On Saturday, Wigan will contest their first ever FA Cup Final at Wembley. The game will provide a pleasant distraction from the club’s increasingly dire fight against relegation – a fight which Wigan has won the last three years by placing the club’s Premier League life into the flames, then pulling it out at the last moment.
It seems like Wigan’s gallant top-flight run is drawing to a close, though you would never completely count-out a dramatic escape from the club that has redefined Houdini. Yet Wigan continue making new history, and playing on the biggest stage English football has to offer will be an immensely proud day for the meager club, and especially their manager.
Roberto Martinez has Wigan in his blood. In 1995, the Spaniard was signed by Dave Whelan, and Martinez went on to make 187 appearances for Wigan in six seasons at the DW Stadium.
When Wigan came calling again in 2009, Martinez leapt, despite the success and happiness he was experiencing at Swansea City. In each of Martinez’s three seasons at Wigan, the escapes from relegation have become more daring, more improbable, more amazing.
Martinez, a true Spaniard, has relied on playing a pretty passing game and a monsoon-like late-season charge to keep Wigan in the Premier League. Martinez is an incredibly cheery and articulate manager. Never in a bad mood, Martinez is as playful as he is smart – in a single sentence, Martinez can make a player laugh and send him an important message.
Martinez’s character and attitude – along with his youth, exuberance, and IQ – have made him a hot managerial property. Martinez has had chances to move up the managerial latter, but he stays at Wigan – he stonewalled Aston Villa’s approaches in 2011, and cold-shouldered Liverpool in 2012.
And now he’s already been favored as the manager who may take over from David Moyes at Everton.
Why? Why would any manager, especially one with a future as bright as Martinez, stay at Wigan Athletic any longer than they had to? Dreary old Wigan, with fan support that would look spotty in League One, a shoestring budget, and no means of going onwards and upwards in the football world. Little old Wigan, a club perpetually without a real home, few roots, and even fewer fans.
The truth is, Martinez could teach us all a little something about loyalty. Martinez has an incredibly close relationship with Wigan czar Dave Whelan – the man who brought Martinez to the Premier League as a player and a manager. He understands the value of not rushing away from a place where he’s happy, and understands the value of being comfortable.
Martinez, perhaps, also knows that his sunny-side-up personality wouldn’t play at a club like Liverpool, that he wouldn’t be able to rev up Luiz Suarez as easily as he can Callum McMannaman.
But a lack of cynicism is what makes Martinez special.
In a day in which managers switch clubs on a whim for pounds more than they were making, or jump ship to a club just one place higher in the table, Martinez’s lack of blinding ambition is commendable.
It takes a special man to be able to stare Liverpool in the eye and say: I’m happy where I am right now. Thanks, but no thanks.
Martinez is a star. He has the mischievousness of a Jose Mourinho, but without the Machiavellian dark streak. He wants to play the beautiful game, and he wants to believe. People will always buy in to a guy like that. Players, owners, fans, no one will have a problem getting on board with a guy like Martinez.
At some point, possibly this summer, circumstances will see Martinez leave Wigan. No one would blame Martinez if he left a Championship club to stay in the Premier League, and Martinez knows he won’t stay at the DW forever.
The club that snaps up Martinez will be a lucky club indeed.
Wigan play Manchester City in the FA Cup Final Saturday, and the football world will be delighted if they somehow pull out a seemingly impossible triumph. But one way or another, it will be Martinez’s day. Wigan don’t have star players – if they do, they get sold – and Dave Whelan, while he has managed the business side of the club effectively enough, would never have gotten this far in football without Martinez at the helm.
Martinez has made Wigan a Premier League darling, a second-favorite team for many fans. This Saturday will be a proud day for Wigan. But it should be an even prouder day for their manager.