The Football Association have not made it easy for Wigan Athletic to enjoy their big day out at Wembley. Playing what used to be the showpiece of the season before the end of the campaign is inappropriate, but when one of the teams still has to fight for its Premier Division life, it really spoils the occasion.
It’s hard enough lifting yourself when its been confirmed you’ll be lining up at Doncaster and Bournemouth next season, but when you still have to secure your position in the Premier, concentrating on the FA Cup will be tough.
Wigan have a difficult enough task without that burden, for Manchester City will be anxious to recapture the trophy they won in 2011. They will certainly be more relaxed than Wigan, having already clinched their place in the UEFA Champions League carnival, but a season without silverware may not be tolerated at the Etihad and could be the catalyst for Roberto Mancini to depart for the equally monied Paris St. Germain.
There’s talk that Wigan may field a weakened side for the final, preferring to keep their best players fresh for the upcoming Premier games with Arsenal and Aston Villa. Surely professional footballers can cope with that schedule? That would be a great shame and another nail in the coffin of the FA Cup. And this is Wigan’s chance of winning something – 35 years after joining the Football League from the non-league game.
Should Wigan go all out to win the FA Cup and never mind the consequences? Damn right they should. They’re perpetual strugglers in the Premier, a league they’re never going to win. The Latics are the Coventry City of the 21st century – the last three seasons they’ve finished 15th, 16th and 16th. It’s nothing short of a miracle that they have lasted eight seasons at the top level. But they are 90 minutes away from an unlikely victory and a first major trophy. If it means relegation, they can come back – they might never reach Wembley again. And what are they sacrificing? Another campaign of struggle and mediocrity.
But it is looking increasingly like Wigan’s stay in the Premier is coming to an end. They’ve won once in their last six games and although the neutrals are hoping that they can still avoid the drop, it may be too late. City let their Premier title go a little cheaply this season. Home form has been good – their only defeat at the Etihad was against Manchester United – but they’ve slipped-up away from home and they haven’t scored enough – just 62 compared to United’s 79.
Should City beat Everton, and the smart money is on a comfortable victory, the season will still have an odour of anti-climax about it, especially as the title went to Salford and the Champions League campaign aborted early.
Although Wigan are the underdogs, they have been cast in that role already in the FA Cup. They won 3-0 at Everton in the sixth round, and not many teams have come away from Goodison with a result this season. Wigan struggled in the early rounds, getting past Bournemouth and Macclesfield in unimpressive style. Huddersfield in the fifth round were beaten 4-1 and Millwall were disposed of in the semi-final. City conceded just one goal on their route to Wembley and scored 15. Chelsea were beaten in the semi-final, but prior to that, they beat Watford, Stoke, Leeds and Barnsley. Carlos Tevez has scored five goals in the five ties.
When City and Wigan first met in the FA Cup, in January 1971, the home side had some of the top names in British football in their ranks, while Wigan were a Northern Premier League side. There was a huge gulf, but City won by only 1-0. The gulf today may not be as big, but there’s a big gap between Wigan and a City team that may just have a fresh spring in its step after the Ferguson announcement this week. Wigan, you have been warned.