League Cup miracle, one year on: Wigan Athletic

30 Oct

wigan

Width of a Post continues its look back on last season’s incredible League Cup run, as Jason McKeown reflects on the shock victory over Wigan, which occurred a year ago today.

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (Bradford City win 4-2 on penalties)

The impending bleakness of winter sharply falls into focus at this time of the year. The clocks have gone back, which suddenly means that, come 5pm, it is already pitch-black outside. For those of us who have 9-5 jobs, the psychological effect of this sudden jump to darkness can leave you feeling miserable. As you leave the office, it already seems as though the day is long over.

Tonight at 6pm, I am fighting through the dark and the M6 traffic to get to Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium, having finished work early to make it in good time. The ground’s floodlights shine brightly to act as a homing beacon, and after getting past numerous traffic light junctions we find ourselves in a retail park with the stadium a centre piece, immediately surrounded by a raft of mini car parks that are numbered for who is allowed to use them. The visiting supporters’ parking section looks difficult to get out of and the fee to park leaves you gasping for breath in shock. There is no prospect of street parking, so the three of us reluctantly split the cost. Welcome to the Premier League.

The set up around the ground seems impressive, but in the blackness of 6pm it’s difficult to locate anything useful like somewhere to eat and a place to drink. We wander around aimlessly looking for any building with lights on, finding only a giant supermarket that is scarily busy with Wigan folk doing the big shop. We seem to walk around for an hour with no luck in finding anything of use; just a giant fish and chip place with long queues. Reluctantly, we give up and go inside the ground extra early for food and beer.

That we are here tonight at all has become something to savour following initial groans. The fourth round reward for getting past Notts County, Watford and Burton had not been an exciting trip to Old Trafford or the Etihad, but the relatively unglamorous, I-don’t-get-how-they-stay-up-every-season, Wigan Athletic. We’ll lose for sure, in an empty stadium, to a group of players who are hardly the household names a more favourable draw could have seen us pitted against. But hey, it’s only an hour’s drive away. So obviously we will go.

A remarkably sensible ticket pricing policy – just £10 to get in – encourages many others too. Conversations with different City friends confirm that almost everyone you know, of a claret and amber persuasion, is going. It’s soon announced that City’s initial allocation has been snapped up; and shortly afterwards the extra tickets have all gone too. A 5,000 away sell out that will guarantee a raucous atmosphere if nothing else.

Having gotten over the disappointment of a seemingly poor cup draw, there’s a growing sense of excitement in the build-up to the game. Three days earlier we were in league action at Burton – the side we beat to make the fourth round – and taunted the home fans about how we were going to Wigan and they were not. Possibly the only occasion in the history of football that a group of supporters have bragged about playing Wigan Athletic.

Which is not to be disparaging of the Latics. Their rise up the leagues and eight years of Premier League participation are an inspiration to clubs like ourselves. True, their incredible adventure had been funded by the millionaire Dave Whelan; but in the top flight that have retained a sensible policy of bringing in young players who can eventually be sold for a profit, while in the meantime benefiting from their services. And under Roberto Martinez, they play some wonderful football. Too open, perhaps, for a club who will always be battling relegation, but more preferable to the dourness of someone like Stoke. Everyone seems to look down their noses at Wigan, but they have every right to hold their heads high.

Their stadium is certainly impressive – much more so than it appears on TV. Far removed from the identi-kit grounds built over the last two decades, the steepness of the stands provides you an unexpected on-top-of-the-pitch feel, and the roof offers good acoustics that we will later exploit. Having supped food and drink on the excellent concourse, myself, Stephen and Alan make our way to our seats amongst the early arrivals, who have already begun chants that will not stop all night.

Before we can feel as excited, though, we are still digesting the shock news – revealed by a friend on the concourse – that on route to Wigan it had been announced that Luke Oliver’s season was over and that Andrew Davies would miss five months of action, after the pair were injured in that game at Burton. We already knew they were out for tonight – a fact that had increased the unlikeness of a cup exit – but to discover they would be missing in league action for so long suddenly dampened promotion expectations.

Tonight Rory McArdle – who had been playing at right back and not fully convincing – would be moved to his natural centre back position and 19-year-old Carl McHugh brought in for only his third game. What a test for them.

Early stages, it seems that the game will go true to form. Wigan start well. City can’t get hold of the ball. Pass, pass, pass. Forwards, backwards, side to side. What is in effect a reserve Wigan team look confident and there is a purpose to their play. Nine minutes in, the home fans are cheering as Wigan put the ball into the back of the net. This could be a long night.

Yet the linesman comes to City’s rescue, disallowing the goal. And as the minutes tick by with Matt Duke still to concede, the League Two side grow in stature. By the midway point of the half, the Bantams – attacking the packed out away stand – get forward on an increasingly regular basis. A patched up central midfield of Will Atkinson and Nathan Doyle – the returning Gary Jones only fit enough for the bench – impress greatly. Nahki Wells is the star of the show though. His touch, his dribbling and his on and off-the-ball running: Nahki looks every inch a higher league player.

As half time arrives you wonder why we were so pessimistic going into the match. City were the better side for the half’s final 25 minutes, and the question is raised for the first time: can we win this?

Wigan get better after the break, and it seems as though most of the game is played in City’s half. But their determination to stay true to their passing ethos means that clear cut chances are few and far between. Tonight makes men out of Darby, McArdle and McHugh – they are simply outstanding. The on-the-deck approach of Wigan suits McHugh’s style of defending and he makes countless interceptions and tackles. One of the best individual displays of the season.

After soaking up so much pressure, City suddenly break out with the impressive Zavon Hines able to run at his full back in possession. He beats his man, finds the angle a bit too narrow but nevertheless forces home keeper Al Habsi into a tip over the bar.

The atmosphere is even better than you’d imagine. The chanting never lulls, the range of songs extensive. Wigan’s most vocal lot are positioned to our left, next to us; but they don’t have the numbers to match our noise. We are, undoubtedly, that fabled 12th man and are helping our players. It feels special to be here, contributing and part of the noise. When was the last time City had such a big away following, anywhere? Off the top of my head, not since Leeds in a League Cup tie back in 1998.

The referee brings the game to a close, and we have extra time. The pattern is similar in City retaining their shape and discipline, whilst Wigan continue to try and carve us open with patient passing. The spectre of penalties – that scenario we so love – looms larger, but there is still time to see out. With five minutes to go, Jordi Gomez is played clean through and it seems as though heartbreak is inevitable. But incredibly, the Spaniard places his shot wide of Duke’s post. We cheer as though we are celebrating a goal.

Penalties are taken at the opposite end of the stadium. In front of an empty stand. Goodness knows who makes these decisions, but it probably gives Wigan a better chance compared to facing up to 5,000 City fans booing them. The first two penalties for each side are converted, before Darby scores and Shaun Maloney misses. Soon after City are 4-2 up, and Wigan have to score their fifth penalty to stay in the game. Gomez’s tame effort is brilliantly saved by Duke, cueing the memorable scenes of his team mates chasing him to the corner flag to pile on him in celebration.

Something most of us only see after watching clips from the game on TV later. We are lost in a sea of emotions as we go crazy revelling in the most incredible of victories. I jump on my long-time City watching friend Stephen, and we hug for a good few seconds. In a flash, memories of dour and dreadful away days run through your mind to offer perspective of how good this moment is. We’ve seen so much crap and endured so much pain, but tonight belongs to us supporters. Everywhere you look people are jumping on top of each other and cheering loudly.

Eventually the players de-mob from Duke’s back and come over to join the party. We’ve not seen full time scenes like this for many, many years. It is as though we have won promotion. It’s probably the best moment supporting the club in over a decade.

When we finally have to leave the DW, we pass TVs in the concourse reflecting on Arsenal’s live TV 7-5 victory over Reading. They will get tomorrow’s headlines, not us, but it doesn’t really matter. We will be in the hat alongside Arsenal and six other sides. We are in the last eight of the League Cup. Astonishing stuff.

We get out of the car park easily, and onto the M6 in no time. We are riding on the crest of a wave. Scarcely believing what we had just seen and struggling to comprehend the scale of the achievement. 24 long hours to get through before the draw for the next round of the cup is made. I just want us to play one of the big guns, at home. We are due that glam tie now. Surely.

Read our look back on Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

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5 Responses to “League Cup miracle, one year on: Wigan Athletic”

  1. Sarah October 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    What an amazing article! Superbly written! Sums up how we were all feeling and really nice to look back on it.

  2. Richard Johnston October 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    It’s difficult to believe that it’s already a year since the Wigan game. My memories of the evening:

    – Leaving work early to get to the game and telling my colleagues that we’d probably get hammered. It wasn’t the last time I’d say that and be very wrong.

    – Zavon Hines absolutely running himself into the ground. A fantastic performance. The moment after Al Habsi saved his shot, when Hines pounded the ground in frustration, finally made me believe that we could actually win this.

    – Gomez’s miss in extra time. I still can’t believe he put that wide.

    – Carl McHugh, as the final penalty was saved, ignoring his teammates and sprinting the length of the half to slide in front of the raucous away end. Someone more talented than me should put together a collage of Carl McHugh celebrations from last season – the sheer joy of the slide at Wigan, the expression of disbelief after Arsenal, the swan dive at home to Villa and the brilliant image of him hugging the ref after the away leg – superb.

    • Jason October 30, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

      I was recently looking back at footage of last season and the number of times Carl McHugh puts his hands over his head and stares around in disbelief and wonderment – taking the moment in – are amazing. Oh to have been Carl McHugh last season, not quite believing what he is achieving.

  3. Bernie Holliday October 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Happy Days! Excellent write up of an extraordinary night. Looking forward to others in the series. For me, perhaps, one of the best moments in watching City. We had no chance that night, especially with the injuries sustained a few days before. I remember saying I would be relieved at anything less than 6-0. How wonderful to be so totally wrong. That night the team proved what spirit they had and although victories over Arsenal and Villa were truly memorable somehow not quite so unexpected.
    My best memory is probably of the 1996 play-off final as I took my 10 year old son with me. That was a really happy moment to share that time with him. Go forward 17 years and that same son took me to Wigan that night. That wasn’t bad either.

  4. Philip Jackson October 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Can’t wait for the DVD! great article.

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