By Oliver Platt
Dave Whelan led Wigan out at Wembley with a 'Believe' badge proudly pinned to his FA Cup final suit. More than 18 years ago he took over the Latics in what is now League Two; after all this time, and all that they have already achieved, if anyone had seen enough to truly feel Roberto Martinez's team could spring a shock of epic proportions against Manchester City, it was him.
All but written off before kick-off, more than 30,000 supporters from a town of little more than 80,000 people travelled south to the biggest game in their club's history. Wigan only joined the Football League in 1978; this was their first major final.
Wigan currently lie 18th. They are the lowest-ranked team to win the competition since second-tier West Ham in 1980 and they are a very different side to Wimbledon. Martinez has stuck determinedly with his philosophy of possession-oriented football to the point of being accused of inflexibility. Now, it has paid rich dividends.
Lining up in a 3-4-3 formation rarely seen in this country, once Wigan had survived an inevitably nervy opening their style of play served them well. James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez saw plenty of the ball, James McArthur and Roger Espinoza, the wing-backs, were brought into the game and Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman, the wingers supporting Arouna Kone, began to ask questions of the City defence.
McManaman, a 22-year-old with less than 30 games of top-flight experience, was sensational and shot just wide in the first half before seeing a goal-bound effort blocked by Vincent Kompany after the break. It was he that beat Gael Clichy - who endured one of his most difficult games of the season - to win the corner from which Ben Watson, an unlikely hero from the substitutes' bench, headed home the winning goal in the 91st minute.
At half-time, Martinez had asked his players if they really believed in their ability to win the game. One man invariably did. "I had a dream and I did publish it," Whelan told ITV. "I did say after we'd beaten Everton [in the quarter-final] that we'd get Blackburn in the semi-final, but they were knocked out, and Man City in the final and win 1-0."
In 1960, Whelan was a Blackburn player and started the FA Cup final against Wolves. He suffered a broken leg in a 3-0 defeat and struggled to revive his career. "This is a great repayment today," he said.
It has been a year of great stories in England's cup competitions; Wigan and Swansea's progressive brands of football will be rewarded with European football next season, but first the former have the small task of sealing their top-flight survival. "We've now got to stay in the Premier League and then we'll have done everything," Whelan concluded. "This will lift the lads so much."
Over the course of a 38-game season, the financial reality of the billionaire's playground that is the Premier League can take its toll on a club like Wigan. In the FA Cup, they had a chance to turn all of that on its head in a single day. This one will live long in the memory.