I'd politely suggest the commentary team might have over-egged it a little at the finish, talking of a ‘crucial’ three points, but most welcome indeed they are. I’d probably have said taking all three was the icing on the cake, as there were plenty of positives to be taken from the game. With another four debutants, some of whom have literally just arrived at the club, it would have been unrealistic to expect everything to work smoothly. But the signs from individual players were very encouraging, while the team effort put in to defend a lead at the end bodes well. So I’d suggest Lee Bowyer and his team can afford themselves a pat on the back for the work done and look forward to seeing where this group of players can go (before back to work for another game shortly).
We lined up with a 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 if you like), the centre-backs in front of Amos being Famewo, Inniss and Pratley with Doughty and Gunter the wing-backs. Watson anchored the midfield with Forster-Caskey and Shinnie joining him, while Aneke was chosen to lead the line and Smyth starting alongside him. On the bench were Maynard-Brewer (now with the chance to establish himself as our second keeper with the departure of Phillips), Purrington, Williams, Morgan, Levitt, Bogle and Washington.
The early exchanges were a little sloppy to be fair, from both sides, interspersed with good moments, often involving the pace of Smyth. Even then, although the passing and coordination wasn’t there, the movement and understanding had gone up a level from what we had seen before. I wrote down after 10 mins ‘good news, we are better’. Never mind that, there was a game to be won, and as it progressed we did get on top.
Good work down the left saw Smyth played in and his low cross was flicked goalwards by Forster-Caskey, saved by the keeper. Aneke was causing them problems and when Smyth was bundled over Forster-Caskey took the first of what proved to be three free kicks around the box. This one nearly hit the mark, clipping the top of the crossbar.
After 20 mins we seemed to be in a good place, working well enough. But Wigan suddenly sparked into life and could easily have taken the lead in a five-minute spell. Their No.11 was causing trouble down our left, putting in a good cross headed behind for a corner. And from that corner their guy got in a strong header from close range only to be denied by a superb save from Amos. Gunter harshly picked up a yellow for his first foul, then a cross from his side, Doughty missed the header clear inside the area, and their guy shot just wide. Famewo slipped and almost let one of them in. I thought at the time that we had gone a bit long-ball, looking to get Smyth and Aneke in with early balls, the result of which was that Wigan enjoyed better possession.
However, we weathered that small storm and came back. From a throw-in Pratley flicked on and a great touch from Aneke saw him nick it past his defender, only for the keeper to come out and smother the resulting shot. Then Forster-Caskey’s second free kick was won, again by Smyth. Just a couple of inches lower than the previous one and we’d be ahead; instead this one went some way over the bar.
The half was extended by a nasty head injury for Doughty, which saw his head swathed in bandages. But at the break it was a case of reasonable satisfaction, plenty to be happy about, but thanks to Amos for not being behind, as was the case against Sunderland.
The second half was pretty scrappy for a while, with Watson picking up what is becoming his customary yellow card (if it was for the foul awarded he was unlucky but it may have been for his reaction to the ref’s decision). It was pretty open and both sides will have been feeling that getting the first goal could prove crucial; and it could have gone either way. Aneke managed to play in Pratley, only for their keeper to save again, although Wigan did have the ball in the net after Famewo had tried to usher it out for a goal kick only to be robbed but fouled in the process.
On the hour Aneke was replaced by Bogle, which really did seem a case of like-for-like. And shortly after Forster-Caskey advanced and drew a foul, affording him a third free kick. This one was further out and more central, seemed much less potential than the previous two. But this time he curled it low and seemed to catch out their keeper and it went in off the post. The deadlock broken, the manner somewhat surprising but most welcome.
Still 25 minutes of normal time to go and the question then was how long would the legs of the new guys last? After Smyth picked up a yellow and another long stoppage for a clash of heads, this one involving Inniss, Shinnie came off, replaced by Purrington. This meant a change of formation, to a back four, with Pratley moving into midfield. And perhaps not surprisingly, given that they were behind and we were making changes, Wigan began to press.
With a little over 10 minutes of normal time left one of their guys cut in from the left and Amos blotted an otherwise perfect copybook by spilling the shot, with the rebound scrambled away. And not long after came the real episode when Wigan might have levelled, indeed perhaps felt hard done-by not to have done so. Panic defending somehow kept the ball out only for it to fall to their guy around the penalty spot. At what point the challenge came in (just before or just after the shot) wasn’t clear. The shot went wide and the ref gave the goal kick. Would really have to see it again to say whether or not we got away with one.
That was as dangerous as it got. We actually saw out the final minutes, and seven minutes of stoppage time, reasonably well, might even have nicked a second as after the narrow escape we went up the other end and Forster-Caskey nicked it and squared it just behind Pratley. Washington came on for Smyth and, although the final act involved Amos making another save, we saw the game out reasonably well (OK, bloody well compared with many recent cases of trying to defend a lead to the finish).
Did we deserve the win? Overall just about. It was a game we could easily have lost, had it not been for Amos’ first half save, or drawn. But on the balance of play we shaded it. We had been the more adventurous and dangerous of the teams. Wigan will probably feel a little hard done-by to lose, but no more. And there’s no question we will be the happier tonight, for the result for sure but just as much for the promise that we saw from the new arrivals.
Amos – 8/10. Would have been a 9 but for the spilling of the shot in the second half. His first-half save was another key moment and everything else he did was faultless.
Gunter – 7/10. Didn’t see much of him as an attacking wing-back, and his harsh yellow might have inhibited him a little (you don’t want a red on your debut), but his defensive work was impressive.
Famewo – 8/10. Impressive. Does his work effectively and has a happy habit it seems of not giving away free kicks. Really does look to be a very good addition.
Inniss – 9/10. Perhaps not everyone’s choice but I’d make him my man of the match. Really looks like he does what it says on the can, solid and reliable.
Pratley – 7/10. Decent game, both in defence and when moved into midfield. Managed to get forward to good effect too.
Doughty – 7/10. Didn’t produce a decisive contribution and was quiet in the second half, but may well have been suffering from the head injury.
Watson – 7/10. Decent enough, even though the yellows keep coming.
Forster-Caskey – 8/10. Really good performance, looks like he thrived with the formation and with the different players around him. Some loose passing in the first half, managed to score with the least dangerous of his three free kicks.
Shinnie – 7/10. Good debut. Nothing especially noteworthy but played his part.
Aneke – 7/10. Led the line well, caused problems with his pace and ability to do the unexpected. Has to prove he can last a full game.
Smyth – 8/10. No question his pace and movement gave us something we have lacked. If he proves he can score goals that would be very good.
Subs – Bogle (7/10 – came on as others were tiring and we were happy with the status quo, too early to draw any conclusions); Purrington (8/10 – that mark is for me deserved, even though he wasn’t on for very long; the guy has seen us sign another left-back, from Chelsea, and you might have forgiven him if that had affected him; instead he put in a shift); Washington (7/10 – on the pitch for less than 10 mins).