Bite of the underdogs
LONDON – Even as the financial disparities in English football grow, this season gave the underdogs a chance to leave their mark.
The Premier League campaign was dominated and defined by Alex Ferguson winning a 13th title before announcing his retirement after nearly 27 years at Manchester United.
But new names have been etched onto the League Cup – Swansea in February – and the FA Cup – Wigan last Saturday.
In the knockout competitions, the smaller teams on relatively meagre budgets, were able to produce uplifting upsets against more illustrious opponents.
In the earlier rounds of the League Cup and the FA Cup – from Bradford and Oldham in the north to Brentford and Luton in the south – came results that defied the gulf between teams in the football pyramid.
Although the cups were ultimately won by Premier League teams, their journeys to glory were no less inspirational.
For Swansea, in the League Cup final, came a first-ever title in the south Wales team’s centenary season.
And, in the FA Cup final last Saturday, Wigan became Wembley Stadium’s second history-maker inside three months.
In the first FA Cup final in their 81-year history, Wigan collected their first major piece of silverware by humbling wealthier regional neighbours, Manchester City, who won the Premier League last season.
Roberto Martinez, the much-admired 39-year-old manager, was the mastermind of Wigan’s success, having first helped the team as a player to begin the rise from the fourth tier in 1997.
“Winning the FA Cup is something special in the British game and I’m well aware of that,” Martinez said after Saturday’s 1-0 win.
“It’s inspirational to other football clubs that they start in the lowest division in the British game, and you go all the way to the Premier League, stay there, so far for eight seasons (for Wigan) and you win the FA Cup. It’s an incredible, incredible achievement.”
And one completed with eye-catching, attacking football that is the hallmark of Martinez. It also thrived at Swansea, where Martinez was part of the team’s ascent from the fourth tier as a player before starting his managerial career there.
Martinez was brought to Wigan in 1995 after an unheralded playing career in Spain by Wigan owner Dave Whelan.
“I arrived in the UK in 1995 and I wasn’t a midfield dynamo, a midfield fighter or a tackler. I was a technical player and I always had real beliefs about how to play the game in the UK,” Martinez said. “And I knew that it would be very successful to try to introduce some possession game and have very strong football concepts that it could give you a really good future.”
It has given Whelan a major trophy to show for 18 years of investment in a club in a town better known for its rugby league team.
“I’ve seen Hollywood films with worse scripts than this story,” Martinez said.
Whelan’s first taste of an FA Cup final ended in heartache, when he had his playing career cut short by a broken leg suffered during the showpiece match while playing for Blackburn.
“1960 was a life-changing moment for him and left him with unfinished business,” Martinez said. (AP)