So long Wigan Athletic, and thanks for all the
fish end of season memories. As Roberto Martinez’s men slip into the Championship, with an unlikely FA Cup under their arm for their efforts, Simon Smith salutes their greatest hits with a hypothetical squad list of players who have excelled at the DW over the last eight years…
After eight years in the Premier League that nobody could have predicted back in 2005, Wigan Athletic will depart the glitz and glamour of the top flight leaving us with the memories of so many exciting but fundamentally flawed teams. I’m not sure which is harder, choosing the creative players to omit or the defenders to include… Nonetheless, here’s an ultimate Wigan XI from the last eight years that reflects the nature of the team: a controversial and uncompromising 3-2-5 to have the purist salivating and the Italian fan crying with rage, sheer rage at the audacity to play so open!
Goalkeeper: Ali Al-Habsi
Surely he is the only choice, and I mean that with no disrespect to the quite capable Chris Kirkland. Al-Habsi has so often had to be the one man rescue operation for terrible Wigan defending and earned widespread plaudits for his gung-ho diving for the cameras. No he isn’t the most assured keeper in the league and always looks like he has a mistake in him, but he always looks like he has a penalty save in the bag as well. An appropriate choice for the Wigan way to play.
Right Back: Mario Melchiot (Captain)
A difficult choice. Playing with one (or zero, depending how we define it) centre backs in this ultimate Wigan XI requires a less adventurous and more dependable full back: Melchiot epitomized dependency, walking into the Wigan team as new signing-cum-captain and instantly looking like a long term Lactic. Perhaps not the most glorified of defenders but never the most culpable for errors in his time and surely the most positionally clued on in this adventurous back three. If all else fails, his uncanny resemblance to a poor man’s Edgar Davids should be enough to justify his captaincy. Then again, in light of David’s recent tumble to the conference with Barnet, perhaps it is time we refer to him as the poor man’s Melchiot?
False-Five: Titus Bramble
Another headache in the selection. Wigan really have been bereft of good centre backs over the last eight years, making the choice of the best too close to call. Perhaps the influential Caldwell in the dressing room could be useful? But who would begrudge the selection of Titus, the improbable rock at the back? Surely under his muscular frame there lurks a good defender, if only he could eradicate the 4 or 5 major gaffes every game… And besides, surely this Wigan ultimate XI needs a few errors at the back to even the odds a little, in true Wigan style!
Left Back: Leighton Baines
A much more straightforward selection, Baines was an excellent player for Wigan in the way that their current crop of full backs are not. Great growing forward, but retaining a degree of solidity and a tackling ability that covered for his adventures upfield. He may be seen as primarily an Everton player, and it is true that Goodison have witnessed the best of Baines, but Wigan unearthed and nurtured a gem in his early career.
Right Wing: Antonio Valencia
Unquestionably the player of Wigan’s Steve Bruce era, exemplifying the marriage of defensive organization and resilience with attacking talent that Wigan’s highest Premier League finish was built on. Valencia always looked a little too good for his teammates and, to the surprise of some, has found another level in Manchester (although not this season). The ability to beat his man and the excellence of his final ball make him a versatile player the likes of which many Champions league teams are without right now.
Centre Midfield: Wilson Palacios
Another good player under Bruce. Solid and aggressive when required but infinitely more measured and dependable than Lee Cattermole, Palacios is one of Wigan’s more under-underrated players. Sure there are the really genuinely underrated players, the McCarthy’s that will likely never get a big money move despite endless confident midflield displays, but the brief media praise for dear Wilson leading up to his Spurs transfer has led to perhaps an over reassessment of his Wigan days. Not good enough to be considered a resounding success but too touted to be the plucky underdog. Nonetheless, at his best he was an asset to Wigan, and would provide the bite in this otherwise stylish team.
Centre Midfield: Jimmy Bullard
It just has to be Bullard, everything about his game is as enjoyable as the man himself off the pitch. Maybe not quite as enjoyable, but running close. And he doesn’t make the cut on charisma alone: his tomfoolery belies a drive and determination that was lacking for most of this Wigan campaign, a brilliant mix of incisive passing and aggressive running. The moment that sums this up best? His audacious run and shot at the JJB when all over players had stopped playing due to a blackout. The alleged removal of Freddie Ljunberg’s shorts was better remembered, the night vision video of Bullard’s attempt to play with no sight is the exact spirit of this team.
Left Wing: Charles N’Zogbia
A controversial selection, especially in front of the marauding Baines, but N’Zogbia is the classic Wigan buy: a declining but talented player in need of a resurrection, he reached heights at Wigan that he hasn’t come remotely close to at Villa and provided the flair the overrated Hugo Rodellega needed around him to function. Creative, insightful, lazy and languid, he was the Lactics’ Berbatov of the wing for two beautiful seasons. At times, anyway.
Number Ten: Shaun Maloney
A true joy to watch on every occasion, Shaun Maloney is surely form a different era. A golden age when British players had trickery and skill first, and “doing a job” and “determination” second. He looks and plays like someone who, for once, is a footballer first and an athlete second, a floating, clumsy, celtic magician, and one of the few players in the country wearing a ten on their back that have any right to. Certainly he has his bad days, and the mid-table plateau is probably his upper limit (a move to a bigger club would surely be like watching Charlie Adam Liverpool mark two), but his ability to try anything and everything, to shake off the underdog tag and refuse to believe that he should be trying to stop the other team playing instead of paying himself, to refuse to accept that the back-heel and rainbow flick are for the back page regulars, the passion not only in winning but in taking pride in every touch; these are the real qualities so few players even hint at, that Shaun Maloney oozes with every game. His free kick against Arsenal was pure Wigan, a demonstration that if anyone adopted the “believe” slogan it was him. The first name on my ultimate Wigan XI, on merit and for the example he sets in playing the Wigan way.
Centre Forward: Victor Moses
His move to Chelsea seemed a little over the top at the time and I remember being the first to question the point of it. To question his reasons: when would he play? How much more would he earn? And he has been very restricted in the league. But even his brief cameos have impressed and demonstrated a mixture of skill and determination to make the most of his small opportunities that made him a success at Wigan. So much more than a winger, Moses reinvented himself as a dangerous utility forward, quick, strong and intelligent, and he has become invaluable to Nigeria already. Simply dangerous.
Bigger Centre Forward: Emile Heskey
Big Emile, really? The thing is, for the attacking talent the Lactics have displayed over the last eight years, up front has rarely been a strong point. The huge list of one dimensional, hot and cold, classy but unreliable strikers Wigan have fielded is baffling. Heskey is far from the most exciting of all these, he doesn’t have the ridiculous wonder goals that di Santo scored once every 300 appearances in his locker, and his goal tally is uninspiring. He wasn’t even as good as Amir Zaki as far as the big-lad stakes go. But unlike the Egyptian, Heskey’s desire was never in question, and his simple but understated play as a foil was always an asset, probably something the current side could have done with. His ability to distract other defenders time and time again, leaving space for others, may have ultimate failed for England, but at this level it was a useful tactic. He was always tidy enough from set pieces as well.
Obviously there’s no keeper on the bench, that being fitting with this crazy team. I’m sure Titus could stand between the sticks if need be.
Only just missed the cut, a great player who plays with a conviction that disguises his age. New sensation Callum McManaman is the same age, and yet it feels like his teammate has been around forever. Unless he gets a transfer away, he’ll be the Carrick of the Championship next season.
Tactically excellent, a roaming tower of power plugging gaps all over the current defence. His ability to play as a centre back and fullback ten times a game, depending where the wing backs have pushed to is reminiscent of Abidal at Barcelona, and he provides a measure of calm to the chaos around him.
The flavour of the month will surely earn a transfer to Spurs and then do nothing, but his willingness to run at players time and time again is always a useful asset. One dimensional, but such a great player to bring off the bench as a result.
A full on Martinezian, played with a confidence he has no right to have and as such often looked dazzling. Often looked dreadful as well. But his hat trick against Reading was pure La Masia and when gung-ho is required Gomez could always be worth a cameo.
A half season sensation, bulldozing through defences and creating his own chances by feeding off scraps. Remains to be see whether he could have adapted to Martinez’s style but he played like a true number nine and deserves credit on the pitch even if he was deplorable off it.
Impressive enough, never dong much wrong, and solid on his good days.
Ferocious, competitive, violent in the extreme but played with a class he has yet to replicate for Sunderland. Useful for a squad anyways, if certainly not a first team shoe-in.
Manager: It just has to be the magic Martinez.
He has his fans, he has his critics: the enigmatic Spaniard will always be the man to manage this attack minded team to Europa League success and relegation to League One.