Almost gone but there’s hope

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

At the start of the season there were rumours in the media that Wigan Athletic were looking to sign Benik Afobe on loan from Arsenal. Little did we know at the time that it would be Afobe who would put what could be the final nail in the coffin that represents Latics’ season.

Afobe has scored 23 goals this season. Wigan’s leading goalscorer is James McClean with 6. Would Afobe have been able to score like that if he had joined Latics, rather than MK Dons, at the start of the season? Or has Wigan become a strikers’ graveyard, a place where past performance counts for nothing?

Gary Caldwell must have found it hard in his first three matches to resist moving towards the 3-4-3 that became the hallmark of his days under Roberto Martinez. Yesterday he employed something approaching it, with the players he had at his disposal. Given Wolves’ penchant for thrusting players forward it had looked like the right decision to play with three central defenders. It seemed to be working until Afobe scored that “soft” goal, which sapped away Wigan’s brittle confidence. Caldwell would have hoped that a back line of three, becoming five with the wing backs dropping back, would cut out possibilities for a headed goal of that type.

With Latics a goal down and not looking like pulling one back, Caldwell felt it necessary to move to a conventional back four, so that he could accommodate changes in midfield and up front. William Kvist was pulled off after 56 minutes, with James Perch coming out of the back three to a holding midfield position. The goal-shy MAF came on at centre forward with the enigmatic James McClean moving to the left wing. Twelve minutes later Caldwell took off Jerome Pennant for Billy Mckay. But unlike what happened in the previous match with Brighton, the changes did not work this time around. Indeed the departure of Kvist probably did not help, given his ability to drop deep to receive passes and build up from the back.

Latics are surely heading for League 1. The direction had been set in January with the selling off of so much of the family silver. The departure of thirteen players would have been unimaginable at the start of a season that promised so much. Uwe Rosler had made a fatal mistake by signing nine new players over summer, despite having a squad good enough to reach the FA Cup semi final and the Championship playoffs. The result was a fractured squad where new players found it difficult to settle in and the morale of the existing players sank. But just as Rosler had erred in bringing in so many players, Malky Mackay was to do the same. He brought in eleven over a period of three months.

The disruptive pattern caused by managerial changes continues to be problematic in English football. The classic case is typified by a new manager bringing in his assistants, coaches and backroom men from his previous clubs. He then wants to bring in his own players, those who are more likely to be loyal towards him than those recruited by his predecessor. The new manager will say that he wants to bring in players who can play the kind of football he believes in. The result is inevitably disruption and turnover.

However, clubs are slowly adjusting to this scenario. A new model is emerging where a Director of Football has the overview at the club. The ability of a manager to bring in hordes of new coaches, backroom staff and players is diminished under this model. The Director of Football and those above him at the club will take the lead at identifying the kind of football they want at the club. The manager they appoint would need to fit into that philosophy rather than imposing his own.

With the appointment of Matt Jackson as ‘Head of Football Operations’ Wigan Athletic have moved towards the alternative model. Moreover Gary Caldwell has been appointed largely because he is the right fit for the club, given the statements of young chairman, David Sharpe. Sharpe has already stated the need to bring in at least ten new players over summer. His action of creating a new department for the recruitment of players is another indication of a change in model.

Moreover both Sharpe and grandfather Dave Whelan have insisted that the coaching staff largely remain intact, despite the changes in manager. When Rosler was appointed many of us expected him to bring in his assistant manager and first team coach from Brentford. In the event he was allowed to bring in Chris Haslam as Head of Performance, but the long-serving Graham Barrow was to continue as first team coach. Barrow was to be moved into the assistant manager position following the acquisition of Eric Black as first team coach in July. The rumours were that Black was Whelan’s appointment, not Rosler’s.

Malky Mackay’s appointment saw the arrival of David Kerslake as first team coach, despite already having Black in place. Black remains although, in the absence of information from the club, we can assume that Kerslake departed with Mackay.

The role of the coaches over the course of a terrible season has been questioned by many fans. The managers, Rosler and Mackay, have carried the can for poor performances, but Barrow, Black and goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt remain in place.

Probably the biggest failure this season was the failure of the new players signed by Rosler to reach the performance levels they showed at their previous clubs. It was compounded by the lack of motivation of players who had played under Martinez and Rosler.

Seemingly bright young talents such as Adam Forshaw and James Tavernier were dispatched in January, with Emyr Huws and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair disappearing through injury. The mishandling of strikers Andy Delort and Oriol Riera was sad to see. Yesterday’s starting lineup saw just one of Rosler’s signing make the starting lineup, in William Kvist. Another two, Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor were on the bench.

The events of the first half of the season clearly had a negative effect on the players released in January. Tavernier’s loan spell at Bristol City has not seen him become a regular first choice, with 8 starts and 3 appearances off the bench. Likewise Forshaw’s stay at Middlesbrough has seen him used largely as a substitute, with only 5 starts. Delort scored two goals in his first three games on returning to Tours, but has not scored in his last seven, with the club just three points above the relegation zone. Riera has been more successful having made 13 starts at Deportivo La Coruna, with four goals. Rob Kiernan too has been a success in a loan spell, having started 11 matches at Birmingham to date.

One wonders if there is any possibility of those loan players returning. Delort, Kiernan and Tavernier are young and would surely improve if capably nurtured. Riera is an experienced central striker and goalscorer who was poorly treated by Rosler, then written off by Mackay.  If Caldwell is to adopt a 3-4-3 system next season he could clearly do much worse than put in Delort and Riera as two of his front men. Moreover Tavernier is naturally suited to the position of wing back and will score goals if given the chance. Kiernan had a difficult time this season, but he is still only 24 years old. At his best he is a cultured central defender who can pass the ball. He can also play in central midfield.

Whether the loan players will return is going to largely depend on the departure of the bigger wage earners. Latics will hope to get reasonable transfer fees for the likes of Scott Carson, James McClean and James Perch. Ali Al-Habsi will become a free agent, as will Marc-Antoine Fortune. Disaffected players like Leon Barnett and Chris McCann will most likely be encouraged to move on. The futures of the much maligned Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor might lie elsewhere.

Had Afobe joined Wigan Athletic at the start of the season, could he have scored the goals to help them stay afloat? The question is academic, but given the way that strikers with good credentials have failed to make it at the club, one doubts it.

The latest sad example is Billy Mckay, who must have been full of confidence after scoring a potful of goals in Scotland. Four months after signing from Inverness he still has not made a start for the club. A sad indictment on the recruiting/coaching functions at Wigan Athletic.

Mckay is merely the latest in the long line of strikers who have arrived with promise, but have not been sufficiently nurtured. The coaching staff must surely take some responsibility for what has happened.

Latics already have one foot in League 1. Even a draw for Rotherham in their midweek home game with Reading will be enough to finish them off.

But Gary Caldwell has been like a breath of fresh air since being appointed manager.

With the backing of the coaches he might well lead Latics back to the Promised Land.

A trip to Netherfield – Part 1

 

Geoff Davies attacks as ex-Latics player Alf Craig (left) looks on. Kenny Morris and Doug Coutts watch from defence and Bobby Todd from midfield.

Geoff Davies attacks as ex-Latics player Alf Craig (left of centre) looks on. Kenny Morris and Doug Coutts watch from defence and Bobby Todd from midfield.

On a bright sunny day, with a hint of autumn in the air, my father and I walked through the town centre towards the Gas Showrooms, opposite the market square. I had bought the coach tickets the day before, going to our usual source, Barnes Travel Agents in Market Street.

As we waited for the coach to arrive my father started to reel off one of his favourite old stories about traveling to watch Latics play. This time it was at Bacup, the ground being on top of a steep hill. The coach’s engine had stalled and the driver could not get it moving again, so the passengers had to push it up the hill. A story of his that must have been at least nine years old, when Latics would meet Bacup Borough in the Lancashire Combination.

The coach had no problems getting up hills in this journey. The advent of the M6 motorway had made traveling north much easier, although we had to come off a little before Kendal, the difficult stretch leading over Shap being close to completion, but not ready yet. We arrived an hour early and decided to go through the turnstiles and soak up some sun on the terraces. Just like at Springfield Park there was a supporters club building inside the ground where we could get drinks and a bite to eat.

As we walked in we saw a sight that I had never seen before at a football ground. There were three or four cows grazing on the pitch. It provided a classic rural scenario and made one wonder if this was the reason that the Netherfield pitch was one of the better ones in the league.

It was September 5th 1970, an exciting time for Wigan Athletic fans. The advent of the Northern Premier League had brought new hope for the club, which had been thus far been thwarted in its ambition to be elected to the Football League. Moreover Latics had appointed a dynamic young player-manager who had started to meld the talented squad assembled by his predecessor into probably the best side the club had ever had.

Playing away at Netherfield was never an easy prospect. The team from Kendal, set up by employees of the K Shoes company, were old adversaries from the days in the Combination. Like Wigan they had joined the fledgling Northern Premier League (NPL) as founder members in 1968. They had finished in midtable the previous season.

The arrival of Gordon Milne to Wigan Athletic in the summer of 1970 suggested that the club had serious ambitions. Milne had been one of Bill Shankly’s first signings for Liverpool, paying Preston a £16,000 transfer fee. He went on to make 236 appearances for the Reds in the next seven years, during which he was capped 14 times for England under Alf Ramsey. Milne had joined Latics from Blackpool at the age of 33. Although nearing the end of his playing career he was still a force in the midfield. Curiously his father, Jimmy Milne, had been manager of Latics in the 1946-47season.

The NPL offered hope to Wigan Athletic in their quest for a place in the Football League. The archaic system had remained in place by which the bottom clubs in Division 4 would apply for reelection, together with non-league aspirants. Critics would complain that the Football League was a closed shop and that the clubs would play the “old pals act” by voting for those bottom four clubs.

It was hard for a go-ahead non-league club to get into the Football League and only two had got elected in the past eighteen years, Peterborough in 1960 and Oxford United in 1962. An added complication was that the non-league vote was repeatedly split.

In 1968 Latics had been one of 15 non-leaguers making an application. They received two votes, one less than Cheltenham Town, but woefully short of the 38 votes that got the least favoured Football League club, Workington, reelected. Wigan Athletic did not make an application the following season.

In those days Latics could only dream that automatic promotion to the Football League might become a possibility for non-league clubs. However, the creation of a northern super league, composed of the top clubs from the various regional competitions, was a real step forward. Winning such a league would certainly give more kudos than the Cheshire County League, even if it had been  the best of the northern regional competitions. Moreover the prospect of only the winners of the NPL and the Southern League applying for election would make sense, if it could ever become a reality.

The NPL started in the summer of 1968. It comprised 7 clubs from the Cheshire County League, 5 from the Lancashire Combination, 4 from the Midland Counties League, 3 from the Northern Regional League and one from the West Midlands League. Interest in Wigan was high and Latics’ first game at Springfield Park against Ashington was to draw a crowd of 6,721 – the highest home league attendance for 13 years.

The legendary Ian McNeill had been recruited to manage Latics in that first NPL season. He had been managing Ross County, following a successful playing career with Leicester City and Chelsea. His contacts in Scotland were to prove valuable and in his two year stay he brought in the likes of David Breen, Benny Cairney ,Doug Coutts , Jim Fleming, Jimmy Lynn, Jim Savage and Billy Sutherland. The left full back Sutherland had been signed from Rangers to begin that first NPL season. He was to go on to make 228 appearances over a seven year period at the club.

But the most notable of all in McNeill’s squad that year was not a Scot, but an ex-youth player from Arsenal, who had played just three games in the Cheshire League the previous season, after being signed by Allan Saunders. Just 19 years old at the time, Ian Gillibrand soon established himself as a regular in the team. Although he lacked height for a central defender, Gillibrand had an impressive leap and his reading of the game made him look like the non-league version of Bobby Moore. He was to play a further ten seasons at the club, breaking the record for his number of appearances and, most famously leading Latics out to their first ever Football League match at Hereford.

McNeill was keen to win the NPL in its inaugural season, but so too were the previous season’s Cheshire League champions, Macclesfield Town, led by their inspirational player-manager Frank Beaumont. McNeill paid Runcorn £3000 for Alan Ryan, who had scored a remarkable 66 goals in the previous season. But despite having an excellent record of record of W18 D12 L8, Latics were to finish in second place, 12 points behind the Silkmen. Attendances had almost doubled from an average of 1,801 the previous season in the Cheshire League to 3,393.

The following season was an even better one for Latics, with a record of W20 D12 L6, but they were to once again to finish behind Macclesfield, this time on goal difference. Despite doing a great in those two initial NPL seasons McNeill was to leave the club following a disagreement with the chairman.

Ken Cowap replaced McNeill with Gordon Milne, who soon splashed out £4000 for the 32 year old ex-Everton winger Derek Temple from Preston. It was a sign that Latics were very serious about winning the title.

However, Milne’s key signing at the time was to prove to be the 23 year old centre forward Geoff Davies for a much more modest fee from Northwich Victoria.

Mauled by the crowd at the Den

 

It was my first visit to the district of South Bermondsey, the home of Millwall FC since 1993. I had expected to meet a partisan crowd keen to cheer their team to victory in a relegation dogfight. But following Latics’ draw at Fulham I was optimistic that they could do even better against a side with much less quality than the Cottagers. Gary Caldwell would have his team play neat and compact in the first half, frustrating the home crowd, stifling their passionate support.

In fact the home crowd was to voice its frustration on several occasions in the first 15 minutes as their team could not string their passes together. Millwall looked a poor side, ready for the taking. But Latics were playing cautiously with Marc-Antoine Fortune a solitary figure up front. Nevertheless their possession football was frustrating both the Millwall team and their supporters.

However, the home crowd was to rouse their team into knocking Latics off their game. For once we had bought tickets in the central stand near the half way line. I had hoped that not only would we get a good view of the game, but be surrounded by some of the more moderate home supporters.

My illusions were soon shattered. As Kim Bo Kyung ran with the ball the crowd around me chanted racist words at him, akin to the politically incorrect term that Dave Whelan had used when referring to  Asian restaurants he used to visit as a kid. One fan behind me shouted “stop him”, another took it a stage further with his rallying call of “flatten him”.

Millwall responded to the crowd’s promptings with a series of professional fouls, in an effort to knock Latics off their game. However, Latics stayed relatively calm, retaining possession. Neither side was to produce much goal threat in the first half. Scott Carson had saved Latics after Gaetan Bong ‘s error put them in trouble. The much maligned Fortune should have opened the scoring for Wigan after 27 minutes from a lovely Bong cross but his tame header made it easy for Forde to turn the ball over the bar. It clearly was not much fun for Fortune playing that role as the lone striker, but his lack of running off the ball and inability to stay on side hampered promising moves developing.

Going in at half time with the scores level was a solid base to build upon. Up to that point the referee had resisted much of the baying of the crowd. The atmosphere had almost resembled that of a bull fight rather than a football match. Spectators who had previously looked contemplative would suddenly stand up and shout expletives at the referee and the Latics players. One wondered how long the referee could resist their demands.

But if Latics could continue to frustrate Millwall and their hostile crowd and pose more of an attacking threat, it looked like they could go on and win the match. One wondered if Caldwell would put in Martyn Waghorn for Fortune immediately after the interval in an effort to win the game.

The crowd continued to be loud and vocal, aiming their abuse at the “northerners “, but James McClean in particular. Caldwell was to wait a further 8 minutes before making the obvious change to the applause of the away contingent. Sadly with the crowd baying for blood Waghorn was to stay on the pitch for only 9 minutes, being given a red card after supposedly retaliating following a scuffle. His departure seemed to have provided the death knell for Wigan’s chances, but they could have got on top soon after when a neat move saw Kim pass the ball to Bong who blasted the ball over the top from eight yards.

The referee continued to be swayed by the crowd, allowing the home team to continue their professional fouling. Millwall were to take the lead after 74 minutes when Abdou ran to head in a left wing cross from Harding. Six minutes later the referee made a ludicrous decision in sending off Jason Pearce after he had taken the ball in what looked like a hard, but fair, tackle. He evened things up by sending off Millwall’s Upson with Pearce.

Nine man Wigan continued to attack, but looked vulnerable with only two at the back. Substitute Gueye capitalized on the lack of defensive cover by running through and beating Carson with an angled shot in the last minute.

In the end the partisan home crowd had won the day. They had lifted their mediocre team to a crucial victory that gives them hope of avoiding relegation. However, three of their final four games remaining are away from home. Their home game is against Derby County.

Wigan had by no means played badly. The defenders had clearly been working on their distribution and it was a rare sight to see Carson resist so many chances to hoof the ball upfield. Instead he looked for a teammate nearby with a throw. Rarely can one remember a Wigan Athletic goalkeeper so reluctant to use the throw as a means of launching attacks. He looked almost peeved to have to the throw the ball in this match.

It was pleasing to see Tim Chow being brought on for the final 10 minutes. The young player should really have been in contention for a place back in August, after a fine close season. Caldwell has done what Rosler feared to do in blooding the St Helens-based player.

With just three games remaining, Caldwell will have the opportunity to blood more young players, who will become senior squad members next season as the club downsizes its wage bill.

Summer is likely to see another fire sale as Latics will almost certainly head down a division. The likes of ex-Premier League players such as Carson, McClean and Perch will be sold off to the highest bidder. None of the players currently on loan or short term contracts are likely to be offered renewals, given either their potential salary demands or their performances up to this point. Old favourites like Al-Habsi and Boyce will surely be on their way.

Once again it will be a time of change for Wigan Athletic.

Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 2 – good football is back for Latics

 

It was a lovely mild spring evening and the walk through Bishops Park by the Thames was as delightful as any approach to a football ground. But then again, despite its great location, Craven Cottage had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic.

It was Gary Caldwell’s first game as manager. What kind of tactical formation would he play? Would it be the 3-4-3 from his days under Roberto Martinez? Could he get the commitment from the players that has been lacking for so much of the season? Would he bring back players who had been left out in the cold under Malky Mackay? But more importantly could he steer his players away from the hoof that typified the era of his predecessor? Could they play football in the “Wigan Athletic way”?

It proved to be an entertaining 2-2 draw and Latics were well worth their point. A win was just beyond their reach and relegation has crept even closer. But the bright side was that, after just two days of training, Caldwell had got the team moving towards a brand of football reminiscent of the club’s best of times in the Premier League.

The starting lineup showed two changes from the last game with Scott Carson being preferred to Ali Al-Habsi and Jerome Pennant came in for Leon Clarke. Caldwell employed a flat back four, with William Kvist and James Perch in holding midfield and Kim Bo Kyung in the hole behind the lone centre forward, Marc-Antoine Fortune. James McClean was played wide on the left and Jerome Pennant on the right, although the latter tucked inside in the earlier proceedings.

Fulham’s goal after just 4 minutes was beautifully taken by the skillful Ross McCormack, as he curled the ball home from the edge of the box. However, once again the Wigan defence had not closed down a player in a shooting position, as has so often happened this season. Going a goal down so early on was a hammer blow and given their inability to get back into games after conceding the first goal in previous games one wondered if Latics might be doomed.

However, Caldwell’s new Latics began to dominate possession, largely resisting the hoof. Fulham were put on the back foot but there was little penetration in Wigan’s play. The forwards were simply not making the runs necessary to unlock a stubborn home defence with two giant central defenders who were ready to gobble up anything that went in the air. However, in the 22nd minute McClean was upended as he set off on a mazy run at speed. Pennant stepped up to score a delightful free kick, just like the first one he scored at Rotherham. Latics were clearly delighted and Pennant and Gaetan Bong ran to the other end of the field to celebrate in front of the visiting support.

Matt Smith’s beautifully taken long range goal after 35 minutes put the home team ahead again. Despite the excellence of the finish the Latics’ defence had once again backed off and allowed an opposition player a clear shot on goal.

Despite Wigan dominating the possession Fulham were a goal up as the teams went in for half time. One wondered if Caldwell would be able to find an answer to the lack of penetration of the Wigan attack.

Latics started the second half unchanged and the game continued in a similar vein although Fulham looked dangerous in flashes. The Wigan central defenders had looked uncomfortable playing the ball out of defence. Jason Pearce sometimes found a midfield player with a short pass, but largely passed the ball sideways or backwards. Harry Maguire’s passing was repeatedly off target as he went for long diagonal balls to the flanks. Carson’s distribution was also poor as he launched his customary long kicks that were too often ineffective against the height in Fulham’s defence. Meanwhile Latics continued to lack penetration up front.

However, Fortune was taken off after 56 minutes, the visiting supporters loudly cheering the arrival on the pitch of Martyn Waghorn. Latics then started to show more movement up front, players running off the ball to support those in possession. As a result their passing became more incisive and they deservedly got back in the game as Maguire headed on a Pennant corner for Pearce to slide home.

Chris McCann replaced the tiring Emmerson Boyce after 70 minutes with James Perch moving to a more familiar full back position. Josh Murphy replaced Pennant after 83 minutes as both teams attacked trying to get a winner. Both teams had chances in the closing minutes but the game was to finish in a draw that guarantees safety for Fulham but leaves Latics in deep relegation trouble.

Despite the inability of his team to win the three points, Caldwell was clearly happy with their performance. Good football has returned and there were signs in the second half that the forwards were able to make the kinds of incisive runs that will unlock defences.

 

 

Gary Caldwell – the right man for the job

 

In February 2007 the 33 year old Roberto Martinez gave up his playing career to take over from Kenny Jackett as manager of Swansea City. Despite his lack of experience Martinez’ appointment was viewed favourably by the majority of the fans. He had left Swansea for Chester the previous summer after falling out of favour with Jackett. Martinez had spent three years with the Swans as a player, captaining them to League Two promotion 2005, also lifting the LDV Vans Trophy and the FAW Premier Cup twice.

David Sharpe’s bold move in appointing the 32 year old Gary Caldwell as manager bears a strong parallel to those events at Swansea. Caldwell was an outstanding captain and the club’s Player of the Season in 2011-12 when Latics miraculously escaped relegation by winning seven of their last nine Premier League games, beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in the process. His play always epitomized one hundred percent effort, with a never say die attitude. Moreover Caldwell was the general on the field of play who cajoled his teammates into following the manager’s game plan.

Sadly Caldwell’s career at Latics was dogged by a serious hip problem. Despite signing a new contract as a player-coach this season Caldwell has not been able to play. According to an article in the Scotsman last month Caldwell admitted that he had been struggling for years with the hip problem and that even training had become painful. There is little doubt that Caldwell had been putting his body on the line on numerous occasions for Latics when not fully fit. At times he made calamitous errors, incurring the wrath of the fans, but few could doubt his commitment on the field of play and the way he marshalled his teammates into playing out of their skins against some of the world’s top footballers.

For so many months the club seemed to have no direction and leadership. But within a short amount of time Latics have a new chairman and a new manager, both young and hungry for success. Sharpe has wisely opted for a manager who believes in playing football the “Wigan way”. Moreover his expectation is that Caldwell will stay in the position long-term.

Caldwell’s first task will be to get a good result at Fulham on Friday. It will be interesting to see if he opts for the 3-4-3 formation that Roberto Martinez used to great effect. Moreover will some players be brought back who were out of favour with Mackay?

The doom and gloom at Wigan Athletic has suddenly been lifted. Even if relegation happens there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Who knows what a dynamic young duo of Sharpe and Caldwell might achieve?

The period of drifting is over. Wigan Athletic are now heading down a firm track.