Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League

Unexpected Journeys : Chapter 2

Words By Sean Cole Illustrated by Philippe Fenner
July 23, 2018

For much of their history, Wigan Athletic were part of the regional non-League system, facing other local semi-professional sides. The concept of them winning the FA Cup and qualifying for Europe was little short of far-fetched fantasy. But after slowly working their way up to the fourth tier, the club was bought by local businessman Dave Whelan and its prospects were instantly transformed.

Although he’s since stepped aside, the modern-day incarnation of Wigan is inseparable from the gregarious chairman who made it all possible. Whelan arrived on the scene in 1995 and set the club on an upward trajectory that culminated in promotion to the Premier League ten years later. By then they had a new ground and drastically different expectations.

One of the first players Whelan brought to Wigan, and who came to symbolise the possibilities of a bold new era, was Roberto Martinez. In 2009 he returned to the club as manager and helped them to retain their place in the top flight, routinely defying the pundits who predicted their demise.

They enjoyed eight seasons among the elite and became renowned for playing brave and expansive football on minimal resources. In terms of status, crowd size and playing budget, Wigan were the league’s great underdogs and it was a role they relished. But the run had to come to an end at some point, and their hopes of survival were hanging by a thread as they travelled to Wembley for the 2013 FA Cup final.

In a week of sharply contrasting emotions, Wigan achieved the unimaginable, beating Manchester City through Ben Watson’s late header, but had their relegation confirmed three days later following a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal. They became the first ever club to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season, meaning they would compete in the Europa League as a Championship side.

“Leading out the team at Wembley was a great feeling,” says Emmerson Boyce, who made just shy of 300 appearances for Wigan, many as captain. “It was a boyhood dream to win the FA Cup and to actually get to live it in reality was incredible. I had all my family and friends in the crowd as well. Walking up those famous steps to lift the trophy was a fantastic feeling.”

“I never imagined I’d be in the Premier League that long with Wigan. Every year we seemed to be fighting against relegation on the final day. Obviously we did get relegated that season but if it had to happen that was the best way – winning the cup and going down.”

“It was a strange feeling going into the cup final knowing that, as crazy as it sounds, we almost had a more important game coming up against Arsenal. That took all the pressure away and we just played with freedom. We went there to enjoy the day and although we thought we could win the cup, we didn’t expect to. In a few days we went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.”

Several players inevitably departed after relegation, but a core remained, including Boyce. Roberto Martinez left to take over at Everton and was replaced by Owen Coyle. The initial readjustment to life in the Championship proved difficult, with Wigan resolutely stuck in mid-table. In amongst the weekly grind of league football, the Europa League was a novel proposition.

“You dream of playing in Europe but I didn’t think it would happen. You watch the games on TV and wish you could be there but it always seemed a long distance away for me. It was fantastic. You could see the joy on David Whelan’s face when we qualified. To play that first game and hear the anthem going made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It was incredible.”

Entering directly into the group stage, Wigan’s first task was a trip to Belgium to face Zulte Waregem. With their opponents’ 12,000-capacity Regenboogstadion deemed inadequate for European competition, the match was played at Club Brugge’s Jan Breydel Stadium instead. Wigan came under plenty of pressure but held on for a 0-0 draw, with Chris McCann’s goalline block helping to preserve a point.

“It was absolutely pouring down with rain,” recalls Boyce. “But the Wigan fans made the most of it. They came out with a good following and enjoyed themselves. You want to test yourself against players from other countries and thankfully Wigan gave me that opportunity. Winning the cup and playing in Europe was a great achievement, and something that not a lot of players get to do.”

Two weeks later and Slovenian side Maribor, who had come up against Birmingham City in the Europa League two years earlier, were the visitors for a historic occasion. Wigan’s first competitive home game against European opponents ended in an impressive 3-1 win. Nick Powell, on loan from Manchester United, was gifted the opener by a wayward punch from the Maribor goalkeeper.

Ben Watson repeated his Wembley heroics, heading in the second from another Jean Beausejour cross, before they were pegged back by Brazilian striker Morales Tavares after the break. In the 90th minute, a moment of magic from Powell sealed victory as he weaved through a couple of challenges and finished calmly to complete his brace. Wigan were unbeaten in two.

Their toughest test would come against Rubin Kazan. The Russians boasted Salomon Rondon and French international Yann M’Vila in their squad, both of whom would later move to the Premier League. Despite going behind to Aleksandr Prudnikov’s goal at the DW Stadium, they equalised through Nick Powell’s long-range strike and could have won if substitute Marc Antoine Fortune had been more clinical.

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The away game was set to be harder still. Kazan hadn’t lost any of their last 22 home games in Europe, which included beating Chelsea 3-2 in the quarter finals of the same competition just seven months earlier, although they went out on aggregate. Wigan rallied after conceding early on but were unable to get back on level terms as Powell shot wide and Thomas Rogne hit the crossbar.

“It was strange going from the high of playing in Europe back to the league. We played Rubin Kazan away on the Thursday and flew straight back to face Yeovil Town on the Sunday, so you can see the contrast there. No disrespect to Yeovil but it was a big change,” says Boyce.

“Obviously different countries play different ways and technically they were probably a little bit better than us. We’d lost quite a lot of good players going down to the Championship anyway, so we were punching above our weight in the group stages. You could tell with the tempo. We did hold our own but at the vital time that extra bit of class told, particularly against Rubin Kazan.”

That result confirmed Kazan’s progress to the knockout rounds, and left the Latics fighting it out with the other two teams in their group for the runner-up spot. Their fate was still in their own hands and they looked well set when Leon Barnett scored seven minutes in against Zulte Waregem. Yet an error from stand-in goalkeeper Lee Nicholls gave the away side a route back in. Thorgan Hazard’s effort should have been kept out.

With a draw seemingly inevitable, Junior Malanda curled a shot into the top corner to the shock of Wigan supporters and players. A point had been thrown away and heads were clutched disbelievingly in hands. Only a win would suffice from the final game, while Kazan also had to beat Zulte to give Wigan any chance of making it through.

A showdown in Slovenia would decide their fate. It was to be Uwe Rosler’s first game in charge of the club as inconsistent league form led to Owen Coyle being sacked. Several changes were made to the team and they dominated possession from the outset. More than 1,000 fans had made the journey and their faith seemed to have been rewarded when Jordi Gomez stuck away a penalty to make it 1-0.

Yet the game swung on Chris McCann’s contentious red card a minute later. He was given a second yellow for handling in the area after a shot was blasted at him from close range. Although the initial penalty was saved by Scott Carson, it rebounded kindly back to Dejan Mezga for a tap in. Zalijko Filipovic’s fine effort saw Wigan beaten as Maribor progressed at their expense.

“It was a strange week,” says Boyce. “We were one game away from qualifying in Europe and one win away from going into the top six in the league. We lost both of them and the manager was sacked as well. We were in touching distance in Europe and the decision that went against showed the fine lines between success and failure.”

Wigan exited the competition early and were left to rue a poor refereeing decision. Although the journey ended far sooner than they would have liked, and it arguably should have done, it remains a special chapter in their history. A town where Rugby League was the dominant sport, and its football club often existed in the shadow of Wigan Warriors, had come to prominence, with the Latics winning a major trophy and embarking on a European tour.

Uwe Rosler was able to revive Wigan’s fortunes, at least in the short term, with 12 wins in 18 league games immediately after taking over. He guided them to the play-off semi-finals, where they were defeated by Queen’s Park Rangers, who earned promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. There was also another FA Cup run, although not quite as glorious as the previous year’s.

“We played a lot of games with Europe, reaching the play-offs and getting to the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley. It was a good season overall. It was the most games I’ve played in my career but I wouldn’t put our loss in the play-offs down to the number of games. I think everything happens for a reason. It was just a step too far in the end,” says Boyce.

“I still speak to a lot of the supporters now and some say that was the best time of their lives. A lot of them have seen Wigan in non-League, when they couldn’t even have dreamed of playing in the Premier League, playing in Europe and winning the FA Cup. Even though we got relegated they wouldn’t change that for the world.”

Series: Unexpected Journeys

Unexpected Journeys: When Ipswich Town’s tractor boys roared into Europe Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles Unexpected Journeys: When Fulham danced with Europe’s best
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