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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Wigan: Is their biggest challenge this summer to retain Martinez?


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Escape artists never die. At the last second, when all hope is lost and the chances are wildly stacked in their favour, somehow they defy the odds. They find intricate – and often elaborate – ways of kicking death in the teeth, pulling the Grim Reaper’s pants down and rousing the crowd with a brilliantly timed, brilliantly executed escape. It truly is a special kind of art. Harry Houdini, eat your heart out; you have a worthy competitor in the form of the rejuvenated Wigan Athletic and their likeable manager Roberto Martinez.

Wigan perform a special kind of act. It’s been noted to point of tedium that they are an impecunious, Billy-no-mates, almost long-suffering club that are often forced to sell their finest talents such as Antonio Valencia and the grumpy Charles N’Zogbia (I wonder if he’s looking at Wigan and rueing having to play under Alex McLeish every week?) – Hey, they don’t have it easy. But with some kind of elemental force of will, they make the ‘bigger’ clubs – often with larger budgets – who are also staring down the relegation barrel look a bit silly. At this time of year, there’s no show like it in football (apart from those Barcelona pretenders) Martinez rouses the team, wipes the seasonal slate clean and implements such resourcefulness; such a refusal to lie down.

The performances from the Spaniards men in last night’s fixture against Arsenal epitomised what the club are about. James MacArthur in particular was excellently organised and bounced around for every cause that seemed to be lost. Connor Sammon came on and put in yet another athletic, hearty display … and Christ, even Franco DI Santo gave Arsenal the run around after scoring his first goal. Victor Moses looked dangerous, Gomez kept his cool … but in truth, and as Martinez himself noted, to single out one player’s individual performance does a disservice to what was yet another spirited and efficient performance.

The idea that Wigan are a mini-Barcelona is exaggerated, yet while sometimes Wigan’s play lingers on risky rather than daring – and occasionally it fails to properly come to fruition – this style of play that Martinez so strongly adheres to pays off more than it endangers the club.

Ah, Martinez. The Spaniard is annoyingly hard to dislike (although I still maintain that tan shoes and black trousers are absurd) yet one must not praise the youthful boss for his likability factor, but for his managerial skills. And they are evident. After last season’s great escape, one wondered whether he would move on to greener grass. It seems a combination of loyalty (and cutely realising what the Villa job would entail) persuaded him to stay. But with a style of play which would only improve with a larger infrastructure to work with, two successive survival campaigns stamped and perhaps a third one in the works, one wonders whether he will move on – perhaps sooner than is thought. After all, his reputation is growing within the management gig.

Wigan are currently on the impressive total on 34 points (with four matches to play) and have won three matches out of their last four league games – including mesmerizingly triumphant wins against United and Arsenal.

And what blow would Wigan feel if he was to leave? After all, he seems to be the heart and soul of the success – or the refusal to fail – Wigan enjoy every last season.

Clearly, there’s still a job to do and complacency will not be allowed. But continue this vain and form and relegation survival may be sewn up quicker than it usually is for the club. And while owner and apparent good egg Dave Whelan has always backed his manager when it would have been so easy to jump the gun – and Martinez has repaid that faith with plucky success – if a larger club came calling, would Martinez find it hard to resist? Would his work with Wigan have naturally concluded? Martinez has said he is ‘staying put’ as long as Whelan remains chairman, but Dave Whelan himself has hinted this may be his last season in the seat and the keys may be handed over to his 21-year-old grandson.

The challenge this spring and summer may not necessarily be to skin their way through survival, but to keep hold of a promising and auspicious young manager – and perhaps to find a replacement who can replicate the wonderful job he is doing. Now that is a challenge. Soon-to-be-vacant La Liga positions – or even Swansea and Spurs – have been touted. One feels that when the time is right, Martinez will step up a rung of the managerial ladder.

It has often been said that one day, Wigan will see their luck run out or one day the club will free-fall into the Championship. As long as Martinez remains at the helm, it’s becoming hard to see that happen. For to put Wigan’s recent run of results down to mere ‘luck’ is an insult. It’s a combination of principles being stuck to through thick and thin, excellent man-management skills from Martinez and a proud refusal to recognise they are inferior.

‘Luck’ is a loose, lazy term to write off what is a tried and tested formula; indeed, weeks are spent where Wigan may not pick up points but do they whimper? Do they recoil? Do they even look at the table? No; ‘faith’ is kept and Martinez’s optimism runs through the veins of the club. It is their life’s blood and boy do they savour every drop.

The usually excellent Gary Neville jokingly claimed that even he felt ‘proud’ to be a Wigan ‘fan’, but this is a saccharine-loaded, lavishing nicety to a club that one shouldn’t look at and feel ‘proud’, but actually fear. They blew the title race open. They’ve blown the race for fourth open. At this time of the year, Wigan are unpredictable and, if you’d kindly stop the sniggering in the back, bloody well dangerous.

With Martinez in charge, Wigan are boosted by sheer enthusiasm – let alone his splendorous stylistics and managerial know-how – in the relegation scrap. Take the Spaniard away and no matter who he is replaced with, the fight seems such a colder one to endure. With Wigan’s Escape Artist’s shackles seemingly being cast away once more this year, a much larger challenge may yet present itself it in the form of Martinez and, in the words of Wigan’s very own Mr Whelan, the larger success he is ‘destined for’.

Calling all Wigan fans. How confident are you that Martinez will still be at the DW next season? If he did leave, who would be in the frame to replace him? Do you think you are receiving the right amount of praise from the media following your recent victories over Manchester United and Arsenal? Whatever your views we'd love to hear from you.

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Colin Illingworth

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