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Wigan Athletic Season Review

Wednesday 23rd May 2012
Finishing seven points above the drop zone sounds like a comfortable battle against survival, and ultimately it was. Although a look at the final league table in a few years time will make it look like the club just missed out on a mid-table finish, that doesn't tell the full story.

The fixture computer threw up an interesting start to the campaign with each of the three promoted clubs as opposition to begin the season. Both opening fixtures should have resulted in Wigan wins, but draws against Norwich and Swansea had to suffice and that was seen as an improvement on the two opening fixtures in 2010, which Wigan lost by an aggregate score of 10-0! Those draws were followed by a 2-0 win at home to QPR and finally the season was underway.

Five points and an unbeaten August would be considered good by most, but you couldn't help but think the dropped points against Norwich and Swansea would cost the club in May. Despite winning the first home fixture, few would have predicted the home form that followed.

In fact, Wigan's form in general took a horrible turn for the worst after the victory over QPR. Defeats at Man City and Everton can never be classed as a disgrace, but a further six defeats on the bounce followed to make it Wigan's joint-worst top flight run in their seven-year stint.

It wasn't until late November that Roberto's men stopped the rot, with an unfortunate home draw against Blackburn. "That" corner incident and a late, late, late Yakubu penalty denied Wigan a certain three points from a game they really ought to have won comfortably.

That game was the first outing for a new-look 3-5-2 formation (call it what you will) and the signs were already there that it could make or break us. Anything was worth trying after eight defeats on the spin. It wasn't until the trip to Sunderland a week later that Wigan finally got that vital win to revitalise their season. Franco Di Santo's stoppage time winner brought renewed belief that relegation could be avoided, summed up with words of "our season starts here" from the manager. The fact that "Judas" Steve Bruce lost his job on the back of that result sweetened things even further.

December didn't start well. After the much-needed win at Sunderland, the wind was soon knocked out of the sails with a 4-0 home thumping against Arsenal and the doom and gloom mongers were at it again. Things didn't look good. A deserved 2-1 away win at a freezing cold West Brom briefly rekindled the hope, but another horrible run of results followed that saw even the most optimistic of fans condemning their beloved club to the drop.

Three draws from the final four games of 2011 were never deemed enough as the club went in search of wins to get themselves back in the hunt. Even snatching a late point at Stoke with ten men on New Years Eve didn't feel like it was enough to begin another miracle turnaround.

In 2011 Wigan lost every match in September and October, and they started 2012 in the same fashion. Four successive league defeats and an embarrassing FA Cup exit at League Two Swindon and even I admitted that the writing was on the wall. The club went unbeaten in the three games in February. An impressive 2-1 win at Bolton was sandwiched in between home draws against Everton and Villa, but even those two results felt like defeats when you consider the chances spurned.

For many the 2-0 home loss to Swansea in early March was the final nail in Wigan's coffin. The home side were never in the game and simply didn't turn up and 20 points from 27 games didn't seem anywhere near enough.

But the Swansea reverse turned out to be a really key moment in a turbulent season. The result seemed to galvanise everyone; players, staff and supporters. It was as though things couldn't get any worse, the pressure was off and it was time to just try and get as many points from the remaining games as possible and see where it takes us. After all, there was no point booing or calling for heads, it would do little to aid the cause.

Although unfortunate draws against Norwich and West Brom followed, chances were being created by the bucket load. Men were getting into the box, the defence was looking solid and you sensed it was only a matter of time before chances were converted and wins were on the board.

22 points from 29 games still didn't feel like enough, but latics weren't really cast adrift as the likes of Wolves, QPR, Bolton and Blackburn were all still in touching distance. And after his performances against Norwich and West Brom, there were signs that Shaun Maloney could play a key part in the run-in, having spent most of the season in the wilderness since his arrival from Celtic.

But a quick look at the forthcoming fixtures soon put pay to any distant hopes of survival. Just how were Wigan meant to survive when their next five fixtures were Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal? Well, as daunting as that run sounds, it was to be Wigan's most successful run of the season.

Defeat to Chelsea was a mere minor setback as it came bang in the middle of two spells of successive wins. Latics picked up a quite unbelievable 2-1 win at Anfield and then beat Stoke 2-0 at the DW, a first home win in SEVEN MONTHS! After the loss to Chelsea (dare I use that word "unfortunate" yet again?!) came Wigan's first ever win against Manchester United and a 2-1 win at Arsenal which left the whole footballing world speechless. From nowhere Wigan were back in play with 34 points from 34 games and safety was so close you could almost touch it.

The job wasn't done and a late defeat to Fulham brought everyone back down to Earth a little. Though disappointed coming away from Craven Cottage, the unexpected victory at Arsenal almost made the game irrelevant, and after that run of four wins from five suddenly desperate Wigan weren't so desperate. Most felt that four points from the remaining three games would be enough.

The game at home to Newcastle was key. A defeat would have made things a little tense going into those last two games against relegation rivals Blackburn and relegated Wolves, who had no pressure on them whatsoever. Defeat to Newcastle never came into the equation as Wigan reserved their best performance of the season, possibly their best in their seven years in the Premier League, for the visit of the Magpies.

A 4-0 thumping probably didn't even do the home side justice and the great escape was virtually complete. Blackburn's loss at Spurs the following day meant Wigan could seal their fate at Ewood Park the following week and condemn Rovers to the drop into the bargain. That's exactly how it turned out with Antolin Alcaraz scoring late on to secure an eighth season of top flight football.

The home game with Wolves on the final day was a mere formality. There were to be no final day nerves, no dramas, no repeat of those nail-biting scenes from Stoke in the previous season. The game was something of a walk in the park as a home sell-out saw Wigan win a third game in a row for the first time under Martinez, ending the season with four straight home wins and one point more than the previous campaign.

A comfortable fifteenth-place finish was something we could have only dreamed of after the home defeat to Swansea, or at many other times earlier in the season. In fact, had just a couple of "unfortunate" draws in that late surge been converted to wins then we would have finished level on points with tenth-placed West Brom!

Credit must go to everyone connected with Wigan Athletic for securing an eighth season in the elite league. I lost count of the number of times we were written off, I even wrote us off myself one more than one occasion. But while those around us pressed the self-destruct button, Wigan are a close club who stick together when times are tough and it was this resilience that got us over the line in the end. Fans meeting and greeting players before games, cheers instead of jeers, ticket sales up instead of down. Everything was positive around the club and the number of points gained by that alone could well have been the difference between survival and relegation.

Wolves sacked their manager at a key stage of the season, which ultimately cost them their top flight place. Blackburn were a club dominated by protests against their owners and management and I feel this was the reason they dropped to the Championship. That left a straight fight between Bolton, QPR, Aston Villa and Wigan for the final relegation spot. Wigan won the race at a canter with their sheer spirit and determination.

A few key players have moved on but hopefully the manager will stay despite interests from bigger clubs. A few additions to strengthen what's in reserve could make for an interesting season next time around. I'm keen to see the likes of Shaun Maloney and James McArthur have a full season under their belts after their impressive displays in the final three months. Jean Beausejour took time to settle but he turned out to be a brilliant January addition, replacing David Jones, who was struggling to play the left full-back position.

Franco Di Santo was Wigan's most improved player and despite stating on Twitter last April that he couldn't wait for the season to end, this time around he would have been gutted to hear the final whistle against Wolves. Big things are expected of him next campaign too.

It'll also be interesting to see if anyone has found a way to play against our new formation. It's a formation that suits every Wigan player, while upsetting the opposition into the bargain. Having ended the season at the very top of the Premier League form guide with seven wins from nine games you could say something has clicked at Wigan Athletic and a season of mid-table mediocrity may be on the cards for 2012/13, all being well! But then again, we're Wigan Athletic!

We did it again!
Stuart Alker

Total articles: 31

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