"It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" is, as anyone who's reached adulthood is aware, a contender for the most maudlin, useless, and just plain wrong cliché that it's possible to utter to console anyone dealing with loss. "It's better to be sitting on the sofa, eating crisps and watching Frasier re-runs than to have loved and lost" doesn't flow quite so well, fair enough, but that doesn't make the original version good advice. Some variant of it will likely be trotted out should Wigan Athletic fail to win tonight, but in light of their recent heroics, it may be the only time that it's actually made sense.
Wigan Athletic's FA Cup victory, for all its intrinsic significance, gives tonight's do-or-die battle with Arsenal a different feel to most relegation clinchers. Most teams exiting the Premier League do so with a whimper rather than a bang, or at least a glum post-match interview in which Harry Redknapp or Alex McLeish absolve themselves of all blame. Even Ian Holloway's Blackpool couldn't quite manage to go out in style, a final doomed charge seemingly beyond them, and everybody else has been even worse.
Wigan's relegation and decline is perhaps inevitable - they are, by no yardstick, a big club, and they have largely been bankrolled by Dave Whelan, who is now of advanced years and hardly splashing wealth around like an oilman linked to a country with a highly questionable human rights record in any case. They were always going to suffer the drop at some point, and one day they'd go down and in all likelihood never return.
Of course, it perhaps ought not to have been pencilled in quite so early - this is a very decent team that will be relegated, with the front six that lined up at Wembley, Arouna Kone, Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman, James McCarthy, James McArthur and Roger Espinoza all good and fun players. They've stayed up when the bar for survival has been set unusually high before, but this is an odd season - it's been a while since we've had two teams who were doomed from the start to give the rest of the bottom-feeders hope, but that final relegation place will probably see a team with the highest points total in years bite the dust.
Wigan appeared set to do what they always do with a last-minute escape, but events seemed to conspire against them - the distraction of the FA Cup run and injuries leaving them further adrift than usual both played a significant part, but what really doomed them was that all the teams around them began uncharacteristically putting up a ferocious fight too. Stoke City, Norwich and Newcastle managed to pull victories out of the bag when they looked in real trouble, and Aston Villa and Sunderland have managed to find some reserves of spirit or quality. Wigan have finished the season fighting as usual - it's just that this year it's been a much harder fight to win.
Maybe whatever money the club can eke out from the Europa League, if the distraction of it doesn't prevent them from achieving promotion, can give them enough to return and prolong their stay in the league for another season or three. Maybe they won't go down after all, or they'll be able to keep enough of their team together or find enough bargains to shoot straight back up and pretend it didn't happen. Even if they lose tonight, they're not doomed in terms of their long-term future.
Whatever happens though, the club will have gone out on a high, with the FA Cup win shooting down most of the myths about lost magic and significance - as always, it matters to people who care about it, and if anyone doesn't rate it, then that's their own fault. It was odd to see the Wigan Twitterati - usually the most detached of fans from the modern football experience, rarely serious, rarely praiseworthy of anything, fall into sentimental calls to fans and former players long since dead who were around during the dark pre-Whelan days (as well as the odd "up yours" to the local rugby club.)
If they do fail tonight and end up relegated, it'll be a loss to the league. A great FA Cup final that will go down as one of the great upsets and the restoration of some gloss to an old trophy will be a nice parting gift, but even though this has been one of their better sides in recent years, it might be a good time for them to go. The opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory rarely manifests itself in football, and when Wigan look back on their years in the league, they will now have a purpose. Unlike almost everybody else in the lower reaches of the league, they were more than just there. They were there for a reason.