By Chris Harris
Critics should be wary of writing off Wigan - they have a habit of proving you wrong.
Condemned as 'one season wonders' after a top-half finish in 2005/06? Wigan have stuck around for four top-flight campaigns and look good value for a fifth. Mocked after being outclassed by Arsenal's kids in the Carling Cup? Wigan returned to Emirates Stadium two months later to stretch the Gunners' first team to the limit. Tipped for a relegation fight after the departures of Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios? Wigan are now in the hunt for a Uefa Cup place.
Steve Bruce deserves great credit for hauling Wigan up the table but his temper has been tested by Amr Zaki's late return from international duty and last weekend's uncharacteristic collapse at Everton. The Wigan manager will demand a vast improvement from his players when they welcome Arsenal to the JJB Stadium on Saturday.
We spoke to Paul Kendrick of the Wigan Observer ahead of this weekend's game. Read on for his take on Zaki's 'disappearance', the loss of Heskey and Palacios, the unsung player of the season and the relief that Wigan aren't facing Arsenal's Carling Cup kids any time soon.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It has been a dream season so far. Of course the wheels slightly came off last Sunday when they lost 4-0 against Everton but I don’t think there is a Wigan fan out there who wouldn’t have taken eighth at this stage of the season. It has been a remarkable journey. A Uefa Cup place is within reach but, to be honest, Wigan have really dropped off in the last couple of months and they went eight games without a win until they picked up a couple of victories against Sunderland and Hull. They are still up there around the European places and it seems as if no one really wants that seventh spot. They’ve dropped back to eighth after defeat at Everton and I think Wigan fans would settle for where they are. If they did push on for seventh and got the European spot, despite the euphoria in the town, I think the squad would need massive reinforcements. We’ve seen this season the likes of Aston Villa and Tottenham, with larger squads and great players, fall short in the dual competitions. It’s probably 12 months too early for Wigan at the moment."
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
"This is their fourth season in the Premier League and I think most people, Wigan fans included, thought that when they got promoted it was going to be a one-season-only situation. The club have made massive strides over the last four seasons and really they were safe by Christmas with the points they had on the board. Anything after safety is a bonus really."
"They have missed Heskey and Palacios massively. Heskey, as we all know, doesn’t score that many goals, but his all-round contribution is just fantastic. Mido has come in to replace him and it has kind of been like-for-like. He doesn’t score many goals and he has only got one goal so far – a penalty on his debut against Liverpool. With Heskey it was the overall contribution, the way he leads the line and brings other players into the game, that has been missed.
"Palacios was also a big loss. He’s just an awesome player, I’m sure you have seen him in the way he settled in at Tottenham. He is a genuine world-class player and he will take some replacing. Ben Watson has come in and he’s been the like-for-like replacement and to be honest he has settled into life as a Premier League player brilliantly. Palacios though – what a player – his loss will be felt for months to come."
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
"I think for the first half of the campaign it would have been Amr Zaki all over – he just couldn’t stop scoring. It is amazing to think that he’s still up there in the top five or six scorers in the Premier League because he hasn’t scored in open play since mid-October, it’s quite incredible. It just shows what a great start to the season he had.
"In the second half of the season it has been either Lee Cattermole or Titus Bramble. Bramble has been the rock that the defence is built round this season. He still has that reputation among opposition fans of being a liability but you can count the mistakes he’s made this season on one hand. He has been absolutely brilliant at the back alongside the like of Emmerson Boyce, Mario Melchiot and Maynor Figueroa.
"Cattermole has just been Mr Consistent, every game eight out of 10. You know what you’re going to get; he gets stuck in, he leads by example and he’s one who the others look at to bring an extra edge to their game. It would probably be down to them for player of the season so far – if you pushed me I’d probably go for Bramble, just!"
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"Does Amr Zaki have a future at Wigan? I personally would say no. It’s amazing because when you speak to Steve Bruce he’s one of the most laid-back, relaxed men in football. He wouldn’t take exception to anybody. It just shows you exactly what is going on behind the scenes when somebody with his approach has to come out like that. There has been some incredible stuff said. Bruce described Zaki as “the most unprofessional player I have ever come across”, and this is a guy who has been in the game for 30 years.
"I just cannot see how Zaki can stay at the club. We mention his goalscoring record but even if he came back and bagged six or seven in the last few games I just can’t see how Steve Bruce would want him in the dressing room next season. To be honest the players might not even want him. They must feel let down by it all. Look at some of the players – there’s Figueroa playing for Honduras, Valencia for Ecuador – that’s much further than Zaki has to travel but they always report on time. He has let himself down, the team down, and I would be staggered if he is at Wigan next season.
"Mido is likely to lead the line. Like I say he has taken over the Heskey role and while he hasn’t been scoring he is leading the line and bringing others into the game. Zaki was pretty much pushed to one side when Mido came in. We thought the two Egyptians upfront might be a dream ticket but it has just not worked for them. I think Bruce prefers Mido for his overall contribution to the team and I think he will lead the line on Saturday against Arsenal."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"They were unlucky not to get a point at the Emirates in the Premier League. They played very well and it took a decent goal to see them off. As for the Carling Cup game, I have seen Wigan against Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool – some of the top teams, and I’ve never seen them dismantled like they were against Arsenal’s kids. I thought they were absolutely magnificent and I think Wigan would rather face the Arsenal first time than the kids such was the runaround they got on that night.
"Arsenal are on fire at the moment but I would say if you could pick a time to play them it would be when they have bigger fish to fry. Wigan got a draw against Arsenal last season and they’ll be looking to get at least the same. They’ll be up for it no doubt about it – they love it when the big boys come to town. Don’t rule out Wigan, they’ve got a chance of at least a point on Saturday, they will be very fired up."