NEIL ARMSTRONG LANDS IN WIGAN
Mickey Blue Eyes
Ever since George Orwell wrote Road to Wigan Pier there has been an inclination in British culture to jeer at Wigan. It is a cheap jibe easily made; in this contemporary era it is also bollocks. I can think of several much worse places in England -Tonbridge, anywhere in Essex, Dagenham and Maidenhead spring to mind as likely candidates. But Brits are notoriously lazy when picking targets for their "humour." You need only view the number of "comedians" who, microphone and audience in hand, seek out and attack easy marks sitting in the first few rows of theatre seats. If a pro with a microphone can't win that kind of set-up then he shouldn't be in business.
In fact Wigan long ago transformed itself into a tidy, self contained town with a clear sense of identity, something reflected in its football club. Wigan Athletic's owner Dave Whelan has done a near-incredible job in making them viable as a Premier League member: in 1995 their average league attendance in Division 4 was 1,748......by 2006 it was 20,233, when they finished tenth after promotion to the Prem. In a town with a famous rugby club and a population barely in excess of 80,000 this is an astonishing achievement by any measure, as is their continued survival in the top tier. Yet there are still people who think they are a walk over, which tells you just how short sighted many footy fans are. Yes, Athletic are now likely to be relegated, but there are many traditional "big" clubs who will know they've been danced with before they go down. We are one of them. Saturday's game was typical.
The pre-match weather forecast was again ominous: even more plummeting temperatures, snow, rain and a full cold front assault from the Atlantic. It reminded me irresistibly of a winter visit many years ago by John from California. It was the Walter Smith tenure. He saw five games and no Everton goals. One of them was at Sunderland a few days before Christmas, and to my dying day I'll remember tiny icicles dangling from his eyebrows and eye lashes as we lost by the only goal. He never complained, though I doubt his Californian scarf provided much protection against the north east winter and Walter's football methods. It was the same kind of weather on Saturday. Fans trudged up to the ground slipping and sliding on slush and ice while facing into acute angled sleet or the meteorological dandruff of snow. As a sheltered port our beloved city escaped the worst of it but you still kitted yourself out properly for an inland visit to the foot of the Pennines. At times like this you have a tiny notion of how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt as they suited-up for the first moon walk; even using the toilet is a risky business. Why we expect footballers to perform in this kind of situation is beyond my poor imagination. Your best hope is for the raging comic unpredictability of a beginner's ice rink, all the while praying it isn't your lot that look like Marcel Marceau on skates.
Following the win against Man City Moyesy changed the team to include loanee Pienaar at wide left mid in place of Royston Drenthe and Sylvain Distin for Phil Neville. Phil subbed for Tim Cahill at half time, new boy Jelavic for the Firecracker on the hour and Vic Anichebe for Hibbo with ten minutes left.
Naturally, the game was poor for the most part. Neither side could get a grip metaphorically or physically, which completely disconnected from reality the hate-filled "Evertonian" lunatic I had the misfortune to be sat next to, a foam-flecked nutcase, nothing to do with "passion," who yelled hatred from kick off to final whistle. Why such mad-eyed crackpots bother with football is a mystery solved only by behavioural professions, and possibly not even by them. You can't reason with loonies, so after five minutes you ignore them and hope their medication takes affect......though in this case it never seemed to get past the cheap cider in his blood stream anyway. His target, by the way, was anything to do with Everton. And I do mean anything.
In the conditions the miracle was nobody got injured or slipped over. The only casualty was a ludicrous second-half goal against us with a quarter hour left. Before that, in the first half Denis tried a toe poke that trickled to their 'keeper, and then a long pass by the enemy from the half way line almost undid our centre backs until Tim Howard made an excellent spread save at the penalty spot. Then Bainsey made a good break down the left, closed inside the penalty area and laid back a ground pass just begging to be buried from near the centre edge of the area. As Gibbo hit it, it stood up enough for him to scoop it into row X. Apart from that there wasn't much else going on except Peanuts settling in well and a couple of promising runs from Landon Donovan that got snuffed outside the penalty area.
Their goal was the kind of comedy script you see everywhere in these conditions: a nice pass to wide left from the middle, a hit-and-hope low angled cross that rebounded toward the far post of Phil Neville, where Tim went for it, the ball hit a piece of dislodged frozen turf and bounced inside his arms into the goal. Charlie Chaplin on ice. I don't know who I felt sorrier for, Tim or me. A few minutes later Wigan got a breakaway, their three onto our two. A goal looked imminent, but they delayed too long and their man hit it against Sylvain when a lay off must have produced a tap in.
As usual these days the game tempo changed and picked up in the last half hour. We equalised with seven minutes left after two corners, both taken by Bainsey, the first on our left, the second on our right, both headed out. The second one came back to him while he had time to readjust and move it onto his deadly left foot inside. Once again he didn't fail us: the cross came in dipping wickedly to our right angle of the goal area and Vic glanced it on for a classic near-post headed goal through a crowd of jostlers. Their 'keeper didn't have time to move. The last goal threat of the match came when Tim tried to punch clear instead of catching a corner and there was a mad scramble that could have proved disastrous until the enemy got over excited and gave us a foul.
It's impossible to comment on a pattern of play because there wasn't one. It mostly bogged down in midfield into a dour struggle with the odd wing attack and little else. We were no more able to create anything than they were. The only bright moments were Vic's goal and Steven Pienaar's reintroduction, the latter of which provides hope Moyesy might manage to achieve equal threats on either wing.
Actually, the game helped form a sense of reality after some got carried away with the Man City result and transfer signings. Both were very encouraging but it was expecting too much for a sudden transformation in our league performances. They might help our FA Cup prospects and steady our league position, and not much more. When injuries finally clear - if ever - the returning ones have still to achieve match fitness and Jelavic has to settle into the team. By the time they do the season will probably be ending. A sense of perspective is in order.
And if US astronauts could have a sense of perspective after travelling to the moon, why can't footy fans after travelling to Wigan for a February winter game?