It was easy to forget as the rain sluiced down over an ordinary game in a stadium almost two thirds empty that Wigan are the holders of the FA Cup.
Their triumph at Wembley may have been one of the most romantic days in the competition‘s history, achingly bittersweet because of the relegation that followed, but they do not seem to have profited overmuch from it.
Their Europa League campaign brought them nothing more glamorous than a trip to the Urals and they have gone through two managers since Roberto Martinez posed with the trophy. One end of the stadium was entirely deserted and, although this gave the Wigan chairman the sight of his initials that dominate the empty seating, it would not have done much for Dave Whelan’s bank balance. His pride, however, is intact.
“If we get a good draw, who knows how far we can go?” The Wigan manager, Uwe Rösler, reflected after the match. “It is the best cup competition in the world. I enjoyed it when I was at Brentford and I will enjoy it now.”
It is one thing to win the FA Cup in improbable circumstances, it is quite another to defend it. In the FA Cup’s golden age, three clubs attempted to retain the trophy from the old Second Division. Sunderland and West Ham did not get past the third round in 1974 and 1981, although Southampton reached the fifth round in 1977 where they met Manchester United, the team they had humbled at Wembley the year before. Sergio Aguero’s heroics at the Etihad ensured that scenario is still available to Wigan and Manchester City.
However, just as even the Grand National feels empty when a horse is shot, so Wigan’s continued, dogged defence of their trophy was overshadowed by a dreadful-looking injury to Jonathan Parr.
Crystal Palace’s left back was taken to hospital after a collision with Callum McManaman that saw the 25-year-old Norwegian international taken off on a stretcher unconscious and with an oxygen mask over his face.
The fact that he collided with McManaman would revive memories of the midfielder’s abysmally-executed tackle on Newcastle’s Massadio Haïdara last year, although this incident, when both went up for a high ball, looked less clear cut.
“He is in hospital now,” said the Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis. “We have looked at the incident from another angle and it seems the lad [McManaman] has caught him. We think it is the impact of the collision rather than the landing that has caused the injury, although I don’t know yet whether it’s his neck or jaw.”
Palace never quite matched the rhythm of the bass drum that had accompanied around 1,000 of their supporters from south London. Nevertheless, although Pulis would not have welcomed a replay hampering his salvage operation at Selhurst Park, he smiled when asked if Palace should have been awarded a penalty when Emmerson Boyce appeared to pull back Dwight Gale when the striker was through on goal.
However, the double substitution Pulis made, replacing both his strikers, Cameron Jerome and Marouane Chamakh, threatened to turn the tie as Gayle and Aaron Wilbraham combined to stab home a corner and level the game.
But it was then taken from them by James McClean, who having made the first for Ben Watson, picked up a beautifully-timed pass from Roger Espinoza, ran with it and finished superbly. His career may have been overshadowed by a refusal to wear a poppy while at Sunderland – McClean is from the Catholic Creggan Estate in Derry – that lead to death threats but his talent is obvious.
It shone through when Wigan took the lead with a sprint and a cut-back that Watson, a one-time Palace trainee, finished off with a drive beyond Julian Speroni. Watson, whose header had secured the Cup to Wigan, was one of five survivors from the team that had beaten Manchester City. It had rained then and it rained now.
Wigan Athletic (4-2-3-1): Al Habsi; Perch, Boyce, Barnett, Beausejour; McArthur (McCann, 80), Watson; McManaman (Fortune, 74), Espinoza, McClean; Maynard (Powell, 74).
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Speroni; Mariappa, McCarthy, Delaney, Parr (Moxey, h-t); Bannan. Guedioura, O’Keefe, Puncheon; Jerome (Gayle, 66), Chamakh (Wilbraham, 66).
Referee: Michael Jones
Man of the match: James McClean (Wigan)
Match rating: 7/10