Friday, May 17, 2013
The rise and fall of Martinez's Wigan
As Roberto Martinez takes his seat, the eye is drawn not to the Spaniard, but to the middle of an otherwise nondescript table. There stands the physical incarnation of the Wigan manager's greatest achievement. Accidentally, someone knocks the table. The FA Cup rattles.
The names of the winners are engraved. A few rows below the 1879 winners Old Etonians are Wigan Athletic, the tournament's team of 2013. They are unlikely neighbours on the roll of honour. But then, as Martinez points out, there has long been something improbable about this little Lancastrian club.
"Wigan Athletic defy the odds, the first team winning the FA Cup and getting relegated [in the same season]," Martinez said. "We never do things in a dull manner." Even by their standards, however, Wigan's week has been eventful.
"It's been a rollercoaster," Martinez added. "The high was Saturday and the low on Tuesday was a harder, more extreme low. I know that maybe on the outside, you thought we had a chance of being relegated, but nobody internally expected it."
After the 72-hour journey from delight to despair, Wigan have new destinations. They are headed back to the Championship but, realising an ambition Martinez has often discussed since his appointment in 2009, going into Europe. Whether he will be accompanying them on their travels is another matter.
Questions about his future are a constant, answers never definitive. Yet beneath the trademark optimism - and even after demotion, Martinez talks about his hope Wigan can rebound to secure a top-10 Premier League finish - the emotion is evident in his voice.
He cannot bring himself to admit to outsiders that he will go; perhaps, given his huge attachment to Athletic, he struggles to accept it himself. The hints, however, are there. "It will be maybe the right time for a fresh challenge, the right time for a fresh man to come in and take the football club to a new level," he said. "I always felt I would never leave until Wigan Athletic is in a good position for a change of management. I feel now that we need to sit down with the chairman and look at every detail."
That meeting will come on May 27. Owner Dave Whelan is, as ever, eager to keep Martinez yet talking him up to prospective suitors. "Maybe I'll say I'm the best man for the job next Monday, and hopefully I'll convince the chairman," Martinez smiled. It is likelier, though, that a loyalist will realise he has to leave.
It will be a wrench. The 39-year-old has spent almost half of his adult life at Wigan with six years as a player followed by four as the manager. He has instigated one of the great FA Cup final upsets, forged a stylish side and shaped the character of the club. Should he go, his legacy will provide him with solace.
"The club is in the best shape it's ever been in," he explained. "The benefits from being at this level have been enormous: the assets we have in the squad, the finances on the side for the new training ground and the history we have from the last eight years. We don't need the money to balance the books so nobody is going to leave on the cheap."
And yet Martinez's prowess could prove a problem. James McCarthy, Shaun Maloney and Arouna Kone, all his signings, have the talent to command offers; so, too, does Callum McManaman, the spring revelation who Martinez has urged to stay. In Pascal Chimbonda, Leighton Baines, Wilson Palacios, Antonio Valencia, Charles N'Zogbia and Victor Moses, Wigan have sold to wealthier clubs almost on an annual basis. Now the exodus may be accelerated.
Four players whose contracts expire are certain to leave. "We have had conversations over the season and every one made their position clear," Martinez said. So it is farewell to Ronnie Stam, Franco di Santo, the West Ham target Maynor Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz. The Paraguayan's injury problems, along with those of Ivan Ramis, have accounted for Wigan's defensive difficulties and, in turn, their demotion. It is why Martinez is not playing the blame game.
"Normally when you are relegated, you have bad feelings towards bad behaviour, people who haven't reached their level," he said. "This dressing room doesn't deserve to get relegated. It doesn't deserve to be where it is."
They do merit Monday's open-top bus parade in Wigan, their reward for winning the FA Cup, and Martinez believes, a generous ovation in Sunday's home game against Aston Villa. It will be their 304th and, for now, last Premier League game. Martinez wants a celebration, not a wake.
"Nobody expected Wigan Athletic to be here for so long and we will celebrate that," he said. "It is not something to be sad about, the opposite, it is something to be proud about. Saturday was a pinnacle in our historic rise."
But after the rise comes the fall. Wigan will tumble into the lower league. Yet over eight years, they have rebranded a town previously known, in clichéd terms, for rugby league and pies, George Formby, George Orwell and a pier. They have been enterprising underdogs, progressive passers and admirably skilled at identifying and developing players. But eras end as their time in the Premier League draws to a close so, surely, does Martinez's reign. And whereever he heads next, that will nonetheless make him profoundly sad.