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Wigan's first FA Cup success caps landmark season for underdogs in English football

05/12/2013 10:24 EDT | Updated 07/12/2013 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Even as the financial disparities in English football grow, this season gave the underdogs a chance to leave their mark.

The Premier League campaign was dominated and defined by Alex Ferguson winning a 13th title before announcing his retirement after nearly 27 years at Manchester United.

But new names have been etched onto the League Cup — Swansea in February — and the FA Cup — Wigan on Saturday.

In the knockout competitions, the smaller teams on relatively meagre budgets, were able to produce uplifting upsets against more illustrious opponents.

In the earlier rounds of the League Cup and the FA Cup — from Bradford and Oldham in the north to Brentford and Luton in the south — came results that defied the gulf between teams in the football pyramid.

Although the cups were ultimately won by Premier League teams, their journeys to glory were no less inspirational.

For Swansea, in the League Cup final, came a first-ever title in the south Wales team's centenary season.

And, in the FA Cup final on Saturday, Wigan became Wembley Stadium's second history-maker inside three months.

In the first FA Cup final in its 81-year history, Wigan collected its first major piece of silverware by humbling wealthier regional neighbour, Manchester City, which won the Premier League last season.

Roberto Martinez, the much-admired 39-year-old manager, was the mastermind of Wigan's success, having first helped the team as a player to begin the rise from the fourth tier in 1997.

"Winning the FA Cup is something special in the British game and I'm well aware of that," Martinez said after Saturday's 1-0 win. "It's inspirational to other football clubs that they start in the lowest division in the British game, and you go all the way to the Premier League, stay there so far for eight seasons (for Wigan) and you win the FA Cup. It's an incredible, incredible achievement."

And one completed with eye-catching, attacking football that is the hallmark of Martinez. It also thrived at Swansea, where Martinez was part of the team's ascent from the fourth tier as a player before starting his managerial career there.

Martinez was brought to Wigan in 1995 after an unheralded playing career in Spain by Wigan owner Dave Whelan.

"I arrived in the UK in 1995 and I wasn't a midfield dynamo, a midfield fighter or a tackler — I was a technical player and I always had real beliefs about how to play the game in the U.K.," Martinez said. "And I knew that it would be very successful to try to introduce some possession game and have very strong football concepts that it could give you a really good future."

It has given Whelan a major trophy to show for 18 years of investment in a club in a town better known for its rugby league team.

"I've seen Hollywood films with worse scripts than this story," Martinez said.

Whelan's first taste of an FA Cup final ended in heartache, when he had his playing career cut short by a broken leg suffered during the showpiece match while playing for Blackburn.

"1960 was a life-changing moment for him and left him with unfinished business," Martinez said. "(At Wigan) his vision, work and financial backing has made all of this possible, and I couldn't have been prouder than when I saw him leading his team out at the start of the day, and holding the cup at the end."

The priority now is steering Wigan out of the Premier League relegation zone with two games to go.

"We've only struggled in the league because we've had so many injuries, we've had really bad luck," Whelan said. "We're a small club so it's difficult to replace those. You could see the pride in all of our supporters that we'd won the cup and will take the cup back to Wigan.

"All we want now is for the rugby league team to bring the Challenge Cup back to Wigan and Wigan is back on the map big style."

And in Europe — with both Wigan and Swansea in the Europa League next season.

But there were other remarkable stories in the English cups — competitions renowned for so-called "giant killings."

Fourth-tier Bradford set the tone this season by reaching the League Cup final after knocking out both Arsenal and Aston Villa.

The FA Cup produced a set of stunning results in the fourth round.

Luton became the first non-league team in 24 years to beat topflight opposition in the cup by ousting Norwich.

Third-tier clubs also prospered, with Oldham eliminating Liverpool and MK Dons claiming the scalp of Queens Park Rangers. And Brentford held mighty west London neighbour Chelsea to a draw and forced a replay that it eventually lost.

It was fitting then that the final didn't disappoint as Wigan pulled off one of the great final upsets.

"What an incredible story," Martinez said.

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