Wigan skipper Arjan de Zeeuw has admitted he expected to spend his second spell with the Latics battling to preserve their Premiership status.
After spending three memorable seasons with the north-west outfit prior to joining Portsmouth in 2002, the 35-year-old had no hesitation in quitting Fratton Park when manager Paul Jewell asked him to return in the summer.
Although De Zeeuw was relishing the opportunity to work with Jewell again and renewing acquaintances with ambitious owner Dave Whelan, he was dubious about how well Wigan would do in their first top-flight campaign.
So, as they look ahead to Sunday’s Carling Cup Final showdown with Manchester United from their lofty perch of eighth in the table, to say Wigan are ahead of schedule would be a supreme understatement.
“I came back here thinking we would be fighting against relegation,” admitted De Zeeuw.
“Obviously, you hope to do better than that and the manager was confident we would.
“But, if you look back through history, any club that comes up to the Premier League, especially one like ours who have never been there before, just tries to stay there for two or three seasons before trying to build something more.
“This has all come much quicker than anyone expected.”
Even though he had only been away from the JJB Stadium for three years, De Zeeuw has encountered dramatic changes at the club.
Prior to this season, his last home game for the Latics was watched by 5,938 as Wigan ambled towards a mid-table finish in what is now League One.
This weekend, almost five times that number will don their blue and white striped replica shirts and head to the Millennium Stadium for an encounter with one of the most famous clubs on the planet.
At stake is not just the first major trophy in Wigan’s entire history, but also a place in next season’s UEFA Cup, a virtually unthinkable prospect for a club who, until Whelan’s arrival as chairman a decade ago, struggled to attract gates in excess of 2,000 to their dilapidated Springfield Park home.
“Sunday will be a day like this football club has never seen before,” said De Zeeuw.
“As soon as we made the final, people were coming up to the players offering their congratulations, which just shows what it means to the town.
“There have been times at Springfield Park when there were only 1,500 or 2,000 people there. Hopefully all those fans are still with us, which is great because this is a totally different club now, sit must have been amazing to have been here right from the start.
“Even when I was here before, we didn’t have that many fans, so although the stadium was really good, it felt pretty horrible.
“But we have grown so much, on and off the pitch. We are getting near-enough full houses every time we are at home and if we keep pushing on as we have done, that situation will only continue.”
What De Zeeuw is refusing to do is let his imagination run riot.
He knows if Wigan win, he will be the player given the honour of collecting thetrophy, taking with it a place in footballing history.
The bookmakers’ odds suggest the veteran central defender should head to the Welsh capital more in hope than expectation of achieving that aim and it is something he prefers not to even think about.
“I don’t want to daydream,” he said. “I just want to do it.
“At my age, I am not going to get too many chances like this and I want to make the most of it.
“It is difficult to put into words how I feel.
“I am quite level-headed and cool about things generally. It takes quite a bit for me to get excited. So I tend to remain quite relaxed and quite open and take things in my stride.
“Maybe afterwards I will know what it meant but I will only be truly satisfied if we win.”