Another woeful loss – freshening up required

freshenup

Depression reigns at Wigan. Dreams of getting back into the top flight are now a thing of the past. The harsh reality is that League 1 is getting scaringly close, following a woeful 1-0 home loss to Huddersfield Town.

Is Malky Mackay the right man to get Latics out of the relegation mire?

Mackay’s appointment caused more damage to Wigan Athletic’s reputation than anything else in their 83 year history. Moreover his record as a manager at Wigan, up to this point, beggars belief. Although it is still early days in Mackay’s tenure his win record up to this point is the worst of any Latics manager since they joined the Football League. At 10% his record falls below even such as Chris Hutchings,15%, and Kenny Swain, 24%. Thanks to Whittleblue for the win ratio stats he posted on the Vital Wigan Forum.

Mackay’s record before he arrived at Wigan led us to believe that he could turn the team around. Dave Whelan thought he was the man to lead Latics back to the Premier League. So what has gone wrong?

There are two diametrically opposed views that try to rationalise Wigan Athletic’s current predicament and put it into perspective. You could label them “Pro-Malky” and “Get Him Out”.

The “Pro-Malky” camp will say that Mackay has been lumbered with dead wood from the Rosler era. The bottom line of the argument is that the players just are not good enough and that is why Latics are in 23rd place in the Championship. The best thing that can happen is a total clear out, not just of players, but also of coaching staff. Malky can only succeed once he gets rid of the dead wood and brings in his own men.

The “Get Him Out” camp will say that he should never have been appointed, given the baggage he brought with him. How can a man who has been tarred (fairly or unfairly so) as a racist gain the respect of a multicultural dressing room? Given the prospect of an FA suspension hovering above him, do players see him as a temporary manager? But the camp’s strongest argument is a record of W1 D2 L7 since he arrived. What happened to the uplifting effect on results of a new manager?

The reality is that Latics are fast-tracking towards League 1. The pattern of negative displays and results has become ingrained. The players seem to have forgotten how to win. Mackay clearly sees an influx of new personnel as a means of changing the mentality in the squad.

In the meantime the fire sale continues. Having already lost Roger Espinoza, Shaun Maloney and Ben Watson, it seems only a matter of time until Callum McManaman leaves. Ivan Ramis would probably have been gone too if it were not for an ankle injury. Both Fraser Fyvie and Thomas Rogne seem to have disappeared off the radar.

Although most fans would acknowledge the need for freshening up the squad, there remains an underlying suspicion that Latics have already accepted relegation as a probability and are selling off their higher wage earners to prepare for League 1.

Sadly the club does not remain as attractive to prospective new players as it did a year ago, when the mood was buoyant and the FA Cup victory still resonating in people’s minds. What kind of player would want to go to a club lying second from bottom of the Championship and selling off its family silver?

Mackay clearly sees the centre of defence as an area of weakness. He has already brought in the combative Liam Ridgewell on a six week loan and rumours are that he is going to tie up a move for the “tough tackling” Jason Pearce from Leeds United.

In the meantime there is a strong lobby among fans for Mackay to be dismissed, while there is still time for another manager to come in and turn things round. However, in dismissing Mackay, Dave Whelan would lose even more face on top of that he has already lost. Moreover Whelan is serving the six week ban imposed on him by the FA.

Time is marching on and a bad situation among the playing staff has gone from bad to worse since the Scot’s arrival. The pro-Mackay followers will say that he needs more time, as he brings in new players to catalyse a new dynamic. His detractors are getting increasingly frustrated and some are hoping that FA action against the manager will come in strong and sooner rather than later.

Freshening up seems a necessity.

The question is whether it is just the playing squad or it is the manager and the coaching staff too that needs it.

 

No more living in the past

 

All good things must come to an end.

That is something that Wigan Athletic followers know all too well. It is only some twenty months since that euphoric experience at Wembley. But it seems like light years away now.

But life goes on. What happened to the players who were in that famous lineup and where are Wigan Athletic heading now?

That wonderful FA Cup final winning team is now all but gone, only 20 months after that wonderfully heady day at Wembley. It was always a matter of time, but circumstances have accelerated the process.

The news of Ben Watson’s impending departure to Watford was a shock for most of us. In our heart of hearts we knew that Shaun Maloney would soon be on his way and it is no surprise to see the club trying to cash in on Callum McManaman, but the Watson case was a bolt out of the blue.

There has been talk about building a Ben Watson statue outside the DW Stadium. One assumes it would show him hanging in mid-air as the ball leaves his head to go into Joe Hart’s net. But the statue would represent much more than a great header from the admirable Watson.  The header helped them deservedly win that cup and it was the pinnacle of Wigan Athletic’s success. In all likelihood it will never happen again.

The team that beat Manchester City at Wembley is etched into the memory of Latics fans. The names of each player roll off the tongue with ease. But how many will still be at the club at the end of this season?

Not many one would say. It did not take long for Roberto Martinez to take Antolin Alcaraz, Arouna Kone, James McCarthy and Joel Robles. Add to that the retirement of the charismatic Paul Scharner. However, at the start of last season the majority of the FA Cup winning side were still at the club, together with others who missed the final through injury.

At the end of last season we saw the departure of the free agents. Jordi Gomez went to Sunderland, and the underrated Jean Beausejour, who missed the Cup final through injury, went back to Chile. What was to prove the hammer blow for Uwe Rosler was to lose the admirable James McArthur to Crystal Palace.

Since Malky Mackay has arrived we have seen Emmerson Boyce descend to the bench. Roger Espinoza has gone back to the United States, where it looks like Shaun Maloney is also heading. The exciting, if frustrating, Callum McManaman is clearly on his way too, albeit with a cash fillip for Mackay.

That famous team has been dismantled. So too have many of the expectations associated with them. In fact expectations have fallen so low that avoiding relegation from the Championship would be largely viewed as positive.

Like it or lump it, the Mackay era is upon us. The Scot has not had an easy time, given the pressure on him from the FA and the media. His record at Wigan so far beggars belief, a woeful tally.

But Mackay is now going to have something that neither Owen Coyle not Uwe Rosler ever had. That is a lower expectation from fans and dealing with the egos of players who were FA Cup winners.

Latics are no longer going to live in the past.

The question is how long will it take for Mackay to turn it around?

Kvist is back – but for how long?

 

His last appearance for Latics had been as a substitute at Derby in late October. Despite that William Kvist made a successful return, playing the full 94 minutes against Blackburn Rovers yesterday.

Why had the Denmark captain been left out in the cold for so long? Can he become a regular component of Malky Mackay’s team?

Kvist is by no means an exciting player to watch. His preferred role is to sit in front of the back four, making tackles and interceptions, using the ball economically. However, given the fragility of the Wigan Athletic defence the shielding that Kvist can provide could be invaluable.

Kvist was signed at the end of the summer transfer window and has now made seven starts for Latics, with three appearances off the bench. Strangely enough until yesterday he had made as many starts for Denmark this season as he had for Latics.

The Dane arrived at Wigan with a reputation for long throw-ins. Uwe Rosler did not utilize that part of his game. However, given Malky Mackay’s focus on set plays we are likely to see him use Kvist in that way, providing he is included in the team. But will Kvist still be at Wigan two weeks from now?

There were rumours that Kvist (and Thomas Rogne) were looking to move in January. Despite the midfield functioning as badly as it has over the past weeks Mackay has stuck with long term injury returnees Chris McCann and Ben Watson. McCann has started in all ten games since Mackay arrived, being substituted only twice in the closing minutes. Although still not back to his form of last season the Irishman has done well to get back his match fitness. Watson too has been an ever-present under Mackay, although his appearance against Birmingham was off the bench. Following two long spells out following leg breaks, Watson has shown his resilience, although the standard of his play has been disappointing. Given such injuries one wonders how comfortable he is coping with the physicality of Championship teams’ midfields.

The departure of Roger Espinoza and the indifferent form of Watson surely precipitated Kvist’s return. However, the conspiracy theorists will say that his reappearance against Blackburn was an effort by Mackay to put him in the shop window, with an imminent departure a possibility. But Kvist has never let Latics down and surely deserves the opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place.

Yesterday also saw the return of the 21 year old Welshman, Emyr Huws. The ankle injury that was hampering his fight for a regular place in the starting lineup under Rosler was to put him out of action for weeks. When fully fit Huws will be a big asset. He is strong, energetic and tough in the tackle. The opposition know his skills are a threat, as indicated by the 29 fouls he has suffered, compared with the 16 he has committed.

Andy Delort continues to bide his time but at least was given more of a chance yesterday, coming on after 72 minutes, rather than the dying moments. Mackay clearly does not rate him, but Delort will want to prove him wrong. Delort’s main problem under Rosler was being played as a lone centre forward, which he is not. However, Mackay has been playing two upfront as of late and if he will give the young Frenchman a run in the team we will finally get to know whether he is capable of becoming a top striker in the Championship.

The futures of such as Kvist and Delort at Wigan are in the balance. It may well depend on which other players are offloaded. So far Espinoza, Oriol Riera and James Tavernier have been offloaded, with Liam Ridgewell coming in on a short term loan.

It looked like Shaun Maloney might go to Leicester, but the Foxes did not offer him the length of contract that he was seeking. The alternative is for him to wait until the end of the season and be in a strong negotiating position as a free agent, with Celtic and Chicago Fire both reportedly interested.

Mackay will be keen to get in funds to help him seek his own transfer preferences. If money does not come in for Maloney the departure of Callum McManaman could be hastened.

The family silver is to be sold and by the end of the season the squad could be stripped bare of quality players. If Latics stay up and Mackay is still here in August we will be seeing a different brand of football, but hopefully one with commitment from the players.

Skill alone does not suffice, particularly in the harsh world of the Championship division.

A leadership crisis at Latics

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

So said the guru of leadership studies, Professor Warren Bennis.

A couple of years ago my wife and I went on holiday to Vietnam. Walking the streets in the humid and sultry heat of Saigon around midday I was taken by surprise. There were four young Vietnamese men across the road, three of them dressed in the kind of clothing that you can find anywhere in the world. But it was what the fourth man was wearing that caught my eye. Blue jeans and a Wigan Athletic shirt.

It was leadership that guided Wigan Athletic from being a lesser known name in the lower reaches of League 2 to become known in far flung countries like Vietnam. Dave Whelan’s vision of building a purpose built new stadium and a place in the Premier League, attracting a global audience, became a reality. His leadership helped his vision become reality.

Without Whelan’s ambition and funding Latics could still be languishing in the lower reaches of English football. He had put a lot of money into getting promotion into the Premier League and had to keep doing so to maintain the club in that division.

Latics were in the red in each of their first six seasons in the Premier League. However, with revenue from transfer fees and sound fiscal management Jonathan Jackson reported total net profits of £4.3 million in 2011-12 and £822,000 in 2012-13. Last season, back in the Championship, but also in the Europa League and with a large parachute payment, Latics were again in the black, this time to the tune of £2.6m. Whelan set the goal of the club living within its means and Jackson has shown the leadership necessary to reach that target.

Being a leader can be tough, as Paul Jewell found in his early days as Latics manager. Jewell took over an underperforming squad with players on long term contracts. Latics had had three managers the previous season and the players probably did not expect Jewell to be there for long. However, despite results being poor in his first year, Jewell started to put his vision into place. It took him time to weed out what he considered the negative elements among the playing staff, but little by little he started to bring in players hungry for success. Aided by Whelan’s financial support, Jewell was able to attract quality players to the club and build up a momentum that was to propel them into the Premier League, with a League Cup final appearance in that first season.

Sometimes a leader knows it is time to move on. Jewell did just that in May 2007 after Latics had maintained their status as a Premier League club through a nerve-racking 2-1 win at Sheffield United in the last game of the season. He had had a wonderful six year reign at Wigan, but it was time for him to hand over the reins to someone else.

Roberto Martinez was brought to the club as a player in 1995 when Whelan was in the early days of seeing his vision fulfilled. Fourteen years later Whelan brought him back as manager to keep Latics in the Premier League on a budget much reduced than that of his predecessor, Steve Bruce.

Martinez had a very clear vision of how football should be played. It was radically different than anything seen before at the DW. His teams would resist the hoof, playing the ball out of defence. At times it got them into trouble, but one sensed that Martinez would take the blame if it went awry. In reality Martinez struggled to bring in the quality players who could translate his vision into reality.

But after two and a half years of frustration it all began to click when Latics went on that marvellous end of season run in 2012-13. A cruel injury situation savaged his hopes the following season, dragging Latics into relegation. However, somehow a patched up Latics team beat Manchester City to win the FA Cup. They won on merit, playing that particular brand of football espoused by the manager.

Martinez too knew when it was time to move on. He had previously resisted possibilities to join big clubs, but the time was right for him. After winning the FA Cup how much further could he go at Wigan? Martinez was a leader with a clear vision and he had a belief that his players could reach the levels he was seeking.

Even with inspiring leadership from above it is up to the players on the pitch. In reality leadership roles and responsibilities are shared amongst the players, but the role of the captain remains central to the team’s performance. A good captain inspires confidence in his teammates and strives to make the game plan work. He needs to communicate effectively with the referee and cajole his players into doing the right thing. The captain is a leader, communicator, who provides a vital link between the players and the manager.

Gary Caldwell was an inspirational captain under Martinez. Caldwell certainly had his ups and downs as a player. He is the type who would put his body in the firing line. It meant he would make some amazing blocks of goalbound shots, but then the flipside would be when the ball deflected off him and put his goalkeeper and fellow defenders off guard. Caldwell had his critics as a player, but few would doubt his sheer commitment to the cause.

It was outstanding leadership that got Latics up there and enabled success beyond most of our dreams. Sadly that leadership is not evident now as Latics head towards League 1. What went wrong?

Whelan is now 78 and after 20 years of guiding the club he is surely read to step back. He made a mistake with the Malky Mackay appointment and his inappropriate comments were gobbled up by the national media. It has sadly tarnished the image of a man who has done more for Wigan Athletic than anyone before. His treatment by the FA was carefully thought out, a six week suspension and a fine that is not a lot of money for a man of his affluence. However, psychologically it is a kick in the teeth and it must hurt.

Whelan’s grandson, David Sharpe, has recently been appointed to the board of directors. Sharpe will surely be groomed to take over from his grandfather, but the question is “when”? What is going to happen over the coming months? The uncertainty is surely sending shockwaves within the club.

Mackay’s appointment has been a disaster. One wonders how the players have reacted since his arrival. A boss labelled, rightly or wrongly, a “racist” by the national media, with the shadow of a possible FA suspension hovering above him. Mackay has already shot himself in the foot by his remarks about wanting “hungry British players”, a signal to the overseas players that it is time to go. Roger Espinoza and Oriol Riera have already gone, William Kvist and Thomas Rogne are frozen out and Andy Delort cannot even get a place on the bench.

Mackay has proved inept up to this point, but given the uncertainty pervading the club it could be that he will be in his post for some time. The hope is that he can turn around the dressing room atmosphere through comings and goings in the January transfer window. If he can’t Latics are surely heading for League 1.

The lack of response from the players on the pitch has been the defining feature of Latics’ season so far. A series of unfortunate events led to a poor start and confidence levels are clearly low. But it has appeared that the players just have not cared enough. Uwe Rosler was dismissed as a result of their lack of support and they are responding no better, if not worse, under Mackay.

The players clearly have a lot to answer for, but they too are surely affected by the uncertainty at the club. They have a manager who is far from secure in his position and there is little indication of the direction in which the club is heading.

On the pitch the lack of leadership has been sadly apparent. There have been a host of captains this season, but none has been able to galvanise his teammates into consistent commitment and effort.

The leadership crisis at Wigan Athletic is a real concern. In our heart of hearts, most of us hope that Whelan will bounce back, if only for a short burst.

If he doesn’t step up to the plate, Latics could go into free fall, undoing all of his achievements of the past two decades.

 

 

 

 

Playing ugly to stay up

Liam Ridgewell - Mackay's first signing.

Liam Ridgewell – Mackay’s first signing.

“He is the man to lead us back into the Premier League, I am convinced of that having met him and discussed the demands of the job ahead of him.”

So said Dave Whelan on November 19th when he announced the appointment of Malky Mackay.

Some seven weeks later the chairman’s judgement is looking decidedly suspect. Rather than leading Latics onward and upward the Scot has led them in the opposite direction up to this point in time.

Mackay’s record so far reads W1 D1 L6. Latics are in 23rd place in the Championship and the threat of relegation is growing increasingly real.

However, who is to say that Whelan will not eventually be proved right? Should Latics avoid relegation who knows what will happen next season?

Should Mackay succeed in doing the improbable – taking Latics back to the Premier league – what kind of football can we expect?

Mackay will base his team on solid defence, with goals from set pieces the order of the day. There will be a strong team spirit and they will not be afraid to get a result by playing ugly. The squad will consist largely of players from the British Isles.

Mackay has talked about the margins. In fact, the five league games lost under his charge have all been by a single goal margin. He clearly believes he is close to making the breakthrough.

The Scot inherited a squad at a low ebb in terms of self confidence. He will bring in fresh faces to provide uplift, even if those new players are potentially no better than those he has already had at his disposal.

He has stated his desire to recruit hungry British players. His first signing is Liam Ridgewell, a combative defender with a wealth of Premier League experience. Ridgewell knows what it is like to play ugly from his time at Birmingham where he played in a ruthless defence with Roger Johnson and Scott Dann. However, that defence provided the foundation for them to win the League Cup.

Whether Ridgewell is “hungry” is up to debate. He will only be at Wigan for six weeks but Mackay will hope his presence will bolster a defence that has let in too many “soft” goals.

Reports suggest that Latics have made a £150,000 bid for Dundee United winger Gary Mackay-Steven and that the bid has been rejected by the “Arabs”. The 24 year old is a fine prospect and can play on either wing.

However, there are other clubs interested and Latics will have to up their bid considerably if they are to compete.

Mackay is also reported to be interested in two English centre forwards who have played for a total of 18 different clubs.

Danny Graham is 29 years of age, currently at Sunderland. He has a career record of 102 goals in 346 league appearances, although he has enjoyed most of his success as a goalscorer playing as a twin striker. Graham played well at Watford under Mackay where he scored 38 goals in 91 league appearances. Heioar Helguson and Marvin Sordell were his main striking partners there. If Mackay can secure Graham’s services it will be on loan until the end of the season.

Ishmael Miller is now 27 years old and has had his ups and downs. The 6 ft 3 in Mancunian is now at his seventh club in Blackpool. He has a career record of 33 goals in 173 league games.

Mackay will hope that the comings and goings in the January transfer window will help provide a different dynamic in his squad. Put simply, the players need to shed that losing mentality.

By the end of February we can expect to see the kind of football that Mackay seeks. By then he will have had time to sufficiently bolster team spirit and get the kinds of results that the fans expect.

The style of football is not going to be sexy, but the priority is to get out of that relegation zone and build up a squad good enough to challenge for promotion next year. At this stage things look bleak, but Mackay still has the time to do what is necessary to get Latics back on track.