Los tres amigos de Wigan

Owen Slot finds new expression for the universal language of football

THE reason Wigan were having such a poor start in their pre-season friendly against Atherton Laburnum Rovers last Tuesday night quickly became clear. "Izzy, stay up," Graham Barrow, the Wigan manager, yelled. "Izzy, don't track back," his assistant shouted. The short, dark right-winger looked round self- consciously, but did not react. The barks of instruction continued to assault him until it was clearly too much. Izzy stalked over to the bench and, his face, hands and shoulders united in an expression of miscomprehension, delivered a single word of frustration: "Que?"

This was Isidro Diaz, one of three Spaniards - who can just about muster a single sentence of English between them - recruited by Wigan in the close season. The locals have taken them straight to their hearts, however, and a large band of fans have taken to wearing sombreros. On their arrival, 19 days ago, the trio were whisked round the town by a television crew and filmed tucking into the local speciality - meat pies. Two days later their popularity was assured when they were spotted eating meat pies again, entirely of their own accord.

Wigan is used to foreign stars, but normally they come from Down Under and play a different game altogether. "It's about time we took the limelight off the egg-chasers," said one of the many supporters who held the Three Amigos - as they have become known - in awe. Communication on the pitch, it seemed, was not usually a problem. Indeed, once Diaz had taken on board his orders on Tuesday, he set about demonstrating his outstanding speed and delicacy of touch. He created the third of Wigan's four goals with a back-heel flick that would not look out of place in the Premiership.

And Diaz, it seems, has so far been the least convincing of the three. The other two, the midfielder Roberto Martinez and the forward Jesus Seba, were rested from the Atherton game and looked on from the stand, where they handled the attentions of their new fans in their best pidgin English. "What do you think of your new team?" asked one. Much thought followed before Seba pointed to Wigan's No10. "Ten is Cantona," he said, sending the attendant cluster into sycophantic hysteria.

No one at Springfield Park, however, is used to this foreign flavour. "You have to pinch yourself," Barrow said. "I'm usually involved in free transfers and bargains from non-League, yet at the end of June, there I was on a plane to Barcelona on a scouting mission."

The Spanish acquisition, however, had been set in motion by little Izzy himself. Last season, he had approached Paul Hodges, who once had trials with Sunderland but now runs the Spanish arm of JJB Sports, which is owned by Dave Whelan, the millionaire former Blackburn defender. Whelan had recently taken over as chairman at Wigan, and Hodges suggested the transfer to him. Whelan, however, said it would be unfair to take just the one Spaniard, so Hodges looked around for two more. Martinez was at Third Division FC Balaguer with Diaz, though the real find was Seba, an Under-21 international at Real Zaragoza. All were young, unmarried and available on free transfers because they had not made a specified number of appearances for their clubs' first teams.

"We had heard of Everton, Manchester United, Liverpool," Martinez said. "But it was difficult because Wigan were Third Division." Whelan, however, told them of his plans to have Wigan in the First Division in two years and the deal was done. Whelan has also paid for their hotel, a language teacher, a house in to which they will soon move and a housekeeper. "Mr Whelan is incredible, fantastic," Martinez said. "You don't get people like him in Spain."

The deal, so far, has worked a treat. The amigos have been pleasantly surprised. "The play of Wigan is more European than in most of England," Martinez said - and with the trio scoring six goals between them in three friendlies, the club has already had a happy return.

There are two other unlikely beneficiaries from the transfer. One is Tony McKie, a 16-year-old YTS player at Wigan who picked up the odd Spanish expression on holiday in summers past and liked the language so much that he hired a tutor. McKie is now almost fluent and, just three weeks into his career at the club, he has become so useful as a translator that he spends most of his time with the first-team squad and last week went on the team's tour to Scotland.

The other is Hodges himself. He has received so many requests in the past three weeks from other Spaniards hoping for a move to England that could probably start an effective sideline as an agent. International imports may be old hat in the Premiership but, it seems, there is still room for a foreign invasion in the Third Division.

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