Boyce: Wigan survival will be no miracle
It has been four years since Paul Jewell's Wigan invoked the spirit of Caine, Stallone and Moore to produce one of football's greatest escapes. Starting the final day of the 2006-07 season in 18th place and three points from safety, the Latics travelled to 16th-placed Sheffield United knowing that a one-goal victory would be enough to guarantee survival. Sure enough, strikes from Paul Scharner and David Unsworth handed Wigan a 2-1 win and it was the Blades who were condemned to relegation after West Ham's shock Carlos Tevez-inspired triumph over Manchester United at Old Trafford.
It is the closest Wigan have come to losing the top-flight status they first earned back in 2005, but the Latics face the prospect of another nail-biting end to the season if their current league position is anything to go by. Occupying the third relegation spot despite boasting a better points total than when they were 15th this time last year, Roberto Martinez may count himself a touch unlucky that this Premier League campaign has been one of the most competitive in recent memory.
Just two points separate rock-bottom West Ham and 17th-placed West Brom, and it is the narrowest the gap has been at this stage of the season since 2002-03. Despite being so close to safety, though, the omens are not good for current relegation fodder Wigan, Wolves and the Hammers: in 2003, the same teams who occupied the bottom three in February - Leeds, Wolves and Leicester - were all demoted to the Championship come May.
Certainly, Wigan owner Dave Whelan appeared far from convinced of his club's chances of survival when telling ESPNsoccernet this week that "it would be like walking on water if we managed it again", but with three months of the season to go and the unpredictability of Premier League results continuing to frustrate gamblers the world over, all is certainly not lost for the Latics.
The thrilling 4-3 victory over Blackburn last week gave the club a much-needed boost and defender Emmerson Boyce, who has experienced both the despair of relegation with Crystal Palace in 2005 and the ecstasy of Wigan's Houdini-eque escape in 2007, is confident that he and his team-mates can provide the 'miracle' Whelan is praying for.
"He [Whelan] has laid down the challenge to us there," Boyce tells ESPNsoccernet. "We don't think it will be a miracle, though. We 100% believe we will stay up. He comes into the changing room before the games sometimes and wishes us luck and gives us encouragement - he wants us to stay up more than anyone. From the players' point of view, we will do our very best and hopefully it will be good enough to keep us up.
"Avoiding relegation on the last day of the 2006-07 season is my best memory with Wigan. We survived on goal difference and it felt that one minute we were up, one minute we were down and the end of the match was just the biggest thrill you can imagine. Going after the game and hearing that West Ham had beaten United made us understand how close we had come to going down.
"When I got relegated with Palace it was a tough time and I don't want to go through that again. It took us a while as a team to recover and we weren't immediately promoted the following season - a lot of teams that go down find it very hard to get back up and we were no different. We've had some close shaves while I've been here but I don't want to be in that position again.
"Consistency has been our main problem this season. When we have been on top of games we haven't finished them off and we've conceded a lot of goals but, strange as it might sound, we have improved from last year. We haven't crumbled as much as we did last season - we had some real hidings - and we've learnt from this but games like Newcastle when we were 2-0 up and West Brom when we were winning 2-1 - we've let silly goals in. We have got to learn to kill off games and grind out results."
The "hidings" Boyce alludes to were all too frequent season; home and away 5-0 thrashings by Manchester United, 4-0 hammerings by Arsenal, Bolton and Portsmouth and the 9-1 and 8-0 demolitions by Tottenham and Chelsea respectively were a source of much embarrassment.
Beginning this season with a 4-0 home defeat to top-flight new boys Blackpool and a 6-0 reverse at Chelsea left Latics supporters reliving painful memories from last season, but it is their side's propensity to let leads slip that is most exasperating. On top of the aforementioned Newcastle and West Brom games, Wigan have thrown away leads against Fulham, Arsenal and Bolton - adding up to ten additional points that would have seen them riding high in eighth place rather than scrapping for survival.
Results may not have been going their way, but Martinez's Wigan have been attracting more praise than the Jewell and Bruce vintages for attempts to play an expansive style of football that departs from the club's reputation as unfashionable opposition-stiflers. And, though Boyce experienced relegation with a free-scoring Palace side led by the prolific Andy Johnson in 2005, he believes Wigan are a better outfit for the Martinez metamorphosis.
"Compared to the previous managers, we have a different style of play - we always used to be dogged and hard to play against rather than actually try to play football," he says. "Obviously Roberto Martinez has come in and he wants to play football and for us to express ourselves more, and the results have been there. We did under him what we had never done under other managers by beating Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.
"We have got a lot of players that have come in from abroad and I think technically we are a bit better than we have been in the past. The whole philosophy has changed - sometimes it's been good, sometimes it's been bad, but we have become more entertaining. The manager gives you confidence to get on the ball and enjoy yourself. Other managers want you to get the ball upfield quicker but we play a more continental style now and I think the fans have enjoyed it a bit more. We're moving in the right direction and long may it continue."
Boyce is now in his fifth season as a Premier League player at Wigan, but the 31-year-old displays no iota of the egotism that accompanies most modern top-flight players, with the former Luton Town defender expressing refreshing humility about his footballing roots in Bedfordshire.
"When I was at Luton I could only dream that I would one day be playing at this level - I used to watch Match of the Day and wish I could be there. Luckily I've managed to play in the top flight and also stay here despite having managers come and go - it's been a great privilege. I think it's funny when players complain about pitches and the cold weather - they should try playing in Division Three. I pinch myself that I've gone from playing on a cold Tuesday night away at Lincoln and Grimsby to the Premier League.
"I remember playing against Ryan Giggs when I was at Palace. He was the best I've come up against. It was about six years ago and I think he was playing for a new contract at the time - he was just unbelievable. It was the hardest game I've played. In terms of strikers, Thierry Henry was the biggest handful - his reputation speaks for itself - and I've also come up against Dennis Bergkamp and Didier Drogba, too. Pretty decent opponents!"
Next up for Boyce and Wigan is one of those 'pinch me' trips, as the Latics face a resurgent Liverpool at Anfield. Martinez's side drew 1-1 with the Reds at the DW Stadium in November but Kenny Dalglish's reinvigorated outfit will prove a very different proposition to Roy Hodgson's hopeless collection, with that night's goalscorer for the Reds, Fernando Torres, the most notable absentee. The clash is the first of a terrifying series of fixtures for the Latics that sees them face Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Birmingham, Tottenham and Chelsea in their next six games, but Boyce believes Wigan are up to the challenge.
"We're aware of the upcoming fixtures. It's going to be a tough run, but other teams will go through tough runs as well and, anyway, we proved last year that we can compete against the big boys and get good results; hopefully we can do it again. We just need to aim to stay in contact with the rest of the bunch. This year, everyone is beating each other. It's unpredictable - just look at Wolves beating United - but we just have to try and win games and hope that will be enough.
"Torres may be a bit of a loss for Liverpool but they proved they could manage all right without him when they went out and beat Chelsea. They are a fantastic side and they should improve with the arrival of Suarez - he looks a great player. He has come with a big price tag and has done well at Ajax and with Uruguay. He looked lively against Stoke and obviously got a goal so he is someone we will be paying attention too, but we have got to be wary of all of them.
"When we played them earlier in the season we felt we had a good chance of beating them and that we actually should have beaten them. Now, they are going through a good bit of form but we are still confident we can go down there and get something from the game. We've got a good team and we've shown in our performances that we can really play football and we just need to start grinding out the results more consistently. We just need the fans to get behind us - it's going to be tough but, with their support, hopefully we can plough our way through."
Emmerson Boyce was speaking to promote the 188SPORT 'Moments In Time' campaign to find football's greatest game-changing moments. Join the debate today at www.188sport.com/moments
Boyce can be followed on his personal wesbite: www.emmersonboyce.com