The future weighed as heavily against Wigan Athletic as the past when they yesterday surveyed the wreckage of an eighth consecutive league defeat.
No team have lost more than that number on the spin and stayed in the Premier League, yet the obstacles stacking up ahead are even more ominous: Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United in a nine-day spell next month, with Arsenal thrown in just before them. Their next match, at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday week, assumes a significance that will even test chairman Dave Whelan's deep-rooted belief in Roberto Martinez.
It is three years next month since Whelan saw the look of fear in the eyes of his old Rovers associate John Williams, the chief executive who was desperate to preserve the career of his young manager, Paul Ince, when Blackburn arrived at Wigan for a league fixture. Rovers lost dreadfully – the 3-0 scoreline did not begin to do justice to it – and Ince was sacked.
Martinez's job is safe for now, even though his side prop up the Premier League, yet defeat to Blackburn – Whelan's old club and another with a solitary win to their name – may change all that. Martinez, that eternal optimist, can argue that his side have played moderately well in defeat to Fulham, 10 days ago, and in the first half at Wolves on Sunday. Also weighing in his favour is the fact that Whelan has cut his player budget in each of the last three years. But Whelan can be brutal and nothing will prevent him from acting if he finds his side are in a tailspin. Martinez's loyalty in the face of Aston Villa's job offer this summer will certainly count for nothing.
The chairman will see a far bigger picture. He has spent £100m of his JJB Sports fortune spiriting his hometown club up from the football pyramid's lower reaches for an improbable seven seasons of Premier League football, but knows that if Wigan are relegated they will probably remain out of sight for generations. TV money is by far the largest proportion of the club's turnover – £43m last year – and if they tumble out they could go the same way as such clubs as Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Charlton Athletic.
Whelan loves the style of football Martinez has brought. He acknowledges the way he transformed the club from top to bottom. But Blackburn's experience, in the winter of 2008, revealed how there can be no room for sentiment in the desperate business of Premier League survival. Sam Allardyce came in for Ince, restored the uncompromising quality Mark Hughes had inculcated at Ewood Park, and saved the club.
Martinez's explanations of defeat are beginning to lack conviction. He claimed after Sunday's defeat that Wigan "couldn't cope with the mental blow of going behind," which was illogical – considering Wigan did equalise Wolves' opener – and unconvincing. Footballers who survive have vastly more than an opposition goal to contend with.
The cold truth is that Martinez's players – his forwards and defenders in particular – do not look good enough. The chasm left when Charles N'Zogbia, the club's highest earner, left for Aston Villa this summer has never been filled, depriving the club of the most outstanding performer whose extraordinary display in the 3-2 comeback over West Ham last May spurred the side to survival. The same goes for Tom Cleverley, now back at Manchester United. The new goalscoring hope, Shaun Maloney from Celtic, has been curiously absent, leaving Martinez with Franco di Santo, whose Twitter criticism of the club's fans last season pretty much summed up how he is viewed here. Hugo Rodallega's glaring miss at Wolves encapsulates a debilitating loss of belief.
Martinez accentuates the positives because he says it serves no one to put players in fear, though a different reaction is required in response to the conduct of Antolin Alcaraz, whose spitting at Wolves' Richard Stearman was the last thing Wigan needed. Alcaraz, charged yesterday, is expected to be banned for three matches by the FA for improper conduct and this also seems like an opportunity for Martinez to reveal in public and private that he does have a hard side.
History suggests that the top flight's great survivors should not be written off too quickly. Wigan also suffered eight successive defeats, in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 and lived. But a light has gone out since then and the switch may be hard to find.
Wigan's next seven fixtures:
19 Nov, Blackburn Rovers (h)
26 Nov Sunderland (a)
3 Dec Arsenal (h)
10 Dec West Bromwich Albion (a)
17 Dec Chelsea (h)
21 Dec Liverpool (a)
26 Dec Manchester United (a)Reuse content