During their season in the third tier during the late 1990s, Manchester City supporters had a song that summed up their feeling of disbelief at the turn for the worse that their club’s fortunes had taken: “We’re Not Really Here”. This lunchtime, Wigan Athletic have taken this to its logical conclusion by being not actually there. There are gaping holes in the crowd for this lunchtime kick-off, most likely on account of the Rugby League Challenge Cup final being played today. To this extent, the town of Wigan remains, in sporting terms, conflicted. Yet this is an important match, in its own way. The nature of the league programme means that there is a tendency for the points accumulated at the end of the season to be treated as more important than those won earlier on in the season but, of course, they’re not. If either of these two clubs wants seriously bolster its chances of avoiding the relegation trapdoor, picking up points from matches like this is not far from essential.
Take a moment, if you will, to consider the amount of preparation that a professional football club puts into its match on a Saturday afternoon – the training, the tactical preparation, the logistical side of matters and the travelling supporters, who give up the majority of their Saturday afternoons (and, let us not forget, a reasonably voluminous pile of cash) to travel to the match. Set against this backdrop, a window into the mind of the Woves captain Karl Henry would be of interest to psychologists worldwide. Wolves have started marginally the better of the two teams, but with just ten minutes on the clock Henry slams into Jordi Gomez with a tackle so jaw-droppingly stupid that it beggars belief. Unsurprisingly, he makes a half-hearted attempt to absolve himself of any blame but the red card is the only option that the referee has, and even some of Henry’s team-mates look uncomfortable with the protestations of innocence. What was the likelihood of that challenge resulting in anything other than a red card? He has (and it is impossible not to sound like a chastening schoolmaster at this point) let everyone – his team-mates, his manager and the supporters that pay his wages – down. In one moment of imbecility, an eminently winnable match has become an uphill struggle.
It is, however, a sign of the paucity of Wigan Athletic’s home form this season that this match doesn’t look like eleven players versus ten for much of the rest of the half. The upside of the sort of aggression that Henry demonstrated is that, when channeled effectively, it can cause teams like Wigan to start getting jumpy and make mistakes. For most of the next twenty minutes Wolves continue to look the stronger of the two teams, although actual shots on goal are at a premium, with Steven Fletcher’s free-kick that hits the stanchion behind the goal being the close that they come. As the half wears on, though, Wigan started to assert themselves more effectively upon proceedings, but Charles N’Zogbia’s shot-cum-cross across the face of the Wolves goal is as close as they can manage to breaking them down. Half-time arrives, and this match already has the overwhelming whiff of a goalless draw about it. At half-time, we play Wigan vs Wolves on FIFA 11. Using the Karl Henry tactics of sliding in recklessly every time a Wigan player gets the ball, I contrive to get three players sent off but Wolves hang on to win 3-2. It is an inestimably better match than what we have been watching on the television.
The second half starts with a flurry of excitement when Marcus Hahnemann has to scramble like a freshly netted fish to stop Franco di Santo from bundling the ball over the line from close range, but the match soons settles back into its slightly erratic tempo, however, although Wigan are quite clearly in the ascendency. Twenty minutes in, they finally break the deadlock and it is a goal that deserves a better arena than this some what scrappy affair. Charles N’Zogbia appeals for a penalty after a foul on the edge of the penalty area, but his protests are largely deemed irrelevant as di Santo slams the ball across and in off the underside of Hahnemann’s crossbar. The watching audience will be lucky to see a better shot than this today and it is better than the match deserves, but it is no less than Wigan deserve. It is a reflection on the poverty of Wolves’ performance that Wigan are so much in control, and it is no great surprise when they double their lead with five minutes left to play when N’Zogbia threads the ball through the centre of the Wolves defence and Hugo Rodallega – who didn’t know a great deal about – sees a last-gasp tackle bounce off his foot and in.
The question of where Wolves go from here is one that many of the club’s supporters would probably rather not dwell upon at the moment. Their next match, at Molineux against West Ham United, has now become something of a must-win, in no small part because their fixtures after this are the sort that could reduce a grown man to tears: Chelsea, Manchester United (League Cup), Manchester City, Manchester United (League) and Arsenal. Without an enormous improvement, it is impossible to see how they are going to be able to get anything out of any of these matches, even if Alex Ferguson sends out the reserves for the League Cup match against Manchester United. The result also drops them into the relegation places, but perhaps the single most troubling aspect of their performance today was that Wigan Athletic looked so superior to them. It’s one thing to lose to the teams around you at the bottom of the table, another altogether to lose so handsomely. Wigan had seventeen shots on goal and seventy-two percent of the possession today and seventeen shots on goal. Karl Henry’s early act of stupidity knocked the wind out of their sails before they had a chance to get into their stride this afternoon, and such liberties are not something that Wolverhampton Wanderers can afford to take this season – not on today’s evidence, at least.