Arsenal 4 Wigan Athletic 1

Tuesday 14th May 2013
Just three days after winning the FA Cup at Wembley, Wigan Athletic returned to the capital but suffered a 4-1 defeat at the hands on an impressive Arsenal side which condemns them to relegation to the Championship. Lukas Podolski gave the Gunners an early lead but, to the credit, Wigan levelled things up just before the interval direct from a Shaun Maolney free-kick. The Latics went close to taking the lead in the second half before three goals in eight minutes from Theo Walcott, Podolski and Aaron Ramsay gave Arsenal an unassailable 4-1 advantage. The win lifted Arsenal over Tottenham into the last Champions League qualifying spot and another three points on Sunday at Newcastle will guarantee them a 16th consecutive season in Europe’s premier club competition. I must say two things. First, what a good bunch the Wigan fans are to travel back to London is such numbers and, second, that the Emirates is a superb stadium and Arsenal should be applauded for the excellent non-confrontational stewarding which made the visit a real pleasure as an away fan.

Arsenal 4 Wigan Athletic 1
Barclays Premier League
At: Emirates Stadium
Kick-off: 7-45 pm
Admission: £35-50; Programme: £3 (84 pages)
Weather: rain

I’m really not sure if I’ve seen a competitive English league game before so late into May where winning was vital to BOTH sides. Wigan Athletic simply had to win to keep alive their slender hopes of staying in the Premier League, otherwise they’d become the first team to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. At the other loftier end of the table, Arsenal needed to win to move back into the top four and then would require a win on Sunday at Newcastle to guarantee Champions League qualification for a 16th consecutive season. A draw was no real use to either side as their fates would be in other teams' hands on the final day.

Being predominately a watcher of non-league football over the past 35 years, my one and only visit to Arsenal’s old Highbury ground came in March 1990, just under two years after my solitary visit to Wigan’s old Springfield Park. A trip to the Gunners’ Emirates Stadium, opened in 2006, had proved elusive until tonight.

What a relief it was to arrive at Arsenal tube station and then walk over the Ken Friar Bridge to get a first glimpse of the stadium's exterior adorned at the nearest point by a mural depicting four former greats – Bastin, Adams, Brady, Henry.

The relief stemmed from the nightmare journey down to London and one which did leave my wondering of the Emirates would indeed continue to remain elusive until next season or later. My London Midland train departed Rugby on time only to grind to a halt near Bugbrooke before reaching Milton Keynes. Twitter first and then the train manager’s announcement relayed bad news. Trains were struck due to overhead line damage caused by a train hitting an object hanging from the wires (photo right isn't mine, tweeted by Virgin trains). To London Midland’s credit, a cunning plan was hatched for the train to switch to the northbound track and return to Rugby for us passengers to transfer to another London-bound train via Northampton. This duly happened and thank fully, I arrived at Euston some 150 minutes later than planned. Alas, no time for sightseeing only a couple of pre-match ales at the Friend in Hand (London Pride) and Marquis Cornwallis (Peerless All American IPA) both Cask Marque-accredited pubs near Russell Square.

I don’t think the stress of the journey really subsided until I’d first arrived at Arsenal tube station and then got my hands on a programme from one of the numerous sellers near the ground

I think ‘WOW’ is an appropriate way to describe the ground, full of predominately red seats at a capacity of 60,361. From Block K, near one corner at the Clock End, the view was a decent one with what would have been a comfy seat with plenty of leg room; trouble was I only got to sit in it before the game and at half time. Reluctantly, to see the action, I had to stand like all of the fans in mine and adjacent blocks.

Digressing for a moment, two away Arsenal games I saw stick in my mind. The first, way back in 1981 when I was a student in the Steel City, was a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of then Fourth Division side Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in the Milk Cup. Bob Hatton got the winner but Arsenal won the tie overall 2-1 on aggregate. The second, at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, became infamous for events off the field. The floodlights failed just 10 seconds into the second half in suspicious and mysterious circumstances with the score still 0-0.

So going back to the league table, Arsenal went into tonight’s game in fifth position with 67 points from 36 games, two behind Tottenham Hotspur with a game in hand. Down in the relegation zone, Wigan were 18th and in the final relegation spot, four points from safety behind Sunderland with a game in hand on 35 points from 36 games.

While the Arsenal side particularly was packed with some star name, one name stood out from the fourth match officials – assistant referee Jake Collin. I remember the name well as he was just about the best non-league referee around during Stafford Rangers’s two-season stint in the Nationwide Conference/Blue Square Premier between 2006 and 2008. Now Collin graces the Premier League as a top assistant referee and the Champions League as well.

Wigan (in a change kit of all black) got the game underway attacking the Clock End (i.e. goal nearest to my seat).

Needing a win to regain their advantage over Spurs in the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League, Arsenal took the lead in the 11th minute. Santi Cazorla delivered a left-wing cross which unmarked Lukas Podolski headed home.

The Gunners enjoyed plenty of possession and played some scintillating football but couldn’t add a second goal. Theo Walcott had the ball in the net only to be flagged offside while I can’t recall goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny touching the ball too often.

Suddenly, Arsenal were made to pay for not scoring again and stunned by Wigan’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time. Shaun Moloney hit a stunning 25-yard free-kick past Szczesny. Wigan fans ecstatic – regained hope of avoiding relegation and good news for Spurs as well.

Wigan certainly came out fired up for the second half and could have taken a shock lead soon after the restart. Szczesny produced a great save to deny Arouna Kone and Wigan also had a goal disallowed. What would have happened in the two races to avoid relegation and secure the final Champions League spot had one of these chances been a goal.

Well, Wigan’s hope was shortlived as Arsenal regained the initiative to score three super goals in eight minutes to move from 1-1 to 4-1 up. Walcott converted a low cross from Cazorla to made it 2-1 in the 63rd minute. Cazorla was the provider five minutes later for Podokski to increase the lead and a run down the left and angled shot from Aaron Ramsay took the score out of reach of Wigan to 4-1.

Last time I saw Podolski play, he also netted twice for 1FC Koln against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga two seasons ago. More super finishing from the German international tonight as well.

Sadly for the Wigan fans around me, their eight-season stint in the top-flight came to an end with Mike Dean’s final whistle. Their final game on Sunday at home to Aston Villa is now academic while Arsenal head to Newcastle needing to equal or better Tottenham’s result to extend their proud run of Champions League appearances.

As I tweeted: ‘Full credit to all the Wigan fans who made second London trip in 3 days in such numbers’.

With Holloway Road tube station closed and Arsenal likely to be congested, the only option even in heavy rain was a walk back to by Bloomsbury hotel. On the way, as a bonus, I stumbled on a most-welcoming Cask Marque pub – Hemingford Arms – with a nice pint of Sharp’s Doom Bar.

Arsenal (red with white sleeves / white / white): 1. Wojciech Szczesny, 3. Bacary Sagna, 4. Per Mertesacker, 6. Laurent Koscielny, 29. Kieran Gibbs, 8. Mikel Arteta (capt), 18. Aaron Ramsey, 7. Tomas Rosicky, 14. Theo Walcott, 9. Lukas Podolski, 19. Santi Cazorla. Subs: 21gk. Lukasz Fabianski (not used), 5. Thomas Vermaelen (for Arteta, 90), 10. Jack Wilshere (for Rosicky, 78), 15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (for Podolski, 78), 17. Nacho Monreal (not used), 25. Carl Jenkinson (not used), 27. Gervinho (not used). Manager: Arsène Wenger.

Wigan Athletic (black/black/black): 1. Joel Robles, 3. Antolin Alcaraz, 17. Emmerson Boyce, 33. Paul Scharner, 18. Roger Espinoza, 4. James McCarthy, 10. Shaun Maloney, 14. Jordi Gomez, 15. Callum McManaman, 16. James McArthur, 2. Arouna Kone. Subs: 26gk. Ali Al-Habsi (not used), 5. Gary Caldwell (not used), 8. Ben Watson (for Gomez, 64), 9. Franco Di Santo (for McManaman, 57), 11. Angelo Henriquez (for Moloney, 85), 20. Fraser Fyvie (not used), 25. Roman Goldbart (not used). Manager: Roberto Martinez.

Referee: Mike Dean.
Assistants: Jake Collin and John Brooks.
Fourth Official: Phil Dowd.

Attendance: 60068

Duration: first-half: 47:24; second-half: 47:26

1-0 Lukas Podolski (11)
1-1 Shaun Maloney (45)
2-1 Theo Walcott (63)
3-1 Lukas Podolski (68)
4-1 Aaron Ramsey (71)

Arsenal: none
Wigan: Antolin Alcaraz (YC, 52), Shaun Maloney (YC, 56)