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Oct 1, 2009

Martinez stock on the rise at Wigan

Promising not to sack your manager even if he gets the club relegated from the Premier League might not appear to be the most positive way of announcing a new appointment, although presumably Dave Whelan meant well.

Roberto Martinez was equally pragmatic on the eve of the new season as he assessed the challenge he faced after accepting Whelan's invitation to leave behind Championship football at Swansea and take over from Steve Bruce at Wigan.

The Spaniard was holding court with a handful of journalists at the newly renamed DW Stadium when his usually sunny demeanour turned markedly downbeat. Heskey. Mido. Zaki. Valencia. Cattermole. Palacios. He reeled off the names like the loss of each one was striking a mortal blow to Wigan's hopes of extending their stay in the top-flight to a sixth year.

"It doesn't get any harder than this," said Martinez. "In any club if you lose the principal players it's going to take you time to get over that. But only through the tough times can you grow and get to the next level. It doesn't matter how tough the challenge is, you need to find a way to compete on the pitch and stay in the Premier League. Unless we do that nobody at Wigan will be happy."

How incongruous those words seemed in the wake of Wigan's 3-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday. What was most surprising of all about their first victory over a 'big four' team wasn't so much that it took 35 games to happen, but the ease with which Wigan contained their opponents and scored three goals. For that Martinez deserves a great credit for guiding them through what has undoubtedly been a difficult start to the season.

Wigan have, as their new boss has been at pains to point out for some time now, faced five of last season's top-six in their opening seven games. Thumping defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal might have knocked the stuffing out of lesser sides, but victory over Chelsea has put a whole different complexion of matters in this part of Lancashire.

Nine points from seven games now looks very respectable in the circumstances, especially when you consider that Hull, Burnley, Portsmouth, Fulham and Sunderland are among their opponents in the next block of seven. So has the loss of those players really been as bad as Martinez lamented in the summer?

Although Emile Heskey has hardly set the world alight since moving to Aston Villa in the January transfer window, his departure undoubtedly hit Wigan hard as they won only three of their final 18 Premier League games. Another reason for that was Amr Zaki's failure to reproduce his early-season fireworks, although contrary to what Martinez might think, Mido's contribution was limited, with an equalising penalty against Liverpool the high point of his spell on loan.

It becomes more evident when you compare it to the current form of Hugo Rodallega. The Colombia striker was used sparingly after his £4.5 million move from Mexican football in January, but drew on the experience to adapt to the English game and has emerged a different player this season.

Quick and strong, he was deployed in a wider role on Saturday to accommodate Jason Scotland's first Premier League start and was a real handful for the Chelsea defence long before he won the penalty that saw Petr Cech sent off and brought his third goal of the season.

Charles N'Zogbia is offering an equal threat on the opposite flank and, at £6 million, represents good business as a replacement for Antonio Valencia. Wigan knew they simply couldn't stand in Valencia's way of joining Manchester United, nor turn down the £18 million on offer, but N'Zogbia's performances have certainly helped to soften the blow of losing the Ecuador winger.

Just as Steve Bruce benefitted from his predecessor Paul Jewell's work in spotting Valencia at the last World Cup and bringing him to England on loan, so Martinez has reaped the rewards of Bruce's hard work in pursuing a deal for Hendry Thomas.

Many felt Wilson Palacios would leave the biggest gap of all when, like Valencia, he was allowed to join a bigger club for a big fee, but his Honduras team-mate Thomas has rolled off the production line and seems to be a perfect replacement.

With midfielder Mohamed Diame, signed from Rayo Vallecano in August, coming in alongside him to provide more than adequate cover for the departed Lee Cattermole, Whelan has every reason to feel that has done very well in banking nearly £40 million for the lot while spending little more than £10 milliion in the summer. He has also seen his gamble of bringing in Martinez from the Championship pay off so far, with the Spaniard determined to stick to his principles of playing passing football even if it means going the same way as West Brom last season.

The two men have stayed friends since Whelan brought Martinez to Wigan's old Springfield Park ground from Real Zaragoza 14 years ago as one of his 'Three Amigos'. Martinez reminisced in the summer about his days living with Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz in a semi-detached house in Poolstock Lane, just a couple of miles from where Whelan was to build his £30 million new stadium for the club, and his admiration for the chairman's vision and success was clear to see.

Whelan, in turn, holds Martinez in genuine affection and you can well believe him when he says the new manager will keep his job irrespective of what happens this season. At this rate he doesn't have to worry.

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