Forsaking the cosiness of our New Year retreat in Ambleside, four of us ventured down a very windy and wet M6, and with monsoon like conditions, stories of flooding, delays, and lorries blown over on our normal route of the A66, we were grateful for a shorter than usual trip to Wigan.
After Sunday’s heroics, we really weren’t sure what to expect – apart from a half empty DW stadium and the usual horde of red and white faithful. Sure enough, as we took our seats about 6 rows back just to the right of the goal, our end was filling up nicely, but the other three stands retained plenty of space for any visiting tumbleweed.
As ever, our remarkable travelling fans shrugged off the inclement conditions, tight post Christmas finances and were in fine voice. There was even a smattering of fancy dress. I spotted a number of Father Christmases, a somewhat bedraggled Spiderman and one confused soul sporting a metallic pink cowboy hat that would have been more at home on Manchester’s Canal Street.
Wigan, even at their own place, are surely a far less intimidating prospect than Man City, but on Sunday the lads had, quite literally in the case of Seb, run themselves to a standstill. In a battle of clichés of which the Sunderland Echo would be proud, would it be a case of After the Lord Mayor’s Show or a more rewarding trip down the Road To Wigan Pier?
O’Neill, perhaps more by necessity than design, kept any changes to a minimum, with Kilgallon retaining his place for the injured Brown and Richardson recovering sufficiently to start in place of the virus affected Larsson whose legs, after Sunday’s exertions, had dropped off anyway.
The game kicked off with the masked Mignolet defending the goal immediately in front of us, in the sort of conditions that would have had my Mam worrying if they were sufficiently well wrapped up, predictably we had the look of a side that was running, if not on empty, then at best quarter full. Even so we had a couple of early chances as Wigan persisted with their admirably neat but invariably ineffective passing game.
Wigan made a few advances down their left, courtesy of a tricky midget named Crusat and so started a series of events that makes me suspect that, and you’ll have to bear with me here, those Swiss boffins have buggered up and we have all actually slipped into another dimension – a one where SAFC are not ineffably shit and unfeasibly unlucky.
Here’s the evidence. Let’s face it, it’s the only rational explanation as to why Ji Dong Won, as he rounded Joe Hart in the last minute on Sunday, didn’t, as we all feared, kick his own standing leg and end up on his arse. The eardrum bursting noise that shook the stadium immediately after our favourite South Korean actually slotted home, was really the sound of 43,000 people simultaneously exclaiming ‘fucking hell.’
Similarly on Tuesday night, a temporal anomaly is the only reasonable explanation why Wigan weren’t home, if not dry, inside 15 minutes. Instead of the anticipated zipping sound as the ball hit the net, we clearly heard the clang when the ball cannoned off each post, as a befuddled Mignolet and 3500 equally confused but relieved fans behind the goal looked on. In our usual dimension, we simply don’t get these sort of breaks.
As the first half progressed, the conditions worsened from bad to downright ridiculous and through the swirl of torrential rain and Uncle Joe’s Mint Ball wrappers we could barely see that we had won a free kick at the far end.
With no Seb, and a downpour of biblical proportions it seemed appropriate that Richardson was going to have a punt, but at the last second Gardner stepped up, gave it a whack and the flight of the ball was pure Roy of the Rovers stuff which left Al Habsi rooted to the spot.
One up just before half time from an absolute peach of a free kick with no Larsson to be seen. Curiouser and curiouser.
We didn’t have long to wait for our second as the already impressive McClean drew a good save from Al Habsi, but he made no mistake with a determined and remarkably composed headed finish from a slightly fortunate rebound. The players celebrated McClean’s first Premiership goal right in front of our ecstatic travelling fans, perhaps a little too enthusiastically for Mike Dean as I’m sure he brandished a yellow at someone.
Different dimension but same jobsworth refereeing. Ho hum.
The only negative on what was turning out to be a cracking night was the performance of Bendtner. Positionally suspect at best, and downright lethargic at worst, he clearly couldn’t be arsed to chase a cross field ball that, in the opinion of the majority of our fans around us, was well within his reach. Wringing the last drops out of the canine metaphor, our less than great Dane was definitely more dog-eared than dogged and I hope that was a sheepish look on his face when the shouts of ‘Ji’ immediately sprang up. The often asked rhetorical question about certain flair players is ‘aye but will he fancy it on a cold Tuesday night at Wigan/Bolton/Blackburn?’ Well on this evidence, the answer is a resounding no.
To rub salt into the wounds, shortly afterwards apparently Rodallega managed to pull one back in the murky distance of the far end.
Ten minutes later and perhaps realising the error of his ways, but I somehow doubt it, Bendtner gave us a tantalising glimpse of what he is capable by marauding down the right and delivering an inch perfect cross for the ever willing Sessegnon to convert with deceptive ease.
Five minutes later all thoughts of any post Man City blues were completely dispelled, the less than clement weather was forgotten and our bliss was complete when Vaughan smashed in an unstoppable left foot pearler from just outside the area that left Al Habsi redundant for the fourth time. The pink cowboy hat took flight as swathes of delirious fans tumbled down the steps in an effort to join in with the players’ celebrations just to the right of goal.
The final whistle blew with the few dozen remaining Wigan fans gloomily trooping out, and the contrast couldn’t have been clearer with the still full away end, as the players and an obviously delighted and positively bouncing O’Neill came across and acknowledged our support on what had been yet another remarkable night in the short reign of the hyperactive Northern Irishman.
Our support eventually straggled out of the ground, still in good voice and as we trudged towards the car parks, an unsuspecting policewoman was hugged by some of the more ‘tired and emotional’ members of the throng.
In summary, the team to a man, with the possible exception of Bendtner,
put in another tremendous shift and even with a make-do-and-mend back line we are unrecognisable from the motley crew at the fag end of Bruce’s tenure. Yes we rode our luck a little, but our speed and commitment on the break is both a surprise and a delight.
It’s almost unfair to pick out individuals, but Cattermole looks reborn, Kilgallon’s exile under Bruce seems ever more baffling and without getting carried away, McClean is beginning to look like a very, very exciting prospect. The lad still has plenty of raw edges but I’m really impressed with the way he’s stepped up to Premiership level.
Supporters are often asked the question, would you rather have a good manager or a lucky one? On the evidence of the last two games, in Martin O’Neill, happily we seem to have both.
On reflection, it’s a more plausible answer than my multi-dimensional theory.