Keep the faith – a Stoke preview

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We can do this, all we got to do is believe. These are the words etched upon the minds of many, the many who believe and who are we to disagree. There is nothing a healthy dose of positivity can’t fix, but I’m sure for many Sunday can’t come soon enough and no matter what happens, we’ll all be mentally drained from it come next week.


My emotion barometer doesn’t really know whether this positivity is a good thing or not. You see at 3pm last Saturday with every other results conspiring to kick us in the balls, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of the opinion that we were well and truly doomed. And anyone caught smiling at half time of the West Ham game, save for the Hammers fans would have been rounded up, declared clinically insane and taken to the nearest psychiatric ward. It’s hard to keep the faith when you can see it’s one of those days when nothing’s going your way.


I had no idea it was coming, you start to think ‘maybe if we could somehow get one back and apply a bit of pressure, well who knows’ I even thought this at 2 or 3 nil down against United, but generally you laugh it off in your own head as being ridiculous ‘nah, doesn’t happen, once every blue moon at best’. That’s not failing to keep the faith, that’s just the sensible part of your brain pointing it out to you, that bit that reminds you to put the bins out and renew your car tax and destroys all your more frivolous dreams at a stroke. Why just this morning it reminded me that I’m a 38 year old accountant who is in fact never going to play for Wigan Athletic seconds after I’d packed my boots and headed off to Christopher Park, bah you heartless brain bits.


It’s all a bit of a blur to me that second half, it didn’t feel real, I’d had a few beers of course but it was just pure, unbridled joy and there is nothing average about Wigan Athletic under Roberto Martinez, nothing whatsoever average. Awful, brilliant but seldom average. I had a row at half time with some fella. I was having a pint with my mate who I’ve watched Latics with for donkey’s years, I don’t see him that often now because I’m a family man so it’s good to have a chinwag during the interval, it’s sometimes the only once a fortnight that we do it. This fella who stands near us under the concourse butts in: ’37 years I’ve been a season ticket holder, and I’m not going again for as long as that Spanish idiot’s in charge’. I’ve got to admit I, like him, felt a little resigned even betrayed at the 0-2 scoreline but it didn’t stop me offering up the standard unprintable ‘well obscenity – go forth and multipy (4,3) then if you don’t like it’ partly because I’m sick of hearing it and secondly as I was tetchy at him for disturbing me and a mate who were having a pint and a catch up which he saw fit to interrupt with his constructive critique of the current situation at Wigan Athletic.


I did think back to him at full time however, and the lad who ran over to Martinez chucking his season ticket. I expect they felt just a little bit foolish. I still don’t get why there is so much animosity towards our manager, but what I do know is that the margin between success and failure is so narrow you couldn’t wedge an amoeba’s testicle in between it. Even within the space of ninety minutes. Amazing performance though it was, for our club, for the fans, for our players and for our manager, whatever happened last Sunday will mean nothing if we don’t secure whatever points we need to stop up at Stoke and he’ll be getting it all summer off the ‘bloody hell brigade’ if we go down.


When Ben Watson hit the post late on in the game, my memory flashed back to Sheffield United and it was Danny Webber all over again. That coat of paint, that’s the margin between glorious success and miserable failure sometimes and indeed it is again. It’s what our whole season could rest on. Thankfully on Sunday it became irrelevant and Charles glided past the £90,000 a week Wayne Bridge to slot home a 94th minute winner but this is what made the difference in 2007 and the margins may well be that tight again on Sunday. Is that fair on the manager, the players, the club, the fans or anyone else for that matter?


Not at all, but whereas those particularly vociferous in their anger against the manager will vent spleen if we go down and if we stay up will claim that it was ‘in spite’ of the manager, those who continually back him will say it was unlucky, we’ve done well to last as long as we have and we finally have a manager with the long term interests of the club at heart. We still don’t know who’s right but we need to park all that politics, ideally forever but at least till after Sunday as there’s surely only one result we all want.


Just as there was doom and gloom the day before and at half time on Sunday, the ultimate outcome of that game has resulted in a wave of optimism which can be equally dangerous. If we could only wind back our emotions to 5pm on Saturday then we could erase the slightest bit of over-confidence (which is possibly an extension of ‘keeping the faith’) and firmly approach the game as fans, players, manager as a team who are in 19th position and are currently set to drop. From that point onwards, we can then re-adjust the mind set to a team who have a slim chance of pulling off a miracle and enable the rest of us to keep our emotions in check whatever happens.


We need to do this though. It’s easy to get sucked in by the constant vitriol aimed at us by supposedly professional journalists and amateur soundbiters up and down the country, it’s easy to start thinking ‘well maybe we’ve had our time and it’s been fun, but now it’s time to stand aside and give someone else a go’. Not a chance, the reason we need to pull this off is exactly because of the vitriol and constant derogatory comments aimed at our football club. A whole army of people, present up and down the country and no more vociferous than in our own town can be silenced if this little football club of ours can again beat the odds. We represent all the small clubs from small towns who dream of punching above their weight.


If we win, or rather if we stay up – as our result is only as relevant as what happens in three other games – then it will be our greatest achievement of them all. Of course, there’s no hiding the fact that we will all be devastated if we do get relegated but somehow, Sunday should be a day of celebration regardless. It’s going to be difficult given the pathetic ticket allocation fiasco but those going need to ensure that we make the best of it: what we’ve got and what we’ve achieved against the odds for the last six years. No crying on Match of the Day, no heads in scarves or flags and no vitriol towards our own team. Just a nice non-intimidating chorus of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ for the Stoke fans. Don’t bother with the ‘going to Coventry’ lark – again it’s been done, last week’s chip papers. Just sing and cheer your hearts out for ninety minutes regardless of the result.


Oh and yes I’m one of them, I feel bad for those young lads who’ve been everywhere all season as I’ve missed more than a few aways this year but one thing experience teaches you is to be able to anticipate when the club are likely to botch something up and this game was a shoe in for it happening, they were nailed on to cock it up. I’ve had my say on the massive difference having 3,000 Wiganers there and 1,500 less Stokies in the ground could make. The fact that West Ham can splash out £20-£30k for 34 free coaches to the DW last week and our club won’t even risk losing £20-£30k on what could be a £40m game but let’s leave it there. If you’ve got
a ticket, then treat it as the privilege that it is and many of your fellow fans haven’t got and please make up for it by doing your bit and making the noise of ten men (and women) and representing those who didn’t get tickets. We’ve never had the biggest quantity of support, but we can make it up through quality.


So to Stoke and possibly the worst thing for us to happen was that they got tonked 3-0 at city midweek as Pulis will have been feeding them red meat ever since and chucking acid coated medicine balls at them. Stoke are a tough team backed by a tough and vociferous home crowd which understandably has given them a terrific home record. They have several key players out injured and the temptation must be to let them rest now if there is any doubt whatsoever about their fitness, nevertheless whatever Stoke team is put out, they will fight like tigers to get a result as that is the Stoke way. What they lack in perceived finesse (and I say perceived because they do play football) they make up for in work rate. Look beyond Kenwyne Jones and you’ve got players like John Carew, Jonathan Walters or Ricardo Fuller, all capable of scoring goals and they will give our back four a stern test regardless.


For Latics, well yes I do take on board the notion that we should start the first half like we finished the second half: same team and do or die attitude, this is a game of which our whole future depends. Yet I don’t have a problem with us starting with the same first half set up as last week as I can completely understand why Roberto Martinez plays that way. Start the game, pack the midfield with the extra man, try to control the game, try to keep possession, grind down your opponents and get forward fleetingly. It means that we have the armoury in your locker to step it up in the second half as and when we need to. I can understand the clamour for Conor Sammon to start as well, he’s a big raw boy and causes problems but maybe just maybe, bringing him off the bench when other legs are tiring is the way to get the best of him at the moment, similarly with Victor Moses and start the game with those most familiar with the more mature patient, passing approach. If we go at Stoke the same way we went at West Ham, yes we could be 3-0 up within 30 minutes but we could also be 5-0 down because when you attack you leave gaps.


That’s about as in depth as I get when it comes to tactics and such I’m afraid but regardless of your own views, what we do on Sunday is only half the story. We’ve all seen the permutations and know that a defeat and we could still stay up and a win might not necessarily prevent us from the drop. This is not the same scenario as four years ago at all but I suspect if we can pull it off, it won’t be done the easy way because it never is. My faith, is currently banking on a draw for us and Birmingham and Blackpool both losing their tough away games. There used to be an ad on telly for some subsidiary of the ill fated Kwik Save which went ‘Do yourself a favour, be a liquorsaver’ and whereas I’m not perfectly fussed about the availability of cheap alcohol right now, the first four words represent exactly what we need to do on Sunday by getting the best possible results and hoping that others elsewhere fall short.


For the neutral, I am sure this could be a match that could be juicier than Sir Freddie Goodwin’s address book but for Wigan Athletic fans, it’s going to be another nerve jangler of an afternoon I’m afraid.





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