These days the phrase "must-win" is applied to every fixture contested by Wolverhampton and Wigan. And at long last, after nine matches and 11 weeks, Wolves finally won one yesterday, Roberto Martinez's seemingly doomed side succumbing to an eighth consecutive defeat despite the heroics of his Omani goalkeeper Ali al-Habsi.
The result propelled Wolves to the dizzy heights of 13th place – above West Bromwich Albion, their supporters would add – while leaving Wigan marooned in bottom spot. In the history of the Premier League no team has ever lost more than eight games in a row and avoided relegation.
Wigan, whose were fortunate referee Lee Probert and his assistants failed to spot their already booked Paraguayan captain, Antolin Alcaraz, spitting at Richard Stearman in the closing stages, initially looked the more composed team. However, within 32 seconds of Hugo Rodallega perpetrating a miss to rank alongside Fernando Torres' aberration at Old Trafford in September, they fell behind to Jamie O'Hara's goal.
Ben Watson hauled them level, but with the introduction of Matt Jarvis giving Wolves greater attacking menace, David Edwards and Stephen Ward found a way past the acrobatic Al Habsi to plump up a two-goal cushion by the midway point in the second half.
"It's a huge result for us," said Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager. "We've been struggling, so for us to get three points against one of our competitors at the bottom is a great result. It was nervy; they had chances and so did we, but we took ours. The crowd were brilliant and there was a lovely togetherness about us. It makes the world a lot shinier and happier."
Martinez suggested, ominously for his own and Wigan's prospects of survival, that his players "couldn't cope with the mental blow of going behind". Notwithstanding the fact that the teams were level at the interval, he saw Rodallega's off-target shot after Franco di Santo had sent him clear as the turning point. "Normally he takes those but from the kick by [Wayne] Hennessey, it ends up in the back of our net."
Wolves promptly worked the ball down their right flank, from where Kevin Doyle bore into the penalty box before squaring the ball for O'Hara to sidefoot his second goal of the campaign. Wigan, making nonsense of their manager's meanderings about mental strength, levelled after Stephen Hunt bundled over Emmerson Boyce. Hennessey saved Watson's weak penalty, but the ball rebounded obligingly for the midfielder to take his side's goal tally to a paltry seven this season.
Al Habsi might not have been on the pitch by that stage, having tried to bring down Hunt as the Irishman rounded him in the fifth minute. Hunt tried to stay on his feet, probably believing he could score, when a tumble would surely have provoked a penalty and a red card. Justice, of sorts, was done early in the second half, when Karl Henry's surge into the area led to stunning close-range saves by Al Habsi from Hunt and O'Hara before Edwards hooked the ball in.
Wolves' third goal stemmed from a similar build-up, Jarvis emulating Henry's incursion before cutting the ball back to O'Hara. Another breathtaking stop thwarted the former Spurs player, yet this time Ward was on hand to rifle the ball into the net.
Substitutes: Wolverhampton Wanderers Jarvis 7 (Guedioura, h-t), Milijas (O'Hara, 83).
Wigan Athletic Crusat 4(Watson, 65), Sammon (Rodallega, 77), McArthur (Jones, 78).
Booked: Wolves Hunt, O'Hara.Wigan Alcaraz.
Man of the match Al Habsi. Match rating 7/10. Possession Wolves 55%Wigan 45%.
Attempts on target: Wolves 12 Wigan 7.
Referee L Probert (Wiltshire).