Fearful five face moment of truth
Bosses try to stay calm as cost of relegation estimated at £40m
Of course, it is the thought of George Owen which really puts it all into perspective this weekend.
He is the Wigan Athletic fan for whom the sight of Gary Caldwell's misplaced 83rd-minute pass, during the frenetic pursuit of a winner against West Ham last Sunday, proved too much for his weak heart and caused his collapse in the DW Stadium's East Stand.
Roberto Martinez thought he knew everything about relegation -- "a very strong word," as he described it three weeks ago -- but not this. "That's how much it feels individually and collectively for the town," the Wigan manager reflected yesterday, declaring a desire to receive the retired electrical engineer at the club's stadium in August for another Premier League game.
"In our lives nothing gets your emotion and passions touched like football does, and that's a responsibility we've got."
Life, just like football, is rarely a fairy tale, of course, and Mr Owen's recovery has not been an entirely straightforward one this week in Wigan Infirmary, where the 83-year-old remains ill.
Martinez knows tomorrow that the same goes for his own side -- who are rooted to the bottom of that band of five clubs on 39 and 40 points scrapping for their Premier League status -- as they head to the unenviable environment of Stoke's Britannia Stadium.
Wigan have, in many ways, become the romantic's choice to survive, by virtue of their indefatigability in the face of immense odds all season and Martinez's insistence that they will pass their way out of this storm. But the thrill of turning around the 2-0 deficit they carried into the second half against West Ham is fraught with dangers, Martinez knows.
"You can't turn up in the next game and think that everything is going to be all right just because you feel it is your destiny," he said. "That would be a big mistake."
The managers of the five sides have cut an extraordinary sight over the past 72 hours, each trying in his own way to display grace under pressure, some managing better than others, with the cost of failure tomorrow an estimated £40m.
There was Blackpool's Ian Holloway reaching for the umpteenth metaphor from his season of verbal gymnastics (this time casting himself as Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee), Mick McCarthy displaying gruff fatalism, Alex McLeish looking like the tired, worn man Carson Jeung's ownership of Birmingham has turned him into, and Steve Kean proving as delusional as ever about Blackburn's plight.
If the five sides' fates were based on the demeanour of the men who will lead them tomorrow then Birmingham, where McLeish might call it a day whatever the outcome, will drop and Wigan will find sweet salvation.
Martinez's programme notes end with the words 'Sin miedo' (No fear) and he practises what he preaches. Patrice Evra has told us Alex Ferguson's hairdryer did the trick when Manchester United trailed at Blackburn last weekend -- but Martinez was not tempted to confront his side with the prospect of relegation when West Ham had left them looking doomed.
"I don't believe in managing by fear," he said. "I believe in doing it by aspiration. When you manage by fear, the moment you turn around, the players do what they want. If you are a player who wants to achieve and wants to get better, who wants to win titles and rise to challenges, you don't need a figure who gives you fear to perform."
"We have been in this situation since the end of November," Martinez said. "I haven't looked at the table since December."
The world seemed against them in the early part of the struggle, too. "It was all too easy to see this team, Wigan, with empty seats and ask, why are they in the Premier League?" Martinez said. So this is why he has been able to convince his young side -- by far the youngest among those seeking survival tomorrow -- to remain true to his own passing principles.
The results started coming a few months ago -- there have been 12 points from the past eight games -- but not soon enough to prevent Martinez having to tell his players two weeks ago: "Forget the league table now. Just win the last two games."
It would not have turned out this way had there been one or two of those sides that come along regularly, who are so evidently not good enough for the Premier League.
Instead, Martinez's Wigan could celebrate their fewest defeats in a Premier League season, achieve a 42-point total (their third highest in the top flight) -- and still be relegated.
"If we get 42 points and we get relegated, I will be extremely proud of the players," Martinez said. "If we get 39 points and stay up, we will be a very fortunate team and I don't want to be a fortunate team."
He would take fortunate, though, considering that Wigan's £40m annual wage bill would be severely cut in the Championship, Charles N'Zogbia, the highest paid, would be likely to go along with James McCarthy, Hugo Rodallega and others.
The road back would certainly be much tougher for Wigan than Blackburn, who can hope for the resources of Venky's to help propel them back -- though manager Kean's decision to spend part of this fateful week in India asks some questions about his judgment.
Kean was generally unconvincing in his discussion of the trip to Wolves -- "We're targeting a top-10 finish next season," he said -- and it was left to Michel Salgado to talk sense.
"The mistake was for us to talk about (signing) stars like Ronaldinho and (David) Beckham," the Spaniard admitted. "We have had to come back down to earth."
The word 'tired' has become an increasing part of McLeish's lexicon, with his players' late-night drinking on Monday not helping his humour yesterday.
"You've got to believe. If you don't, then you might as well be chucking it in just now," an irate McLeish said yesterday. The state of Yeung's finances offer little sense of how Birmingham might bounce back, but Scott Dann, Ben Foster and Roger Johnson may not be there for the journey.
Relegation would be least disastrous for Blackpool, whose modest wage bill means a drop would take them to a Championship level befitting their current commercial set-up. Holloway's homespun homilies have grated a bit and Man United's agreement to Holloway's players visiting Old Trafford today to prepare for their environment confirms the sense they are just happy to be here at all.
"I've bitten off more than I can chew and I chewed bloody well as fast as I could. That's us isn't it?" Holloway observed.
A curiously small number of tomorrow's managers are putting their jobs on the line. Martinez, "the best manager in Europe" according to chairman Dave Whelan, will stay; McCarthy and Kean have been offered the same assurances, and Holloway will decide his own future. But that doesn't change how some will feel. "Relegation?" said Holloway. "It will be the end of the world." (© Independent News Service)