Millwall and Wigan Athletic take a welcome break from the harsh realities of struggling to avoid relegation when the two surprise FA Cup semi-finalists clash at Wembley today.
Most neutrals will view tomorrow’s showdown between Chelsea and Manchester City as the more attractive of the two semi-finals and Wembley is unlikely to be full to capacity as Wigan were unable to sell their ticket allocation, but for a pair of clubs accustomed to languishing in the shadows, their semi-final offers a rare chance to dream of Cup glory and a much-needed distraction from the dangers still looming in their league campaigns.
Roberto Martinez’s Wigan head into their first-ever FA Cup semi-final in the Premier League relegation zone, despite a recent impressive run.
Millwall are in a similar situation, hovering precariously just five points above the second-tier Championship’s bottom three.
However, while surviving at their current level remains the priority, Martinez and Millwall manager Kenny Jackett are keen to take advantage of their moment in the spotlight.
“It’s a great feeling,” Jackett said. “We have got through all types of ties to get here, we’ve beaten a Premier League club, a non-league side away and then won a replay at Blackburn [Rovers]. It’s a great game to look forward to and it’s a big opportunity for us. We’ve done well to get this far, but we want to go to Wembley and put on a performance that gives us a chance of winning.”
Martinez, a former Wigan player, believes his team’s presence in the semi-final is a fitting reward for the club’s development during the reign of owner Dave Whelan, who is expected to lead the team out at Wembley.
Whelan’s own career ended with a broken leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final against Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he has ploughed millions into transforming Wigan from their former status as fourth-tier minnows.
“When I arrived we had crowds of 1,500. Now we are in the best league in the world with an average home crowd of 18,000,” Martinez said. “How many other clubs have had such a massive increase in the space of 18 years? But I don’t think you can afford to be nostalgic because that is when you are accepting you have gone as far as you can. This is not the end of a journey. Yes, it is a great achievement, but we want nine years in the Premier League and to carry on upsetting the odds and making history.”
It is fitting that Jackett and Martinez will be side-by-side on the Wembley touchline for the biggest moment of their managerial careers.
Jackett made the Spaniard his captain during their time at Swansea City and the pair won promotion from fourth-tier League Two in 2005.
“Roberto was a terrific leader, so diligent in everything he did,” Jackett said. “You are conditioned to fearing the worst about people in football. I’ll admit I did wonder: ‘Is this bloke too good to be true?’ But over two years he never once gave me cause to doubt him.”
Martinez absorbed the lessons of Jackett’s quiet dignity and astute teaching on the training ground, and has gone to become one of the Premier League’s more in-demand managers after repeatedly keeping Wigan in the top-flight against the odds.
Jackett, a former Wales international who played for Watford in the 1984 FA Cup final, is less heralded, but those inside the game recognize his achievements at a club of Millwall’s volatile nature and several Premier League managers have showed their respect by sending him detailed analysis of Wigan ahead of the semi-final.
While Jackett acknowledges Wigan are clear favorites, he believes Millwall are capable of emulating their run to the 2004 final which ended when Dennis Wise’s team were beaten by Manchester United.
“Wigan are capable of beating anybody in the Premier League on their day, but if we can bring our crowd into play, we have a chance,” Jackett said.