Cook's underdogs put faith in team spirit for Cup bid
Wigan are on an old-fashioned Cup run and Paul Cook will cheerfully admit to being an old-fashioned manager. He believes in the FA Cup for a start, as might be surmised from the fact his League One side will today be attempting to knock a fourth Premier League side out of the competition.
Possibly distracted by the scale of their achievement against Manchester City in the last round, Wigan's promotion push has suffered a wobble over the last couple of months, though a first win in three games at Bradford in midweek calmed a few nerves.
Cook, confronted before Sunday's game against Southampton with the old chestnut about whether he would choose promotion over a Wembley semi-final, unhesitatingly opted for promotion. Then he thought about it a little more. "I might not say that if you were talking about the FA Cup final. Offer me that choice and I don't think I'd be able to turn it down."
Disarmingly frank, Cook is the first to admit Wigan were lucky to find themselves playing 10 men against City, just as they had been in the previous round when West Ham had a player sent off. Yet on both occasions Wigan's remarkable team spirit was what ultimately saw them through.
"If you ask me, team spirit is an undervalued commodity in football," he says. "You want a group of lads who will go the extra yard for each other, and that's what we have here."
That sounds straightforward enough, perhaps even a little glib, yet apart from the £1m Will Grigg, the Wigan side who beat the richest club in Britain were composed of mostly free transfers, a couple of loans and two players, Max Power and Gavin Massey, picked up when Tranmere and Leyton Orient slipped out of the league. Is some secret alchemy at work? How does Cook go about forging unbreakable spirit from such ostensibly unpromising raw material?
"You need to build it up over time but it is essentially a two-way thing," Cook says. "Lads need to feel your love when they really need it, and now and again managers turn to players because they really need them. You know in football it won't always be good and a modicum of respect goes both ways. We like to see our fans clap us off the pitch. I encourage the players to look for that because it is a sign that the team is doing well. I'm not talking about results but about working hard and doing yourself justice. You don't have to win every game to be clapped off the pitch."
Being old-fashioned, Cook finds himself at odds with the new impatience in football, not to mention the former players and pundits whose sneering comments put managers under more pressure. "Pundits find it so easy to lay into people who are doing their best," he says. "I think it is the saddest thing in the game. Supporters should back their team but the modern-day culture is to boo your side off at half-time. Why? That's when you need support the most. Historically you should support your club for a lifetime, even if there have been games when you've come home and said you're never going again. That's what people love about football.
"It's part and parcel of your life. Something you ought to be able to enjoy even if things aren't going well. The last time I was in a crowd as a spectator I couldn't believe the anger that was being expressed. There is so much negativity nowadays and I find that strange."
There is not much that has been negative about Wigan's season, apart from the fact Blackburn and Shrewsbury are keeping up the promotion pressure. Southampton will turn up with a new manager in Mark Hughes but Wigan are the settled side and Grigg remains on fire.
"Will's an instinctive scorer, play him in any team that creates chances and he'll put them away," Cook says. "There was no food on the table for him against City, he was isolated as we were getting deeper and deeper but he got one chance and he did what the best strikers do."
Since that result Wigan have managed to lose their underdog tag, some even seem to believe they have a better than 50-50 chance against relegation-threatened Southampton, though Cook does not see it quite like that.
"We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. We are a League One side playing Premier League opponents. I had a text from a mate who said he couldn't make the game but he'd be there for the semi-final. I just looked at it.
"Wembley is an unbelievable incentive, to take a League One side to the semi would really be something but come on. We are not there yet, not even favourites to get there."
- Wigan Athletic v Southampton, BBC1, 1.30
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