It should be a day for nostalgia. Wigan against Manchester City may represent a clash of clubs propelled forward by benefactors, but it is also a throwback to an old-fashioned competition’s greatest anachronism. Wigan’s 2013 final win was an upset plucked from history. The match-winner Ben Watson was Lawrie Sanchez. He was Bobby Stokes. He was Roger Osborne. He was the unassuming everyman who revived the FA Cup’s tradition of providing improbable heroes at Wembley, the least glamorous member of the supporting cast reinvented as the protagonist.
When they reconvene on Monday, almost five years on, four of that City side – Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero – could start again. None of Wigan’s Wembley team will do. That has long been an impossibility. May 2 will mark the third anniversary of the FA Cup-winning captain Emmerson Boyce’s 298th and last Wigan appearance; he was the final survivor of the Wembley 18 and, barring a loan spell from Jordi Gomez, two-and-a-half years after his initial departure, none has returned to the DW Stadium.
If there seemed something unlikely about Wigan’s triumph then, and if it was compounded three days later when they completed the ‘Martinez Double’ of FA Cup glory and relegation in the same season, a glimpse at individuals’ subsequent fortunes shows how improbable it was.
Given the talent in Belgium’s ranks, Roberto Martinez could yet end the summer as a World Cup-winning manager, but it is safe to say most of his former players have not gone on to bigger and better things. Watson is the only one of the seven substitutes that day to play Premier League football after that season; three of the starters, Roger Espinoza, Paul Scharner and Boyce, did not either. Only James McArthur and James McCarthy have made 40 top-flight starts in the subsequent five seasons.
It is as though winning the FA Cup represented a Faustian pact and not merely for Wigan, twice relegated to League One in the subsequent five seasons. After the romance came the reality, summed up in a week in January 2015 that represented a firesale of Athletic legends as demotion to the third tier beckoned. Watson, Shaun Maloney, whose corner brought his goal, and Callum McManaman, the man of the match, left in the space of a few days.
McManaman represented the scourge of Gael Clichy and the man whose incessant running resulted in Pablo Zabaleta’s red card. He seemed a fearless sprinter in the mould of Jamie Vardy. Yet now he struggles to get in a Sunderland side that may be bound for League One. He has not scored a goal since 2014.
He is an extreme case of a man temporarily possessed by brilliance before enduring an undignified descent into mediocrity, but not a lone one. Antolin Alcaraz was hapless for Everton, his Toffees career both ended and epitomised by a disastrous display in a 5-2 defeat to Dynamo Kiev. Joel Robles, now arguably third-choice goalkeeper when everyone is fit, has been little better in the Martinez reunion at Goodison Park.
Arouna Kone had four, injury-hit years at Everton. In two of them, he did not even start a league game. He scored six league goals, half of them in 46 minutes against Sunderland. Injuries are a recurring theme. McCarthy has been luckless in the last 18 months. They curtailed Maloney’s career. Scharner retired months after the FA Cup triumph. Meanwhile, the worthy Boyce’s playing days ended in undistinguished fashion: he last played for a club owned by the Oyston family.
Look beyond the starting 11s and while City were able to bring on Edin Dzeko, the top scorer in Serie A last season, to join Aguero, now their record signing, and Carlos Tevez, at one point the world’s best-paid player, in attack, one of Wigan’s unused substitutes, Roman Golobart, now plays in Segunda Division B with Elche; another, Fraser Fyvie, is in the Scottish Championship, with Dundee United.
Their presence was a sign Wigan were depleted, missing more regular figures like Maynor Figueroa, Jean Beausejour, Ivan Ramis and Ronnie Stam; it all added to the achievement. Because this was an 11 that only started together twice, at Wembley and in the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal that relegated Wigan, encapsulating the highs and lows of a remarkable week.
It made for a wonderful story. But, five years on, it is tempting to wonder if an early FA Cup exit had led to a more pragmatic path and a fitter squad focusing solely on the Premier League might have secured safety and sustainability. Instead, Wigan were immortals for a day, then stripped of their Premier League status, their players first sold and then sidelined and seeming ever odder FA Cup winners.