Was that the faintest hint of a grin on the lips of the Wigan manager, Paul Jewell, when Andrew Cole fired a late, late winner for Manchester City to ensure a replay would not be necessary? Or was it a full-blown smile? Perhaps neither, although it was fair to recognise that both sides got exactly what their manager's ambitions deserved.
For this was not the Wigan of Highbury, but rather an opaque imitation showing six changes and none of the courage or craft. Both their midweek Carling Cup heroes - Mike Pollitt in goal and Jason Roberts up front - were omitted as Jewell shamelessly let it be known that his intentions lie elsewhere. With a run of Premiership tussles and a final against Manchester United awaiting, who needs the FA Cup? "We have a massive game at Everton on Tuesday, which is why I rested several players, and without being disrespectful, we have bigger fish to fry," conceded Jewell.
In contrast, Stuart Pearce fielded what was essentially his first team, minus Robbie Fowler. Fowler's picture was splattered all over the front of the matchday programme, which served to magnify the shock felt at his sudden return to Liverpool. But Pearce's men were bafflingly tepid in their opening efforts and instead of stamping their authority they were merely left stamping their feet.
In a first 45 minutes that must have been as passionless as the FA Cup has ever had the misfortune to witness, the only chances to speak of were Cole's failure to get the required forehead to Darius Vassell's vicious cross in the sixth minute and Vassell similarly failing to put boot on Albert Riera's wicked centre in the 39th. Otherwise, nothing. Were these really the same two teams who starred in City's thrilling home 4-3 victory on Boxing Day? In effect they were not, of course, but City knew they soon could be - what with Roberts, Stephane Henchoz and Jimmy Bullard on the bench - and there was a palpable feeling that the longer it stayed level, the more Jewell would be tempted to chuck them all on and go for the win.
A goal was required, then, and quickly, if only to stave off terminal tedium, and in the 52nd minute City were presented with a gift when Paul Scharner was penalised 10 yards out for a back- pass. All they could contrive, however, was an aimless whack from Richard Dunne that Neil Mellor easily blocked and cleared.
Jewell had seen enough, and could resist it no longer; on came Roberts in the 59th minute, with Bullard and Henchoz following soon after. Immediately proceedings were raised to something at least resembling a Cup tie, and one that could have been settled in the 74th minute when Roberts stole through, only to see his effort turned away by David James. Damien Francis, following up, then managed the miss of the season in finding the bar with the goal gaping.
In fairness to City, that would have been far more than Wigan warranted, and when Cole latched on to Bradley Wright-Phillips's astute 82nd-minute through-ball to slip it under the advancing John Filan, a measure of justice had indeed been done. "A replay was the last thing that we needed," admitted Jewell. The magic of the Cup - don't you just love it?Reuse content