Goals from Jermaine Pennant and Jason Pearce secured a dramatic draw at Craven Cottage where Latics had to twice come from behind to secure another precious point in their quest for Sky Bet Championship survival.
The new Latics manager promised changes and it was obvious from the first minute of this pulsating encounter that this was going to be a different Wigan Athletic, one intent on a passing game and playing the ball on the ground.
Caldwell’s first ever team selection for Latics included two changes from the team that played Derby County last Monday. Scott Carson was back in goal after an absence of five matches, while Jermaine Pennant was chosen in front of Leon Clarke.
Unfortunately, Carson’s first job back in the team was to pick the ball up from the back of the net as Caldwell’s reign got off to the worst possible start.
Harry Maguire could only head a long ball as far as Sean Kavanagh, who threaded it through to Ross McKormack on the edge of the box and his shot curled in beyond Carson’s despairing dive.
Nightmare start and yet you could already see the seeds of Caldwell’s intentions in Latics’ reaction. The ball was passed out from defence and zipped from player to player through midfield, Latics quickly forcing two corners, then Maguire trying his luck from distance.
The rewards came after 20 minutes when James McClean’s run from the left ended when the Irishman was unceremoniously floored by Scott Parker 25 yards from goal – too far out, surely, even for the trusty boot of Jermaine Pennant? Wrong. Marcus Bettinelli dived at full stretch and got a hand to his effort but it was just too good.
Pennant, accompanied by Gaetan Bong, ran the full length of the field and fell to his knees in front of the thousand-strong following in the opposite end. What a moment for Caldwell and Latics. Now could they build on it?
In terms of possession, the answer was an emphatic yes, with Latics keeping the ball well and maintaining a really quick tempo, but they were hit with a second sucker punch out of nowhere when Matt Smith chipped Carson from distance on 35 minutes. It may have taken a slight deflection but the former Leeds and Oldham striker was surely offered too much space on the edge of the box.
Another blow but could they recover after the break?
Latics came out of the blocks full of confidence, still clearly intent on passing the ball well but struggled to break down a stubborn Fulham rear-guard.
Martyn Waghorn replaced Fortune on 56 minutes and he almost got the chance to score with his first touch, Pennant’s corner headed at goal by McClean but Bettinelli held firm with the substitute bearing down on him.
Fulham came close with a couple of breakaways but Latics continued to dictate possession, and finally managed to breakthrough on the 69th minute, after another really patient build up saw Pennant breakthrough down the right and force a corner. He swung in the ball himself, Maguire met it on the penalty spot with a powerful header and Jason Pearce slid in at the far post to smash it into the roof of the net. Cue another great celebration.
Could Caldwell’s Latics capitalise on all the good work?
Hearts were in mouths as Dan Burn headed McCormack’s free-kick a foot over Carson’s bar just after Chris McCann replaced Emmerson Boyce and as we entered the final quarter of an hour, it was anybody’s game, both sides going for victory.
Fulham sent in a couple of dangerous crosses, then Latics broke away through McClean, this time mon the right, while Bong swung in a good cross from the left. McClean then crossed from the left this time and Pennant’s header smashed Burn in the face.
Caldwell’s last throw of the dice came in the shape of Josh Murphy, who replaced Pennant in the 83rd minute – could his fresh legs make the difference? Latics still came forward, McLean twice fired at goal, one went wide, the other was blocked, while Carson had to dive at the feet of Jack Grimmer.
‘Come on Wigan’, roared the Latics fans, as four minutes of added time were announced…the yellow shirts tried valiantly to conjure up one more opportunity. McClean and Waghorn were not quite able to combine on the edge of the box, then Fulham had a chance, Bong blocking Grimmer’s effort.
The travelling fans greeted the final cheer with warm applause for the players as the soap opera of this extraordinary season now continues on Tuesday against Millwall.