When the final whistle went at the Emirates Stadium to confirm what Roberto Martinez had known for 20 minutes – that he would be relegated – Arsène Wenger went over to talk to the Wigan manger.
His words were lost in the emotion of the night. Wigan had become the first club to win the FA Cup and go down in the same season, something Martinez believes will never happen again.
“I don’t remember what was said,” he reflected. “It was such a volatile moment. You want to digest everything that was going on but I haven’t got a clear picture of what Arsène said.”
There was plenty the Arsenal manager could have said. In 1987 he had been relegated with Nancy. Like Wigan, Nancy is not a football town. The gates were small and players had to be sold in an attempt to balance the budget. Neither man stayed after the drop. Wenger took up an offer to join Monaco and when, after that final whistle, Martinez was asked directly about his future, he let the question slide by. Afterwards, Wenger remarked: “What has happened to Roberto Martinez in the last three days defines exactly what a football manager’s job is – the lows are very deep and the highs are very great.”
As he prepared to take Everton to the Emirates for the quarter-final of the FA Cup, still on course to become the only manager to lift the trophy with different clubs in successive seasons, Martinez said he had not then decided to quit Wigan. “No, it was too fresh [to have made a decision],” he said. “At the time it was more about feeling the hurt and the pain of not being able to achieve what we were convinced we were going to achieve. It was an accumulation of emotions, trying to fit the positives and the negative ones in.
“It was only clear when we came back and the fans told everyone that what mattered was winning the FA Cup because that is history and you can recover from relegation. It was a learning experience, a hurtful one, and I could never complain about it.”
After the fiercely contentious victory over Liverpool in the fifth round, the FA Cup matters badly to Arsenal. They are unlikely to overturn a two-goal deficit against Bayern Munich and, despite leading the Premier League for virtually the entire season, they are 20-1 to win it.
Between 2001 and 2005 the FA Cup was Wenger’s domain – in those five campaigns Arsenal lost just two matches, one a final, the other a semi-final to Manchester United. There have, famously, been no trophies since.
“There are many ways to assess rewards,” said Martinez. “Arsenal have always qualified for the Champions League, they’ve built a new ground, they have coped with losing players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas, they have developed young players, they have a football philosophy.
“I am aware you are fighting against clubs prepared to spend £300m to win a trophy but I think Arsenal have been a successful story in the last 15 to 20 years. I am a bit of a romantic in that respect.”
It was not just winning the FA Cup that was romantic about Martinez’s Wigan: it was their escapes from what appeared certain relegation, as if Indiana Jones had suddenly appeared in the dug-out. In 2012 they took 22 points from their final 10 games to avoid the drop; the year before they survived by winning their last two matches. The word “Believe” that came to signify those achievements is now on the official signs that welcome you to Wigan.
Everton could do with some of that psychology. Under David Moyes they tended to believe until it really mattered. In the 2009 FA Cup final they took the lead against Chelsea before a minute was up. In the semi-final against Liverpool three years later, they were leading at the interval. Both matches were lost.
Nothing encapsulated it more grimly than last year’s quarter-final against Wigan. It was at Goodison Park, where Everton had lost once in almost 12 months, against a club floundering against relegation. Had they won, Everton would have faced Millwall in the semi-final and then a Manchester City side Moyes beat regularly. They were 3-0 down by half-time in what was probably Martinez’s most finely realised game as a manager, something he will probably have to replicate at Arsenal. “There are many comparisons with that game,” Martinez said. “I feel we are ready to go to the Emirates and be ourselves.”
Everton, however, have been showing too many signs of being themselves, of fading in the final furlongs. They have not won away in the Premier League since December. Their last two visits to London saw them play well at Tottenham and Chelsea and lose.
They are still winning at Goodison but the home victories against West Ham and Aston Villa were laboured affairs that emphasised the fact that, in Romelu Lukaku, Everton possess only one fit striker. To borrow a line from Martinez’s Wigan, they have to believe.
“I expect a really strong finish from us in terms of the physical, the technical and the tactical,” said Martinez. “I think the psychological will be the biggest aspect and psychologically we have been hurt.”