Tonight, we will discover the first finalist of this season’s Papa John’s Trophy, with two-time winners Wigan Athletic hosting competition debutants Sutton United.
While a place in the Wembley Final would cap off a fairytale inaugural campaign for the Sky Bet League Two outfit, Wigan have also experienced a memorable journey, with several players raised from the Club’s Academy gaining exposure to competitive action.
Ranging from established first teamer Callum Lang to teenage rookies like Tom Costello, Charlie Hughes and Sam Tickle, the Latics have fielded a total of 14 Academy graduates during their run to the final four.
One of those to feature for Leam Richardson’s side is local lad Scott Smith. The boyhood Wigan fan, who has progressed through the ranks since joining the Club in November 2013, attended a meet-and-greet with Latics supporters at the Papa Leam’s shop alongside goalkeeper Jamie Jones for the last leg of the Papa John’s Trophy Semi-Final tour.
“When I was younger, I looked up to a few of the players in the first team back then and for me to be in and around it now is obviously a dream come true for me,” he said.
“The Semi-Final against Sutton is going to be tough and we’ll need the fans, so it’s great to come down and interact with them. A lot have come to take photos and get their free pizzas and they’ve left with smiles on their faces. Jamie also did a great initiative in giving out 10 tickets for the first fans who came along and said, ‘Up the Tics’.”
Midfielder Smith has made four of his eight senior appearances in the Papa John’s Trophy, although he has spent the past three months in the treatment room after suffering a broken leg in the Second Round against Accrington Stanley.
Despite that setback, the Under-23s captain still believes the competition is extremely beneficial for the development of young players, highlighted by their Quarter-Final success over Arsenal Under-21s, with Divin Baningime scoring an impressive late winner in just his sixth outing for the Sky Bet League One promotion contenders.
“It provides exposure to playing in front of a crowd and obviously playing in a first team fixture against other first team players,” Smith continued. “It's also a chance for you to showcase what you can do to the fans and an opportunity to show the manager what you're capable of.
“I think all the younger lads are over the moon to get opportunities in this competition. For me, it was unfortunate that I got the injury, but it's one of them things in football and it's just a case of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
“It's been a tough few months, but hopefully the end is in sight now and I'm doing everything I can to come back stronger and be back involved before the end of the season.”
Smith was in the stands cheering on Roberto Martínez’s team at Wembley Stadium almost nine years ago, when Wigan enjoyed one of the finest victories in the Club’s history, beating Manchester City to lift the FA Cup.
Now, the 21-year-old is eyeing a return to the capital, with just one more fixture standing between the Latics and a first appearance at the National Stadium since the Community Shield in August 2013.
“I was there with my dad and my brother for the FA Cup Final – it was unbelievable,” Smith reminisced. “I think it's one of them moments that you remember for the rest of your life. As a Wigan fan and for my family as well, it was a great day out for us.
“Everybody wants to win silverware and we’ve got a big chance to do it in this competition now. We have a good reputation when we go to Wembley, so hopefully we can get past Sutton and then have a chance to replicate what happened in 2013.”