Belief fires Dave Whelan’s Wigan Athletic to the Holy Grail
Latics stunned Manchester City at Wembley
A daft kick-off time, league games both on the day and next week, sponsors’ names on the ribbons, another disappointing rendition of Abide With Me, and hapless ‘entertainment before kick-off and at half-time. No matter, when the FA Cup can produce stories like Dave Whelan, Ben Watson and Callum McManaman it can survive all manner of indignity.
Two men who came back from broken legs and a third who climbed off football's scrapheap to torment the richest team in the globe. As Robert Martinez, Wigan Athletic's magician manager said, it could be a movie script.
An upset was always possible. Wigan have shown under Martinez they can play this well and we knew Roberto Mancini's Manchester City can play this badly. But few expected it outside a small Lancashire town previously best known for its pier, pies and rugby league team.
'Believe' is the word all over Wigan whose council, since Athletic reached the final, have pursued a 'Paint the town blue' policy tied in with a 'Believe in Wigan' campaign. It extended to re-decorating shopping centres and running a 'best dressed in blue' competition for schools.
So the first tee-shirt seen on the road to Wembley had 'Believe' on the back. The same message was on a lapel pin attached to chairman Whelan's suit. And, most importantly off all, it was embedded in the minds of Watson, McManaman and their colleagues.
McManaman was rejected at 16 by Everton then rescued and nurtured by Wigan. Now 22, but still raw, Martinez freed him of defensive responsibilities allowing him to torment City with mazy runs that showed his team-mates Wigan could operate on the front foot. Watson, when his moment came, exuded the same positivity.
After McManaman won a last-minute corner Watson, who normally stays back to allow the centre-halves forward, realised that City, a man light after Pablo Zabaleta foolishly got himself sent off, had pulled everyone back. "I thought 'why not have a gamble'," he said, "you never know what can happen. They mark zonal so I thought if I could get my run across the front no-one was going to go with me."
Watson's broken leg was earlier this season, Whelan's in 1960, in the final on this ground. "It's closure," he said. "When I took the lads out today I got a little bit emotional about it. I didn't think I would do but I did. It was the first time I had been back on that turf since I was carried off. It wasn't far from where I was actually lying when I got hurt. It floods through your memory."
Now he, and everyone associated with Wigan, has another indelible memory, and the cup another chapter in its legend.
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