Martinez writes fairy-tale script
The Manchester City fans came to praise Roberto Mancini; the club's power brokers came to bury him. Wigan arrived united behind Roberto Martinez, from the chairman who champions him to the fans who traveled in unprecedented numbers to see history made. They departed delighted at having witnessed a unique achievement.
Not because Wigan may become the first team to marry an FA Cup win with relegation, although they probably will, but in the scale of this triumph. "Winning the FA Cup is inspirational to other football clubs," Martinez said. After all, 758 teams entered the competition and, if Wigan were not quite 758-1 outsiders, City were the hottest favourites to fall at the last hurdle since Liverpool in 1988.
Wigan were defeated and seemingly demoralised by Swansea on Tuesday, a shambolic mess of a side. Four days later, the reversal in their fortunes was remarkable. They were resilient, reconfigured, rejuvenated.
Martinez is a man who specialises in remaining unflustered while others are panicking. Managers with colossal quantities of self-belief can appear misguided at best and deluded at worst when results go against them. Amid the doom and gloom of Tuesday night, Martinez exuded confidence.
It was justified. Wigan were deserved winners, wondrous at Wembley. The Spanish Roberto won the tactical battle to the extent that his Italian namesake emulated him by switching to three at the back. Martinez has earned plaudits for defying tactical orthodoxy this season, Mancini criticism. The Wigan manager's game plan worked. A side compiled for £12 million beat a starting XI that cost the best part of £200 million. If Martinez does not enjoy the economic imbalance, he certainly accepts it and relishes the challenge.
Across the pitch, there were improbable tales. Roger Espinoza, recruited on a free transfer from Sporting Kansas City, had floundered at left back against Swansea. Moved forward to play as a left wing-back, his combination of 100 percent commitment and 0 percent finesse proved strangely effective. On the other flank, James McArthur, at best an irregular wing-back, stood in with quiet dependability.
A Spaniard who scouts in Scotland, Martinez is a rarity. He found McArthur at Hamilton Academical and gambled on Shaun Maloney from Celtic. When he described the 30-year-old as the best No. 10 in the Premier League, it appeared a classic case of managerial hyperbole. Yet it may almost be true -- though Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata have competing claims -- and he has indeed proved the finest in the FA Cup.
Maloney it was who supplied Ben Watson's injury-time winner -- the midfielder a relic of the Steve Bruce days, reinvented as a player who understands Martinez's tactical demands. Watson has spent five months on the sideline; in his third game back, he was catapulted into a place in Wigan folklore.
"The whole journey of Wigan Athletic has been full of stories like that," Martinez said. "Ben Watson broke his leg, and the medical department said he would be out for the season. I have seen movies with worse scripts than that."
Collectively, they are the unlikely lads. Emmerson Boyce was a journeyman defender. Now he is the captain of an FA Cup-winning team. Antolin Alcaraz was the unsung hero. While the Paraguayan was injured, Wigan's defending was panicky. On his return, there was a welcome serenity. "We kept Man City to one good chance," Martinez noted. Carlos Tevez could not take it.
If Watson was the match winner, Callum McManaman was the instigator of the upset. Gael Clichy was taunted and tormented, unable even to get close enough to the Merseysider to foul him. Pablo Zabaleta did that instead and departed early; besides him, only Kevin Moran and Jose Antonio Reyes know what it is to be sent off in an FA Cup final.
"Callum McManaman is one of the biggest diamonds in English football," Martinez said. "He is the man for the big occasion."
Wigan didn't always think so, however. His selection for the fifth-round tie at Huddersfield was concealed from the newcomer because Wigan feared he would be overcome by nerves. Here, he played with the fearlessness of youth. One McManaman, his distant relative Steve, was man of the match in the 1992 FA Cup final; another emulated him 21 years later.
Each speedy solo run was cheered. Supposedly lacking in fans, Athletic nonetheless received vocal backing from the visiting multitudes. Wigan, presumably, was a ghost town, their northern soul transported to North West London.
For the man who financed their rise, this represented closure after his playing career at the highest level was curtailed by a broken leg in the 1960 FA Cup final. By bankrolling their rise from obscurity, owner Dave Whelan, born in Bradford but brought up in Wigan, has put his home town on the footballing map. Now Wigan are in Europe, and not by default.
Their victims, meanwhile, are in purgatory. Mancini has been determined to instill a winning mentality, to banish the culture of three decades of mishaps. In perhaps his final major game, they suffered an outbreak of "Cityitis," to borrow Joe Royle's word.
The modern-day manager may, like Royle before him, be sacked unceremoniously. Amid talk that Manuel Pellegrini will replace him, chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak and chief executive Ferran Soriano were at Wembley. A glowing tribute was paid to the Italian, but not by his employers. "I have an incredible respect for Roberto Mancini," Martinez said. "He changed the mentality of the football club. He won trophies, and he has won the league."
But not this year, when both cup competitions have been won by teams Martinez built and clubs he revolutionised. While one Roberto faces the axe, another is surely in demand.