LONDON - On Tuesday night, Wigan Athletic might be relegated from the Premier League. If that happens, some pundits will undoubtedly claim that the club's amazing cup run cost them the league, but Wigan's players and fans will know that it was all worth it.Even if relegated with the cup - just as Hapoel Ramat Gan was in the local league - the club's supporters will cherish their first major trophy, after the sensational 1-0 win against mega-rich powerhouse Manchester City.
Fans of smaller clubs wait for such a moment all their lives, knowing that it is possible, but might never arrive. On Saturday, the mesmerizing moment happened, several seconds into added time, when Ben Watson gloriously headed the winning goal, just opposite the Wigan supporter's stand in Wembley. Wigan will probably never grab a Premier League or European title, but now the fans have a moment to cherish, as do as all the neutrals who were rooting for the team that represented the romance of soccer.
Wigan was a worthy winner, thanks to its attitude. Two years ago Stoke City made the FA Cup final against the same Manchester side, and chose to park the bus and play tough, even violent, soccer. Wigan, a smaller club than Stoke, in spite of missing several players due to injuries, came to play the game. They attacked from the start, spread out the play, pressed City in its half and made ideal use of its most dangerous player on the day, Callum McManaman, who ran at the City defense time and time again. FA Cup history remembers the Stanley Matthew's final of 1953, due to his hat-trick in the 4-3 Blackpool win over Bolton, and the Gerard 2006 final, due to his amazing equalizer against West Ham in stoppage time, which led to Liverpool winning the penalty shootout. On Saturday it was definitely the McManaman Final.
The 22-year-old was all over the right wing and had City players collecting bookings almost at will, eventually leading to Pablo Zabaleta's second yellow card. Manager Roberto Martinez's game plan - spreading the play and drawing City's defense to the wings - worked perfectly, and his players arrived with the right mental approach: Fight for every ball and go for the jugular. Martinez apologized to the journalists when he was late for the post-game press conference, saying, "I'm sorry, we're simply not used to celebrations."
City's game was typical of its whole season: The team's form was lukewarm; the players were complacent throughout the game, almost indifferent, always hoping for one of its stars to do something special. The team looked like City of old, of the pre-Mancini period, and still it almost worked. But on the same week Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement and the press reported that Manuel Pellegrini would replace Mancini this summer, and City's inferiority at the helm was all too evident. This would never happen to one of Ferguson's teams: Despite the star-studded squad, City came to play with the feeling that the cup would effortlessly find its way to their cabinet. "If the reports concerning Pellegrini are true, then I'm a fool," Mancini said. "We'll find out in the next two weeks."
Ever since the cup final returned to Wembley from Cardiff, the stands were adorned with the names of the 42 former winners. This year, for some reason, that custom was abandoned and the club's names made way for large electronic advertisements. Quite a shame, really, since the game played on the inherent romanticism of all soccer fans. As it was played, social network chatter revealed that neutral fans worldwide were all behind Wigan; not only due to its underdog status, but because its players demonstrated on the pitch how one should play against a better team, how one should play every game of soccer.
With the final whistle, the Wigan fans were all emotional, with tears flowing. The very same fans might shed another tear tonight if their team is relegated, which might lead to the loss of McManaman and the excellent James McCarthy, who might leave for greener pastures. Still, even 30 years from now, they will still cherish the memory of the winning goal by Watson, who broke his foot in November and wasn't expected to play this season, but made it back on time to score the winning goal in the final.