No, it’s not the obvious one, contesting the 2013 FA Cup Final which produced one of the great shocks, a 1-0 win for Wigan. However it does centre on the fate that befell the Latics that very same season when they took the cup with them as they were relegated to the Championship, a most unwelcome first for Dave Whelan’s (then) side. Manchester City were also relegated from the Premier League before the millennium, and it’s the way the City players responded to the clubs demotion then that had me thinking recently about the similarities between Wigan and City.
City were relegated to the First Division (now the Championship) in 1996 and spent two seasons at that level, before the ignominy of relegation to the third tier. Bad enough it was the lowest ebb for the club in its entire history, but they also became only the second club ever to be relegated to a third tier as former winners of a European trophy.
I covered a number of City games that encompassed City’s startling fall from grace, tail end of the Premier League relegation season through the next two years and down into the third tier, now League One. And what was noticeable, to me anyway, as a neutral, was the apparent indifference exhibited on the pitch by some of the players who went down into the third level whilst still earning Premier League wages. In the second tier there was almost an air of ‘we are too good to be playing at this level’ from some players – and enough of them for it to affect performance and, in turn, results. So much so that in the third level of English football, amazingly, that air of ‘we don’t deserve to be here’ was still manifest.
For me, as an observer, that indifference came to an end in 1999, and it came, at of all places, Stoke City. Having seen apathy reigning in sky blue shirts I saw a changed City beat the Potters 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium and they did so because they seemed to accept, as a group, that they were where they were because league tables do not lie. City were promoted that season via the most dramatic play-off final ever, against a Gillingham side managed by Tony Pulis! They won promotion again the following campaign and returned to the top flight.
Switching, at last, to what’s gone wrong at Wigan; it is too simplistic to throw the accusation at their players that they switched off. However, as the club stands on the brink of relegation to League One, after sacking their manager Malky Mackay as a consequence of their lowly league position, there is some mileage in the view that a lot of Latics’ players could not handle demotion from the Premier League.
After punching above their weight for eight seasons in the top flight, it must have taken an enormous degree of resignation and acceptance that league trips to Old Trafford and Anfield would be replaced with fixtures at Griffin Park and Meadow Lane. A responsibility that some of the playing staff could not handle.
On a more pragmatic front, Wigan also lost some of their very best players, and some more of them as the current Championship season quickly plummeted into another relegation struggle.
After a year in the Championship, Jordi Gómez – arguably Wigan’s most skilful player – decamped to the Stadium of Light for more money and a return to the Premier League. Shaun Maloney decided the pull of the MLS was too strong and he went to Chicago Fire in January 2015, the same month Callum McManaman went to West Brom for nearly £5 million.
That left the ever willing James McLean as Wigan’s best player, but even he found the burden of carrying the team too much. So, as the current campaign wore on, I saw a number of Latics’ games, and witnessed the deterioration that leaves Wigan Athletic on the brink of a return to third tier football for the first time since 2002.
It was interesting to note the club statement that indicated, in part, they were looking to the future in parting company with Malky Mackay. I hope that Wigan’s next manager is appointed with due deference to what their fans want to see on the field. Good quality third tier players, good enough to play in the Championship, as well as some who may already be at Championship clubs but who are willing to play in League One.
Good honest pros who can play a bit. Dave Whelan was a good example of exactly what his team needs from hereon in.