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@Mark_Jones86: Cup semi-finalists deserve more credit

wembley

This year has seen one of the better FA Cup competitions in recent memory.

The high-profile shocks have never been too far away, with Liverpool losing to Oldham, Arsenal bowing out at home to Blackburn and Brentford taking Chelsea to a replay.

It can be too easy to focus on the top sides and their efforts in the competition though.

Chelsea’s remarkable FA Cup run has continued with a run to yet another semi-final, with last year’s Cup winners now holding an astonishing record which has seen them unbeaten in 90 minutes in the competition since a loss to Barnsley in 2008.

They’ll face the 2011 Cup winners Manchester City in Sunday’s semi-final in a tie which brings together the winners of the last four FA Cups. It is also a tie which will have an air of a final about it, given the fact that there would have to be a huge shock in May’s showpiece event if whichever of the duo who wins on Sunday doesn’t end up holding the Cup aloft.

That’s because the line-up in the other semi-final would have been impossible to predict.

No-one would have envisaged seeing Wigan Athletic and Millwall walk out side-by-side early on Saturday evening, and perhaps most tellingly not many people would have wanted to.

We’ve spoken on how Wigan don’t get enough credit for their remarkable, logic-defying stay in the top-flight before, and that lack of respect can be traced in the reaction to their Cup run too.

Within minutes of their superb quarter-final demolition of Everton at Goodison Park – as good a performance as you could wish to see against one of the better teams in the division this season – the old cracks about Wigan supporters not filling Wembley were evident.

Yet the club are no stranger to the big events.

It was only 2006 when they reached the League Cup final against Manchester United in Cardiff, whilst they have been routinely performing well at the big Premier League grounds for the past few years.

As ever, an obsession with just how many fans are there to watch the team play is likely to be seen again over the weekend, but Wigan is a small place to begin with, and they have been competing with big boys such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City on their doorstep all their lives. A second major final inside a decade awaits them on Saturday. To date, Everton and City have only reached one.

In the other corner, reasons for a dislike of Millwall are a little more sinister, but a win for the 2004 FA Cup finalists would also see them be able to boast about two final appearances in a decade.

However for years the club have been a byword for supporter behaviour that can be regarded as less than welcoming.

As football fans we have a tendency to group our opinions on fellow supporters by whichever team they follow – “all Arsenal fans think like this, all Ayr United fans think like that” etc – but is it too far-fetched to look little deeper?

Speaking from personal experience as someone who has moved from the north to live in a heartland of Millwall supporters, the vast majority I’ve met are just football fans like you or I. Of course there are those who you’d steer clear of, but that’s part of life and not just football.

Mud sticks though, and so there will be many who don’t want either team to win on Saturday because of circumstances beyond the actual football clubs’ control.

But both Roberto Martinez and Kenny Jackett have done excellent jobs at their respective clubs, the players from both sides have excelled in reaching Wembley and the fans deserve their day out and the prospect of another one in May.

After all, these two clubs are one of the main reasons why this year’s FA Cup has rediscovered a bit of its magic.

@Mark_Jones86

Swansea: More than just passing through

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As he pressed the flesh of pretty much everyone in sight at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, there was a sense that Brendan Rodgers was a little more bothered about his return to Swansea City than his old club were.

Already faced with the embarrassment of seeing his Liverpool side lower in the table than the club he left for the Reds in the summer, Rodgers seemed determined to greet old friends with a fixed smile on his face, hugely laudable behaviour of course but perhaps also that of a man who was desperate to show that he had left for greener pastures in the summer whatever the league table says.

Ultimately Rodgers’ Liverpool were the better side in South Wales, particularly in the first half, and if anyone was going to claim the three points then it probably deserved to be them, but once again Swansea showed just what a valuable addition to the Premier League they have been since their promotion under Rodgers 18 months ago.

Luis Suarez still had his moments but ultimately he was shackled by Chico Flores and Ashley Williams – perhaps the Uruguayan’s unofficial biographer – in a more impressive manner than anyone has managed in the past six weeks, and if it makes a change to start off discussing a Swansea performance by focusing on their defence then maybe that will soon change if the centre-back pairing and full-backs Angel Rangel and Ben Davies continue in the manner that they have been.

That the focus so often shifts further forward is down to Swansea’s vibrant attackers and their protection of the ball of course, with Michu and Pablo Hernandez looking lively and Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer troubling Pepe Reina with a fine shot and a boot to the face respectively.

That was a rare ugly moment in a match that the purist would have loved had there been any goals, and one which again showcased Swansea’s commitment to possession.

In this day and age of endless tactics-based debate it is quite uncommon to find a club who are solely committed to playing a certain way regardless of who the manager is.

There is nothing revolutionary about the way that Swansea have gone about their game in recent years – although at times Rodgers would have you believe there is – but instead their approach symbolises a club who are comfortable with their pleasing image and want to stick to it.

Football pub bores will go to great lengths to tell you that it was of course Roberto Martinez who started off this Swansea culture of possession being nine tenths of the football law, which would be quite interesting if everyone didn’t know that already.

Under chairman Huw Jenkins, the Swans have protected this philosophy through the promise of Martinez, the wobbles of Paulo Sousa, the results of Rodgers and now the current regime of Michael Laudrup, perhaps the most laid back manager in the Premier League and certainly the one who can boast the best playing career.

Whilst that alone doesn’t guarantee success in the top job of course, a healthy eye for a good player certainly does, and Laudrup has demonstrated that in abundance during his brief tenure with the signings of the likes of Michu, Hernandez, Ki Sung-Yeung and Jonathan de Guzman.

Stationed in the top half of the table ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with the still upwardly mobile West Brom, Swansea appear to be perfectly placed to continue with the rapid progress they’ve made during their time in the top flight.

They’ll have their tough times of course – not least with trips to Arsenal and Tottenham and a home game against Manchester United before Christmas – but Swansea certainly don’t look like becoming involved in a relegation battle at any point this season, something that they were tipped to do under Rodgers and even under Laudrup by some.

The current Liverpool boss will have his own moments in his still new job, but the side he left behind will go on enjoying themselves for some time yet.

Swansea are doing much more than just passing through the Premier League.

@Mark_Jones86

Wigan: Sticking up for the little guy

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Here in Britain we love a good sporting underdog, someone we can get behind and support even in the face of tremendous adversity.

Examples include Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, a quite spectacularly bad ski jumper who competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics, as well as any number of British tennis players who have tried and failed to win Wimbledon over the years. If you’re lucky and you’ve plied them with just the right amount of alcohol, you can even get a supporter of one of Liverpool’s fierce rivals to admit that a hint of a smile crossed their face when Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and the like were parading the European Cup around Istanbul after the Reds came back from the dead to beat AC Milan in 2005. They’ll later deny it of course.

All of those were one off, sometimes once in a lifetime moments though, but it seems as though we are a little less welcoming of our more regular underdogs.

Take Wigan Athletic, a club who have only been part of the league system in England for 34 years and come May will have spent the last eight of those years in the top flight. Theirs should be a heart-warming tale of the success of a locally-backed club from a town whose population could fit inside Wembley Stadium, but for many it isn’t.

Wigan ‘don’t deserve’ to be in the Premier League apparently, with their place supposedly blocking the path of other, ‘bigger’ clubs who haven’t produced the results, consistency or quality of football that the Latics have over their stay in the top flight.

Attendances at both home and away matches are often flagged up as one of the key reasons for this belief, with the latest example of it coming last Saturday when a low amount of Wigan fans made the trip to North London for what turned out to be a terrific 1-0 victory over Tottenham.

The same jokes were wheeled out as photographs of the away end at White Hart Lane did the rounds over social media, as fans of other clubs pointed out that they would of course have taken far more fans to such a big game, thereby proving that they were more deserving of a top flight place than Wigan. Jealousy could be detected in the words.

The fact that this was occurring just a couple of weeks after a survey into the price of football which led to many proposing a potential fan boycott of matches due to astronomical ticket prices was an irony apparently lost on many, but as Wigan received the same criticisms they always do off the pitch, on it Roberto Martinez and his team pulled off another spectacular result.

Last season it appeared certain that many football fans would get their wish to see Wigan return to ‘where they belong’ – perhaps to be replaced by the yo-yoing Birmingham or West Ham – but wins at Anfield, the Emirates Stadium and at home to Manchester United and Newcastle spectacularly turned that around, with this latest win at Tottenham coming off the back of a home victory over West Ham and really invigorating the campaign for Roberto Martinez and his men.

Since Wigan’s promotion to the Premier League in 2005 only the seven ever-presents in the 20 year history of the revamped league – namely Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham – as well as Fulham and Manchester City have managed to stick around in the top flight with them, with plenty of other clubs falling away, yo-yoing between the leagues or never coming back up.

The Latics have had their moments when they’ve looked like joining them of course, but the fact that they haven’t is a curiously uncelebrated underdog story which still continues; a diverse story which includes characters such as Paul Jewell, David Unsworth, Emile Heskey, Charles N’Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and of course Martinez himself.

There might be other heroes this season – Ben Watson, Franco di Santo or Arouna Kone perhaps – but even if there isn’t then surely it is high time to acknowledge this story, and pay tribute to an underdog who can produce a pretty fierce bite.

Every dog has its day, and Wigan have had eight years’ worth of them.

Isn’t that achievement worth celebrating, no matter how many people are watching?

@Mark_Jones86

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