FOR the first time since 1963, the FA Cup final was contested between two teams whose manager had the same first name, but that was about all Manchester City and Wigan Athletic were supposed to have in common at Wembley yesterday.
Roberto Mancini had Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and the filthy-rich rest trying to give City their sixth success in the competition. Roberto Martinez, whose club had never been in a major final before, had James McCarthy, James McArthur and Shaun Maloney trying to show that, despite everything, Scotland still had something to offer.
And boy did they prove it. A minute into stoppage time, Maloney swung in the corner that substitute Ben Watson headed in to give Wigan their fairytale triumph. Just 25 years after becoming a league club, they won their first major trophy, with a little bit of help from north of the Border.
Martinez, who played briefly for Motherwell before they went into administration over a decade ago, never loses sight of the strong Scottish influence at Wigan. He quipped beforehand that, whether they were celebrating or drowning their sorrows on the bus home last night, it would have to be with Irn-Bru, a nod to his Scottish contingent – also including Gary Caldwell – who have figured prominently in the club’s eighth successive Premier League season.
That the Spaniard would not tolerate even a drop of alcohol in the aftermath of what used to be the climactic, showpiece game of England’s domestic season was a measure of how far the FA Cup final has fallen. Here were Wigan, contesting easily the biggest match in their history, slap bang in the middle of a stressful relegation battle that looks doomed to failure.
Only four days before, they were demoralised by a 3-2 loss against Swansea City. By the time they contest their penultimate league match, against Arsenal on Tuesday, they could be six points adrift of safety. Add to that the 5.15 kick-off, which meant that there was no train home from Wembley for the Wigan supporters, and you felt for the Lancashire club, who deserved to enjoy their big day out, with the relegation issue decided one way or the other.
In the circumstances, it was perhaps no surprise that Caldwell was excluded from the starting line-up. Unable to train properly for the last six months due to a hip problem that will require surgery in the summer, the Wigan captain has been used sparingly of late. While he was willing to play with the aid of an injection, it was probably too soon after the Swansea game in which he had struggled.
Not that Caldwell would have led the team out anyway. At the request of Martinez, that honour went to Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner who broke his leg while playing for Blackburn Rovers against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1960 FA Cup final. He had unfinished business to attend to, with a side that he had assembled for a measly £11m.
A decent chunk of that has been spent on Scots, two of them from Hamilton Academical. Billy Reid, the former Accies manager, and Ronnie MacDonald, their former owner, had made plans to visit Wembley yesterday in tribute to James McCarthy, the Glasgow-born Ireland player, and James McArthur, the Scotland international, both of whom were products of the Lanarkshire club.
McCarthy has been so influential this season that he has been linked with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, whose new manager, David Moyes, might be in search a replacement for Paul Scholes.
McArthur, one of Gordon Strachan’s favoured options in the Scottish national side, has not been such a regular in the Wigan team recently, but he made his presence felt here in an unusual right wing-back role.
Between them, they helped Wigan to knock the ball around with confidence during a first half in which they were the slicker, more imaginative team. Their only frustration in that opening period was a failure to take advantage. Maloney twice threatened, first with a sliced shot that was blocked, then with an effort that dipped by the near post.
Maloney, who is in the form of his life, had a more central role than has been the norm lately, floating about to find pockets of space in and around Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. It was a fitting stage for the 30-year-old former Celtic striker, an angst-ridden workaholic of a player, whose manager thinks he can still play for one of the country’s biggest clubs. Asked last week how much the Scot was worth, Martinez replied: “The whole stadium.”
City were better in the second half – they couldn’t have been any worse – but they were still woefully disappointing. When Callum McManaman, whose running had terrified them all afternoon, won Wigan a free kick just outside the box, Maloney curled it on to the top of the crossbar. Then, after Zabaleta was red-carded for a second bookable offence, Maloney dipped the resulting free kick wide. His time would come, however, with the corner that set up the winner.