Bolton match-winner Zach Clough was dubbed “special” by manager Neil Lennon as the teenage debutant turned in a virtuoso performance to end Wigan’s FA Cup run at the first hurdle.
The 19-year-old diminutive midfielder stole the show at the Macron Stadium to deny 2013 champions Latics a third straight lengthy FA Cup run by grabbing the winner in a 1-0 third-round victory.
Clough’s dinked finish rounded off a fine afternoon as Wanderers finally found a way past their stubborn former goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi in the Wigan net 14 minutes from time.
Clough pulled the strings throughout to ensure Bolton, who may be missing Lee Chung-yong for the entire month of January to the Asian Cup, rose to the task of playing without their premier midfield maestro.
“When you’re that small you have to be special and I think he is special,” Lennon said of Clough.
“I had a player at Celtic in James Forrest and Zach’s very similar to him. I think that’s the biggest compliment I can pay Zach. We just have to be mindful we don’t get carried away.
“But what I am pleased about is the academy, which has been a bit maligned over the past couple of years; we’ve got two players who are playing very well now in Josh Vela and Zach.
“We threw the gauntlet down to the players, can we play without ‘Chungy’ - who’s been such a huge influence on the team since we’ve come in? And the answer was there.
“It was probably the best performance I’ve had since I’ve been here in terms of football and chances created.”
The manner of Clough’s maiden outing begged the question where Wanderers had been hiding their midfield gem.
“You’ve got to be careful with young lads,” Lennon warned.
“I watched him at Middlesbrough in the Under-21 game and he was brilliant. He’s been in the squad ever since.
“We didn’t want to start (Emile) Heskey and (Eidur) Gudjohnsen because we knew they wouldn’t last the 90 minutes. Starting Heskey was important because Craig Davies isn’t ready yet.
“We thought we would give the kid an opportunity to play and the system suits the way he plays. He lit the stadium up and the goal was brilliant, a great first-time pass from (Liam) Trotter and a great finish. It had to be to beat Al-Habsi, he was in fantastic form.”
Mackay, who was now lost six of the opening eight matches he has taken charge of since following Uwe Rosler in the hotseat, was unable to continue the club’s proud recent tradition in this competition.
However, the Scot accentuated the positives in another slender defeat.
“I thought it was two teams going at it hard and I thought it was a pretty even game in all,” he argued.
“I’m disappointed for my players because to come over and come out after half-time and play the way we did showed great character.”
Wigan may be busy in the January transfer window too as Mackay confirmed out-of-favour striker Oriol Riera is discussing a loan move to Spanish club Deportivo, while the Latics have also rebuffed a bid for winger Shaun Maloney.
On the latter, whose deal runs out in the summer, Mackay added: “There’s been four of five enquiries on Shaun. There’s been one bid that’s been turned down. I’ll just play that by ear and it’ll be a club decision.”