The romance of the FA Cup survives. Wigan Athletic, a non-League club until 1978, won it on their first appearance in a final yesterday in a dramatic last 10 minutes during which the hot favourites, Manchester City, had Pablo Zabaleta sent off and conceded the only goal to Ben Watson. The former Crystal Palace midfielder, on as a late substitute, headed in Sean Maloney's corner just as four minutes of added time were announced.
Fears that the final would be the most one-sided since Manchester United beat Millwall in 2004 proved happily unfounded. Indeed, Wigan, 40 points behind their opponents in the Premier League and still in serious danger of relegation, could have won more decisively had their finishing been more clinical. It was their one fault, as it had been in the recent 1-0 defeat at the Etihad.
City, apart from a spell on either side of half-time, were as disappointing as in their defence of the League title this season, and if the board were waiting for this result before deciding whether to dispense with Roberto Mancini he can expect to receive a thumbs-down.
The manager was in defiant mood afterwards, but he has clearly received no reassurance about his future. The Community Shield will be the only trophy in the Etihad cupboard this year, which is not what the Abu Dhabi owners signed up for, committing sums enabling a team to be fielded yesterday that cost 10 times as much as Wigan's.
The latter's impressive manager, Roberto Martinez, will also face questions and decisions about his future this summer, especially with Everton looking for an accomplished successor to David Moyes. Before contemplating anything personal, however, Martinez must attempt to bring off another supreme achievement by taking enough points from Arsenal on Tuesday and Aston Villa next Sunday to avoid becoming the first team to win the Cup and be relegated in the same year.
An optimist by nature, he was forced to concede that although this triumph would help "emotionally", he did not know how quickly the players would recover physically. "It's a shame the Cup final could not be the last game of the season so we could celebrate properly," he said. "But we face adversity and we don't moan about it."
The Wigan faithful had chorused "I'm A Believer" before kick-off in the knowledge that it was going to take a leap of faith to end a run of seven successive defeats by City in which they had not scored a goal.
A defence missing four players was grateful that Antolin Alcaraz was able to start, which he did as one of three centre-backs who City found difficulty in bypassing. James McArthur and Roger Espinoza operated effectively as wing-backs, leaving Callum McManaman and Arouna Koné out on the flanks.
McManaman came to prominence only after scoring in the quarter-final against his boyhood club Everton, a feat that he repeated in the semi-final against Millwall. Although there has been criticism about playing the semi-finals at Wembley, it helped the much less experienced Wigan team.
City may have made the first chance of the game but were unable to establish the domination that the League table suggested might have resulted. The incident in the third minute, when Carlos Tevez's free-kick came back off the defensive wall to Yaya Touré, bringing a low save by Joel Robles, proved to be no precedent. Soon afterwards McManaman checked inside Matija Nastasic and curled a shot wide of the far post.
He waited a fraction too long, and the same point applied later in the half. Alcaraz, romping boldly forward from the back, set him away in the inside-left channel. Forced wide, he doubled back but could do no more than hit a shot that would have defeated Joe Hart but was blocked by a retreating Zabaleta.
Hart had been brought back for the final after the unfortunate Costel Pantilimon played in every other round, conceding only one goal. Wigan also changed their keeper from the semi-final, Robles replacing the occasionally erratic Ali Al Habsi and saving them when City produced their most fluent move on the half-hour. Samir Nasri sent Sergio Aguero to the byline, from where he pulled the ball back for Tevez. The Argentinian must have felt he had scored, but looked on in disbelief as Robles saved with his foot.
It was an expression of Mancini's dissatisfaction that within eight minutes of the resumption Milner was on for Nasri, soon to be followed by Jack Rodwell for Tevez. The underdogs kept yapping away, and after Zabaleta received his second yellow card for crashing into Maloney, Wigan were on their way to making history.
Red cards in FA Cup finals: Zabaleta joins unwanted group
Pablo Zabaleta's was the third red card in an FA Cup final, but the previous two finished with the 10 men lifting the trophy. In 1985 Kevin Moran became the first man to be dismissed in a final when he was sent off for a professional foul – bringing down Peter Reid – playing for Manchester United against Everton. Twenty years later in Cardiff, Jose Antonio Reyes was dismissed for two yellow cards but his Arsenal team went on to beat Manchester United on penalties.
Zabaleta's two cautions both came for second-half fouls on the game's outstanding player, Callum McManaman. The first was needless. It was one of those increasingly common counterattack-disrupting tugs at a player who is breaking free, but McManaman was a long way from goal and no real threat was apparent. The second challenge, though, had to be made, it being a desperate lunge as the youngster ran clear.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Nastasic, Kompany, Clichy; Y Touré, Barry; Silva, Aguero, Nasri (Milner, 54); Tevez (Rodwell, 69).
Wigan (3-5-2): Robles; Boyce, Scharner, Alcaraz; McArthur,McCarthy Maloney, Gomez (Watson, 81), Espinoza; McManaman, Koné.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: McManaman (Wigan)