"They are always looking to fight against relegation. Look how many grey hairs I've got." Wigan defender Paul Scharner may have been joking in the aftermath of Saturday's victory at West Bromwich Albion but the sight of the Latics taking a potentially big step towards Premier League survival did prompt a rather obvious question: why do Wigan only seem to find the best of themselves once deep in the mire?
Even Roberto Martinez, their manager, admitted it was the conundrum facing a club who ended last season with five wins in six, but began this one with a single victory in their first eight league fixtures. "That's the $64m question," he said. "I do think that this season we have been very consistent in our performances, but the results have not always come.
"There's a big difference between being a top club who are expected to win and sometimes have to do very little to win a football game. The perception is that we are a small club in the Premier League and we should be fighting to avoid relegation. That affects your results and you can be magnificent in games and then just draw."
Martinez's aim is to change that perception: a first FA Cup final appearance is a step in the right direction and Wigan increasingly look like they can extend their top-flight residence into a ninth season.
Since their stunning 3-0 Cup quarter-final win at Everton, they have taken more Premier League points than any of the three teams directly above them – Sunderland, Newcastle United and Norwich City – and they looked full of belief on Saturday when, despite not playing as well as in recent weeks, they recovered from 1-0 and 2-1 down to win through goals from Arouna Koné, James McArthur and Callum McManaman.
Their confidence was encapsulated by an eye-catching individual display by Shaun Maloney, who set up the second and third goals – the latter after a trademark jinking run into the box. "I think Shaun Maloney is someone who could have been born in any other country in terms of his technical ability and quality," said Martinez.
Maloney failed to settle during a solitary season at Aston Villa in 2007-08 but Martinez, who signed him from Celtic for £1m in 2011, believes the 30-year-old is now "the complete package" and "a player who can play in any team".
The Scotland midfielder is the last player off the training ground, according to his manager, and presumably one of the first names on his team sheet.
"He's someone who finds it normal and natural to turn and in football, players who can drive into space are a real strength to break teams down," Martinez said. "He's got quality with the left and right, can take people on, has incredible delivery and he's a finisher."
Wigan are the only visiting team this term to have scored three goals at West Bromwich Albion and Martinez will hope they can be equally clinical in their next two assignments: tomorrow's home game against Swansea City gives them a precious opportunity to climb out of the bottom three, while Saturday brings a shot at their first major trophy against Manchester City.
The only downside at The Hawthorns was wing-back Jean Beausejour's hamstring injury which makes him a likely Wembley absentee. Wigan's defending is hardly their strong suit and Martinez, who fielded midfielder Ben Watson in central defence in the wake of Maynor Figueroa's season-ending injury, will have to reshuffle his pack again. A good thing, then, that their spirit is strong.
"We have to carry on and we need to believe in ourselves," said Scharner. "As the song says, 'We are believers'." It certainly looks that way.
Goals: West Brom Long 29, McAuley 50. Wigan Kone 39, McArthur 58, McManaman 80.
Substitutions: WBA Morrison 5 (Rosenberg, 65), Thomas 5 (Lukaku, 65), Brown (Mulumbu, 86). Wigan Golobart 5 (Stam, 57), McArthur 7 (Gomez, 57), Espinoza (Beausejour, 74).
Booked: WBA Ridgewell, Jones, McAuley, Brown. Wigan Maloney, Golobart, Scharner.
Man of the match Maloney. Match rating 8/10. Possession: WBA 51%. Wigan Athletic 49%.
Attempts on target: WBA 11. Wigan Athletic 8.
Referee L Probert (S Gloucs). Attendance 25,756.
Crowd kept Odemwingie out
Steve Clarke, the West Brom manager, decided against sending on Peter Odemwingie (above) as a substitute on Saturday because of the crowd reaction as the Nigerian forward warmed up. "It probably influenced my decision," admitted Clarke of the booing and abusive chants that greeted the player who tried to join QPR in January.
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