As a kid I often used to walk to school with my mother via her place of work in Wigan’s town centre. Typically, as we walked along we would chat and this would result in heads turning. My mother was a southerner and her accent stood out like a sore thumb. “Wur ya from luv?” was not an uncommon question for her to respond to. After being evacuated from the London blitz she had married a Wiganer who would not entertain living anywhere else but his hometown. It was a culture shock for her. She would recount stories of not understanding a word people said to her and how Wiganers could be so uncomfortably direct in conversation. Wigan was a pretty depressed town in those days, heavily polluted and with one of the lowest average household incomes in the country. Times have changed for the better. After the initial shock, my mother grew to love the town and its people, many of whom did not have easy lives. She understood that Wiganers were proud people with warm hearts.
My first experience of culture shock was arriving in Scotland, where I was to go to college. It was difficult enough to understand what people were saying to you, let alone walk around poorly-lit city streets where the English weren’t the most popular. I missed my trips to Springfield Park with my Dad, who would nevertheless do his best to keep me up to date on Latics progress at the time. I would call him up after he had been to watch a match for him to give me his commentary. It was usually fairly brief, laced with his habitual comment that the referee was the worst he had ever seen in his life. Did referees ever like Wigan Athletic one wonders?
Ian McNeill was not only one of my favourite Wigan Athletic managers, but also a Scot. He had been manager of Ross County and clearly retained good connections with his home country. When he first arrived – launching Wigan Athletic into the newly formed Northern Premier League in 1968 — he brought a posse of his countrymen. “Why do we need these Scotsmen? What’s wrong with our local lads” was a common refrain from some fans at the time. I enjoyed Scottish football, regularly watching the two Dundee teams in my time north of the border, and welcomed the acquisition of the Scots. There were the skilful wingers – Davy Breen and Jim Savage – plus the stylish Benny Cairney as a striker. There was also the lanky centre half, Doug Coutts, and that wonderful left back, Billy Sutherland: he of strong tackles and thunderous shots. But my favourite was Jim Fleming, a really skllful and intelligent forward who probably created as many goals as he scored. I often wondered why he would leave Hearts to take up a role as a part-time footballer at an English non-league club, together with a low key job at the Heinz factory. In those days the Scottish League produced more “ball players” than in England, with the ball less in the air and more at the feet. The” Nine in a row” Celtic team that produced the 5 foot 2 inch magician known as Jimmy Johnstone were the prime example.
Culture shock and Scotsmen remain very relevant to Wigan Athletic in modern day. The team that lined up at Swansea last week included four Scots (counting James McCarthy for the sake of argument), two South Americans, one Central American, one Spaniard, one African, one Omani (Oman is actually in Africa, but belongs to the Asian Confederation) and one English-raised player who represents Barbados. In McNeill’s early days the Scots were the minority in the team which was made up mainly of English players. Nowadays the Scots are the mainstay of the current multicultural mish-mash that represents Wigan Athletic. Like Ian McNeill, Roberto Martinez and Graeme Jones retain links with Scotland where they both played.
Not one of the current Wigan Athletic squad has played for any continuous period of time for a top Premier League club, before arriving at the club. Some might say the that Latics squad lack that genuine belief that players acquire after playing at such levels. The current bookmakers odds favour Queens Park Rangers to stay up despite their poor start, factoring in the presence of previously proven top level players in their ranks: Wright-Phillips, Zamora, Park to name but a few. Wigan do have Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney, winners of multiple championships in Scotland when with Celtic, but does that give them the kind of belief necessary for the Premier League?
Roberto Martinez’s task is always difficult. Because of the club’s salary cap he has to bring in players from outside England – Scotland, Latin America and Spain mainly. Even the Scots have a culture shock when arriving: probably not so much to the local culture, but more to that of the Premier League with its relentless physical and mental challenges. Gary Caldwell had spent some time at Newcastle before joining Celtic and he stepped right into the first team after his arrival. However, the other three – James McCarthy, James McArthur and Shaun Maloney were given a period of months before being thrust into regular first team action.
The double culture shock for players arriving from overseas can be daunting. Some like Di Santo and Beausejour had already been through that with their previous English clubs, Chelsea and Birmingham. Others came from Europe, where the culture is more similar than other far-flung parts of the world. But imagine Maynor Figueroa coming from Honduras, a developing nation in Central America. He was sensibly given time to settle in, having been signed in January 2008, but making an excellent debut as a starter– against Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo — in April of that year. Poor old Mauro Boselli, who had never played for a club outside Argentina, was thrust in immediately in August 2010. The end result was that he failed to make that cultural adjustment that was needed. Fortunately Boselli is back at Wigan, some two years later, biding his time to get into the starting lineup and scoring goals galore in cup and reserve fixtures in the mean time.
It looks like Scottish summer signing Fraser Fyvie is going to be given a significant settling in period before being considered for the first team. This despite the fact that he was a regular in the Aberdeen lineup from a tender age. Looking at other players who have been through the same process it appears the right thing to do. Sometimes the needs of the club force the manager into playing new recruits from the get go. It is not ideal, but some players rise to that challenge. Others unfortunately can’t make the adjustment so easily. The double culture shock is significant and should not be underrated.