2008-2009 at Hamilton: When Wigan’s FA Cup-winning midfield was born

Pivotal Seasons : Chapter 2

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 16, 2018

Wigan Athletic’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final must go down as one of the most dramatic matches in the famous competition’s storied history. For a team that finished in the Premier League relegation zone to conquer the league’s runners-up was the kind of madness we’ve rarely seen in the cup finals of this century.

There are several heroes from that day, but two of the most important members of that Latics squad were the midfielders James McCarthy and James McArthur. They had known each other since their days at Hamilton Academical and the partnership they forged there was vital in Wigan’s historic success.

The two players first confused fans, commentators and journalists with their similar names on September 30, 2006, when 15-year-old McCarthy came on in the second half of a 1-1 draw between Hamilton and Queen of the South to accompany 18-year-old McArthur in the Accies midfield.

They played together another 21 times in that 2006/07 season and, under the excellent management of Billy Reid, the pair then won the Scottish First Division in 2007/08, earning promotion to the top flight. Both McArthur and McCarthy were key members of that squad, playing the third and fourth most minutes respectively, and finishing as the third and second top goalscorers respectively, behind the centre-forward Richard Offiong.

Yet it was in 2008/09 that this partnership truly blossomed. Heading into that campaign in the Scottish Premier League, as it was still known at the time, McCarthy was 17 and McArthur was 20. Even in a squad as young as Hamilton’s they were two of the very youngest, yet these two baby-faced players were the two most important and they racked up the most minutes of all outfielders, with McCarthy missing just 283 minutes through that whole league campaign and with McArthur absent for just 152.

With these two future internationals in the team, the 2008/09 season was a prosperous one for the Accies, who finished ninth to avoid relegation, while they also reached the quarter-finals of both the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup, losing out to that year’s league champions Rangers on both occasions.

Looking back on it now, manager Billy Reid still gushes with pride at the thought of that “fantastic side”. He did so much for both players, even if he has always been keen to stress that the development of McCarthy, McArthur and the others in that squad was a joint effort. “It wasn’t just me who brought McCarthy and McArthur on,” Reid explained in an interview with the Daily Record. “There were others involved in that process. But we took both of them from housing schemes in Glasgow and they’re now fantastic individuals. That makes my time at Hamilton worthwhile.”

Following that successful first season in the top flight, both of the star men of the Hamilton midfield were understandably on many other clubs’ radar. McCarthy went to Wigan in that summer of 2009, while McArthur similarly travelled down the M6 the following summer, after staying with Accies and leading them to an improved seventh-placed finish.

At Wigan, they didn’t play together often to begin with and made just seven appearances together in the 2010/11 Premier League season, but by the end of the following season they were both regular starters for Roberto Martínez in the club’s successful battle to avoid the drop and it remained that way in 2012/13. In only four league matches that season did they fail to play together, while they featured in every FA Cup match from the quarter-finals on.

The quarter-final was a tricky trip to take on Everton at Goodison Park, but three goals in the 30th, 31st and 32nd minutes from Maynor Figueroa, Callum McManaman and Jordi Gómez put the Latics 3-0 up. McCarthy was on the pitch for the whole game, while McArthur was brought on for the final 20 minutes to help close out the victory.

For the semi-finals, Wigan travelled to Wembley to face Millwall and it was a similar story, with McCarthy starting and finishing the match and with McArthur brought on for the final half hour when Wigan were already leading thanks to a Shaun Maloney goal, ahead of McManaman’s late second.

Then there was the famous final, against the mighty Manchester City and their overseas-dollars–papier-mâché of an XI. Wigan always believed they could do it, with Martínez oozing confidence throughout the preparations and even boosting the squad’s self-belief by bringing in a psychologist and then by asking them to write about how good their colleagues were, slipping these words of praise through each player’s hotel room door in an envelope on the morning of the match.

Tactically, Wigan set up in something a 3-4-3 formation, which wasn’t completely foreign to them given that they’d often played with three centre-backs. McArthur was the one chosen to play as the right-wing-back, while McCarthy was just inside in central midfield. For the two Glaswegians, this was a comfortable set-up as they had played in these positions before for Hamilton on a few occasions, as Accies had often took the field with three at the back too. McManaman was the one ahead of McArthur on the right flank that afternoon and was one of few players granted a license to stay high up the pitch, meaning McArthur and McCarthy had extra defensive work to do. They both did it well.

Furthermore, the overall Wigan philosophy was a familiar one for both of them. “The reason it was right for both of them to go to Wigan is the style of football they played under Martínez,” Reid explained in the aforementioned Daily Record interview. “They were brought up with that style and they’ve now taken it to another level.”

From McArthur’s point of view, their experience from their time at New Douglas Park was invaluable in their success at Wigan, not just in the FA Cup. “We’re playing as a twosome in there and loving it,” he told the Daily Record shortly after the cup success. “Not many teams play 3-4-3, but it’s a joy for me and to play beside James is always superb. To think two boys from Hamilton are now playing together in the Premier League is incredible. It’s like we’re back in our Hamilton days, even though we’re doing it against Manchester United and Arsenal. It benefits the team that myself and James have that understanding in the middle of the park.”

Of course, there is no denying that City were largely the better side in that final, boasting 82.5% possession and having a total of 29 shots to Wigan’s four. But it was Ben Watson’s last gasp header that found the back of the net and Wigan’s all-round efforts proved to be enough for some history to be written that afternoon. This story, though, began in South Lanarkshire.

Series: Pivotal Seasons

2007-2008 at Celta Vigo: When Spain’s three top forwards were forged 2008-2009 at Hamilton: When Wigan’s FA Cup-winning midfield was born 2005-2006 at Ajax: When seven World Cup finalists grew up together 2002-2003 at Barcelona: When Piqué, Fàbregas and Messi became telepathic
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