Hong Kong is about to buy a piece of Wigan and the Whelan family, the money and spirit behind the town’s football club for 23 years, will pass their shares to Oriental owners later this week.
They were in the directors box at the DW Stadium for the last time yesterday, joined by a smiling Roberto Martinez, but Leeds United packed them off without a happy ending.
The Championship is dog-eat-dog at the best of times and first place in the table is changing hands at every turn this season so the end of an era in one corner of Greater Manchester was the least of Marcelo Bielsa’s concerns. Leeds’ trip to Wigan, he said beforehand, was “a game we have to win” and his squad were back at the top of the league last night after heeding those words.
Only for a few minutes, when Leeds trailed to Reece James’ free-kick, did it seem that Dave Whelan and Martinez, the manager who brought the FA Cup to a club who never expected to hold it, would get the finale they wanted.
Leeds’ sparkle has dimmed through the autumn but Wigan felt it and their first home defeat was on the cards once Pablo Hernandez drew Bielsa’s side level. It scarcely mattered that the winning goal in the second half would have been better suited to the Halloween weekend.
James struck first after six minutes but a response came three minutes later through a typically crafty attack: Adam Forshaw dragging Cedric Kipre out of position, Mateusz Klich running quietly onto a pass from Barry Douglas and Hernandez arriving on cue to stick away Klich’s cut-back.
Set against that, Leeds’ winner in the 46th minute was laughably lame, laid at the feet of Kemar Roofe by a handling error from Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton. Even after the controversy of his handball against Nottingham Forest, it can be safely said that Roofe will not score an easier goal all season.
There was a streak of confidence in Leeds which said the victory would come, even as Wigan held them off before half-time. Bielsa’s three-man defence - somewhat unsure of each other but tight enough - created room for his side to play between Wigan’s lines and let Klich loose in the enganche’s zone as the hosts felt the draining effect of turnovers created by Leeds’ high press.
There were no cries for Samuel Saiz and Bielsa did not feel the need to hoist him from the bench. James’ free-kick aside, his players kept control. They will look now to see if they can exert some over the rest of the Championship.
Bielsa and his squad were slightly late to the party, held up on the roads around Wigan’s ground by an early-morning police chase which brought the air ambulance to one of the stadium’s car parks. An arrest was made in a nearby canal tunnel while traffic backed up with United’s bus in the queue. Confirmation of both line-ups was delayed but the game kicked off on time.
The minimalist in Bielsa took hold again: Douglas taking the place of the injured Luke Ayling in the only change made by United’s head coach. Bielsa’s hunt for the fluency of the first month of the season, some of which was found in Wigan, has involved little in the way of tactical deviation but Douglas’ availability was a bonus, restoring balance to the left side of Leeds’ defence.
What Bielsa has been unable to stop is the creep of cheap, straightforward concessions to teams who are barely having to graft for them. Wigan scored another after six minutes, finding the net through a bouncing free-kick from James’ after Liam Cooper went through the back of Joe Garner. Bailey Peacock-Farrell was beaten inside his left-hand post.
It was briefly reminiscent of Blackburn Rovers away, where Leeds fell behind without kicking a ball in anger, but there was none of the same lethargy and United’s next attack produced an equaliser, reeling Wigan in before Paul Cook’s side could make an early advantage work for them. Douglas’ ball picked out Klich’s run to the byline and the midfielder looked up to see Hernandez in front of him. A sharp, low delivery left Hernandez to cushion it in.
Douglas’ presence gave Leeds width and gave Wigan a headache, down their right and from set-pieces. Klich’s movement did likewise. Bielsa’s pressing clicked and Forshaw was denied by the fingertips of Christian Walton after the goalkeeper played Wigan into trouble.
Pontus Jansson’s header from a Douglas corner flashed over the crossbar after the Swede peeled away from his marker and met the cross at the back post.
There were enough instances when Wigan were hanging on for Leeds to think that their resistance would be temporary and Hernandez threatened twice more before half-time, sending a volley into the hands of Walton and curling another shot wide. Bielsa lingered quietly on the touchline, waiting for another surgical moment.
As it was, nothing surgical was needed. Forty seconds into the second half Walton slid towards a tame pass from Hernandez but let the ball to slide off his arms as Kipre ran in front of him. Roofe was almost apologetic in walking the loose ball over the line as Walton lay on the turf. Much like the effort Roofe got away with against Forest, they all count.
Wigan last phoned in a league game at the DW Stadium in February, beaten 2-0 by Blackpool on their way to the League One title, but Cook could find no way of unseating Bielsa’s system. Roofe’s left-footed hit in the 73rd minute was inches away from killing the game and if there was criticism to be had, it was in Wigan being close enough to Leeds to keep the crowd on edge as the final whistle came.
Callum McManaman made Bielsa’s heart skip with a shot which whistled over the bar but Hernandez struck the inside of a post with a better chance in injury-time. Men as old as Bielsa and Whelan know a comprehensive win when they see one.