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Feb 23, 2006

The nation's favourite

Sir Alex Ferguson has long fostered a siege mentality at Manchester United, fuelled by a feeling the majority want to see his team lose.

On Sunday, however, it will not just be the ABU (Anyone But United) brigade cheering on Wigan; many neutrals would see a first major trophy and a place in Europe as a fitting conclusion to the story of the season.

Wigan reached the 40-point barrier on Sunday. As manager Paul Jewell said, reaching 40 corners by the end of February surprised some. His is an unlikely recipe for success, a blend of unknown imports, Premiership failures, creaking veterans and lower-league stalwarts. It is all the more heartening, then, to see them a fixture in the top 10 and capable of securing a UEFA Cup place via either league or cup.

Few have laboured longer in the lower divisions than goalkeeper Mike Pollitt, who has a belated chance to exact revenge on his first club (Wigan is his 12th) in Cardiff. Premiership football came late to the 34-year-old; but for Jewell's intervention after Rotherham's relegation to League One, it would surely never have arrived.

Pollitt qualifies as a veteran, while the other old-timers are to be found at the heart of the defence. Neither Arjan de Zeeuw nor Stephane Henchoz could be described as a long-term signing, but each has brought authority and assurance to the back four.

The Dutchman has provided the leadership, the Swiss international the enduring ability to time a tackle, rarer than it sounds in an era when contact often results in referees reaching for their pocket. Both are proof that pace, despite its increasing importance, is not essential while defensive nous is as relevant as it ever has been.

Experience in the centre of defence, energy in the middle of midfield and pace in attack; Jewell's formula sounds simple. His first-choice forwards, however, started the season with the stigma of three relegations and a Premiership record of just 15 goals in 85 games.

Jason Roberts' physique made him an awkward proposition for top-flight defences, but a lack of finesse was apparent in his finishing, as a total of four goals in 2002-3 shows. Now brawn has been allied with more subtlety and a greater composure in front of goal.

Henri Camara, the maverick talent Jewell is bringing into line, came with more pedigree. That the two strikers are dovetailing nicely is more of a surprise in the case of Camara, whose individual streak is pronounced, than Roberts, a veteran of prolific partnerships.

If Wigan are the season's unknown quantity, their unknown quantity has been Pascal Chimbonda. His arrival from Bastia escaped the attention of all but the most diligent, but few full-backs are more eye-catching on the pitch, and not just because the Frenchman started wearing gloves in September.

Two last-minute goals are one indication of his adventure while, in a team that hardly ranks among the Premiership's tallest, his aerial ability makes him prominent at set pieces at either end.

But, if one player epitomises Wigan, it is Jimmy Bullard, the exuberant workaholic. Mirroring Tim Cahill 12 months earlier, here is a midfielder whose confident progression to the Premiership raises the question of why top-flight teams ignored him earlier, a player unlikely to scoop the end-of-season awards but who merits a mention alongside the Premiership superstars for his performances over the last six months.

The cheeky chipped penalty against Leeds was one indication of Bullard's fearlessness though, braver and more foolhardy, he approached Duncan Ferguson after the Scot had punched Paul Scharner and lashed out at Chimbonda. His expression revealed a sense of wonder and awe; others took the more sensible approach and got out of Ferguson's reach.

Tactically, Wigan mix the modern and the traditional. Jewell's 4-4-2 formation involves an old-fashioned winger, Gary Teale, who has received belated recognition with his first Scotland call-up. But just in front of the defence, Jewell has eschewed a midfield hatchet man in favour of Graham Kavanagh, with the emphasis on positioning and passing.

That fondness for two forwards was preserved even in the absence of Roberts, Henri Camara, David Connolly and Lee McCulloch and is the cause of one of Jewell's selection dilemmas on Sunday.

Midfielder Andreas Johansson, a nondescript bit-part player for much of the campaign, has excelled as an auxiliary striker, though two goals against Tottenham may not be enough to disrupt the Roberts-Camara axis.

Recent arrivals further complicate matters. Indeed Reto Ziegler was alone among the January acquisitions in not capping his debut with a goal. David Thompson is cup-tied, so will not figure at Cardiff, but the spirited Paul Scharner surely will.

Seven weeks into his career in England, his is another unlikely tale; he has already played in defence, midfield and attack, for starters. Given his apparent preference for a defensive brief, the timing of his forays forward is remarkable; given his giant frame and Manchester United's lightweight midfield, expect to see goal kicks and set-pieces directed at the Austrian.

He was the only player who cost Wigan a fee in January and, after the summer sale of Nathan Ellington, their net outlay in the last 12 months is only £4.3 million. It gives the lie to the oft-repeated suggestion that success has been bought.

Indeed, accusations of chequebook management have dogged Wigan throughout their rise up the leagues yet Paul Jewell's transfer policy, like that of Arsene Wenger, is usually characterised by self-restraint. Budget invariably exceeds expenditure and a high proportion of signings are successful.

Talk of a £25 million spending spree last summer never materialised; instead a cup final appearance and a Premiership campaign marked by unexpected gusto and considerable skill was delivered.

And, perhaps, soon mentions of Wigan in Europe might not refer to the town's famous rugby league team's trip to face Les Catalans. It would be a fitting conclusion to a remarkable story.


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