Wigan Athletic’s draw with Aston Villa on Saturday kept the Latics’ Premier League survival hopes alive for another week ahead of arguably their biggest game of the season against West Ham United next weekend. Roberto Martinez’s side have bounced around the bottom three all season but victory over the Hammers could yet be the platform for salvation.
Three points from Avram Grant’s team would take Wigan to 39, six points clear of the struggling Londoners and with Blackpool facing an unpredictable tie at home to Bolton Wanderers, victory could put Wigan ahead of the Seasiders ahead of the last games of the season. Having lost 4-0 at home to Ian Holloway’s buoyant Blackpool on the opening day of the season, and then conceding six to Chelsea in the very next game, also at home, a week later, it was feared Wigan may be cut adrift. That the relegation dogfight will go down to the final round of games of the season is perhaps testament to Wigan’s powers of recovery.
Victories at home over Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City, their only four home triumphs of the campaign, have been crucial. They also suggest that while Wigan may not win many on their own patch, they do win the big games, and they do not come much bigger than the date with West Ham. Eight home draws, twice as many as Wolves, a place and a point behind prior to their match with West Brom on Sunday, have delivered valuable points from Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Stoke City and Liverpool, amongst others. Even on their travels, Wigan have picked up vital points and the occasional victory: the 3-1 win at Blackpool in mid-April could be the most crucial result of the season.
While remaining in the Premier League is obviously Martinez’s chief concern, the Spanish manager has in the past spoken of something more than safety, a desire to develop Wigan’s young squad into one that competes further up the table. He told the Guardian in October: “…hopefully we can attract good young players and make them better, and in the process lift ourselves out of constant relegation battles…look at the top half of the table, maybe even Europe.” With Martinez aiming high and a number of his players attracting attention from further up the table, including the in-demand Charles N’Zogbia, Hugo Rodellega and James McCarthy, the former Swansea manager is already preparing for the future – a future in which Premier League football is a must.
Keeping his most wanted assets may be a challenge as big as avoiding relegation, but Martinez has been adamant the club have no financial need to sell, and Wigan have a highly impressive track record of unearthing hidden diamonds. Having spoken this weekend of his admiration of clubs that emphasise “developing young players, giving them the right football education and human locations to give them the chance to get into the first team, ” in The Independent,whatever Wigan’s fate, Martinez, already confirmed in his position for next season by Chairman Dave Whelan, appears to be on the right track.