory I have of the day is when we stepped on to the Tube to Wembley, and quickly realising we were in with what seemed to be 50,000 Millwall fans on their way in.
I have never seen six young lads with a a couple of pints inside them stay silent for so long – one of us wearing a Latics shirt had his coat zipped so far up he still has the scar on his neck.
Regarding the feeling this time round, it’s been a remarkable cup run. It kind of crept up on us, until you go to Everton in the quarter-final knowing you’re 90 minutes from Wembley. And then the lads come up with a performance like that and suddenly it’s very real.
Wigan are the 4/5 favourites to beat Millwall. How do you think the Wigan players will cope with the unusual situation of the pressure of expectation that comes with being favourites and playing in front of a crowd of 90,000?
Paul: It will be a different kind of pressure, because obviously Wigan are usually underdogs in the Premier League. But having spoken to the players and management this week, they’re well aware of the pitfalls and are determined to do the job right.
At the end of the day they’re 90 minutes away from an FA Cup final, which none of them have ever done before. If that doesn’t focus the mind, nothing will.
If Roberto Martínez can guide Wigan to the FA Cup final and possibly into Europe then it’s likely to trigger fresh speculation linking with a move to a bigger club. What qualities do you think make him such a highly-rated young manager?
Paul: He just has a greater understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the game of football than anyone I’ve ever encountered. Football’s not his job, it’s his life.
When you have that passion – and an incredible hunger and desire to learn and to improve – it’s a great recipe for success. He also knows how to get the best out of his players – to bring out performances some of them probably didn’t realise they had in them.
Which player(s) do you expect to rise to the occasion at Wembley? Give us a score and first scorer prediction.
Paul: If I had to pick one player who makes Wigan tick, it would be Shaun Maloney. His stoppage-time goal last weekend against QPR was typical of his influence.
I’ll go Maloney first goal, and Wigan to win 3-1 (80/1).
Putting the FA Cup to one side to focus on Wigan’s relegation battle, do you think it will go down to the final day of the season against Aston Villa at home? Will Wigan stay up?
Paul: I don’t feel Wigan are anywhere near to being one of the three worst sides in the Premier League. But injuries have hit them hard this year and yet again they find themselves with work to do and time running out.
With the inevitable fixture pile-up caused by the FA Cup run, it could easily go down to the last day. But I’d take Wigan to beat Villa in a one-off game. I saw them win 3-0 at Villa Park in the corresponding fixture back in December and, no exaggeration, it could have been six.
Time to put your neck on the line – who do you think will drop down to the Championship?
Paul: QPR, Reading and Sunderland.
Thanks for your time Paul and let’s hope Wigan and Millwall produce a classic. Game on!