The Three Amigos
Isidro Diaz, Jesus Seba and Roberto Martinez
For many years now Wigan Athletic have carried the tag "ambitious" attached to their name. But it certainly wasn't always so, and perhaps the title can be clearly traced back to one event in the Summer of 1995.
In February 1995 Latics were 16th in the Third Division, having struggled up from 22nd in the table in October. They were without a single point after their first five games and were playing to home crowds of about 1,700 and losing at home to teams like Mansfield 4-0. Things were not going well, and relegation to the Conference, and ultimate possible extinction, was by no means out of the question.
Off the field things changed, and Dave Whelan, the wealthy local owner of JJB Sports, took over as Chairman. His company already sponsored the team's shirts and with his support for manager Graham Barrow by the end of the season the team had reached a safe, but uninspiring 14th place in the table.
But in the Summer there was a flurry of interest from the football world, looking for once towards Wigan and the word "ambitious" started to be used. Whelan's business dealings took him to Spain, and the surprise announcement came that Latics had signed not one, but three Spaniards.
Roberto Martinez and Isidro Diaz arrived from FC Balaguer, while Jesus Seba was signed from Real Zaragoza. This was unknown in the lower reaches of the Football League, and soon Spanish Fever overtook the football supporting fans of the town. "Jesus is a Wiganer" was a very early joke, and sombreros, red and gold Spanish flags and stuffed donkeys were soon dragged out from attics where they had been stored on arrival home from Majorca or Costa del Sol where their purchase had at the time seemed a good idea.
The "Three Amigos" were an instant hit with the fans, showing a flair that had not been seen before at Springfield Park. Seba's ability to curl free-kicks, little "Izzy" Diaz's runs down the wing, and "Bob" Martinez's matador-style goal celebrations changed the outlook of the club. All three made their first League appearances in Latics' new shirt (the same design as worn throughout the country by JJB store staff) at Gillingham on the opening day of the season, with Roberto Martinez scoring on his debut.
On 11 November 1995 Martinez and Diaz became the first Spaniards to ever play in the FA Cup when they appeared at Runcorn, and obviously Roberto's goal in the game was the first scored by a Spaniard in the Cup.
Roberto Martinez - "Bob"
Not necessarily was it the case, however, that this new-found optimism was translated into results in the League, and by October Graham Barrow had paid the price of failure with his job following a 6-2 home defeat by Mansfield. But still the Amigos caused interest wherever they went, and at the end of the season Martinez was leading scorer with 13 goals, and he was included in the Third Division Team of the Year. The team just missed out on a play-off place, losing the last game of the season at home to Northampton.
Jesus Seba, of the three, found it most difficult to settle. His English was the poorest of them, and he left the club in May 1997 returning to Real Zaragoza. His last appearance for Latics was on 7 September 1996 when he came on for the last half-hour at Springfield Park against Scunthorpe. He is now playing in the Portuguese First Division with Lisbon based club, Belenenses. He actually only started 11 games for Latics with 16 sub appearances, scoring 3 times. But he was part of a revolution in Latics' outlook and fortune, and will always be remembered when other longer serving players will be forgotten.
Latics were on a roll, and by the end of the 1996/1997 season Latics were champions of the Third Division, with Martinez and Diaz both in the team that clinched the championship in the final game of the season at home to the team that has already been mentioned twice in this article, Mansfield Town.
Isidro Diaz and Roberto Martinez with trophy (and non-Spanish friend)
Diaz was the next to leave. Unable to command a place in the team he had gone on loan to Wolves in August and September 1997 but only played one game. He finally left Latics for Rochdale in August 1998. His last game was in the 5-0 drubbing Latics took from Bristol Rovers away on 10 April 1998. He later moved on to Chaves in Portugal, where he can often be found referred to as "Isidro". He played a total of 66 games plus 21 sub appearances for the Latics, finding the net 18 times.
Bob, with his quite reasonable command of English and a side-job of acting as TV pundit for Spanish soccer on Sky, stayed loyally at the club until July 2001. He was a marvellous ambassador for the club at all times, and often visited local schools for the club. He played a total of 180 games with a further 47 appearances from the bench. He scored 23 goals, and in the process picked up 24 yellow cards and 1 red. His last game was in the play-off semi-final at Reading on 16 May 2001. He moved on to Motherwell, and from there to Walsall where he had 1 start and 5 sub appearances in the First Division - making it to that division before Wigan did. At the end of the 2002/2003 season he went on loan to Swansea, and was praised by their fans for his role in saving them from the Football League trapdoor.
So Latics' Spanish story came to an end. But over the years following the arrival of the Three Amigos Latics went on to sign Dutchmen, a Dane, a Canadian, an Argentinian, a Frenchman, an Australian etc etc. In terms of the club's future some of these have made a bigger impact. But in adding the prefix "ambitious" to the words "Wigan Athletic" it was the arrival of three Spaniards that changed the public view of Wigan Athletic forever.