For Wigan Athletic, this was the perfect start to arguably the biggest week in their history. Next Saturday will see the Lancashire club at Wembley for their first FA Cup final appearance and by then they could be out of the Premier League’s bottom three and within sight of another impressive survival feat.
In battling back to win at the Hawthorns yesterday, Roberto Martinez’s side moved within two points of Sunderland and, perhaps more significantly, just three behind Newcastle and Norwich, meaning that if they beat Swansea at home on Tuesday – in their game on hand – they will climb out of the relegation zone.
Little wonder the small band of happy away fans were singing “We are staying up” – this was the kind of thrilling victory that sends belief levels soaring: twice behind, Wigan showed great spirit to equalise twice through Arouna Koné and the substitute James McArthur before Callum McManaman struck the decisive third with 10 minutes left. Even then they had to had dig in – it took a flying Joel Robles save from Graham Dorrans and, in the last minute of stoppage time, a goal-line clearance by McArthur from Gareth McAuley to keep their lead intact – leaving Martinez to hail his team.
“Our performance was full of character,” he said. “You saw everything – we had injuries, important players missing; we scored three goals from open play; we came back twice from behind; we had 10 minutes at the end where we to keep out whatever they could throw at us. I could not be prouder.
“We don’t escape, as a football club we win the title every time we win in the league,” added the Spaniard, who, in this sense, is now eyeing a famous double for his club.
Before yesterday Wigan had not won in the Premier League since reaching the Cup final and appeared hampered by injuries to defenders; Antonin Alcaraz was sidelined before Maynor Figueroa was ruled out for the rest of the campaign. Martinez’s response yesterday was to bring in the excellent Ben Watson for his first start since breaking a leg in November; the midfielder played alongside centre-backs Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner, with Ronnie Stam coming in to the right wing-back role vacated by Boyce.
The rebuilt defence looked vulnerable at set-pieces throughout and an early mix-up between Stam and Boyce on the right let in Romelu Lukaku who drove over. By the time Wigan found their stride they were trailing to Shane Long’s opening goal on 29 minutes. After Claudio Yacob’s brilliant tackle on Paul Scharner, the hosts sprang forward, Lukaku sending Markus Rosenberg away down the right and Long tucking in the Swede’s resulting cross.
Wigan might have conceded again but Lukaku missed his kick in front of Robles, and instead they went straight down to the other end to equalise. With referee Lee Probert playing a good advantage after Billy Jones’ foul on Shaun Maloney, Jean Beausejour swung over a superb cross from the left and Koné, finding space behind Jonas Olsson, powered home a header. Unfortunately for Beausejour he later left the field on a stretcher and looks likely to miss the Cup final. “He pulled his hamstring in his left leg,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t look great, these injuries are normally 10 days.”
Wigan were on the back foot again within five minutes of the restart when Koné allowed McAuley space at the far post to head in Dorrans’ free-kick yet then came the substitution from Martinez that turned the game; the Spaniard sent on McArthur and Roman Golobart for Stam and Jordi Gomez, and within 60 seconds he was rewarded with a goal from McArthur, who dived in at the back post to nod in Maloney’s cross.
Martinez said the substitution had been planned. “James McArthur was the best player for us against Spurs. Today I knew the game would need a second injection of energy. His first touch changed the game completely.” There was also understandable praise for the impressive Maloney, Wigan’s “engine” to use Martinez’s word, who then created the third too by taking the ball past Yacob and Jones on a jinking run from the left before crossing low for McManaman to sweep in his third goal in five games.
Steve Clarke had his own substitution to talk about – albeit, not 16-year-old debutant Isaiah Brown but the one he did not make, the West Bromwich manager admitting the loud boos greeting Peter Odemwingie as he warmed up changed his mind about sending him on. The Nigerian had exchanged words with a supporter who was taunting him. “If I’m honest the crowd reaction made me go with James [Morrison] and Jerome [Thomas],” Clarke said.
West Bromwich (4-3-3): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu (Brown, 86), Yacob, Dorrans; Long, Lukaku (Thomas, 65), Rosenberg (Morrison, 65).
Wigan (3-4-3): Robles; Boyce, Watson, Scharner; Stam (Golobart, 57), Gomez (McArthur, 57), McCarthy, Beausejour (Espinoza, 75); McManaman, Kone, Maloney.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Maloney (Wigan)
Match rating: 8/10