Things looked grim for Wigan Athletic this morning. They had to defeat Sheffield United in Sheffield or be kicked out of England’s top football league (i.e., relegated). Moreover, Wigan could expect no favors, as Sheffield United also needed to win the match to ensure survival. And, for a poor team, Sheff U had played well at home this year, with more wins than losses at Bramall Lane.
But Wigan had a hidden advantage in the form of two ex-Everton players — Kevin Kilbane on the left wing and David Unsworth on the bench. Like most Everton players of the last 15 years, both have been through the relegation wars. Unsworth, in fact, played in the greatest escape match of them all — Everton’s last minute victory over Wimbledon in 1994.
Today, Kilbane provided Wigan with much of its running in a first half which it dominated. He also provided the cross that set up Wigan’s first goal. But late in the first half, Sheff U equalized with a brave header that left a Wigan center back too injured to continue.
Enter David Unsworth, who was with Sheff U earlier this year. An old, slow, heavy David Unsworth, but still with that great left foot and the heart to match it. Just a few minutes after his entrance, Wigan won a penalty. To the surprise of many, but not Everton fans, up stepped Unsworth, and he buried the spot kick.
In the second half, Unsworth marshaled a defense that was missing both starting center backs and which, for the last 20 minutes, was down to ten men due to a sending off. He did so superbly, although Wigan also rode its luck as two Sheffield United shots came back off the woodwork. The score remained 2-1, and West Ham’s victory over Manchester United (already crowned as champions) meant that Sheffield United would return to the second tier after only one season.
There is no sadder sight in soccer than a team that is relegated in front of its home fans. But I couldn’t help feeling happy for Kilbane and Wigan’s new legend, David Unsworth.
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