Those who talk of the FA Cup's faded cachet have forgotten the competition's continuing ability to bestow heroism on the usually obscure. In a game of ever-greater divides between rich and poor, it still has the capability of lifting the mood of a sleepy town fallen on hard times. While Premier League managers often treat it as an unwanted distraction, and rotate accordingly, bosses and managers from the lower reaches can be playing the games of their lives. A cup draw's random factor throws up tales of hope and expectation; shame on those who sneeringly dismiss it.
"The proudest day in the history of Macclesfield Town," said Moss Rose's excitable announcer before his team had even kicked a ball. The jewel of East Cheshire was daring to dream. Perhaps the town could achieve worldwide acclaim beyond its siring of one half of Joy Division, and John Mayall of Bluesbreakers fame by becoming the first non-league team to knock out a top-division side since Sutton United embarrassed Coventry City in 1989. It was not to be, while Luton's win at Norwich stole that 23-year distinction too, but Macclesfield was not disgraced by the efforts of its footballing heroes.
The question of whether beating Wigan can register as a giantkilling was moot to an expectant crowd of 5,849. Lancastrian blood was smelled for much of an encounter where the greater creativity was shown by a team four divisions below their opponents. They were often just a final ball away. Had Macclesfield possessed the set-piece excellence of Bradford City, then Wigan were in trouble.
If this season's League Cup has taught us anything, it is that footballing romance is not yet dead. Macclesfield Town's late third-round defeat of Cardiff City stirred similar emotions. All those not associated with Aston Villa or Cardiff should have allowed a smile. Cup competitions are the keenest reminder that the game is not yet played on paper, or to modernise the cliché, on a spreadsheet.
Macclesfield ran out as civic heroes with little to lose, destined to be remembered fondly. The little brother of a region that boasts English football's most successful and popular clubs enjoyed its day in a sun slowly melting a week's worth of snow. The FA Cup has distracted from a mediocre Blue Square Premier League campaign that has manager Steve King, a southerner in a proudly northern town, under suspicion from fans who wanted ex-truck-driving goal machine Steve Burr to take over; last season saw relegation from the Football League finally occur after years of struggle.
The posh villages that decorate Macclesfield's outskirts are footballing hotbeds in the sense that much of the cream of Manchester football, from United and City and even some of those who ply their trade on Merseyside, choose to live there. Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand have been sighted in Moss Rose's rickety main stand as guests catching a game on their day off.
For Wigan, involved in their annual relegation scrap and wholly endangered too, the view of the FA Cup as a distraction was reflected by Roberto Martinez's selection of the unfamiliar, with eight changes from their Premier League defeat to Sunderland. Take a fixture lightly and pay the price of shame. Wigan escaped with dignity intact, their egos only lightly bruised, but there could be no talk of them having outclassed their opposition.
Supposed Premier class took hold early and clung on. Five minutes in, Callum McManaman was too quick for Thierry Audel and fell under his tackle, making the most of a clumsy challenge. Penalty given, and Jordi Gomez scored. Keeper Joe Anyon's fingers to the ball were not enough to stop a collective groan being sounded by three sides of the ground.
Referee Mr East, ably assisted by directionally-opposed linesman R West, was not popular, becoming the target of soft-vowelled Maxonian invective for much of the game, even though there should have been few complaints about the penalty. Anyon had been signed on emergency loan on Friday afternoon, and had only just met his new team-mates. His chance to be a hero came and went quickly.
Yet the home fires were kept burning. "Premier League, you're having a laugh," sang the Macc fans as their team grew in confidence, their analysis not far off-beam considering that this was a team of players largely not first-choice for a team staring down the barrel of relegation. Gomez's higher quality was clear, his surges causing flutters in the heart of the home defence. McManaman continued to be dangerous but the home team were competing on an equal footing from half an hour in until the very last whistle. John-Paul Kissock, known as 'Macclesfield's Messi', though more for a passing resemblance than for his goalscoring stats, threaded the play and began to create angles. Keiran Murtagh's loping stride was to be found providing muscle alongside Kissock.
Matthew Barnes-Homer, who can boast Rochester Rhinos, Syracuse Salty Dogs and Virginia Beach Mariners among his former clubs, and who scored the goals that beat Cardiff, took half an hour to get his first and best chance. A scuffed finish produced Joel Robles' toughest save. Waide Fairhurst's scoop wide followed swiftly, as Wigan began to retreat. Next, Sam Wedgebury boomed a shot out of the ground to remind of the Moss Rose's tiny dimensions. Audel almost made amends but his header was straight at Robles.
The pattern of snatched chances continued with a second-half effort from Mackreth after a mistake for Maynor Figueroa. A Murtagh shot deflected wide after some delicate skills from substitute Peter Winn. There were impassioned claims for a home penalty when Barnes-Homer was baulked but Mr West was not swayed. Angelo Henriquez, Chile wunderkind on loan from Manchester United, looked chilly and missed a header that could have calmed his team.
Wigan were holding on at the last, but a series of dead balls in added time were dealt with calmly enough. At the final whistle, they looked almost reluctant fifth-round qualifiers. Macclesfield had fallen short, but did so with bravery and heroism.
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