Tuesday 23 May 2017

It’s Wigan not Paris

My wife turned down a trip to Paris this week. We have been married so long, she knows which questions to ask and when I asked if she fancied Paris, quick as flash she said, “Which game is on?” “It is Scotland versus France”, I replied. “It’s a European championship qualifier. If we get through we could go to Austria and Switzerland next year.” No chance. Immovable, she was.

But there is always plan B. If not Paris, why not Wigan? Not Orwellian Wigan of The Road to Wigan Pier, though we drove past the pier and the canal where it is situated, but Wigan Athletic at the JJB stadium. So why did an English premiership match with Fulham succeed where Paris quite failed?

Well, there was the little matter that Geelong boy Josip Skoko, who made his farewell appearance for the Socceroos against Argentina last week, is fighting his way back into the Wigan first team after a long delay over his work permit to play in England at the start of the season. What should have been a straightforward appeal hearing was delayed for several weeks by the death of a member of the panel, leaving Josip in limbo until a few days before the season began.

Then there is the consideration that Fulham has signed our Jan Juc and former Melbourne Victory star, Adrian Leijer. Though the lad has yet to make his debut for Lawrie Sanchez’s team, I thought there was a prospect he might be in the squad and what a story that would be if the two were in opposition, even if only for a few minutes. “My Advertiser career will be over if I don’t pursue this story”, I pleaded. At such moments my wife gives a hollow laugh, which shows she knows when she is being snowed, but she is also generous enough to allow the boy a little leeway now and again. And it was not far off our route north to Scotland once again.

In the end Adrian did not appear, and we had to wait until an hour had passed before Josip took the field. By then Wigan was a goal down and Fulham with its advantage thanks to Craig Dempsey in the first half was sitting on the game, forcing the home side into ever more outrageous hit-and-hope efforts. Cue, Josip Skoko. As soon as he came on there were two brilliant passes to feet, one which the winger did not read, and a caution for the substitute as he spun off his marker using his hands in the process. A picky referee showed the yellow card. Then he was back in defence clearing up another Fulham attack and then at the start of a move which led to Wigan skipper, the former Chelsea full-back Mario Melchiot, going down like a sack of potatoes in the Fulham penalty area. This time the referee gave the penalty and Jason Koumas blasted it past Antti Niemi.

Josip tried to inspire a victory, finding men with excellent passes and showing immense coolness to rob an attacker in his own penalty area then calmly walking around another two before passing the ball out of danger. The crowd loved it.

Afterwards we caught up with him and his wife Ivana and he told us that he had achieved everything he wished for in his career which has taken him to Croatia, Belgium, Turkey, and now England. He was selected for a World Cup though he did not get a start, and I will argue that not playing Josip was Guus Hiddink’s biggest single mistake. “Anything from now on is a bonus”, the modest Geelong boy said, but I think he has a lot more to contribute to the game.

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