Monday, 17 August 2015

Amr Zaki - A Cautionary Tale

If you look hard enough, football will offer an insight into life - despite it looking and feeling like another reality altogether at times. This is a tale of why perhaps, we should be judging footballers as humans, not highly-greased machines here to do a job (okay, they ARE highly greased and here to do a job, but they aren’t machines). It’s a tale of why we shouldn’t perhaps treat them as heroes or saviours – we should treat them as you would any other ‘normal’ person.

On 22nd July 2008, Wigan Athletic confirmed the signing of Egyptian International Amr Zaki. At this time, Zaki (or technically, Zaky) was the highest-rated striker in the world by FIFA, due to his goals-to-games ratio and various other stats. At one point the deal looked in doubt, the saga went on for a couple of weeks before finally, Steve Bruce landed his man. Doubts amongst supporters still remained though, due in small part to the club shelling out a couple of million for fellow highly-rated-at-the-time African prospect Julius Aghahowa, who didn’t score a single goal. Would Zaki be another foreign player who wouldn’t offer much before leaving with his credit card fattened up? If so, he was only on loan – the only clause being a £1 million payment to his club if he scored 10 goals in the Premier League.

The doubts were quickly banished as his first-time volley from inside the area halved the deficit on the opening day at West Ham - he was magnificent. Truly magnificent. Technically superb, strong, good in the air, passionate and most of all – a goalscorer. He was an immediate hit with supporters, some of whom even took to wearing a fez in tribute and stooping as low as sauntering into the JJB five minutes after kick-off just so cameras could pick them up. Sports shops in the area even ran out of Z's for printing on the back of shirts, which Zaki himself thought was amusing. I will never forget his performance in a 2-1 win over Man City (who had just been taken over by the investors from the Middle East) as he lived up to his nickname (The Bulldozer) as he ran everywhere and constantly pressed and harried the City defence. He would slot a penalty past Joe Hart in that game, which turned out to be the winning goal and at the end of the match he continued to run around, applauding each stand as ‘ZAKI ZAKI ZAKI’ rang out and many a fez slipped off in pure excitement. He was loved by the supporters and importantly for us, he loved us back. That's everything you want to see from your star striker. That and the goals, of course.

His goal rush would continue – the undoubted highlight being his two goals at Anfield. The first, showing an opportunist streak that any decent striker needs, as he robbed a dawdling Daniel Agger of the ball and calmly slotted it past Pepe Reina. The second – forget Wayne Rooney’s goal against Man City – THIS bicycle kick was better. He had to stoop down low and twist his body before connecting first time with Luis Antonio Valencia’s cross. It’s a goal that would be constantly shown everywhere, if scored by a player playing for one of the bigger clubs, as it is, it’s only shown in Egypt and Wigan. Sadly, the referee would win the game 3-2 in favour of Liverpool, or else those goals would have further cemented themselves into Wigan Athletic folklore.


His goals continued – press speculation linked him with Real Madrid and Liverpool, Latics supporters were worried about his availability, before understanding that his loan was for the entirety of the season, so he couldn’t be plucked away mid-season. He reached those 10 goals on the 28th December as his penalty gave Latics the 3 points at Bolton. As it happened – that was his last goal for the club. It soon emerged that Zaki was constantly late back from international duty and that off the field, he wasn’t exactly professional. The club signed fellow Egyptian, Mido, on loan from Middlesbrough partly to help with goals (he would score 2 in total) but I reckon, mostly to get his fellow countryman back on the straight and narrow (and not to mention giving the stadium an opportunity to play an EXTREMELY embarrassing snippet of the Bangles hit ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ when he scored the first of those two goals, a penalty, against Liverpool). Mido’s walking into the club didn’t work though and Zaki’s last appearance on a teamsheet was as a substitute at West Brom in the 3-1 defeat on the 9th May. The club sent him away, meaning he wasn’t to play a part in the remaining three games and handed him a (further) fine with Steve Bruce describing him as 'the most unprofessional player I ever worked with' and that Zaki ‘had already been fined considerably more than the average person in Britain earns in a year and he will now face another heavy fine’. During this period, the form of the club dipped too – winning only 3 of the last 10 games, drawing 1 and obviously losing the others. In fact, Zaki failed to turn up on time after international duty on FOUR occasions, so it was no surprise to see Bruce take his frustrations out so publicly. Interestingly, during this fourth and final episode, Mido also played for Egypt and managed to return in time just fine. Maybe he should have locked Zaki in his suitcase? Bruce sounded so exasperated towards the end; Zaki's constant lateness, the speculation about his future as well as his drying up of goals, got to the manager and the club, who I believe did everything they could and more to try and help the situation. It just wasn't to be.

After (officially) leaving Latics at the end of the season, Zaki returned to Egypt before another loan spell in England 8 months after he left Latics, this time at Hull City where he scored 0 goals in 6 league appearances. His biggest contribution being helping to break up the Jimmy Bullard-Nick Barmby fight in sight of the Humber Bridge and experienced women from the local WI. His loan spell was terminated in April and he returned to Egypt.

In the 5 years since then, he has signed for no less 6 different clubs, making just 17 appearances with them all, scoring 2 goals. On the 16th August 2015, Amr Zaki announced his retirement from football at the age of 32.

What went wrong then, for a player that had made such an impact in the ‘biggest league in the world’
and, if you believe the press, was being courted by Real Madrid and Liverpool? It’s fair to say that the recent political and social problems – not to mention the football leagues being suspended – didn’t much help Amr kick-start his career back in his homeland. However, with spells in Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco and Lebanon, the sympathy cord must be snapped at some point and you’ve got to ask if he wanted it as much as his early appearances for Latics showed. I refuse to believe that the change in climate saw his performances dip in England – there isn’t enough temperature difference to affect his performance, not if he managed and trained himself properly, anyway. Whether his career went downhill because of injury or personal problems, only Amr truly knows. What I DO know, from a Wigan point of view of course, is exactly what I thought when his loan spell ended – it’s a sad end to such a promising start. Perhaps if he managed to return from international duty and kept in regular contact, the club may have gave him another chance the next season and he may have kicked on from there. We haven’t had a striker like Amr since and it’s a case of what might have been, for the pair of us.

As football supporters, we all would like to believe that we would give more effort than the majority of football players if we had their talent, it may not be true in some cases, but in this case, I can safely say that I wish that I had just half of Amr Zaki’s talent, because I’d at least score goals for Latics in League One - and turn up on time. Bus times permitting.

Friday, 17 July 2015

I'm A Believer (taken from 'Playing Offside')

Recently, I've just published the first volume of my journey to visit every club in 'the 92'. The book is basically written as a 'light-hearted travelogue', as I attempt to visit all of the grounds. This isn't an original idea by any means, but I feel that there aren't many books on the subject that try to positively promote the role of each football club in its community, its history and why the role of the supporters is so important. The book also has a somewhat personal touch, as I try to relate myself (and Latics!) with each club and sum up why football is so important, so loved by many people.

As a sneak preview - here is something that isn't technically part of my 92 journey - but is very much at the heart of why I love football and wraps up the first volume. The day Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup. It's a rather long article, so if you would like read it offline at your leisure you can download a PDF of the chapter here

I hope you enjoy reading - for more information on how to purchase the book (and how to read it if you haven't got a ebook reader) please visit the book's blogsite



“I’m A Believer”

11th May 2013
FA Cup Final
Manchester City vs. Wigan Athletic

I’m up earlier than I really should be, I never do that. I’m like a dog that hears the patter of feet approaching the front door - my tail is up and I’m visibly excited. Take that clumsy innuendo as you wish, I don’t care - my team, the one who I’ve supported since I was a child, whose ground is five minutes away from my house, are going to their first Cup Final. THE Cup Final! For the last few weeks, I’ve been checking my ticket. FA CUP FINAL it says. Manchester City vs. Wigan Athletic. I keep checking every day to see if it’s still there. It is. This wasn’t some hoax. We are definitely in a FA Cup Final!

I want to enjoy the day, I don’t want to be thinking about the game and worrying. I’ve become superstitious (other people would say I have OCD – I can’t leave a coin on ‘tails’ or the volume on the telly at an odd number, for example) and some of my football superstitions leading up to a big game are not to make any predictions, don’t insult the opposition (jokingly or otherwise) or analyse our chances in any way. I’ve done this too many times and we’ve been battered, including the League Cup Final in 2006. So it’s all my fault, obviously. Like all Latics fans, all I wanted was for the lads to put in a good performance on the biggest stage, make us proud for supporting our team and as they say, whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wembley. Again.

Wembley seemed a million miles away on a gloomy afternoon in January. Cold, wet and slightly peeved that we were missing the omnibus edition of Coronation Street, we took our seats for the third round game against Bournemouth and as per usual in a cup game against a lower-league side - we struggled. Bournemouth went a goal up after a great strike from outside the box by Eunan O'Kane. Here we go again. The second half was a slight improvement – Angelo Henriquez (on debut) and Maynor Figueroa hitting the bar and a few half-chances were created, but still no goal was forthcoming. When the tie started to look like it was slipping away with 20 minutes to go, we got a lifeline as Figueroa was adjudged to have been pulled down in the box and the ref gave a penalty. Jordi Gomez stepped up, his penalty was saved (typical of our luck!) but the ball fell kindly (unlike our luck!) and Gomez put in the rebound. It was to be a replay at Dean Court and despite everything indicating that the result was going to be an ‘upset’ (BBC Radio 5 even covered the game live, just in case) Mauro Boselli struck a first half screamer to win the match. We were on our way.

Conference side Macclesfield were to be our next opponents. Away from home, eager Wigan supporters snapped up the allocation in hours, as the prospect of going back to a ‘proper ground’ excited many. Macclesfield had pipped us on goal average to win the Northern Premier League title in 1970, so revenge was very much on the cards.  It was to be another slightly edgy game, one that we were always in control of, though. Callum McManaman was hauled down in the box on 7 minutes and Gomez, this time, scored from the spot. 1-0 it stayed and the draw saw us away again, this time to Championship Huddersfield - live on ITV! Apart from the game being our ‘live on ITV debut’ (and only the second time we’ve been live on terrestrial, free-to-air, television  - the other occasion being in the third round of the FA Cup at home to Chelsea in 2008, which we lost 2-1) this was the first time we’ve appeared in the fifth round for TWENTY SIX YEARS! Despite ITV wishing it to be an upset for a Premier league team against a Championship one, we dished out a great performance, dominated the game and won 4-1, with Arouna Kone helping himself to a double. We had matched our best performance in the FA Cup, but the fates were against us as a Wembley semi-final was just 90 minutes away – we drawn away again. To Everton.

With this being the quarter finals (the official name being ‘sixth round’) all of the remaining ties were to be on telly and we were to be on ITV again, on Saturday dinner time (or ‘lunch time’, if you’re wrong) which also happened to be my birthday. Some birthday this will turn out to be; Everton were playing well, looking on course for a top 6 finish in the Premier League and the overwhelming favourites to reach Wembley. Both sides started brightly; Wigan’s Joel Robles had to parry away a shot by Nikica Jelavic and at the other end, Shaun Maloney hit the inside of the post, the ball trickling agonisingly away from the goal. We were making a real game of this and we’re looking confident - McCarthy hit a volley, which the goalkeeper pushed over his bar for a corner. Gomez stepped up to take the kick, the ball going straight from the corner to Figueroa - who headed in! 1-0 Wigan!

What followed next was a quite insane 3 minutes, as first, McManaman pounced on a mistake from Phil Neville, running away from everyone before chipping the ball over the goalkeeper and into the corner! Just 2 minutes later, Gomez struck in a cheeky shot from the edge of the box. We screamed the house down as we were THREE-NIL UP! I just couldn’t believe it. Where on earth did this come from? Everton didn’t know what to do and Wigan just played them off the park, passing the ball around them like they were cones on a training pitch. We never let our concentration slip for a minute and held on for a Wembley semi-final. After a night of celebrating, it took me about a week of watching and re-watching the game again to fully understand what had happened. We were at the ‘new’ Wembley for the first time!

After a painful few weeks of waiting, which culminated in watching the entirety of two awful sixth round games between Blackburn and Millwall, we arrived at Wembley to play Millwall - the last team we beat at the ‘old’ Wembley, in the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield final. It was a close game that day, Paul Rodgers (a midfielder, not the frontman of rock bands ‘Free’ and ‘Bad Company’ - although that would have been incredible) scoring the winner in the 90th minute. We didn’t have to wait 90 minutes again, as we dominated the play and won 2-0, Shaun Maloney volleying in and McManaman rounding off a great move, latching on to one of the best through-balls you’ll ever see from Gomez. Everything was all right now - we were in a FA Cup Final!

The day of the final arrives, I’m catching the coach from the DW Stadium with my dad and sister, it’s rare that we go to games together these days, so it’s always nice when we do and an occasion like this just seems perfect for us to be together. I’ve never seen as many coaches in my life though - with us and City occupying the same region of the country, I predicted that there weren’t many coaches left in the entirety of Northern England. Our coach, organised by the club, came from Middlesbrough! All of this could have been a lot easier if the FA/television hadn’t have insisted on a kick-off time of 5.15pm and Virgin Trains not running services back to Wigan or Manchester. But we needn’t have worried, as the FA kindly pointed out that their partners, National Express, were providing their services too. It’s nice to know that supporters are well thought of! I can’t be too angry today though, we’re off to the final - and it seems like a dream. On the journey down, we’re hearing rumours on the radio and in the newspaper about how Man City manager, Roberto Mancini, is facing the sack. Will this help our cause? The City players can’t be too up for it if they’ve heard whispers that their manager is going to get the boot? No, this is an FA Cup Final and they are top professionals, they’ll be well up for it.

It was our second visit to the stadium in a month. The journey though a long one, was enjoyable, culminating in spotting some bus spotters on the Wembley car park. For us, Wembley is the national stadium, a good day-out and the culmination of the season. Or it should be. For these bus spotters – it’s exactly the same. Imagine all the attractive coaches and buses, from all over the country, that come here. It’s like a red light district for vehicles, and the honey is free. Some people might see it as a bizarre hobby, but they probably think that following a football team all over the country is bizarre too. For a laugh, I snapped away at them on my phone - let’s see how they like it. Thankfully, I was still on the coach, so they couldn’t get me. It’s a good job people aren’t permitted to drink on the coach, or else a lot of mickey-taking would have been directed at the poor bus spotters, who are probably lacking a bit of self-esteem as it is.

When we get off, my dad and sister are mysteriously ill and push what looks like a bottle of coke in my hands. It was probably cheap out-of-date cola or something, because it didn’t taste like coke and as I said, the pair of them are behaving funny. Thankfully my mate Chris turned up on one of the other coaches, so at least two of us weren’t ill. We decamp to the nearest pub for a few drinks and a bit of a sing song, as you do for any big match. I didn’t want to get overly ill as I’d like to remember some of the day, but 7 or 8 or 9 (I can’t really remember) drinks later, seemed to calm the nerves somewhat. In what seemed like no time at all (but was probably about 2 hours) we made our way to the stadium. Wembley, as you’d expect, is impressive. It’s massive - you could probably fit the entire population of Wigan town in it. The Council taking the corporate seats for free of course. A part of me wanted to waive the fact that it cost £900 million, but then I thought again. £900 MILLION! You could buy the whole of Wigan with that and have change to repave all the roads. I even had a bit of repartee with the stewards on the gate, which could have seen me denied entry if they didn’t have a sense of humour. Thankfully, they did.  Ignoring the overpriced concourse, we go to our seats and observe our surroundings. We happen to be on the last row of the top tier – and my seat is at the end of the row! It’s a great view though. Looking around, I’ve never sobered up so quick as it hit me again that we were at a Cup Final and now I saw it with my own eyes. The band of the Grenadier Guards are marching around, playing music. We have the people on the pitch who just stand there doing nothing and everyone in the stands has a flag under their seats. My seat didn’t have a flag under it though - obviously some scamp had stolen it prior to my arrival.

Abide With Me. It evokes memories for some people. Those who are with us now, but mainly, those who aren’t. Those people who you used to go to Latics with, those who you shared the good and bad times with. Those who used to go when it wasn’t fashionable, when times were hard and those who threw money in a bucket to keep the club going to allow us all to be here now. Everyone who has ever gone to Latics, who aren’t with us now, would be equally bursting with pride at seeing their club here. Without trying to sound condescending, Wigan Athletic is a club for the people of Wigan, rather than a brand to be sold all over the world. Even though many of the players aren’t even English, let alone Wiganers, we all feel represented whenever they play. We’re not the biggest club in the world, but we don’t want to be. We want to represent our town and ourselves at the highest level possible. We’re up against a club that is on the verge of becoming a world power in the sport and we have as much right to be here as they do. This is why we watch football and this is why we are so proud of our club when we hear this hymn, even though we can barely hear it and some of us are wiping tears away.

The teams come out. Dave Whelan, who has done so much for his hometown and football club, leading the Wigan team out. Next comes Roberto and Emmerson Boyce, our captain, carrying our mascot, Joesph Kendrick, a 4 year-old with NKH, a rare debilitating genetic condition, just summed up our club and our town in one image. The charity which he represents, Joseph’s Goal, aims to raise money and awareness to find a cure for NKH.  Boycey made the comment that Joesph is one of us – he epitomises the fight to be here, like Wigan in many respects. What a top man, the very example of a leader. Then the national anthem started and it finally hit me as I looked down at the players and all around me, what on earth am I doing here? This is an FA Cup Final, I shouldn’t be here! I notice that I’m shaking a bit, this is why I’ll be no good in America – they play the national anthems before any sporting event, here, it’s just for the major ones - that’s how you know this is big. I felt proud, proud of my team reaching the FA Cup Final, whatever happens, this will go down in history. We all will, just by being here. The anthem finished and I was worrying about the game all over again, although this may have something to do with a bit of the alcohol wearing off.

We’re tense in the stands, but the players aren’t. From the kick-off they get into their opponents, pressing them, attacking them and passing the ball around brilliantly. It’s like a chess match – you don’t really know who has the upper hand or what will happen next. We have the ball for a bit, then City have it, then we have it again - both teams looking for any gaps in which they can slip a ball through or run into. City have a few early chances, only half-chances, not enough for us to panic about. In fact, is it good for us that City had these half-chances so early on? It certainly put the players on high alert and if we just dominated possession of the ball, we may have got caught out if City made a meaningful attack and the players got caught cold.

As soon as my own confidence started to grow about our chances, City come streaming up the pitch and after an exchange of passes sees Nasri in space, he plays it towards Sliva, who passes it back into the box and Tevez has a chance, he must be in. I’m waiting for the net to ripple. Somehow, Joel flies across the goal, saves with his boot and the ball spins over the bar. Big moment. A moment that will undoubtedly give the goalkeeper – and the team – some confidence. Not me though, I was still doing my nut in, high up in the stand. The chance for City seemed to have made Latics more determined. Callum McManaman is up the other end, exchanging passes with Maloney and Kone and being an absolute nuisance to the City defence, and in particular, Gael Clichy. He twisted and turned past a few defenders, and Joe Hart, THE GOALKEEPER! SHOOOOOOOOOOOOT! was the cry. He did, but it was blocked.

It’s half-time. Phew! The team is cheered off, they’ve certainly put in a shift already. I’m that nervous, I even hand over the best part of a FIVER for a beer. Because of the extortionate prices, I never wanted to buy anything from the stadium, but because of my current disposition, I simply had to have something to do at half-time. Staying in the toilets, muttering to myself, could see me arrested. The chatter during the break was all about the fact that we were playing well but needed to continue to keep things tight at the back and not try to force a goal, in fear of them picking us off. The £5 beer helped immensely and I returned to my seat as the players returned to the pitch.

The second half starts as the first ended – both teams having the ball for long periods, working out who’ll be making which move and when. The weather was changeable and I was still on the edge of my seat. At least I made a friend this time - the steward who was patrolling the area near us seemed up for a chat. Seemed up to it to me, anyway. 66 minutes in and strains of I’m A Believer can be heard from the Latics fans. City fans respond with Blue Moon, but as Latics continue to press, Believer continues. We’re starting to believe in the stands, it seems the players already do. You Are My Sunshine is also belted out by Wiganers - the sun kept disappearing and re-appearing all day, almost as much as the possession of the ball changed from boots with blue or black socks emanating from them. Every Wigan player seems to be on top form, as they need to be, attempting to win their own personal battles on the pitch - and if the players can win their personal battles against their opponents, that’s half the job done.

If you were watching on telly, you could be forgiven in thinking the match was boring, as clear-cut chances were hard to come by. It was anything but in the stands and as time slowly passed by, you could sense something big was about to happen. We had them pegged back as we continued to press - and they didn’t like it. Foul after foul, the City players couldn’t handle the direct running of McManaman, nor the trickery of Shaun Maloney.  The red card was the clincher for this nervous, slightly drunk, worrier – we’re on top here, we actually might win this! I’m stood up at this point, I literally can’t watch sitting down. McManaman is through. GO OOOOON! Then Zabaleta comes from nowhere to haul him down. I forget during the many howls of derision that he’s already been booked, for an earlier foul on McManaman.  My steward friend tells me ‘he’s off’, ‘He’s already been booked?’ He didn’t need to answer – I saw a flash of red and arguably City’s most influential player was stomping off. What a chance. Prior to the incident, the noise had been steadily growing as Latics were looking comfortable, confidence was high. We’ll do it in extra time, I thought, as I was watching Zabaleta walk to the tunnel. Plenty of time to take advantage of 10-man City. Maloney hits the free-kick just over, but all you could hear was an encouraging cry of COME OOOOOOOOON! Men and women of all ages were screaming, sensing this is our chance.

As the clock ticks towards 90 minutes, the players are still passing the ball calmly, waiting for any gap in the City defence. McArthur plays the ball down the right and McManaman cuts inside Clichy. GO OOOOON! The desperation from everyone was vocal. He glides into the box and is brought down. PENALTY? Surely?  No, it’s a corner. What a crap decision - Clichy clearly brought him down! FUMING! As if the referee will give a penalty against Man City in the last minute of a cup final! Frustration all around – we’ve been robbed there. What happened next was like a moment after you take a picture. Just imagine you’re lining up the shot, trying to find the right image, the perfect image and then you press in the button. Now just imagine that picture taking what must seem like hours to take - that’s what it was like. The ball floating its way in from the resulting corner, somebody in a black shirt rushing towards it and the next moment something white in colour was nestling in the corner of the net.

It can’t be the ball, can it?

It seemed to nestle in that corner for what seemed like an age. 

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

Looking around, it was pandemonium. People jumping all over the place, throwing children in the air, complete strangers were hugging, crying and laughing with one another. Men kissed each other and even hugged the nearest steward they could (guilty!) Some were still screaming as if we’d just scored, about 3 minutes after we actually did. Some lunatics (just men, unfortunately) were even taking their clothes off in a fit of unprecedented, hypnotic joy (or at least trying to take their shirts off over their ale-filled bellies). I was convinced the goal wouldn’t be allowed. This can’t happen. Wigan scoring in injury time of a Cup Final? No, wait, he’s walking away, the Ref’s walking away! He’s not blown up for a foul, IT’S A GOAL! I went mad all over again, hugging people.

Right, CALM DOWN! I was telling everyone who would listen. Nobody did listen. At this point, I was standing up and screaming at the game below (as if they could hear me) like I was Martinez, directing play and kicking every ball. They didn’t listen either. I don’t care how much of an idiot I looked - I was right in the top tier, on the back row of Wembley’s East Stand and my team were minutes away from winning the FA Cup. It didn’t matter though - EVERYONE was screaming their heads off, wanting that final whistle to sound. We still had 3 minutes of injury time to go.

All I remember is Roger Espinoza putting in a few tackles and the backline, made up of the entire team it seemed, heading everything away. My head was banging due to desperation and remnants of alcohol. My heart stopped when Joel sprinted out of his goal and his area to boot a ball into the stand WHAT’S HE DOING??????????? I screamed (Yes, with that many question marks and slightly more colourful phrases) 

Thankfully, he knew what he was doing. 

I needn’t have worried. We held on. We’ve won the cup! 

WE’VE WON THE CUP! 

WIGAN ATHLETIC HAVE WON THE CUP!

I said earlier that going to the final seemed like a dream, but that’s rubbish really, because you don’t have a say in how a dream turns out. If you could, then I WOULD be a hero and decapitate all those zombies that invade my local Asda (instead of hiding in the stockroom eating all the biscuits, whilst people bang on the door wanting to be let in as they are eaten alive). Yeah, getting to the final is a great achievement but winning it is the real dream. Can you imagine the feeling of winning something before you actually experience it? I don’t think you can. It’s something that you didn’t expect to happen. Scoring in the last minute. What chance did we actually have? This now, as I’m embracing my family, friends, stewards and total strangers as the Wigan players celebrate, could never have been predicted. You can predict having a nice day out and watching your team play in a major final when you’re sat down on the coach yeah, but you can never predict the emotions that go through you during the day, as your team edges closer to winning. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes supporting a football club worthwhile.

Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell lift the FA Cup for Wigan Athletic. Madness. Growing up, I’ve seen other teams lift the cup and I never in my wildest dreams expected it to be my team one day. Even the ridiculous version of The Great Escape theme didn’t spoil the moment. I’m speaking to a lad of about 9 and I can just imagine how he’s feeling - I was 9 when I first saw Latics in the fourth tier and loved it. Imagine being 9 and seeing your club, the town where you’re from and where you live, winning the FA Cup. Him and thousands like him, will be Latics supporters for life now, surely. They’ll always remember this moment as being one of the happiest of their lives. That’s what football should be like. It shouldn’t be about out-spending other clubs and striving to have the most fans from all corners of the world, just so you can sell them tat. It should be about creating memories, moments you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Nobody will remember a season that saw you finish mid-table in the Premier League, or in our case, 17th and just avoiding relegation. It’s a pointless existence.

Dave Whelan, whose personal history with the competition is well known, has been provided with the perfect ending - he’s someone who has also invested so much into the club and the town, and I’m delighted that he has got his reward. I can’t think of a worthier goalscorer than Ben Watson, another member of the broken leg club who has spent the last few months trying to get fit. He’s your typical midfielder, who regularly slips under the radar - works hard, without getting many plaudits. Before the game, the media were lamenting the lack of English players playing in the Final, the irony of an English player settling the final wasn’t lost on us.

Fair play to the City fans, who were very gracious after the game, when they could be forgiven for not being so. We met them outside and at service stations on the way home and all of them were congratulating us, shaking hands and saying that we deserved to win. I didn’t point out that I didn’t play in the game, so had very little impact on it, though. The majority of City supporters have experienced the ups and downs with their club, so they seem to understand how much the win meant to us. They get it. Apart from one woman, who screamed ‘GOING DOWN’ at us. She doesn’t get it.

It must have been about 1am when we got home, but I didn’t care, time didn’t matter at this point. I even made myself sick, not because of the ale – in all the excitement I had drank too much fizzy pop on the coach and it wouldn’t go down (it wasn’t the out-of-date pop either), I didn’t care though. Would the club go down at Arsenal on Tuesday? If we do, we have a bit of jewellery to go with, a sign of our achievement, that will make it all these years of being in the top division and struggling for the most part, worthwhile. Do I really care? Well, we’ll see. Will anything that may happen on the pitch to this club in the future take away what today meant and my love of my football club? Never.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Joseph's Goal Chairty Match: Latics Legends vs. Hollyoaks XI

22nd May 2015
Latics Legends vs. Hollyoaks XI
Joseph's Goal Charity Match
At Ashton Town F.C

What a great night at Ashton Town. ‘The Latics Legends’ just about squeezed past a Hollyoaks XI, 10-0 with Alan Mahon and Nathan Ellington scoring the pick of the goals. The original game, meant for the 8th May would have seen the Legends team up against the current Latics Development Squad, but because of a waterlogged pitch, the game was postponed until a fortnight later. Sadly, I was half-way to Ashton, my coat smelling like a wet dog, before I heard the news! With the Development Squad away for the summer by the new date, a team comprising of actors and crew members from the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks stepped in. Apparently the team play regular charity matches, so I was expecting an entertaining encounter between these young bucks and 40-something ex-professionals.

Former Latics manager Ray Mathias, assisted by Ian Kilford and Tommy Gore had the luxury of picking from a strong Latics squad, with most of the players barley a decade retied, not to mention Emmerson Boyce who had 2 years earlier, lifted the FA Cup. Early on, former Latics keeper John Filan, in between supping cans of ale given to him by supporters, made an incredible save for even a man half his age, as he flung himself across his goal to prevent Hollyoaks from going ahead. Clearly angry at Filan’s heroics, Hollyokas fired another shot over the bar – which ended up smashing the back window of an Ashton Town’s volunteer’s car! Whoops.

After taking a few minutes to impose themselves on the game (including an incident which saw Neil Roberts smashing a shot into somebody’s back garden), the Legends started to dominate the ball and not long after, Nathan Ellington’s shot was spilled by the goalkeeper, Roberto Martinez profited upon the rebound to put his side ahead. Everton manager Martinez then laid on the second for his assistant, Graeme Jones, before centre-back, Chris Kirkland (!) played a long ball forward, which Jones controlled and lifted towards the edge of the box where Alan Mahon volleyed it first-time into the net. The ball was past the goalkeeper before he even dived!

From then on, it was one-way traffic and after being 5-0 to the good at half-time, changes were made,
but Ellington was being the bullish forward we all remember – picking up the ball about 30 yards out, he slalomed his way past 5 defenders, bouncing off them, off the ground, off everywhere, before curling the ball past the goalkeeper. It was a fantastic goal, one that you saw coming after The Duke beat the 3rd defender and the others looked liked they didn’t fancy getting stuck in! Boycey moved upfront towards the end of the match and after laying a goal on for Stuart Barlow, he got one himself – volleying in from inside the box which brought the biggest cheer of the night. Boyce then laid another on for Barlow, with a superb backheel. 10-0 and it was a fine end to a great night. As soon as the final whistle sounded, Boycey was mobbed at the end of the match, on what was possibly his last involvement as a ‘Wigan player’.

A crowd of almost 2,000 turned up, over £6000 was raised and I met Nathan Ellington after the match. And it didn’t even rain! What a night.

The Latics team: John Filan, Emmerson Boyce (c), Chris Kirkland, Kevin Sharp, Mario Melchiot, Roberto Martinez, Alan Mahon, Jason Jarrett, Graeme Jones, Neil Roberts, Nathan Ellington.

Subs: Eric Nixon, Stuart Barlow, David Lowe, Neil Rimmer, Gareth Whalley, Ray Woods, Sean Clancy (player for AFC Telford, brother of Abi Clancy, wife of Peter Crouch – he scored too!)

Joseph's Goal Website

Monday, 2 February 2015

Sky's Game

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big supporter of democracy - but even when the change.org website, where people can set up petitions whose issues will be discussed in parliament if they reach a certain number of signatures, was introduced, I dreaded being presented with links for pointless and ridiculous issues that aren’t really important.  Sky Sports have got into the act by using the website to promote its bi-annual coverage of transfer deadline day. Over 10,000 people have already signed it. The cause? Make the day a bank holiday, so people don’t have to work and can tune in to watch excitable be-suited men and their good-looking android companions (that Sky seem to have an endless production line of) giving us ‘transfer updates’ as young men’s careers are gambled with by clubs who want that extra player for the last few months of the season. The players may get their dream moves, but it’s really the media and agents who are the ultimate winners – Christmas is three times a year for them it seems. Of course it's only a jest, they aren't being serious, but it just sums up their promotional tactics, using a website that has hundreds of worthwhile (and genuine) causes that need signatures.

The hypocritical thing is though, I’ll probably tune in to a bit of it just to see Sky trying their best to whip up interest and non-stories, amongst the rareness of actual news. It’s event telly - something which the likes of Big Brother can’t match for excitement. This is a big transfer window for Wigan Athletic and yet, you can argue that not doing proper scouting and gambling with players is one of the major reasons why we’re struggling at the moment. The club may have panicked, but they’ve panicked because there isn’t enough time and that, is solely because of the transfer window. One of the most attractive aspects of the event, is seeing the general public make a nuisance of the day. Be it people tweeting and texting false rumours, to seeing them take the mickey out of reporters during a live broadcast from outside a training ground. Sadly, Sky have recently taken the decision to stop reporters from reporting near supporters, stood outside (who of course, they never encouraged to turn up in the first place) after a number of high-profile incidents (most notably, one reporter getting a dildo-in-the-ear last August), so is it even worth a watch anymore?

There have been calls from inside the game that the deadline should be abolished. Previously, the old deadline used to be around March, giving clubs the vast majority of the season to construct their squads and take their time (and actually properly scout) before signing a player. Instead we get a mad rush of business at the end of January, as some clubs probably overspend and gamble, putting their futures at risk. With all sensible ideas, I think the idea of changing the current window will get pushed to the back of the dusty shelf, as the media will continue to consume football and people will continue to be attracted to it, their views being shaped by the media's vision of the game, rather than by their own volition. I think that’s incredibly sad, as we have a generation that are now reliant on these media events for their football knowledge – many of these people can’t afford to go and see their teams play, so have to turn to television and the internet. How much the fault of this is Sky and the media, or the greed of the clubs, is probably equal - but you can trace the genesis back to the advent of the Premier League and the involvement of Sky Sports - and instead of helping the game to develop for the people who love it, it has helped to price them out (but it’s okay – they can watch it on their telly!)

It’s not been going all Sky’s way though - the continuing growth of BT Sport is making them feel uncomfortable no doubt, and their last ‘promotion’, ‘SkyBet Transfer Fund’, ended in farce when a club with a transfer embargo was declared the winner. They can spend the ‘transfer funds’ on wages though, so it’s all fine. You get the feeling that Sky need a big transfer window (more so than Wigan Athletic) to try and drum up interest of their coverage of football for the reminder of the season. Unrelated to the transfer window, I think there’s another question to ask, as to why a betting company (which is a subsidiary that is owned by a company that also screens the games) should be allowed to sponsor The Football League, as well as offer one football club extra funds. Naturally, this has been swept under the carpet.

Democracy? It’s not for everybody it seems.