When Wigan Athletic were bought by former Blackburn Rovers and Crewe Alexandra full-back Dave Whelan in February 1995, the self-made multi-millionaire declared that he would take the then Third Division club to the Premier League during his reign.
It seemed ambitious at the time, but it was a promise which Whelan delivered in 2005 when the club finished the 2004–05 Championship in second place behind Sunderland to claim automatic promotion. It had been a journey which took the club just ten years.
After making his fortune in supermarkets and sports stores throughout the United Kingdom and Europe after retiring from the game, Whelan invested heavily in his new club, funding the £30 million construction of the JJB Stadium (now DW) which opened in 1999.
Not only did the new owner invest in the club’s infrastructure, Whelan invested in the playing squad with one of his first major coups in the transfer market being the signatures of three young Spaniards. Whelan had taken the decision to search for talent overseas in a bold move that would be an indication of his future vision for the club.
During the player search, one of Whelan’s staff who was looking after his Spanish stores spotted three young talents in the Real Zaragoza B team – Roberto Martínez, Isidro Díaz and Jesús Seba who would be targeted as signings for Wigan back in England.
However, before the club could offer them contracts, Martínez and Díaz had joined Balaguer who were playing in the Spanish Third Division while Seba was on loan at Villarreal who hadn’t yet started their meteoric rise to La Liga. The unperturbed Whelan continued his pursuit of the players and managed to convince them to switch their sunny homeland for the grey of northern England with the promise of top level football and a new stadium within a few years.
On arriving in Greater Manchester, Martínez, Díaz and Seba were affectionately dubbed the Three Amigos by both fans and media. The signings came at a time when foreign imports to British football was somewhat of a rarity which was highlighted comically when the Wigan fans donned novelty Sombreros during home games at Springfield Park – not realising the head-wear was Mexican not Spanish.
Adapting to a new country was difficult for the players due to the fact that they hardly spoke a word of English so were sent to Wigan College twice a week to learn the language that would help them settle into the new country and culture.
Driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’ was also proved troublesome for the players, especially Seba who had a minor accident during his first week of driving the club’s Ford Escort that the three were given to share.
Before switching to the English Third Division, the players had been on the books of Real Zaragoza with Seba being the most successful of the three during their time at Estadio La Romareda. Seba made his debut for the first team in 1992 and due to his impressive performances even received a call up to the Spanish Under-21’s before a serious ankle injury curtailed the early part of his career.
Midfielder Martínez also featured for the Real Zaragoza first team, however he spent most of his time at the club with the B team. Díaz was the only one of the three to never make an impact for the first team during his days with the club.
The players made their Wigan debuts at Gillingham on the opening day of the 1995-96 season, with Roberto Martínez scoring in a 2-1 loss. The fans immediately warmed to the players who showed flair and a different type of football to what they were accustomed in the lower leagues.
Off the field, the three had become local celebrities that were visited at the semi-detached house they shared by fans who would often ‘pop in for a cuppa’.
On 11th November 1995, Martínez and Díaz became the first Spaniards to ever play in the FA Cup when they appeared at non-league Runcorn. In the same game, Martínez’s goal was the first scored by a Spaniard in the Cup in a game that finished 1-1.
During the Three Amigos’ first season in England, only Seba struggled to adapt to the new environment – the player was underused and found it difficult after the amount of first team football he had experienced in La Liga before his injury.
Martínez had a fine first season ending as the club’s leading scorer with 13 goals and was included in the Third Division Team of the Year.
The second season was a very successful one for the Latics as they strengthened and ended the season as champions ahead of Fulham; new striker Graeme Jones won the League’s top scorer award with 31 goals on the way to the championship. Once again, Martínez had an excellent campaign and was named in the Third Division Team of the Year for the second consecutive year.
Although the club had an excellent season, the first chapter of the Three Amigos was over after Jesús Seba left the club to return to Zaragoza in the September after failing to hold down a first team place. His last appearance for the Latics was on 7th September 1996 when he came on for the final 30 minutes at Springfield Park against Scunthorpe.
Díaz was the next to leave after he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers on in August 1997. Unfortunately for the winger, he only managed one game whilst on loan in the Midlands but finally left Wigan for Rochdale in August 1998. After leaving England in 1999, Díaz returned to Spain for a season before seven years in Portugal with Leça FC and G.D. Chaves.
Roberto Martínez stayed with the club until the end of the 2000–01 season when he was released on a free transfer. The midfielder had been a fantastic servant and played a total of 231 games for the club scoring 23 goals and picking up just 24 yellow cards and one red in the process.
After retiring from the game with Chester City, Martínez returned to Swansea City, a place he spent time on loan as manager. Martínez’s record with the Swans was excellent and had a win ratio of 50% during his time at the Liberty Stadium. The Spaniard led the club to the Football League One trophy in the 2007–08 season before rejoining Wigan who were now established in the Premier League in a controversial move.
Martínez had previously stated that he wouldn’t leave Swansea on his own accord and so infuriated the Swans fans when he decided to move back north. Martínez claimed that the opportunity to return to the club where he started his English career was too good to turn down and was confirmed the club’s new manager on 15th June 2009.
After a bedding in period with the club, the 2012–13 season was his most eventful of his four years as the manager. It was a season of mixed emotions for the club as the he led Wigan to their maiden FA Cup triumph when they overcame the much stronger Manchester City in a 1-0 win via a 91st minute Ben Watson header. However, the celebrations were cut short just three days later, when Wigan were relegated to the Championship after eight years in the Premier League.
It was to be the final part in the story of the Three Amigos at Wigan as Martínez replaced Manchester United bound David Moyes in the Everton dugout less than a month after their cup win and relegation.
Although the Three Amigos story had come to an end 18 years after it started, every Wigan fan will remember it fondly while countless others will be forgotten.