WIGAN fans were furious about a string of decisions going against them as they saw the trapdoor creak open an inch or two below them after a week when everything has gone wrong, not least the pressure piled on by the Premiership’s bottle job over relagation rivals West Ham. Paul Jewell fumed and blustered his way into stroke territory in the post match press conference as he grasped at straws and blamed the goal on Stewy Downing’s illegal Bolo-style slipping two footed deadball delivery technique that perfected on the training pitch at Hurworth.
But all that is just a bitter deflection of a simple truth: Wigan were awful. All their problems against Boro were self-inflicted. They can blame the refs and the Premier League and devious Downing all they like but the reality is that they put in a high-octane but low threat performance in a must win match against the team with the worst away record in the Premiership and when it looked like slipping away they did precisely nothing to change it.
Wigan were awful and Boro – despite some changes that will have had fans wincing before kick-off – were good. They put in a spirited if scrappy defensive display in a bruising game when the pressure was really on. Wigan had to win but never looked remotely like doing it. A looping header clipped the bar in a frantic start that soon fizzled out then industrious Boro beavered into a position of dogged dominance that finally secured Premiership safety.
Wigan possibly had the bulk of the possession but after a blistering opening ten minutes did very little apart from pump balls into the box where outstanding Jonathan Woodgate headed away 1001 of them. Wigan had five shots on target and they were all straight at Schwarzer and apart from the looping McCullough header which rattled the bar the only time he was under any pressure was when Downing ran down a cul de sac and frustrated, turned and hoofed a 60 yard back pass that forced the Aussie keeper to charge out and fractionally beat Heskey to the ball. Even in a furious finale When they threw everyone forward Wigan could not find a sight of goal.
Boro though had two more good chances to score. Mark Viduka stretched at the far post to reach a Downing free-kick but could’t get enough on it to turn it in and after the break Downing beat the flag to chase an Andrew Taylot ball down the left then cut into the box unchallenged but fired straight at the keeper from an angle. In the end it was easy. Some observations.
SLIPPING TO RELEGATION: When Downing took his fortuitous skid as he took the free-kick that led to the goal it was not because he went for a cheap Mr Bean slapstick laugh or because he is particularly unsteady on his feet. It was because Wigan had heavily watered the pitch before the game to create a surface calculated to produce mistakes they hoped they could profit from. They had watered it far more than an eco-terrorists would have been happy with about half-an-hour before kick off then again immediately before the teams came out.
Downing went over twice in the first two minutes chasing back to Boro’s byline then a neat dummy by Valencia sent Andrew Taylor and Manny Pogatetz sliding into touch down by the corner flag. But Boro quickly came to terms with it while it was Wigan who seemed to struggle with it and their high-tempo game plan faltered because a failure to control with an unsteady first touch allowed Boro to snuff out attacks before they could get into the danger area.
The flank where Downing took the free-kick from was particularly greasy because it was in the shade and didn’t dry out as quickly as the far side so the conditions that produced the DJ Stewy Shuffle for the decisive free-kick was a self-inflicted wound.
And Wigan have only themselves – and possibly their fans – to blame for what happened as the ball arrived in the box. When Downing slipped the Latic crowd laughed, whistled, and made that contemptuous throaty ahhhhhhh noise that is usually accompanied by various hand gestures and indicates that a shot is going hopelessly high or wide. Whether that persuade their defnece that the ball was heading harmlessly out or not is conjecture but they stood rooted as Mark Viduka stepped effortlessly past them and thumped home from six yards. Instead of taking a pop at Downing’s deadball technique Jewell should be blasting his own defence for a lack of concentration at what should have been a routine clearance.
RIGHT WING RANTING: George Boateng is the latest Boro player to have a shot in the problem wide right role but he won’t be relishing the thought of playing their again. Far from being a natural winger, his only cross in the first half ended up in the crowd, he kept on drifting inside and when sent down the line lacked the legs to chase the ball into dangerous positions. He worked hard but always looked awkward and vulnerable and Wigan failed to spot the glaring weakness or take advantage of it.
But what are we to make of him even starting there? The skipper, undroppable despite an injury hampered season in which he has been far from his best, was shuffled out on the right with unpredictable Rochemback, a player who looked to be on his way in January, prefered in the Dutchman’s holding role in the middle? Why not George in the middle and Rocky on the right? Why not George in the middle and James Morrison, Adam Johnson or Lee Cattermole wide? Is that the first sign that he is not a fixture in the middle? That he is not a first choice? Last week he filled in at right back, this week on the flank.
BRUISE BROTHERS: Even Alpine hardman Manny Pogatetz admitted it was a physical game so you can imagine how mere mortals felt. In the tunnel after the game as the players left for the coach it seemed that every other one was limping heavily. Andrew Davies needed treatment after he landed heavily in his hand and Wigan’s Ryan Taylor was spark out and concussed after colliding with the rock-hard Austrian in a first half war of attrition.
Mad Dog Pogatetz was super human in a ferocious spell midway through the opening spell. He has started quietly but after Coca Cola Cup dream smashing hate figure Emile Heskey crunched unneccessarily into Mark Schwarzer as he collected a routine ball, Boro’s cult hero hard man became ‘radged’ and started throwing himself into everything. He charged down a powerful drive from Baines that hit him in the midriff with a force that would put you or I in intensive care then when the resulting corner was nodded to the edge of the box he raced out to block from point blank range a piledriver from Julius Aghahowa. Ayazz, that knacked!
But it wasn’t just Mad Dog: everyone was flying into tackles and putting heads in where the boots were flying. No-one would ever advocate a Dogs of War approach as the norm but sometimes you need to do that and battling Boro’s willingness to get kicked and ‘put a foot in’ and go toe-to-toe for every ball was something to be proud of. They do have it in them. They don’t have to be an easy touch. We just need to bottle that spirit now.
FEATHERWEIGHT FRONTLINE: For a spell at the end pessimistic Boro fans had had what could be a glimpse of the future as Viduka went off to be replaced by Jason Euell and the former Charlton man lined up alongside Lee Dong Gook to form what could be the least threating front pairing Boro have ever fielded in the Premiership.
Gook worked hard and took up some good positions and at time showed a neat first touch – but his second touch is usually contact with the ground. He remains a lightweight, repeatedly barged off the ball and brushed aside in aerial challenges and really must start to get nasty and quickly learn that the Premiership is a roughhouse and start to assert himself. While Euell is… what? A mistake? With the best will in the world he has not taken his chances. He is fit enough, has the experience and presumably wants to be a Premiership player but on showings this season has a lot of work to do if he is to seriously be considered as a first team prospect.
PITCH AND TOSSERS: In some quarters the incursion at the end by a few hundred Wigan fans has been described as a pitch invasion and the image that come sto mind is maybe the bad-tempered display of frustration at Leeds last week. In fact it was just a chavtastic last day of the season attempt by a few teenage scrotes to pat their heroes on the back.
It was a good natured nostalgic old football style invasion of the sort that happened many times at Ayresome back in the day when much the same sort of young lad – working class, looking hard with his impressionable mates, barely shaving, questionable fashion sense – would race on to ruffle Terry Cochrane’s hair or cuddle Mogga. It wasn’t threatening at all although a few Boro players loked a bit edgy as the lads with no tops and viciously angle baseball caps rushed towards them, only to ignore them and rush past to mob Valencia and Co.
There were a few pathetically pleading requests over the PA for them to leave before the stewards reluctently moved in. As the lads were ushered off the pitch a few spotty 15 year olds ran towards the away end and postured a bit prompting much laughter.
HALF TIME HELL: Wigan was a foam-fingered pergatory of fun filled family entertainment that stifled any hint of spontaneous supporter generated atmosphere. Possibly encouraged by the Rugby League side of the operation it seemed anything artificial went. Before the game and at half-time the pitch resembled an edition of It’s A Knockout with a variety of vacuous, inane orchestrated activities: a brass band, cheer leaders/gymnasts, a Blues Brothers tribute act, a kiddie crossbar challenge, daft mascots, presentations to ball boys, the loudest PA this side of Glastonbury and a far too bouncy MC who clearly dreams of being on Saturday morning kids TV. You can only hope that Me Mark Page wasn’t present and taking notes.
Given the stakes in the game, the tension and a 3,000 strong away crowd there was no need for ersatz atmosphere. I felt sorry for the Boro fans before the kick-off as they were giving it rock-all but you couldn’t hear a thing because of the booming muzak. By the end though they were drowning out the Wigan fans and the PA and a good time was had by all.