Heads were bowed, cupped in hands, and no doubt a few tears were shed when referee Roy Pearson finally brought an end to this entertaining game.
What many had believed to be nigh on impossible before the kick off was well and truly within the grasp of Paul Jewell and his battle weary men when Neil Roberts had put them in the driving seat with his sweetly struck 34th minute volley.
However it just wasn’t meant to be as 36-year-old Brian Deane popped up to deny Wigan a place in the end of season play-offs. The former Sheffield United, Leeds and Middlesbrough striker had joined West Ham on a free transfer from Leicester City and had only been introduced to this game as a 73rd minute replacement for Bobby Zamora but his impact on Wigan’s season will be remembered for many a year to come.
A record crowd for a football game at the JJB Stadium turned up to watch this epic encounter and even though the majority of those that attended left thoroughly dejected and wondering what went wrong, nobody could complain that they hadn’t seen an entertaining afternoon’s football.
Wigan were without record signing Jason Roberts, who served the second of a two match suspension, and the injured Lee McCulloch. This paved the way for Neil Roberts to make only his second league start since the turn of the year.
The former Wrexham forward was given the nod to line up alongside Nathan Ellington over Andy Liddell whose 85th minute appearance as substitute for the Welshman looks set to be his last for the club after almost six season’s loyal service.
West Ham started the game knowing that only defeat by four clear goals could take away a play-off spot from them and when Neil Roberts fired Wigan into the lead it appeared that damage limitation was the only thing on their minds as their opponents overwhelmed them with a gritty, determined display.
However Hammers manager Alan Pardew changed his game plan after the break and 10 minutes in brought on a third striker in the shape of Republic of Ireland international David Connolly, entering the fray in place of Scottish midfielder Don Hutchinson.
His decision, ‘to be fair to the other sides’, as he later put it, saw his side get more into the game after a first half largely dominated by their hosts but the equalising goal, when it arrived, was hardly indicative of the preceding 90 minutes but just about summed up Wigan’s season as someone quite rightly pointed out to me on the way out of the ground.
Latics started off the game as they meant to go on, knowing that all the good work they had done throughout the season would mean nothing if they didn’t get a result from this game.
A win, however, might not have been enough if results elsewhere didn’t go their way but they put that thought to the back of their minds and got on with the job in hand.
Jimmy Bullard was the first to try his hand in the 7th minute when he tested young West Ham keeper Stephen Bywater from distance, his effort pushed around the upright by the former Rochdale stopper.
Minutes later and it was Gary Teale’s turn but after using his pace to get the better of fellow Scot Don Hutchinson, he saw his attempted lob turned away at the expense of another corner.
Wigan skipper Jason De Vos then nodded an Alan Mahon cross narrowly wide of the mark in the 20th minute as Latics pushed for that all important goal.
News had filtered around the ground that Crystal Palace had gone behind at Coventry and with Ipswich’s game against Cardiff still goalless things were looking rosy.
Oblivious to goings on elsewhere Wigan continued to press forward and Gareth Farrelly, making his first start at the JJB since his free move from Bolton, went close in the 26th minute with a decent shot from 25 yards out but Bywater proved himself equal to it with a smart save.
Latics took a deserved lead in the 34th minute and by now Coventry had gone two up against Crystal Palace which made this goal that bit more poignant.
Alan Mahon sent a delightful ball over the top from just inside the Wigan half to find Nathan Ellington racing down the left hand side of the West Ham area. He cut inside and attempted to prod the ball home but saw his effort blocked by Hammers skipper Christian Dailly.
In the scramble for the loose ball it looped off The Duke’s left boot and landed perfectly for NEIL ROBERTS who smashed it home with a first time volley from 12 yards out to send the majority of the crowd wild.
The talk during the half time break was all about the play-offs and could Wigan maintain their lead, especially with Palace losing and Ipswich drawing 1-1. It seemed to good to be true – everything was going Latics’ way and it felt great.
Pardew made the first change of the afternoon in the 56th minute when he introduced Connolly and it almost paid off immediately when the new three pronged strike force charged forward with virtually their first real attack of the game but fortunately for Wigan De Vos was on hand to block Zamora’s strike with a perfectly timed sliding challenge just before the hour mark.
Ten minutes later Leighton Baines proved just why he was being touted for David Lowe’s England U21 side, the man himself an interested spectator in the West Stand.
Michael Carrick’s corner was flicked on by Dailly and Marlon Harewood’s header then seemed certain to end up in the back of the net but 19-year-old Baines was perfectly placed to head off the line and Jimmy Bullard eventually cleared upfield with an overhead kick from inside the area.
Ex Brighton and Spurs striker Zamora almost levelled moments later but his shot, when clear on goal, was aimed straight at a grateful Filan.
Ellington’s attempt at goal from 20 yards out, which would have almost certainly secured Wigan’s place in the play-offs, was deflected behind for yet another corner kick as the game edged towards the final few minutes and substitute Andy Liddell almost set up Teale for Wigan’s second when his cross was turned narrowily wide by the former Ayr United winger.
Disaster then struck for Wigan with less than a minute of normal time remaining when Teale gave away a soft free kick 30 yards out for impeding Nigel Reo-Coker. Carrick swung the ball into the middle of the danger zone and there was BRIAN DEANE to rise above De Vos to send a downward header beyond Filan’s reach and the rest is history.