Romance returns to the FA Cup

England’s FA Cup — the oldest soccer competition in the world and open to something like 700 teams — gains its romance from victories by “minnows” over footballing powerhouses. This occurs a time or two almost every year in the early rounds. But in these days of vast financial disparities between clubs, it almost never happens in the Cup final.

Indeed, from 1996 until this year, only Portsmouth had broken the grip of giants Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City on the trophy. And Portsmouth did so by beating minnow Cardiff City.

Many would point to Wimbledon’s victory over Liverpool in 1987 as the last true giant killing in an FA Cup final. But Wimbledon finished in seventh place that year — hardly minnow status. So for me, one must go back to 1980 when West Ham (playing in England’s second tier league at the time) upset Arsenal. Or, if West Ham is too big-name of a club, back to 1976 when Southampton took down Manchester United.

But on Saturday, the romance returned. Lowly Wigan Athletic, from a town best known for its rugby, defeated mighty Manchester City 1-0. Wigan sits in 18th place in the Premier League and is on the verge of being bounced out of the Premiership altogether. Manchester City has clinched second place after winning the League last year.

At the heart of this improbable tale one finds two broken legs. The first belonged to Wigan owner Dave Whelan. As a Blackburn Rovers player, Whelan was carted off the Wembley pitch during the 1960 FA Cup final with a broken leg. Blackburn lost to Wolverhampton 3-0.

35 years later, Whelan, now a wealthy business man, bought Wigan Athletic. At the time Wigan languished in England’s fourth tier league. The club quickly began its ascent toward the Premier League, which it reached in 2005. Since then, Wigan has staved off relegation every year, usually by the skin of its teeth.

The second broken leg belonged to Ben Watson, a journeyman midfielder who toiled for years in England’s second tier league. Last November, Watson suffered a broken leg against Liverpool. He did not return to action until last weekend when he appeared as a substitute.

This weekend, Watson again came as a sub, this time in the 81st minute of the FA Cup final. Ten minutes later, during stoppage time of the scheduled 90 minutes, he headed home a perfect corner kick from Shaun Maloney to give Wigan its famous (and first) FA Cup victory.

As they say, break a leg.

Manchester City wasn’t at its best on Saturday, to be sure. But Wigan’s victory was more about its strong play than about City’s deficiencies. Instead of sitting back waiting to be picked apart, Wigan went right at City. Forwards Arouna Kone and Callum McManaman proved to be handful. And industrious midfielders James McCarthy, James McArthur, and Jordi Gomez — aided by nominal forward Maloney — outnumbered City’s much more heralded duo of Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure, who received less aid than they should have from Samir Nasri.

Everton fans know the drill. Wigan (and McManaman, a former Everton apprentice, in particular) shocked us 3-0 in the quarterfinals, played at Goodison Park where we lost only once all year during League play.

Why was Wigan unable to match this form during the League campaign? I wonder whether even manager Roberto Martinez — a possible successor to David Moyes at Everton — knows.

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