FORGET the aftershave, the hankies from grandma and the latest chart CD – Wigan Athletic supporters received the best possible Christmas present in Nottingham yesterday.
Latics set a new club record of 22 league games without defeat as goals from Michael O’Neill and Andy Liddell sealed this landmark victory at Meadow Lane.
And they re-wrote the history books in style, turning in their best away performance of the season to see off Notts County.
If everyone is honest, many of the displays on the way to achieving this magnificent record haven’t been that convincing have they?
But yesterday was different, with Latics playing with style from start to finish.
The home side, who topped the table earlier in the campaign and are certainly no mugs, had no answer to their visitors who could comfortably have won by a greater margin.
Perhaps this was the point of the season we’ve been waiting for, when Latics finally found top gear.
Around 1,000 noisy travelling fans – many in fancy dress – were in attendance to see this piece of history made and they soon turned the away end into the best festive party in town.
What a smashing sight seeing Father Christmas, characters from South Park, a milk-maid, lions, gorillas and a monk doing the conga to celebrate!
Although talk of breaking the record had been played down by the players over the last few weeks, finally achieving it clearly meant a great deal to them.
And the way they celebrated at the end, you half expected them to leap over the barriers and join in the conga themselves.
Despite last week’s below par showing against Brentford, manager John Benson named an unchanged starting line-up.
That meant no Stuart Barlow up front while Roberto Martinez couldn’t even find himself a place on the bench after missing out last week because of suspension.
But the starting XI repaid Benson’s faith with a super show, getting at their hosts from the first whistle.
Simon Haworth saw a shot blocked by a defender in the box as early as the third minute, while the striker fired over the bar soon after wards from Jeff Peron’s cross.
Latics went close to opening the scoring in the 20th minute when the hard-working Scott Green broke clear from midfield and raced upfield.
Finding his way blocked by a covering defender outside the box, he laid the ball square to the supporting Liddell who let fly with a powerful drive. But Darren Ward dived to his left to pull off a smart save.
Kevin Sharp, who had his best game this season, nearly blotted his copy book in the 27th minute when a back header fell woefully short of Roy Carroll. Stallard nipped in but Carroll spread himself superbly to block the shot at point blank range.
Despite that scare, Latics were in control and took the lead after 35 minutes.
Green’s pass found Liddell on the right hand side of the box, and his low cross into the middle was tucked away with a side foot finish by O’NEILL from six yards.
It was the Irishman’s first goal of the season and silenced one or two terrace critics who had booed his name as the teams were read out before the game.
Personally, I can’t really why a small group of fans have taken against him.
While he’s not got lightening pace, O’Neill provides a valuable engine in the middle of the park which every side needs.
A pacey winger or a striker might be more exciting to watch, but you can’t fill a team solely with them.
Perhaps with the arrival of Alan McLoughlin in a holding midfield role, O’Neill will be given more licence to push forward and get into a few more scoring positions.
O’Neill turned provider four minutes after the goal, when his cross from the left wing picked out Haworth in acres of room in the box.
The big fella connected with a powerful header which had Ward scrambling across goal to parry on the line.
Latics’ pressure continued after the break, with Peron seeing a close range shot saved by Ward in the 59th minute.
Liddell and O’Neill combined to stretch the lead after 74 minutes.
O’Neill won possession in midfield and slipped the ball through to LIDDELL who brought it under control and tucked a low shot past Ward from 14 yards for his sixth goal of the campaign.
In the closing stages, a low cross from County substitute Andy Hughes deceived everyone in the area and clipped the outside of the far post.
But Latics finished the stronger, Haworth headed a Carl Bradshaw cross over the bar, and deep in stoppage time, he was inches away from finding the bottom corner with a first time shot after Peron had set him up in the box.
But moments later the final whistle went and the celebrations began.
It’s just a shame that the moment couldn’t be savoured for long by the players – there’s the small matter of tomorrow’s home game with Gillingham to prepare for! Well done lads.
Match Report by Dave Seddon – Wigan Evening Post