FA Cup provides respite for Wigan
Typically, it was Paul Scharner who summed it up best. Unconventional in everything he does, Wigan's Austria international is known for his idiosyncratic take on the English language. Athletic's first ever FA Cup semi-final, against Millwall on Saturday, is, he said: "A little island outside the relegation fight."
Wigan is the inland town with a pier and its football team have been swimming against the tide for eight years, emerging from the deepest of waters to touch dry land just in time. "We always seem to be avoiding relegation every year," said Emmerson Boyce, a veteran of seven seasons at the DW Stadium and the only survivor of both dramatic final-day escapes from the drop, in 2007 and 2011.
"Our main priority is to stay in the Premier League," added the right wing-back, citing the example of the 2011 League Cup winners, who were relegated the same season. "You just have to look at Birmingham a couple of years ago." There is a financial imperative to ensure that if Wigan emulate Birmingham, other outsiders to lift silverware, in one respect, they do not in another.
Survival is all important. "Because it is the future for Wigan and it brings the money to run the business," said Scharner. Participation in the Premier League makes money but they treasure the Cup competitions for other reasons.
Just ask Scharner, newly recruited from Brann Bergen in 2006 when he made his Wigan bow in the League Cup. "I scored on my debut in the semi-final against Arsenal and it is one of my best memories ever," he said. He thinks less fondly of the final, a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in Cardiff, but has helped Athletic reach uncharted territory again.
"It is not often in a career you play for Wigan in an FA Cup semi-final," said Scharner, set to become the only player to represent them in the last four of both knockout competitions. If few envisaged Wigan at Wembley, Scharner, as ever, is an exception. The Austrian, brought back to Athletic on loan from Hamburg at the end of the winter transfer window, added: "It was in my mind a bit when I signed the contract on the 31st of January because Wigan were already in the fifth round."
Their progress in the FA Cup has nonetheless provided a surprise, courtesy of owner Dave Whelan after the glorious quarter-final demolition of Everton. "He came around the corner and gave me a kiss on the cheekbone," Scharner recalled.
Whelan will lead Wigan out at Wembley, returning to the place where he was cut down in his prime. The 76-year-old broke his leg playing for Blackburn against Wolves in the 1960 final. More than half a century later, the full-back turned sports-store magnate will again be on the pitch at the national stadium. "He always tells us to enjoy football because of what happened to him," said Boyce.
If club captain Gary Caldwell is on the bench again, he will be wearing the armband. "It will be a special honour," Boyce added. All the more, perhaps, because in the autumn of his career, it is so unexpected. "You always have a dream of playing at Wembley but I thought that moment had passed," the 33-year-old explained. "You always hold on to your dream and sooner or later it might come true."
Although he is a Barbados international, he was born in Aylesbury, on the same train line as Wembley, and is a British presence in a cosmopolitan dressing room. Wigan are likely to start with players from Spain, Honduras, Paraguay, Austria, Chile and Ivory Coast and have an Omani and an Argentine in reserve but, Boyce believes, Wigan's foreign legion share his excitement.
"Everybody knows about the FA Cup and the history of Wembley," he said. "They talk about it when they come to this country." With Wigan facing a Millwall side who are 16th in the Championship, they may be returning four weeks later for the final. Eternal underdogs have a rare taste of life as favourites. "For the first time, probably, all the pressure is on Wigan," said Boyce. "You don't say that too often."
An appearance in the final would bring European football even in defeat if their opponents, whether Chelsea or Manchester City, finish in the top four. It may also result, Scharner said, in another trip to the barber for a footballer with a history of dyeing his hair blue.
First, however, they have other concerns as they aim to ensure they are not facing Millwall in the Championship next season. "We need to focus on the last seven games to get nine points," said Scharner. But for one weekend only, Wigan can ignore a league table that shows them in the bottom three.
"The cup is a fantastic distraction from the league," Boyce said. It is their island in the sun.