By Matt Rowson
It's all a bit peculiar.
Yes, it's only the League Cup. Only. No, there was never any mystery about the sort of line-ups that were going to greet us. Nonetheless, when you've ducked out of work early (and, incidentally, sacrificed the last of your spare holiday for the year on recovery and match-report-writing), driven up the motorway (first through bright sunshine, then towards blackening skies as if we were heading into a tornado) and crawled through the last ten miles or so you expect a spectacle at the end of it. Something to justify the journey, the sacrifice. And I'm not talking about the football.
We were here six years ago, with Wigan still in the third division and ourselves in the top flight. A second round second leg tie which the home side won 3-1, only to go out on away goals. There were five hundred people more in the stadium on that occasion than there are this evening. We may have been a marginally bigger draw, of course, having beaten Chelsea the previous weekend, but we've brought a surprisingly respectable five hundred tonight and I don't remember a brimming away end six years ago. The side of the stadium that served as the away "end" in last season's league encounter is completely closed and there's a thin scattering of fans, like chocolate flakes on a stingy cappuccino, behind the goal opposite us. Much as the boorish "nice ground, shit fans" that emanates from the back row (at the start of a new seasonal nadir for the apparent intellect of our travelling support) kinda misses the point, the good folk of Wigan don't yet seem completely sold on the new found glamour of their local team.
As for those line-ups, there's little in the way of surprises with both sides making wholesale changes from the sides that secured league victories at the weekend. Wigan's changes are greater in terms of number - only Alan Mahon and the impish Jimmy Bullard remain in the starting eleven, whilst we retain Chambers, DeMerit, Gavin Mahon and Henderson - but the strength of the squads in terms of experience is demonstrated by comparison of the second string introductions. Whilst we bring in youngsters and trainees, Wigan can call on Matt Jackson, Emerson Thome, David Wright and Swedish international Andreas Johansson, although notably with Roberts and Connolly injured and McCulloch suspended don't name a striker in their sixteen; midfielder Johansson is paired with England U21 full back Ryan Taylor up front.
The game kicks off. That's about it for twenty minutes as far as incident is concerned... certainly no outfield player appears to leave the central third of the pitch although Alan Mahon does slug a long-range shot wide on six minutes. Off the pitch, excitement is briefly provided by my brother's late, cashless arrival at the turnstiles.
"This has got 'crap game' written all over it," murmurs Jamie from behind us on twelve minutes. He's not wrong. My brother departs again for a pie, reported as tasting "chalky". On fifteen minutes something nearly happens, as Jay DeMerit slightly miscues a backpass to Alec and Andreas Johansson almost enters our penalty area in half-heartedly chasing down. We collect ourselves after this rare excitement and settle down again into happy tedium.
The wind is gusting strongly and the pitch - like our own - doesn't seem to be coping with the twin rigours of football and rugby, but gradually Wigan's superior passing and movement begins to tell and their play edges towards our goal. Gav and particularly Bangura are working hard to close down space in the middle of the park but Wigan are stretching the play and much of their threat comes down the flanks where an anonymous McNamee and a very uncomfortable looking Diagouraga are offering little protection to their fullbacks. Gary Teale gets in behind Stewart on the Wigan right and drops a cross in to the far post where Alan Mahon arrives to plant a header comfortably for Chamberlain, but Chambers hadn't tracked his run and there were scavengers in the box had the header been knocked back.
Our own attacking attempts aren't amounting to too much although Joel Grant looks lively and his touch and confidence first win us an attacking throw, then release McNamee on the left whose cross is cleared. Morsels, but a suggestion of what's to come later.
It doesn't feel comfortable though. Much as little has actually happened, a Wigan opener doesn't feel beyond the realms of possibility. On twenty-four it appears to have arrived... Mahon loses Chambers on the Wigan left and drops a peach of a cross onto the far post where centre-half Jackson has chanced his arm and thunders in. "Goal," says Jamie, and we all know it. Jackson's header is textbook, firm and low down into the corner. It's in. Then, suddenly, it isn't, and the away end is on its feet (combating lack of circulation in numb legs) to salute the veteran stopper. I've not seen it again, and have no idea how he got to it... it's like playing a crap football computer game where a keeper has too high a probability of making a save such that the animation snaps him impossibly into place behind the ball and you spit disdain. "That's ridiculous." And this was. Ridiculous. "Forty-one, you're having a laugh!" comes some rare wit from the back of the stand, which the keeper acknowledges.
Wigan's tails are up and they come straight back at us... Mahon's ball across the box from the left opens us up and Taylor belts a shot which Stewart blocks well with Chamberlain spreading his body behind him. Excitement. Crikey. Jay DeMerit completely misses a clearing header which comes through to Chamberlain ("Well left, Jay," from behind us) and then in seeking to redeem himself cuts Jimmy Bullard off at the knee, earning a booking.
Johansson lays back to Jackson who smacks wide from fifteen yards, but we wouldn't have wanted that amount of space to fall to a striker. Or even to a full back pretending to be a striker... Ryan Taylor finds a gap from a similar position and drills a shot in and again Chamberlain is down to it, palming wide. Not comparable to his earlier stop, but a fine save nonetheless.
Betty responds by re-jigging his formation... Joel Grant drops back to the right of midfield leaving Darius Henderson to labour on his own up front; Diagouraga moves inside to reprise last season's Youth Team midfield with Bangura with Gavin Mahon a snarling presence in the Makelele position behind them. The result is that everything calms down a bit until half time. Wigan do threaten again, but only briefly and unconvincingly, and the highlight of the rest of the half is a large blue globe that appears on the near corner of pitch and wanders around for a bit before Alec retrieves it and passes it to the ref who marches it off in schoolmasterly fashion. (Jamie calls it an Atlas, which might advise any decision I make about where I buy my next Atlas from. Or not.)
As half time approaches, the noisy crowd from the back meander past us, keen to attract attention whilst all the time grinning stupidly and shouting songs at each other with little apparent regard for what's going on on the pitch ("Wanking each other off" - my brother). The half ends.
We've done well - and chanced our luck - in getting to the break level. However it's noticeable that much as the goals have dried up a bit of late overall we haven't scored a goal in the first half of a game at all since the last round against Wolves. More generally our performances have tended to improve a whole lot after half-time, whether due to tactical insight, rockets up backsides, superior fitness or just needing a corner to fight out of. Whatever, the pattern was again evident here as the Hornets came out rejuvenated and with serious attacking impetus for the first time.
Attention is drawn quickly to the fact that Macca and Grant have swapped wings, and an early indication that the game has changed comes when Grant is caught narrowly offside down the left when played through by the winger. Two minutes later Diagouraga, who looks infinitely more comfortable and composed in a central position, finds Macca on the right; he cuts inside and slings a curling shot towards the top corner... Pollitt leaps athletically to tip wide, the away end is on its feet. From the corner the ball again reaches McNamee on the right; Joel Grant, showing an encouraging penalty-box instinct, meets Macca's short inswinging cross first time on the near side of the area coming away from the goal but flicking the ball out of the air towards the far post over his shoulder, provoking an even better save from Pollitt. Game on.
Two minutes later - and just five minutes into the half - McNamee ties Bullard in knots before curling a cross/shot across the face of goal and over the bar. McNamee has woken up and this is to be our best spell of the game, Grant's movement, Mahon's belligerence and Diagouraga's fluid ability to find his man with a single touch mean that for the first twenty minutes or so of the half it's us with the possession and Wigan breaking.
They do threaten in this regard... never more so than when Teale flings an aimless cross in from the right and Chambers, having a wretched evening, nearly beats his own keeper with an unwitting header back from the edge of the area, the veteran's reflexes again up to the challenge. Two minutes later an ambitious Stewart throughball rebounds unkindly off the referee and Wigan again break sharply. Johansson is on the end of the move, but just as against Chelsea at the start of the season he makes a pig's ear of it - rustiness can't be blamed this time, although I doubt that the prospect of being clobbered by a defiant Malky Mackay is any more appealing than being clobbered by John Terry.
Watford break back, and suddenly a chink of light as Henderson holds off his man and plays in Grant on the left side of the area... the young striker, on his weaker foot, hesitates for a fraction of a second and permits a covering challenge to dispossess him to the first groans of frustration from the stand behind the goal. Furious with himself, Grant batters his way back down the left flank within a minute, then moves seamlessly from grit to guile by slipping a cute ball inside to Diagouraga. Diagouraga, a loose-limbed marionette, fools his man completely with his body shape and cuts himself through but is slightly wide on his left foot and his shot isn't well enough directed, high and wide but exhilarating.
Watford replace Henderson with Francino Francis - Henderson looks knackered, but there are several fading in our ranks by this point, Bangura and McNamee not least - whilst Wigan take off the increasingly incidental Bullard in favour of the more battle-scarred Graham Kavanagh. The game fades towards full time, but there aren't many depressed faces in the away end - having got this far another half hour or so is neither here nor there.
Diagouraga departs for Ben Gill with five minutes to go and the final attempts to win the game in normal time are ours... Mahon wins possession with a savage tackle inside our half which sees him needing treatment. The ball is played down the left where Francis, who like Henderson has had little change out of Emerson Thome, batters McMillan into irrelevance before cutting the ball inside to Bangura who wins a free kick which could either have been for a foul or handball or both. McNamee drops the free kick into an inviting position but we're not alert enough in the box and the chance goes.
Graham Kavanagh sends a comfortable free kick into Chamberlain's midriff before Grant cuts inside onto his right foot and drops a cross over which appears to be dropping onto the head of a marauding and unmarked Ben Gill before getting a flick off either Jackson or Francis which deflects it to safety. The end of ninety minutes.
From the back of the stand, "Your support is f***ing shit!" joins the repartee. Yes, and you're Oscar Wilde, aren't you? One individual takes another of several trips down the stand to stop in front of us and conduct proceedings, to an increasingly hostile response from around us.
Someone comments on the inevitability of an early Wigan goal having been committed to an extra thirty-odd minutes. I think they were joking, but so it proves... Johansson cuts in from the right and skips over a challenge from Stewart that won the ball but clipped his heels. Perhaps lacking a striker's instinct but realising that he perhaps should have gone down and chanced his arm, Johansson tumbles theatrically over DeMerit's non-challenge and hits the turf. The adjacent linesman is unmoved, but the referee points to the spot.
The suggestion that he's not entirely confident with his decision is reinforced by both his permitting Adrian Mariappa to replace Gavin Mahon whilst Ryan Taylor stood by the spot (this shouldn't happen unless a keeper is injured), and then, once Taylor had thrashed an excellent spot kick past the dive of Chamberlain into the bottom corner, awarding every decision our way for the next ten minutes. Most significantly this includes a challenge by DeMerit on Johansson which was nowhere near the ball despite the refs frantic spherical hand-gestures - arguably the last man, DeMerit could have walked for a second yellow in any case.
The still effervescent Joel Grant is booked for a late challenge, after which Wigan's players provoke irritation for the first time by quite obviously advising the injured party to roll around for a bit to disrupt play. The ref waits for yer man to stand up and then blows to end the half.
The game has changed beyond retrieval. The penalty is obviously the pivotal moment, but the departure of Mahon makes our midfield a whole lot more negotiable. In the second period we undergo yet another rejig which sees Mackay up front with pretty much everyone else, Mariappa and Gill apparently fullbacks and Chambers covering breaks in the centre. Ben Gill makes the only attempt to test the ref's uncertainty by falling over in the penalty area but it isn't a very convincing dive and he gets up straight away without a limp or anything. You'd have thought he'd have picked up a few tricks off Pires and co, but...
Watford do get some more slick movement going, Francis, Grant and McNamee involved, but the game is up and Wigan are slowing everthing down, taking about twenty minutes to take one throw on. Then, with Watford apparently playing two defenders now, Wigan score again, Johansson finally resembling a striker in the penalty box and finishing tidily. Boisterous music echoes around the empty stands. Watford fans flood out, understandably but a little unkindly, the kids have done okay.
The third Wigan goal is an irrelevance, except that it's Chambers again who criminally gives away possession as the last man, Johansson tapping in for a flattering third Wigan goal with the last kick of the game.
Out of the League Cup then, but in the circumstances falling to a dodgy penalty away at a top flight club isn't an unrespectable way to go. More evidence, with an eye on the longer term, that the quality of the kids coming through is very much something to be positive about.