Roberto Martinez fights Cup final curse
Sometimes reaching Wembley and getting relegated go together
Sunday 07 April 2013
Gary Lineker's first view of Wembley ended in tears. The eight-year-old travelled with his father and grandfather to watch Leicester lose 1-0 to Manchester City in the 1969 FA Cup final. He cried all the way home.
Within the month, there would be more tears for the young Lineker to shed as Leicester became the first club of the modern era to couple an appearance in an FA Cup final with relegation. There have been three more since and, should Roberto Martinez get his calculations wrong, Wigan will be the fourth.
The price they will pay will be measured in more than teardrops. Wigan, who spend almost three- quarters of their income on players' wages, are facing exclusion from the biggest television deal the Premier League have ever negotiated, and there would be no easy way back. Of the previous 18 clubs relegated to the Championship, two-thirds have stayed down.
In the wake of a crushing 4-0 defeat by Liverpool a month ago, Martinez appeared adamant he would not risk Wigan's survival by going all out to win his next match – the FA Cup quarter-final at Everton. When asked if Cup runs affect League performances, the Wigan manager said the statement was "proven". He added: "Success in the FA Cup is what we want, but not at the price of our League status. I will never allow that to happen."
He said he would make changes for the quarter-final, and nobody in the DW Stadium's press room would have expected anything else at Goodison Park other than a home win. Instead, Wigan produced their finest performance of this or almost any other season, one which Martinez now claims "galvanised the dressing room" to two ugly but desperately needed wins over Newcastle and Norwich. How they could do with a another one at Queens Park Rangers this afternoon.
And yet Martinez knew what he was risking. For clubs like Wigan the FA Cup carries, if not a curse, then a heavy price-tag. Since 1964 seven clubs from what used to be called the Second Division have fought their way to an FA Cup final. None were promoted.
Coventry were the Wigan of their age, a club with limited resources who somehow always seemed to avoid sliding over the cliff edge. In 1969 they survived by one point. Over the next dozen seasons Coventry finished in the top 10 three times. On each occasion they were knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round. Their longest Cup runs – to the quarter-finals in 1973, the fifth round in 1981 – saw them miss out on relegation by two places and one point respectively.
Too often exhaustion was the enemy. The story of Middlesbrough in 1996-97 would make a film; a squabbling, fragile, wonderfully talented side, starring Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, that reached two finals and got relegated. Between 6 and 22 April, they played and replayed the League Cup final, played and replayed the FA Cup semi-final with Chesterfield, not to mention two Premier League fixtures. By the time they had hacked their way through that lot there were five games remaining, and they could summon strength to win only one.
Jimmy Case was part of the Brighton side that reached the 1983 FA Cup final after a run that saw them overcome Newcastle, Manchester City and, famously, his former club Liverpool. "We were like Wigan in as much as we lost quite a few League games without playing particularly badly and the supporters forgave us the mediocre performances because of what we did in the Cup," he said.
"But the FA Cup seemed far more important then and, although we failed in the League, we did something that hasn't been forgotten on the South Coast.
"If you asked Wigan's players and supporters if the Cup run is worth the risk of relegation, I think to a man they would say yes.
"If you asked the money men at the club, they would probably tell them to stuff the glory and take mid-table every time."
Queens Park Rangers v Wigan is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4.10pm
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