Wigan manager believes that three years into his project the club's Premier League great escapes could now be history
Wigan Athletic entertain Chelsea this afternoon, just as they did seven years ago on the first day of their first season in the Premier League, and nothing that has happened to the London side in the meantime, from José Mourinho leaving to Champions League success finally arriving, is quite as remarkable as the fact that the Lancashire club is still around at the top level after a series of great escapes.
"It's not where you finish it's how you finish," Roberto Martínez says, proud of the way Wigan took points off most of the big names last season to survive in the sort of style that saw him begin the summer talking to Liverpool. Many a Latics fan would take issue with that statement and happily swap last-minute heroics for a solid, safe, slightly dull climb to mid-table in the manner that Stoke seem to achieve every year, but Martínez believes a corner may just have been turned.
"The reason I didn't want to leave when Aston Villa came calling was because I was in the middle of a three-year project," he explains. "That was what I talked about with the chairman when he first invited me back to the club. I have been here three years now and most of the work is done. We have remained competitive while trimming back the wage bill. We have managed to beat all the teams in the division, including the ones in the Champions League bracket.
"We are structured well enough now to be able to lose good players and bring new ones through in their place, we have a brand new training facility to move into and financially we are in a great position. I don't think I've ever seen the chairman as excited as he is at the moment. The club feels completely different now to what it felt like three years ago, and we hope this is the time when we can start to reap the benefit of playing at this level for eight seasons."
If Martínez is disappointed that the Liverpool talks did not work out, he is putting a brave face on it. "I am not looking elsewhere but I will always be ready to face up to new challenges," he says. "Wherever you happen to be working, that element of this job remains the same. I have always said it is a privilege to be manager of Wigan and work for a chairman as unique as Dave Whelan, and that is truly how I feel. The next challenge just happens to be starting the new season against the champions of Europe, so that is what I an focusing on."
You need quite a long memory now to recall that Wigan were desperately unlucky against Mourinho's Chelsea in 2005, when it took a Hernán Crespo goal in the third minute of added time to deny Paul Jewell's debutants a draw they had worked hard enough to deserve.
A much fresher recollection is opening day two seasons ago, when Wigan seemed to have an easier task against newly-promoted Blackpool, only to suffer an unexpected 4-0 home defeat. Chelsea turned up in the next match to score an unanswered six at the DW, and just two games into the season Martínez was looking at two home defeats and a goal difference on minus 10.
"That was terrible," Martínez admits. "But we came back from it, just as we came back from Stamford Bridge towards the end of last season knowing that poor decisions by the officials had cost us a win. There was real anger in the dressing room after that game because we all knew we'd been good enough, but we channelled the emotion in the right way and made sure we won our next games. As a team we have grown up a bit. I'm still not sure whether I would prefer Chelsea or Blackpool on opening day but at least you know what you are getting with Chelsea. Anyone who can get a result over two legs against Barcelona deserves credit. Finding a way to beat Barcelona or Spain are the two biggest challenges in football at the moment, and Chelsea came up with a solution. They succeeded against the best team in club football."
The challenge immediately facing Martínez is not just to try and shut out Chelsea on the pitch but to keep Victor Moses out of their clutches for as long as possible. Wigan found goals hard to come by for most of last season and can ill afford to lose a player just beginning to realise his potential at this late stage, but Martínez accepts the situation with a resigned shrug. No one said managing a small team in the Premier League would be easy. "I am always very wary about comparing one league to another, but I would be surprised if there is a league anywhere else as competitive as this one," he argues. "There are five or six teams with a chance of the title, and around 10 that need to be careful not to get relegated.
"The margins between success and failure are incredibly small, and getting smaller each year because the Championship is producing teams who are getting braver and braver. The attitude now, quite rightly, is that newly promoted teams don't want to get relegated without giving it a proper go, and last season they gave it such a good go that all three stayed up."
Wigan were among the trailblazers in that respect, now they have survived so many scrapes people are starting to assume they will always stay up. After their run-in last season one would hesitate to list them among the relegation candidates. But they will probably be giving it another good go.
Wigan v Chelsea, 1.30pm SS1