Who's the underdog?
By Matt Rowson
The Worthington Cup Second Round. An opportunity for the small guys to play the big guys (except those who play in Europe, and hence have better things to do). Watford versus Wigan. Premiership versus Division Two. Over two legs. No contest, right?
But hold on. It's only two years ago that we were playing these guys in League encounters... and actually came out fairly even against them after two games. Since that time, Wigan's squad strengthening has exceeded ours by over £1million in terms of transfer fees paid. Perhaps most surprisingly - and in yet another testimony to GT and the Watford squad's achievements over the past two years - eleven of the fourteen named against Wigan in the above game have been involved in the first team this season. One other - Gifton - is injured, leaving only Ronnie and Dai Thomas to have moved on since we last met Wigan at Vicarage Road.
Stop and think about that. This squad, the squad that played in the Second Division, the squad that some feared wouldn't survive in the First is now playing in the Premiership (not to mention winning at Anfield). Whatever the frustrations of one-goal defeats at Upton Park and Filbert Street there is still immense pride to be taken from that.
Athletic, meanwhile, finally appear to be returning the investment made by owner and JJB Sports supremo Dave Whelan, and making an overdue attempt at automatic promotion from the Second Division for the first time since their admission to the football league in the late seventies. Many were surprised when boss Ray Mathias was dismissed over the summer; many more were surprised when his replacement proved not to be the much-vaunted "big name", but John Benson. Benson had been offered the post previous to Mathias' original appointment, but had turned it down for health reasons.
Mathias' eviction was surprising given that, having been appointed a mere two days before the start of last season, he took the Latics into the play-offs and to an Autoglass trophy win over Millwall at Wembley - hardly abject failure. There is a suspicion that Dave Whelan's claim that his sacking was a unanimous board decision had a hint of the "royal we" about it.
Benson seems to have started well, however, with Athletic top of the Second Division, and a manager of the month award already under his belt.
In goal for Athletic will be Northern Ireland international Roy Carroll, a bargain signing from Hull City two years ago. He has reputedly attracted plenty of Premiership interest, but without any pressing financial problems Wigan are in no hurry to sell and have priced their star asset accordingly. His backup is ex-Aberdeen keeper Derek Stillie.
Full-backs are former Bolton man Scott Green on the right, and the experienced Mark Bowen on the left. Bowen, who was in the Norwich side that beat Bayern Munich at the Olympiastadion, now has the thankless task of managing the Welsh U21 side. Kevin Sharp, linked with moves to Fulham and Manchester City in the summer, is injured whilst another veteran, the uncompromising Carl Bradshaw is also returning to the side following an injury problem.
In the centre, former Manchester United reserve Pat McGibbon is partnering Scotsman and former Charlton stopper Stuart Balmer in a less than sprightly pairing. Other options are former Port Vale defender Gareth Griffiths and Dutchman Arjan de Zeeuw, released by Barnsley in the summer but currently also injured.
In a three man midfield, the long-serving former Forest reserve Ian Kilford, the temperamental former Barnsley man Darren Sheridan and Ulsterman Michael O'Neill, one of many great white hopes to have failed to rescue Manchester City. Other options are Roberto Martinez, the one survivor of the three amigos who arrived in 1995, David Lee, who seems to like the big occasions, Kevin Nicholls, another Charlton recruit with a bad disciplinary record, and Andy Porter, recruited with Griffiths from Vale Park.
A potent three man forward line is formed by Simon Haworth, Stuart Barlow, and Andy Liddell. Haworth, who seems destined for the Welsh national team, is Wigan's most expensive signing at £600,000 from Coventry and is a strong leader of the line. Barlow started his career at Everton, but since his move from Oldham has turned his career around and has an impressive strike-rate for the Latics. Liddell, an occasional midfielder, was a Scottish U21 cap when at Barnsley. Backup is Graeme Jones, who has struggled with injury for two years since his prolific season when Athletic won the Third Division championship.
Two thoughts to close with. First: sure, Watford are in the Premiership, but given the recent history (and financial outlay) of the two clubs, is there really an underdog?
Second: to quote from ig's match report of two years ago in relation to the much missed Gifton Noel-Williams....
"He had a very good game and was frequently the only really unpredictable, inventive element in the Watford attack."
So much changes, so much stays the same. Despite the very welcome return of Nicky Wright and Allan Smart, some of Gifton's random inventiveness - as exhibited by West Ham's outrageous forwards on Saturday - is badly needed right now. If we are to improve on our abysmal League Cup record this season against very motivated lower division opponents it will be almost imperative.