I was up for this one, I really was. I’d primed the iPod with a little bit of Joy Zipper for the first stage of the walk down to the game and had some Bo Ningen ready for when the stadium appeared on the horizon. Not even the rain could dampen my enthusiasm for a game against the FA Cup holders under the lights. Indeed, I’d even done that thing you sometimes do when it’s raining on the way to a game and convinced myself there’d be some ‘zip’ on the grass so we’d be in for a cast-iron treat. Everything had come together, it seemed. Those feelings of anticipation and excitement lasted about seven minutes though, unfortunately, as it became clear, even at that early stage, that we were going to be in for an archetypal second-tier grind of a game where we were going to have to simply work hard and dig in for ninety minutes.
We’d picked a pretty forward-thinking team, at least on paper we had anyway, and gone with two strikers and two wingers as well as Leadbitter. It was a surprise to Curtis Main involved from the start but perhaps that says more about the fitness-levels of Kei Kamara than it does anything else, if we’re being honest. It appeared as if Main was going to try and set the tone of the game from the very first minute as he hurtled off towards Emmerson Boyce to charge down his clearance but it didn’t inspire anything too serious from the lads. Wigan soon settled into a relatively effective stride and despite not really creating anything of any note it was clear they were well-drilled and had better footballers than we do. That lass in central-midfield, Roger Espinoza, gave probably the best performance I’ve seen from an opposition midfielder at the Riverside this season and it was actually rather enjoyable to sit back and watch what they were trying to do. Uwe Rosler was barking his head off and doing some serious pointing at things as Wigan moved the ball around in leisurely fashion, though he must’ve been frustrated with how little Wigan created in front of goal.
As for the Boro, it almost seemed as if we knew we weren’t going to win it really early on so made sure we didn’t lose it. Ledesma tried to make things happen but it just wasn’t really his sort of night to be honest. What did for us, I think, was Wigan playing with such a high-line across the defence and then really condensing the midfield when they didn’t have the ball. They pushed us back and pushed the wingers right back on top of Friend and Varga, meaning that when we did have possession they were right in our faces and we had no real choice but to lump it in the general direction of Curtis Main. It was difficult to watch but you have to give Wigan credit, I think that’s only fair. We did have one or two sniffs of goal; Carayol managed to beat James Perch before cutting inside and drilling a shot wide of the target from twenty-odd yards and we had a header cleared off the line, or close to the line, though as it was at the other end of the ground I’m not sure whose header it actually was. It was probably Ayala. It’s always Ayala.
Just as the first-half was reaching it’s climax, disaster struck as Rhys Williams, who’d actually been having another decent game for us, seemed to lose his balance on the halfway-line before going down and staying down. Sometimes, you just ‘know’ when it’s a bad one. He barely moved and the stretcher and all the gear was called for, the brace, the other club doctor – you know, the older, slower one who ambles across the pitch like he knows there’s a brew waiting for him at the end of it. So that was that; Ben Gibson came on and put in a good performance for us but it’s bitterly disappointing to lose a first-team player with what looks to be a serious injury when the gaffer has just trimmed his squad right back to the quick but there you go.
The second-half was pretty much more of the same really; Wigan held the ball well and Espinoza’s influence on proceedings grew as time went by, though they still weren’t creating much. Karanka seemed to fancy taking the shackles off for a bit, throwing on Adomah on for an ineffective Emnes and we had a good five or six minute period of relative pressure following on from that – Ledesma found himself clear in the box but at an unforgiving angle so gave it to Main but he fluffed his lines and skewed his shot over the bar from ten yards. If ever a moment summed up the season so far in terms of our strikers then that was probably it. Not long after that Carayol whipped a decent cross in and Varga got behind their left-back but his pull-back was too cute for any of our lads to read so the chance went begging. Wigan were still neat and tidy and James McArthur brought a smashing save out of the effervescent Shay Given with about ten minutes to go before one of their lads invited Given to throw his cap over a header at goal just after. And that was it – the referee blew for time and everybody stood up and trudged out in an orderly fashion.
It’s been a tricky one to digest has this one because a part of me is really annoyed that the lads didn’t seem to believe they were capable of winning it, whereas another part is pleased we restricted an easy-on-the-eye side packed with top-level experience to so few opportunities and kept yet another clean-sheet. There were some clear positives, of course; Daniel Ayala’s head is a magnet for the ball on a ridiculous scale, George Friend’s steady improvement continues and the Red Faction simply refuse to entertain the idea of sitting down and do anything other than sing their heads off for the lads. You’ve got to admire them for that.
Anyway, I think it’s one of those games where I’ll consider it a good point once the dust has settled and we’ve added a striker or two to the squad but right now it’s all a little bit underwhelming round my way. Saturday afternoon and a trip to Doncaster Rovers can’t come soon enough…