The last time Wigan Athletic walked out at Wembley was on 28th May 2000 for a Division Two Play Off Final against Gillingham. It’s changed a lot since then, with a fairly expensive and time-consuming makeover converting the iconic twin towers into a giant arch. The new conception of Wembley Stadium though will welcome the Latics once again after a thirteen year wait, and it’s a very different Wigan team now.
Although that statistic may be a little misleading; Wigan have reached a major cup final at the Millenium Stadium since then, I think it’s remarkable to consider the vast changes that have occurred since that gut wrenching 3-2 defeat all those moons ago. The likes of Arjan De Zeeuw, Andy Liddell and Ian Kilford may have failed to achieve promotion that day, but Paul Jewell and co succeeded (twice!) in three years to propel Latics to the Premier League. Going so long without a trip to Wembley has been a long wait for the fans, although those years being the best in the history of our club has probably more than made up for it. The thought of having two trips to the home of football in five weeks though is a very surreal one.
To draw further comparisons with our last visit to Wembley, we reached the 2000 play off final after defeating Millwall over two legs 1-0 due to an Andrew Sheridan goal. Who are one of Wigan’s possible semi-final opponents? You guessed it, Millwall. Indeed, the last time Wigan appeared at Wembley for a Cup game was the infamous Auto Windscreens Shield Final in 1999, when the opponents again were Millwall. Did I mention that we beat them that day too?
Strangely, when Paul Jewell’s team reached the Carling Cup Final in 2006, the extraordinary run started with a squad rotation exercise against Bournemouth, just as it did this year. A repeat of the final against Manchester United is still a remote possibility as well.
Those of you that regularly read my articles will be aware that I’m partial to a dose of nostalgia, and clearly, the confirmation of Wigan’s semi-final trip to Wembley got me thinking back to previous cup finals and Wembley visits. That may be the one area where Warriors fans may claim to have one over us, but I don’t care and this isn’t about another petty Latics vs Warriors debate; this day out is ours and that’s the beauty of it. Let’s rewind a few short days to the greatest day of our season so far.
It’s early Saturday morning and Dave Whelan is lying asleep in his Cheshire mansion, dreaming of a Wigan Athletic victory at Goodison Park setting up a fantastical semi-final against his former club Blackburn Rovers. If there’s one man who’s pretty good at making far fetched ambitions reality, then it’s Whelan. Still, surely this dream had a fairly large Evertonian shaped obstacle in its way?
Indeed it did, yet come 1:14 pm Wigan were more than holding their own away from home against one of the Premier League’s highest fliers. Shaun Maloney had struck the post and James McCarthy had just forced a smart stop from stand in Toffees goalkeeper Jan Mucha, Wigan were on top, but surely they’d fall away to Everton’s attacking talent and finally be eliminated from the Cup.
However, by the time 1:18 came around, Wigan were 3-0 up.
As I listened to the radio commentary in my car, I thought I was being wound up by Radio5Live. This was a ‘useless’ team that had been ‘destroyed’ a week earlier by Liverpool and whose FA Cup run had ran out of luck; I was supposed to be preparing an article with the underlining message of ‘it was nice while it lasted.’ Maynor Figueroa, Callum McManaman and Jordi Gomez certainly had other ideas.
The first goal was an excellently placed header by Maynor, which exposed some weak Everton defending off a Wigan corner; whilst the second was a fantastic finish by Callum after the through ball of the day from Everton skipper Phil Neville sent him clear. The third goal, the one which really turned water into wine, was a curling effort from Jordi Gomez which left Mucha stranded after Arouna Kone’s cut back.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, a club with no fans or history who don’t deserve to be in the Premier League couldn’t be going to Wembley and find themselves 90 minutes from Europe and a major cup final. Surely Everton would hit back and win 4-3.
Yet the typical scenario of Wigan collapsing just didn’t happen, the longer the second half went on, the more frustrated and flat Everton looked, and the more the home fans departed in their thousands. Whilst also being a coupon buster, this shock result could also pop Everton’s balloon in terms of their whole season.
To talk in clichés, now Wigan have a cup semi final to look forward to as well as ten cup finals to ensure their safety; along with another potential Wembley day out in May.
My point is, the added topping of FA Cup success to our regular survival run in pizza means that the next three months could be the most exciting to be a Wigan Athletic fan ever.
I don’t think I’m over exaggerating here, we’re used to an epic great escape mission but the bonus excitement of at least a semi-final and the more than possible scenario of a final just makes it even more exhilarating. This is the kind of scenarios that Wigan fans dreamt of when the club was struggling to break out of the Third Division, the kind that Dave Whelan may not have even dared entertain when he bought the club in 1995.
Eventually, we will go down, it may even be this season; but if we do manage to stay up and enjoy an awesome climax with an FA Cup final, then it will be a season to cherish, because we’ll do anything to do it again when we’re back in the Championship. I mentioned recently that every survival run in is unique, and this just adds a unique component to this year’s.
I personally think that the excitement and togetherness that Wembley will bring will unite the club and make our survival bid a much stronger one; rather than contribute to our relegation like it did for Birmingham in 2011. So let’s get behind the Tics and make this season yet another to remember.
See you at Wembley.