Senior Sports Editor
TWENTY six consecutive league games, 2340 minutes of non-stop action and helping Wigan Athletic survive relegation from England’s League One.
It has been quite a marathon shift, and strong comeback, for Tendayi Darikwa.
For a player, who spent 18 months without kicking the ball in club football, as he battled injury and fell down the pecking order at his old club, this has been quite a return to the big time for the Zimbabwe international defender.
His short-term deal with The Latics, who have lost their way in the last eight years since winning the FA Cup in 2014, came to an end at the weekend.
Now, he must be hoping he did enough to secure a deal, either with Wigan, to extend his stay at the club, or with another team, following his impressive show.
The 29-year-old Darikwa arrived at Wigan in January, after leaving Championship side Nottingham Forest, where he could no longer be guaranteed first-team football.
Having worked his way back into condition, after a bad injury derailed his career, he struggled to force his way into the Forest side, despite being a popular member of the squad, and a firm favourite of the fans.
He decided to drop a division, into the third-tier of English league football, just for a taste of regular action, and to prove he was still good enough to play for some of the top teams.
Darikwa also promised, on his arrival, he wanted to help a club which was struggling and facing the possibility of crashing into League Two.
“I’m a Wigan Athletic player and I’m delighted to be here and I can’t wait to get started,’’ he told Latics TV, after he penned his short-term deal, in January.
“I’ve not played too much football, in the last 18 months, after a bad injury. But, I’m fit again and I can’t wait to get on the pitch and start playing competitive games again.
“I hope to help the team as quickly as possible. I’ve looked at the league table, of course we are in a tough position at the moment in the league.
“I think we have enough quality to get out of it. I want to come in and help the lads and hopefully move up the league.
“I’m fit and have been training with the first team at Forest since I came back from my injury and I haven’t missed a session. I’ve played a few international games as well (for Zimbabwe) and I came through them very well. “It’s important now to play some competitive games at first team level, help the lads and hopefully get some wins as quick as possible.”
And, this is exactly what has been happening to the defender, in the last four months, in which he featured in all the 26 League One matches, which Wigan were involved in, since his arrival. He transformed himself into one of the club’s key members, completing 90 minutes in each of the 26 league matches, clocking an impressive 2340 minutes of action.
Wigan secured their place in League One, completing the season, at the weekend, with 48 points, three above Northampton, who occupied the last relegation slot, in 22nd place.
Swindon Town, with 43 points, and bottom-placed Bristol Rovers (38 points), also went down. Rochdale, with 47 points, were a point behind Wigan.
Before Darikwa’s arrival, Wigan had played 20 league games, won just five, drawn four, lost 11 matches and, with just 19 points, were in real danger of being relegated.
They were just a slot, higher than the bottom side, in January. With the Zimbabwe international defender in their ranks, Wigan played 26 league matches, won eight matches, drew five, lost 13 and bagged 29 points.
The victories came in the 1-0 win against Northampton (away), 3-0 win against MK Dons (home), 2-0 win over Plymouth Argyle (away), 4-1 win over Doncaster (away), 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers (away), 2-1 win over Sunderland (home), 2-0 win over Crewe Alexandra (home) and 2-1 win over Shrewsbury Town (away).
Their losses came against Blackpool (0-5), Swindon Town (0-1), Oxford United (1-2), Hull City (1-5), Lincoln City (1-2), Peterborough (1-2), Charlton Athletic (0-1), Accrington Stanley (1-3), Gillingham (0-1), Portsmouth (0-1), Hull City (1-3) and Swindon Town (3-4).
They drew against Fleetwood Town (0-0), Rochdale (3-3), AFC Wimbledon (1-1), Ipswich (0-0) and Burton Albion (1-1).
Interestingly, the team featured in a six-goal thriller, which ended 3-3 against Rochdale, in Darikwa’s debut match while the final one, at the weekend, was a seven-goal thriller, which ended 3-4, in Swindon Town’s favour.
The 3-3 draw against Rochdale, who needed a last-gasp goal to secure a point, was Darikwa’s first league match in about two years but he was one of the best players in that match.
“Hard to believe it was his first game for 18 months, up to speed immediately and looks to have plenty to offer,’’ Latics correspondent, Paul Kendrick, wrote in Wigan Today, after giving the Zimbabwean a rating of 8/10.
With manager Leam Richardson having been handed a three-year deal, last month, it’s very likely Darikwa will be asked to extend his stay at the club, given the two have a strong bond. “He’s someone who has had a big effect on me at the start of my career when I was at Chesterfield, so it’s nice to come in and help him out and — hopefully — together we can move up the table,’’ Darikwa told LaticsTV, in January. “First and foremost, I’m a defender so I want to come in and help the team be solid at the back.
“I also want to help the team get up the pitch and use my pace and my energy, so I can hopefully get a few assists and try and nick a few goals if I can. “We don’t fear anyone. We believe as a group that we have the quality to stay in the division and pick up the points that we need to stay up.
“Sometimes it takes time to build relationships on the pitch and off it as well, but we all want the same goals, we all want the same outcome which is to keep the club in this division.’’
And, after 26 league games in Wigan’s colours, Darikwa helped the club stay in League One.