Events of the last 24 hours may have distracted a little from goings on at Bramhall Lane but it would be doing everyone involved a great disservice if we forgot to mention the final day achievements of the rabble that had previously done so much to add to Paul Jewell’s stress and anxiety.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, or so they say. Yesterday the hour arrived, shortly followed by a strange group of fops and ne’er do wells, most of who had struggled for the previous nine months, without getting even close to being called men. That was all about to change as Latics finally showed the kind of fight that we’ve been asking for weeks to see from them.
Before the Boro game I asked the Latics squad how they would like to be remembered. They answered with a performance that said little other than ‘well, but we’re not that bothered’. Yesterday, faced with a final challenge, with thoughts not on how far we’ve come but how far we had to fall, they changed their mind.
Not for the first time this year, the starting line up had that cobbled together look. Both De Zeeuw and Baines had fallen off the physio’s table and into the team, whilst further up the pitch Heskey was given yet another partner in Lee McCulloch. With Taylor at right back and Kilbane on the left, Jewell had obviously picked a team for the occasion, but one that didn’t look to have the goals in it that Latics so desperately needed.
In the end, the manager’s choice was proved right. De Zeeuw may have only lasted 20 minutes, but for that short time he laid the template for the defensive performance that would ultimately see his team through. Baines stood strong all afternoon and McCulloch was instrumental in keeping the call away from our defensive for a large part of the game. Kilbane? Well, that the much-maligned wide man made both goals might not be enough to save him from a mauling in the end of season reviews, but it was enough on the day.
In the early stages, the only question left unanswered was why on earth Latics hadn’t played like this all season. The passing and movement were excellent and even without the ball; Latics showed that they wanted it back, and quickly. Faced with one last challenge, the situation was too simple to get lost in translation and from the off it was clear that the message had sunk home. Win and you stay up, lose and you owe a lot of people a lot of apologies.
Despite their dominance it proved difficult to believe, even if Latics had taken an early three goal lead you’d have suspected that it would only take a matter of minutes for them to fold, even with events unfolding at Old Trafford a draw would have been enough for the home team. As it was, the early lead came but it was never anymore than slender.
For a team that had seen precious little luck over the preceding months, Latics gained a whole bag of it in this game. There was a possible handball in the build up to Kilbane’s scuffed cross for the first goal, a penalty shout on one of the rare occasions that Neil Warnock’s men had any first half pressure and the handball for the second. Of course it was balanced off, the loss of De Zeeuw and Taylor to injury were bad enough, but we also had penalty shouts of our own.
The build up to the first goal may have been fortuitous, but the finish was anything but. Scharner arriving late and slotting home from 18 yards to show that there may be something in Jewell’s insistence that he can make a good midfielder. We celebrated, but deep down we knew that it wasn’t over, we’d been here before, we knew the script and we were right.
Stead’s equaliser redressed the balance, his bravery going in to connect with a deep right wing cross an example to every member of our squad that has been found wanting this season. When the physios had finally unpicked the wreckage of the collision with Mike Pollitt, it was neither of the two who was most affected. Ryan Taylor had been on the fringes of the challenge and had fallen awkwardly, injuring his ankle and requiring a stretcher to take him from the fray.
So one all it was, and once again time for heroes. Up stepped Phil Jagielka. The summer target for Latics inexplicably handling Kilbane’s free kick as it headed into the mixer. Had he not seen our ineffectiveness from set pieces? Did he think that he’d been asked to stand in for the keeper again? I guess we’ll never know, but whatever way we’ll always be grateful.
Latics hadn’t haven’t had much joy with spot kicks this season and with Taylor in the medical room it was hard to say who would take it. Or at least it was for the fans. On the pitch there seemed no doubt as the over large frame of David Unsworth stepped up to the oche. Yes, David Unsworth, the man who had started the season at Bramhall Lane, the man whose missed penalty against Blackburn could have changed the course of United’s season, the man who was now faced with scoring the goal that cold send them down.
The depth of Unsworth’s breath as he prepared to take the kick was probably enough to ripple Paddy Kenny’s shirt, it was certainly enough to put all the other stuff out of his mind. It was a big kick for Latics, but possibly a bigger one for the big man. In the end it was simple, place hard and low beyond Kenny’s outstretched right hand and Latics were once again allowed to think about survival.
To think, but not to believe. Belief was a privilege reserved for that moment, with 20 seconds left when Pollitt had the ball in his hands. It would take a better man than me to describe the emotion of that second half where Latics’ mettle was severely tested. The tension as Kenny pulled off two fine saves to keep his side in the game, the anguish as Webber broke through to find the post and not the net, as the ball rolled across the width of Pollitt’s goal, as Gillespie’s cross found the bar. Suffice to say that Latics stood strong, that they managed what they hadn’t all year and kept the ball out of the goal and that ultimately they succeeded.
A special mention must be put aside for Emile Heskey. Undoubtedly man of the match, player of the season and on this game alone worth every one of the five and a half million pounds that we paid Birmingham for him. Upfront he was superb, as the second half wore on, and he got dragged further back, he was a colossus. He finished the game at centre back and stood in the way of everything that was thrown at him. If there is one player excused the post mortem that will follow the season then he proved that it should be him.
It would be easy to finish this report with the image of our players celebrating, with Whelan on the pitch and Jewell avoiding the limelight, but no. In the end we should return to our goal scorer, the man who effectively relegated the side that had rejected him earlier in the season. He could have joined in his team mates’ celebrations, it must have been sorely tempting to offer an ‘I told you so’ as the season’s embers died away, but no. Recognising the pain of his ex-colleagues and the fans that used to cheer him on he simply slipped away to the dressing room. We have asked for men of integrity all season, we may have found one in its final throes.
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