One of the lads in my class at school was called Brian. He claimed to be an Horwich RMI supporter. I thought I was remarkable enough at the time, being a Latics fan, in a town dominated by the cherry and white. There were few of us Latic fanatics at school and if we dared to utter words of blind optimism about our club, our classmates were quick to shoot us down. The message was – how can you support a measly little non-league football club? Don’t even dream of reaching the heights of our wonderful local rugby team or the football giants in neighbouring cities. However, I considered myself an optimist as far as Wigan Athletic were concerned. It was in my blood – and still is. I trust that those classmates are eating their words now.
To be honest, Brian was even more of an optimist than me. Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute was in fact a much older football club than Wigan Athletic, having been formed in 1896. Their only major success over those years was in winning the Lancashire Combination championship in 1957-58. Coming up on Saturday afternoon at Springfield Park was a Lancashire Junior Cup tie between our two teams. It was akin to David and Goliath. Brian saw it differently — an epic tussle between two of Lancashire’s outstanding non-league clubs. He reeled off the names of RMI’s starting eleven, declaring each player a “good-un”, although it was clear from the intonations of his voice that some were more good than others. He had faith – I thought foolishly so – that RMI would get a good result.
Brian was right that day, the match ended in a draw. My Dad was so furious he said he wouldn’t go and watch the replay in the coming week. Their ground was a freezing, a God-forsaken place on the top if a big hill where the wind ruled the roost, he said. Their pitch was going to be rutted and would make good football impossible.
Fortunately, he relented and we took the short bus ride, and walked up to RMI’s ground at Grundy Hill. Latics won 5-0, and Brian avoided me at school the next week, although I did quietly admire the genuine faith and optimism he seemed to have in his little club. Later, I became disillusioned to find out that he went to see Bolton more than Horwich. But then again – why would he announce himself a fan of Horwich RMI rather than First Division Bolton? Strange how it turned out that Bolton now play home games in Horwich, whereas the latest incarnation of RMI plays in Leigh.
So what would an optimist make of Wigan Athletic’s chances this season? That Bob and Dave are still here and therefore the club is continuing to move forward. The appointment of the admirable Matt Jackson to spearhead the much needed youth system upgrade is to be commended. Boselli is back and so far has averaged a goal a game in pre-season, having only played a half in each. He remains our potentially most clinical finisher, if not the silky skilled player that Di Santo has become. Both Fyvie and Ramis look like excellent signings. Roberto has also brought in two 19 year olds from elite Spanish clubs, each with good credentials. Assuming no major injuries or loss of form, a place in the top half of the table is a distinct possibility.
So what of Victor Moses? Why are Chelsea putting in such derisory bids for him? The odds are that he will go. He is far from the finished article, mainly with his decision-making in goal-scoring opportunities. He wasted a lot of chances last season. However, there is a need for a flair player like Moses, or N’Zogbia before him, to do the unpredictable and unsettle defences. Providing he can avoid injuries I expect Albert Crusat will make more of an impact this year. He is pacy, intelligent and David Silva has shown that slightly built players can flourish in the physical Premier League. It would be a mistake, however, to view Crusat as the replacement for Moses — they are different types of player – and Dicko and McManaman will also compete for that spot.
Latics’ superb end of season performances, however, were built from the back. The three central defenders — Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa – were outstanding, but one lived in fear of any injury to any of them. There was always the possibility of slotting Boyce into the centre but he was playing possibly the best football of his career at wing back. The signing of the experienced and highly capable Ivan Ramis is therefore welcomed. In fact, Figueroa might miss the first part of the season after being on Olympic duty for Honduras. Expect Ramis to slot in for him – if not it will be Lopez or Golobart.
In goal we have the outstanding Ali Al Habsi. The promising young goalkeeper, Lee Nicholls, is clearly one for the future, but needs to get more experience before stepping in for the Omani. The 40 year old stalwart, Mike Pollitt, will be the first choice backup ‘keeper. There is newspaper talk about a promising young Australian coming on trial.
Latics are well served for wing backs. Ronnie Stam was in excellent form last season before being left out for Emmerson Boyce, who did spectacularly well. Jean Beausejour was the piece in the jigsaw puzzle that made a big difference in the latter part of last season. Wing back is not a position most clubs use, but Beausejour played in that position for Chile under Marcelo Bielsa. Both he and Stam are specialist wing backs. Ramis’ arrival allows Figueroa to serve as emergency wing-back in the event of injury to Beausejour.
Despite losing Diame and Thomas the midfield looks strong. The classy Ben Watson will fight to get his place back from James MacArthur, although he will face competition from Fraser Fyvie. The excellent James McCarthy is potentially as good as most midfield players in the Premier League and is likely to be our sought after by the big clubs before the end of the season. It may be that Fyvie is seen as his long-term replacement. He is a complete player and the goals that have been missing over the past season are likely to return. All he lacks is a little self belief. David Jones remains a useful squad player able to play in a variety of positions. He has a great left foot and is an intelligent footballer. Hopefully he will steer clear of injuries this year.
Shaun Maloney was a revelation in the latter games of the season as the playmaker. He has that kind of quality that can make a difference. His experience in a Celtic team that dominated the SPL has given him the level of self-confidence that most of his teammates lack. His career has been blighted by injury and one doubts his ability to make it through a full season unscathed. Jordi Gomez, the butt of some fans, remains a good footballer, able to play that role. Jordi has learned that he has to work hard off the ball and now covers a lot of ground. He is not a natural tackler, but does a lot of harassing of opponents to complement his considerable skills on the ball. Both Maloney and Gomez are likely to score goals, be it from open play or the penalty spot.
There has been talk of Conor Sammon going out on loan, although he does not seem to know anything about it. Sammon needs regular first team football if he is going to develop further. He is not likely to get it with Di Santo and Boselli ahead of him in the pecking order for the centre forward position. Speaking of loans, Lee Nicholls is already fixed up for a spell at Northampton. One wonders how many more of last season’s loanees – Golobart, Kiernan, Mustoe and Redmond – will be sent off again for more first team experience.
Perhaps I am being a blind optimist like my friend Brian, but with Bob and Dave still at the helm this club is going to be steered towards a bright future. They are a great double act and deserve to succeed at the club. Whether Wigan Athletic have a good season in 2012-13 depends on the players. Shaun Maloney summed things up at the end of the season by suggesting that the great revival was brought about by hard work. We have a pretty good squad this year and with the full commitment of the players a mid-table position is a distinct possibility. Forget about the friendly loss to Real Mallorca. We are in for a good season. Believe and keep the faith!!