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Sacked Grant had nowhere to hide

Perhaps it was a cheap stunt to celebrate an expensive failure. It certainly wasn't an original idea, as the Blackpool followers, delighting in Preston's departure from the Championship, can claim the copyright, but it nevertheless pinpointed the prime culprit for one of the most avoidable, most ignominious, most embarrassing relegations in Premier League history.

Minutes after Conor Sammon scored the goal that effectively condemned West Ham to the Championship, a plane circuited over Wigan trailing a banner that read: "Avram Grant Millwall legend." The lugubrious Israeli is unaccustomed to being appreciated but, despite cultivating a fan club, they are not at Upton Park. Lions fans and Hammers directors came to the same conclusion: Grant was to blame. Within an hour, underachievement was followed by unemployment. The Millwall legend was duly fired after a catastrophic campaign came to its humiliating denouement.

"It's a very sad day, the most sad day since I started in football almost 40 years ago," Grant said, speaking while, with great decisiveness but a characteristic lack of class, the club's directors had already determined his fate. "Football is a game of results. My job was to keep the team in the league and I failed. I take responsibility."

Well, sort of. Grant couched his apology in terms of the club's financial problems, injuries and refereeing decisions; a campaign of credibility-defying rhetoric concluded with a misjudged complaint about the free-kick that led to Wigan's first goal. It was a correct call by Mike Dean; a more comprehensive mea culpa would have incorporated mentions of his strange selections, unsuccessful substitutions and misjudged signings. For the second time in as many months, he gave a half-time team talk when two goals ahead and, in the subsequent 45 minutes, saw them lose a lead and all three points. On such games are relegations ensured and jobs surrendered.

On such, too, are salvage jobs executed to perfection. Manchester United's 4-2 win over West Ham may have been the turning point in the title race; Wigan's 3-2 comeback could prove similarly influential at the division's foot.

Marvellously, miraculously, they can sense the great escape; depressingly, disastrously West Ham can only see the lower leagues. They are looking down, and not merely because the messages displayed in the sky are taunts.

In any case, the self-deprecating humour of the West Ham fans had served as a pre-emptive strike of their own. Amending the lyrics of one of football's more familiar songs, they had chorused: "Que sera...we're going to Bermondsey." Along with Barnsley and Coventry, the less-than-salubrious South London suburb that houses Millwall beckons.

The likelihood is that they will go there without the Footballer of the Year. A bare-chested Scott Parker had to be restrained by two members of the backroom staff from continuing a dispute with a fan who invaded the pitch after the final whistle. Too few of his team-mates have gone down fighting, though; even after West Ham took a two-goal lead, it would be a distortion of the truth to describe them as unlucky.

Scythed open time and again, it was fitting their descent was ensured by a defeat. West Ham's plight, their utter mismanagement, their collective underachievement, their inability to forge a team from seemingly promising raw materials has been a compelling tragicomedy, but it should not obscure a wonderful response from Wigan.

Two goals down at half-time, they appeared doomed. What followed was nothing short of sensational. Chances had been fashioned and spurned in a first-half when Demba Ba twice headed past Ali Al-Habsi and Robert Green made a hat-trick of saves in as many minutes.

Then Charles N'Zogbia rifled in a free-kick to halve the deficit. Sammon, a half-time substitute, skipped inside Jordan Spence with unexpected deftness and defeated Green with a low shot. With 90 minutes on the clock, Ben Watson, who had created the second goal, saw his shot strike the inside of the post and rebound into Green's arms. It seemed a pivotal moment in Wigan's season. It wasn't. With 10 seconds of added time remaining, N'Zogbia veered away from Wayne Bridge and unleashed a skimming shot that slid underneath Green. Cue bedlam, half the Wigan staff celebrating on the pitch with the players.

It was a fabulous fightback, reminiscent of the 3-2 win against Arsenal 12 months earlier. That was another game in which N'Zogbia starred but, with a difference: then it served to keep Wigan up. Now victory at Stoke on Sunday will probably be required. "At half-time, we had a mountain to climb," Martinez said. "But it was a unique moment in our history."

It was a familiar one in West Ham's. They were relegated in 2003. Then Glenn Roeder was culpable, now Grant is, a lame duck of a manager left clutching at imaginary positives. "The supporters were amazing," he said. They spent much of the match singing obscenities about him.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Charles N'Zogbia. A truly outstanding display from the winger. With five goals in as many games, he has peaked when it has mattered most. One more match-winning display from him should ensure a seventh season in the top flight for Wigan.

WIGAN VERDICT: Martinez gambled at half-time by bringing on Sammon and Victor Moses. It was a bold change that paid off, with Wigan basically playing with a front four. While they remain in the relegation zone, their final game - away at injury-hit Stoke - offers a genuine chance.

WEST HAM VERDICT: With one point from the last seven games, it is hard to say they do not deserve to go down. Ba has proved a rare inspired recruit, scoring his sixth and seventh goals in 10 league starts, but he may be one of many to leave. Parker, Green and Matthew Upson should also go, but shifting some of their failures may be rather harder. First-team coach Kevin Keen will be in charge against Sunderland next week.


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