|FA Cup quarter-finals: Wigan Athletic v Southampton|
|Venue: DW Stadium Date: Sunday, 18 March Kick-off: 13:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC One & the BBC Sport app from 13:15 GMT, live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sport and follow text updates on the BBC Sport website.|
“The chairman asked me to meet him at his factory. We’d lost 3-1 at Northwich Victoria a couple of days earlier and I was getting the sack. He told me: ‘I don’t think your signings have been good enough.'”
Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook is recalling the time he discovered his services were no longer required by non-league Southport.
Aged 39, and with the Sandgrounders in the Football Conference relegation zone at the start of 2007, Cook was out of work, his first job as a manager over after 25 league games.
Eleven years on – and after steering Chesterfield and Portsmouth to promotion – the lifelong Liverpool fan is one win from a Wembley appearance in the FA Cup semi-finals with League One Wigan.
Having masterminded an outstanding victory over Manchester City in the last round, Cook will earn the Latics a return to the scene of their epic 2013 FA Cup triumph if he can engineer a win over Southampton at the DW Stadium on Sunday.
After three wins over Premier League opposition already, Wigan fans are daring to dream.
“In my world, getting to the FA Cup semi-final is like winning the cup,” Cook told BBC Sport.
“If Wigan Athletic, a League One club, get to the FA Cup semi-final, that day will be our cup final. I dream about that.”
- ‘We didn’t think this could happen’ – Wigan reaction to Man City win
- ‘I wanted to take moment in’ – Grigg explains reaction after goal
Liverpool away days, Rome & ‘stupid’ Wembley game
Cook, 51, is no stranger to Wembley having grown up watching Liverpool through the 1970s and 1980s, when they enjoyed great domestic and European success.
He became a player the hard way, turning out for Merseyside non-league team Marine in Crosby, just a few miles from Kirkby, where he was raised.
A midfielder, Cook played for Wigan at the old Wembley in the Mercantile Credit Football Festival, a competition held over two days in 1988 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Football League. It featured 16 teams playing matches lasting 40 minutes.
“It was a stupid competition,” said Cook, whose dad Chris took him to his first FA Cup final in 1974, when Liverpool beat Newcastle 3-0.
“The whole street went on a coach to that final. That’s what it was like supporting your team.
“I never missed a game. As a kid, I used to watch from the boys’ pen at Anfield, and when I got older I stood on the Kop.
“My hero? Easy. Kenny Dalglish. All day long.”
Cook was in Rome in 1984 when Liverpool beat Roma on penalties in the European Cup final, and was at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul 21 years later to watch his team crowned champions of Europe for a fifth time in the most dramatic of circumstances.
But he missed the 1989 FA Cup match at Hillsborough – which turned into a disaster that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans – because he got a late call into the Norwich City squad for the other semi-final that day, against Everton at Villa Park. Norwich lost 1-0.
Before becoming a manager, Cook’s passion for Liverpool extended to organising coach trips to away games for friends.
There is a story doing the rounds that soon after Cook was sacked by Southport, he was on board a supporters’ coach heading for Watford when the Southport coach – heading for Salisbury – pulled alongside.
“That may well be true,” said Cook, whose playing career included spells at Coventry, Wolves, Tranmere, Stockport, Burnley and Accrington Stanley. “But I don’t remember.
“Watching Liverpool has always been my life but once I started as a manager, I had to shy away from it.”
Selling Seamus Coleman & taking Ian Rush to Sligo
Cook says the thought of giving up as a manager never crossed his mind after his short, unhappy spell at Southport.
“Southport were going from part-time to full-time, and when I got the job we had one professional player. We held trials on a field to put together the rest of the squad,” he said.
Cook repaired his reputation during five years in Ireland with Sligo Rovers, inheriting a squad in 2007 that included defender Seamus Coleman.
“He made me feel that I was the best player in the league,” said Coleman, who was sold by Cook to Everton for £60,000 in 2009 and went on to captain the Republic of Ireland at Euro 2016.
When Sligo hit financial trouble in 2008, Cook used his contacts to arrange for a Liverpool legends team, which featured Ian Rush, to visit the Showgrounds for a fundraising game.
“The reason I took the Sligo job was because I knew if I was to ever have a managerial career in England, I needed to have some success,” added Cook.
He did. Not only did Cook bring Europa League football to the town, he also delivered back-to-back FAI Cups as well as the League of Ireland Cup.
Those successes helped him land the manager’s job at League Two Accrington Stanley in 2012 before leading Chesterfield (2013-14) and Portsmouth (2016-17) to automatic promotion to League One.
‘Dumbstruck at beating Man City’
Wigan were minutes away from being on the end of an FA Cup upset in front of their own fans in December.
The Latics trailed non-league AFC Fylde 2-1 in a second-round replay before Will Grigg scored two late goals.
They haven’t looked back since.
Wigan put three past Bournemouth without reply in a third-round replay before an equally impressive win over top-flight opposition – this time West Ham United.
But it was the against-the-odds win over runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City in the last round that really catapulted the Latics back into the public glare.
City had arrived at the DW Stadium with hopes of a clean sweep of trophies, but Grigg’s 79th-minute winner changed all that.
Almost four weeks on from that famous win, Cook said: “We’re still dumbstruck at knocking City out.
“Two months earlier we were losing in the 82nd minute at home to AFC Fylde. I’m thinking, ‘the fans won’t be happy but at least we can concentrate on the league’.
“All of a sudden we’re in the quarter-finals. You think to yourself, ‘how did this happen?'”
It did not take Cook – who was appointed last May – long to discover the magnitude of coming out on top against Pep Guardiola.
Waiting for a plane to Malaga at Liverpool airport the morning after, Cook was approached for selfies by Manchester United fans, who were also heading to Spain for their team’s Champions League game with Sevilla.
“They wanted photos with me because we’d beaten City. I was telling them: ‘I can’t have photos with you, I’m a Liverpool fan and we don’t like Manchester United.'”
The short trip to the Costa del Sol, a golf break with Wigan chairman David Sharpe, was planned before the game.
“We thought we’d get knocked out so we thought it would be nice to nip away for two days and then come back and focus on the league,” added Cook.
- Boyce relives Wigan’s ‘fairytale’ FA Cup win
- Watch all of the latest FA Cup highlights and reaction here
‘I’d take promotion over a semi-final’
Since winning the FA Cup as a Premier League club, Wigan have been relegated three times and promoted once.
They are second in League One, five points behind leaders Blackburn with three games in hand.
Forward Grigg, who has scored half of Wigan’s 14 FA Cup goals this season, and midfielders Michael Jacobs and Max Power arrived in 2015. All three are pushing for a second promotion in three seasons – having experienced relegation from the Championship last season.
“The core of our team is made up of good lads, good characters who have turned up 95% of the season,” said Cook, who says he would happily sacrifice an FA Cup semi-final spot if it meant an immediate return to the Championship.
“We desperately want to get promoted. But we’re going to try and get to Wembley as well.”