Jack Lester was described by his manager, Neil Warnock, as "a wreck", someone who had reported for duty carrying five separate injuries. He was, however, strong and sharp enough to skip into the penalty area two minutes from time and rifle Sheffield United's equaliser into the roof of John Filan's net.
Stuart McCall had vehemently disagreed with Warnock's decision to bring Lester on in his place, but here was justification. "It's what I am paid for," he said with a smile. It was a vital strike.
Warnock had said before kick-off that were Sheffield United to be beaten at the JJB Stadium, Wigan would open up the kind of gap which they were unable to close on Portsmouth and Leicester last season. For the 84 minutes which separated Geoff Horsfield's opener from Lester's reply, this seemed precisely what would happen and that Wigan's sixth 1-0 victory of the season would see them even more firmly entrenched on top of the First Division.
As it was, Wimbledon's surprise victory at The Hawthorns saw them actually extend their advantage. "People ask if they are going to run out of steam," Warnock said of Wigan. "But I don't see it happening."
His counterpart, Paul Jewell, thought Sheffield United "just had the edge on quality," although Wigan were effective in midfield and defence, where there was always a Lancashire boot where it mattered and their goal, in the fourth minute, was of the highest quality.
Warnock had wanted to compete with Jewell for Horsfield's signature but pulled out when he realised Wigan could raise "75 per cent more money than we could".
Last night Horsfield, born in south Yorkshire, demonstrated why he had been in such demand, positioning himself cannily to slide home Andy Liddell's low cross. It was his fifth goal in a little more than a month and the same combination almost sealed the match with a similar move after the interval.
United were highly impressive until they reached the business end of the pitch, although had Paul Peschisolido - who has considerably more abundant hair - rather than the close-cropped Ashley Ward hurled himself at Michael Brown's cross midway through the first half, they might have been level rather sooner than they were.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Eaden, Jackson, Breckin, McMillan; Liddell, Bullard (Mitchell, 76), Dinning (Jarrett, 84), McCulloch; Ellington (Roberts, 76), Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Teale, Walsh (gk).
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Gerrard; Kozluk, Jagielka, Morgan, Whitlow; Ndlovu, Brown, McCall (Lester, 76), Tonge; Peschisolido (Armstrong, 61), Ward (Allison, 84). Substitutes not used: Rankine, Montgomery.
Referee: P Walton (Winwick).Reuse content