After the dust has settled on their season after their final, now suddenly anticlimactic, match with Villa tomorrow Wigan will turn their attention to how best to get promoted. A quick look at this season’s Championship table should show them it’s no simple task. They should note Wolves’ fate with a shudder. To that end the most important decision Dave Whelan can make is to try and do everything he can to keep Roberto Martinez.
Martinez is almost unique in relegated managers in that no one is calling for his head. You get the sense that even without the FA Cup win (for which he will surely be venerated for a very long time) the fans would be happy for him to continue. There’s a sense that Wigan were unfortunate to be relegated, that their play somehow just didn’t get the points it deserved. Martinez even came out after the 4-1 defeat to Arsenal that relegated them and said as much. This is of course absolute bollocks. The great thing about league tables is that they don’t lie. Come the end of the season you’re positioned exactly where you should be. Yes they had problems with injuries and a few incidents that didn't go their way but ultimately Wigan’s play got the points it deserved and those points weren't enough to keep them up.
When people talk about how difficult next season will be for Man Utd and Everton it’s not only because they’ve changed long term managers. It’s because their managers have made their mark on all areas of their football clubs from the bottom up. In many ways that’s what Martinez has done with Wigan. Had they stayed up he would have been the third longest serving manager behind Arsene Wenger and Tony Pulis. The system and players are his.
A lot will depend on how the club reacts after what will surely be one of the oddest FA Cup presentations of all time on Sunday. That Wigan became the first club to win it while being relegated is fitting after becoming the models for inconsistency over the past few seasons. Ridding themselves of that tag in what they’ll see as a vastly inferior league is their first challenge. Being able to modify their style of football to guarantee results in the more physical division below is no sure thing. There’s also trying to cope with their entry into the Europa League next season. Birmingham, who mirrored Wigan’s fate with their League Cup-Relegation combo, did next to nothing in Europe and still haven’t been promoted.
As he was last summer with the Villa and Liverpool jobs Martinez has been linked with moving to a bigger club. Whether the relegation on his CV affects his desirability remains to be seen. He has however made strong hints that if an offer came in he’d consider it. And from his point of view you can see why it appeals. He’s won a trophy, done his very best to keep Wigan in the Premier League for three seasons in a row. All that waits for him if he stays is a long hard slog for promotion in the Championship. Another glance at last year’s table should tell him how hard it can be.
The players they have currently look good enough to get them straight back up. The problem as it always is with going down is that your best players want to leave and the poor ones stay. Managing this problem will be critical. Wigan in general and Martinez in particular have proven astute judges of the transfer market in the past. The same care and attention will be even more important now. In the past Wigan have attracted players keen to put themselves in the shop window for the bigger clubs. Valencia, Baines, Palacios, Rodallega are just some of the players to pass through. If they do lose players then it’s natural to wonder who’ll come in to replace them, particularly as in the past they’ve brought a considerable number over from Spain and South America, players who may not want to move over to play in the comparative hinterland of a division below.
Financially they should be fine. By all accounts a sensible, financially cautious club Whelan has always been reticent to pay the sorts of wages that can cause a problem when you suddenly find yourself a division below. The parachute payments have just increased slightly to £60 over four seasons which should also ease the burden somewhat. Next season they can look forward to local derbies against Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton and Blackpool. The good feeling generated by their upset FA Cup win can’t have all dissipated by going down (in fact if you asked Whelan off the record I’ve a sneaking suspicion if given the choice between the two he would have gone for the cup). More than most clubs on their way down they’ve got reasons to be cheerful.
That’s if Martinez stays. If he goes then the new man will have to deal with potential departures and signings at the same time as making major changes to the playing style. An overhaul like that isn’t conducive to starting the season as quickly as possible. Plus without Martinez to remind them they belonged there for 8 years it’s possible that Wigan will allow themselves to shift comfortably into being a Championship club. They may have just exceeded their reach for a few seasons. There’s certainly no historical or logistical reason they should be in the top division. It was only due to shrewd management and Whelan’s financial influence that they did in the first place.
If Martinez decides that he wants the challenge of getting Wigan back to where he found them (or if is slightly more likely, Everton decide to appoint someone else) then there’s every reason for optimism. If he can decide the right number to sell and keep out of Arouna Kone, Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman, James McArthur and James Mcarthy their stay a division below could be a short one. If Martinez goes it’s difficult to imagine that they won’t be in for a long wait.