“I am tired of fighting,” Harry Houdini told his brother as he lay dying of appendicitis. “This thing is going to get me.”
For Wigan, the Premier League’s great escapologists, this looks like being the season that will get them, although sitting across the desk from their manager, Roberto Martinez, you would not guess it.
When he was dragging Blackburn out of the bottom three, Sam Allardyce remarked that the fact he was a manager in the relegation zone stayed with him every waking hour. He woke up in the relegation zone and he went to bed in it.
Wigan’s manager, by contrast, claims to relish the pressure that comes with dancing on the edge. His favourite game was the 3-2 defeat of West Ham in 2011, in which the loser faced relegation. Wigan were 2-0 down at half-time. Avram Grant was sacked within minutes of the final whistle. It was gladiatorial and so will be this afternoon’s contest against Tottenham because both teams have to win.
“I really enjoy the business end of the season,” Martinez said. “You are going into games where there is no margin of error. I don’t enjoy being mid-table, where at this time of the year the dressing room is talking about holidays and everyone is mentally going around with their flip-flops on.”
You might be tempted to ask how Martinez knows. This is his fourth season as Wigan’s manager and at this stage of every campaign, his players have metaphorically been reaching for the packet of Marlboro rather than the sun cream.
The highest they have been with five games to go is two places outside the relegation zone and, uncannily, they have mustered 31 points from 33 games in three of those seasons. The fourth produced 33 points.
And yet Martinez, who is not yet 40, is talked of as a potential manager of Everton or even Arsenal. Last summer in Miami, he was interviewed for the job of Liverpool manager. He turned down Aston Villa. His predecessors, Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce, each managed more comfortable finishes, although the sheer stress of keeping Wigan afloat on the final day of the season in a winner-takes-all shootout in the rain at Sheffield United contributed to Jewell’s resignation.
In part Martinez’s reputation rests on the elegant way his teams play football and the knowledge that he is managing just when the largesse of their benefactor, Dave Whelan, began to be replaced by cold financial reality.
Wigan has a population of 80,000, less than the capacity of the stadium in which it will play next month’s FA Cup final. As a town it is slightly smaller than Darlington, Hartlepool or Halifax, only one of which supports a Football League club. None has competition from a rugby league institution whose honours board at the DW Stadium has 99 entries.
At the end of Martinez’s first season in charge, Wigan Athletic was a financially unsustainable institution. Of every pound it made, 92p went to pay players’ wages. Television revenue accounted for 88 per cent of its total income, whereas at Aston Villa and Sunderland, the figure was around 58 per cent. Its commercial income was a fifth of that at Bolton or Wolverhampton Wanderers and a sixth of Aston Villa’s. When it comes to shirt sponsors, Villa are paid £5m a year by theirs. Spaces on Wigan shirts fetch £650,000.
It is against this background that Martinez has to be measured. Since taking over from Bruce, he has reduced the wage bill by 22 per cent. It now accounts for 72p of every pound Wigan make.
The contracts Wigan offer their players are generally shorter than those of other Premier League clubs and they all have relegation clauses – even Martinez’s. However, it means that several of his key players, Antolin Alcaraz, Maynor Figueroa, Franco di Santo and Ronnie Stam, are all out of contract come June. When Bolton were relegated last season, Owen Coyle was similarly forced to rely on a substantial group of players who bluntly had no stake in the club’s future.
There are some managers who would gaze around the Premier League at Charles N’Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega, Victor Moses and Mohamed Diame and wonder where Wigan would be had they not left. Martinez, however, is not the complaining type.
“We are not the type of club that can hold on to players for long periods. The sales of N’Zogbia and Moses paid for our training ground. I see it as a natural part of the game,” he says.
“We are going to an FA Cup final that will be watched by a billion people. We are going to be in Europe next season. Everything will come down to our last game of the season against Aston Villa [who were his first opponents as Wigan manager]. Why would you not be excited?”