On Match of the Day last week Roberto Martinez did something that I’ve seen him do before, and will surely see him do again. In an interview after the match, which his Wigan side had just lost, 2-1 to Swansea, he was smiling and laughing at some joke or other. It doesn’t matter what the joke was – he just looked composed, refusing to be mournful in defeat. And that’s the point.
He isn’t the only manager to ever joke during an otherwise tedious post-match interview, but I’m sure he’s one of a minority of men to do so after their team has just lost, certainly by such a narrow margin, in a match they will look back on as one they probably needed to have won. Martinez offers something lacking in many of his counterparts though. His laidback, likeable attitude demonstrates a sense of impregnable zen, of a man who is entirely in control of his own destiny.
He possesses the air of calculated, unflustered precision you might expect from a man with a qualification in business management. But Wigan’s status as the Premier League’s black sheep stymies his own reputation, with the Spaniard conveniently dismissed by neutrals as someone merely doing a mucky, unpopular job so no-one else has to do it. Many neutral fans regard him with the same sense of casual ‘oh yeah, him’ disinterest that they might otherwise reserve for binmen, or the cashier at Tesco.
These same fans have reluctantly accepted that Wigan will successfully struggle for survival each season, until a brighter future dawns and they are no longer polluting the 20-team elite with their scarcely-full rugby town stadium. They’ve done so without affording them anything similar to the brotherly warmth of relegation rascals of yore, such as the Coventry City of Dion Dublin or the Southampton of Matt Le Tissier. This is largely due to the aforementioned apathy of the club’s local area, outwardly from which spreads a national pandemic of anti-Wigan sentiment. It’s not even so much ‘anti’ Wigan, so much as a pervading sense of persistent nuisance that can be best surmised by a Larry David-style ‘eeeeh’ shrug.
Despite this, the fact is that Wigan have maintained a stable, steady existence in the nourishing environs of the Premier League for a greater span of time than other clubs including Queens Park Rangers, Stoke and West Brom. Much of it might well be to do with that smiling acceptance of their manager, which exudes an authoritative calmness that says “It’s cool man, I got this.” Greater managers can only dream of coping with defeat better than Martinez can (Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger spring to mind), but then the Spaniard, and moreover Wigan, have had so much practice after all. Their perpetually renewed stay of execution precludes them from the opportunity of a confidence-boosting sabbatical in the Championship. Some modern yo-yo clubs such as Wolves and West Ham go down only to return with renewed vigour after a season spent racking up more ‘W’s’ in the form column than usual. By contrast, Wigan have been steadily applying themselves to the self-flagellating business of losing for the past seven years, with impressive-yet-miserable results. In those seven seasons they have lost 46% of their league games, winning just 29%. And yet that’s not been enough to banish them from English football’s top table since they first took residence there.
Given the rumours of impending managerial casualty that have so far circled Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert and Nigel Adkins, it’s refreshing to know that there is still a manager slipping under that particular radar who can get away with losing games on a constant basis and yet still revel in some semblance of job security. This could be the secret behind that Martinez smile. He is imbued with a sense of security like no-one else in the Premier League; even the possible outcome of relegation might be accepted as a heroic failure. This summer he was heavily linked with the vacant Liverpool post, the summer prior it was Aston Villa, and these rumours must surely have boosted his self-esteem further.
This is not to suggest that Martinez is too laid-back, nor that he’s content merely to put the hours in until a ‘proper’ job comes along. He spent six years playing for the club, and is now in his fourth as manager. He knows the team and enjoys a close relationship with the chairman, Dave Whelan. He also knows better than most what relegation would ultimately mean to Wigan. Unlike some of the aforementioned yo-yo clubs who maintain a dizzyingly bipolar existence, plotting the glory of promotion or a futile fight against relegation, with middle ground offering rare retreat, Martinez must suspect that Wigan would struggle to bounce straight back up if they were indeed to go down. The Premier League calendar will eventually find itself of a time when commentators and pundits alike talk of clubs ‘fighting for their lives’ at the foot of the table, but there is a perversely stabilising sense of literalism in Wigan’s case.
It is hard to imagine the chain of minimal achievement ever being broken, but there are two likely outcomes – either the club’s scarcely beating pulse will one day stabilise as the club surges further up the table into ruder health, or it will eventually flatline and finally succumb to the ever-present threat of relegation. To ponder on Wigan’s future in such a way is to miss the point. The fact that they are an established Premier League club – no matter how lowly – is a triumph in itself. This is their victory, and as such they are experiencing success of a kind, albeit in the least glamourous, least obviously rewarding way. Everyone wants to win in football, but there are only so many trophies to go round. On any given week, of all the matches taking place globally, no more than 50% of those teams will ever win. So when a team can find a way of succeeding on their own terms, of somehow stretching the fabric of the elite to create more space at the table, this should only be applauded.
In the wider context of the club’s history, you would expect that there is an appreciation among Whelan and Martinez that these are the best days of the club’s life, which are to be enjoyed, rather than to be spent living in fear. It is the equivalent of someone with a terminal illness, constantly staring mortality in the face, but stoically refusing to welcome the fear in favour of enjoying life will it still runs through them. Other stricken patients in the same ward will panic this year, just as they did last year (see Wolves and the firing of Mick McCarthy, or Blackburn Rovers and the non-firing of Steve Kean).
Meanwhile Wigan, led by Martinez and that inscrutable smile of his, will continue as always – untouched by mania, making the best of it all, and knowing when things are good.