ROBERTO MARTINEZ is a proud teetotaller but will have relished being drenched in champagne last night.
As he threw his trademark jacket into the away end in celebration, Martinez had been vindicated after displaying unwavering commitment not only to his players, but to the effervescent, brave brand of football that ultimately secured their safety.
The season started with Wigan haemorrhaging 10 goals in their opening two games, against Blackpool and Chelsea. Even this year they had only spent three weeks out of the relegation zone but Wigan have never attempted to pilfer points, earning just as many admirers as the 42 they accrued in a roller coaster campaign.
Success to the stragglers in this unforgiving division is relative but you knew exactly what Martinez meant when he claimed staying up was akin to winning a trophy. He had maintained all season that he had the personnel to avoid relegation but despite his hyperbole it still required a late revival to back him up.
Wigan’s ability to register back-to-back victories for the first time under Martinez also ensured they kept an amazing, if bizarre, statistic intact by remaining the only club to never be relegated from the top flight. How they managed it is now irrelevant, but Martinez deserves immense credit for admirably sticking to his principles.
He said: “The belief my players have shown in themselves and the way we want to play football has been amazing. It was vital that we always had faith in what we do. Sometimes you can destroy yourself in wanting to win a game, and then you have no real structure for the future.
“Sometimes in football you need to stick with your ideas and to work at them. It doesn’t happen overnight. I just felt that after five months the team began to click and we were ready to compete.”
This victory owed much to the continued excellence of Ali Al-Habsi, the goalkeeper prised out of local rivals Bolton on loan. If it had not been for Al-Habsi, Stoke could have been out of sight before half time. Even the admirable Wigan supporters who unfurled a flag simply bearing the word ‘BELIEVE’ must have feared the worst.
Wigan required an offside flag to ensure Kenwyne Jones’ 11th-minute header, from a giant Rory Delap throw, was cancelled out before Emmerson Boyce hacked Jones’ effort off the line. But then Al-Habsi rose to the fore, denying both Jones and Jermaine Pennant as Stoke threatened to blow away their opponents in the howling wind and sheets of rain.
With the stakes so high, Wigan had to improve and were more attack-minded in the second period, with Connor Sammon testing Asmir Begovic for the first time with a low drive just after the hour.
Sammon’s replacement Tom Cleverley almost gave them the goal they desperately needed barely a minute after his introduction but his shot was smothered by Begovic. But Rodallega finally rewarded their pressure when he rose to nod Charles N’Zogbia’s cross past Begovic from six yards, sparking wild scenes in the away end behind the goal.
For Stoke, an FA Cup final and European football next season represent real progress under Tony Pulis.
Martinez is just simply pleased he has the opportunity to return to Staffordshire next season.
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