“Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified.” And, although the expensively assembled Manchester City backline may not have feared the Northern Irish international before the 79th minute, they must have been dreading the worst when he ran on to a shock “dummy” from Kyle Walker (who could be credited with the assist with awareness like that), and calmly slotted the ball into the left hand corner of Claudio Bravo’s net.
Cue scenes of delirium and *that* war-cry that has placed Grigg into football folklore. This was his fourth goal against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup this season, after scoring against Bournemouth and West Ham United in the previous rounds. He really had not done much in the match up to that point, yet he came out of it as the man of the match.
For Pep Guardiola, taking the risk of resting key players like Kevin de Bruyne and Ederson backfired as he watched his side, reduced to ten men after Fabian Delph’s arguable red card, slip to a 1-0 defeat to a spirited Wigan Athletic side – their third win against City in their last three appearances against them – which ran itself into the ground, and ended any hopes that Guardiola may have had of securing an unprecedented “quadruple”, although he had been playing down such lofty ambitions before.
City had chances to win the game, with Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero blazing over from close range in the first half, and were also denied by impressive saves from Wigan’s goalkeeper, Christian Walton. In situations like this, it would be difficult to find any excuses for Guardiola.
With the most expensively assembled team of our generation, the expectation was clear: City would take their place in the quarter-final of the FA Cup in a home tie against Southampton, and would be expected to qualify for the semi-finals.
Unfortunately for the ‘Citizens’, that is not how the FA Cup works.
Many believe that the magic of the competition has been lost over the years. As the Premier League teams become stronger and stronger, television and sponsorship deals soaring out of the stratosphere, the gulf between the upper echelons of the English game and the lower divisions has widened.
Premier League teams would rather field second-string sides than risk their first-team players when qualification for the Champions League can bring major financial benefits, or the fear of relegation hovers over them like a dark, money-sucking cloud. The risk may seem to be far too great.
Try convincing Wigan and Rochdale to give up their wonderful efforts so far. Although Rochdale’s cup run may be coming to an end soon (they booked themselves a replay against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium), for them to have reached this stage of the Cup should be seen as an achievement.
Wigan have taken it a step further, and their dream will continue into the quarter-finals. Surprising the masses with their shock Cup final win in 2013, against City, Paul Cook knew that almost everything had to go their way in this match; Walton was impressive in-goal; Nathan Byrne, one of the standout players on the night, kept Leroy Sane relatively quiet; the red card for Delph giving Wigan the numerical advantage. All these played in his team’s favour:
We knew a lot of things had to go right on the night against such a quality team. We had to dig in, we really did, and the lads did that in abundance. As a team it’s an outstanding night for us, it’s one we should enjoy.
He will find it difficult to keep his team’s heads out of the clouds; it is their chance to dream again, and it helps that they are performing well in League One, sitting in third place as they continue their chase for automatic promotion back into the Championship.
Grigg has become the Cup’s top goal scorer this season with seven goals so far, and may be the key figure for Wigan if they want to progress further into the competition. For their fans, a day at Wembley is more than they would have expected at the start of the season. This is the magic that we still see evident for those teams that dare to dream.
For City, concentration will now be on ensuring that they continue their wonderful performance in the Premier League, as well as trying to secure a first trophy of the season in the final of the Carabao up against Arsenal and further progression in the Champions League. They are still on course for an exceptional season, there is no doubt about that, but this loss will be hurting Guardiola secretly.
A man who seems to strive for perfection in his footballing mantra of poetic football, this loss may hurt him and his ego, and will leave a sour taste in the mouth of his world-class performers.
In football, ultimate success is usually measured by the accolades that a team can achieve over the course of their existence. A few Premier League sides may have missed a trick here, not allowing themselves the best chance of winning some silverware and swapping financial riches for a trophy in the cabinet.
Wigan, however, are not in the Premier League, and for them and their supporters, the magic of the FA Cup has not been lost on them. They will be enjoying every minute of it, and a home tie in the quarter-finals against a Southampton team that are fighting for their Premier League status may be the perfect opportunity to continue their wonderful endeavours.
Who knows? Will Grigg could be on fire for the Latics once again as their FA Cup dream rolls on.