Dreaming big

 

Ally MacLeod

Ally MacLeod

“You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world.”

It was Ally MacLeod’s most famous quote. The date was that of the World Cup Final in Buenos Aires.

MacLeod was nothing if not optimistic. After successful stints at Ayr United and Aberdeen he was appointed Scotland manager in May 1977. He introduced himself to the squad by saying “My name is Ally MacLeod and I am a winner.” Within a few months he had beaten England at Wembley and he was to lead Scotland to qualification to the Argentina World Cup.

The more rational of Scotland supporters had their doubts whether MacLeod’s team could win the World Cup. But MacLeod had a kind of buoyant enthusiasm that lifted people along with him. He really believed his team could bring back the trophy. True it was the most gifted Scotland squad in living memory, which included the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Joe Jordan, Graeme Souness and Archie Gemmill.

Spirits were high before Scotland left for Argentina. Comedian Andy Cameron’s rendition of “Ally’s Tartan Army” reached number 6 in the UK singles chart and 25,000 people turned up at Hampden Park to see the squad parade around in an open-top  bus. Prestwick airport was packed with well-wishers as they went to catch their plane. When asked what MacLeod would do after the World Cup, his answer was “Retain it”.

Sadly MacLeod’s motivational powers were to prove not enough to help Scotland succeed. They lost their first match 3-1 to Peru, then drew 1-1 with Iran. Needing a victory by three clear goals against Holland they ahead 3-1 before the Dutch pulled a goal back. It finished 3-2 and Scotland were knocked out in the group stages on goal difference. Needless to say, MacLeod’s popularity rating immediately plummeted. He lasted one more game in charge before he resigned.

Despite the final outcome MacLeod certainly lifted the spirits of the Scottish public and is remembered with affection by many.

“When I get the key players in I believe we’ll have a side you will be proud of that will be champions in May.”

Gary Caldwell exudes positivity and a determination to succeed. He wisely qualified his ambitious statement at the recent Fan Forum with the proviso of “when I get the key players in”.

David Sharpe certainly set the parameters by saying things like:

“I don’t just want to win this league. I want to smash it and get 100 points.”

“I guarantee we will have a goalscorer who scores us 20 goals next season,”

Some fans are already saying that the young chairman is setting himself up to have egg on his face. But then again weren’t similar comments made about his grandfather when he said that Latics would be a Premier League club within ten years? Sharpe certainly cannot be accused of lacking ambition for the club, even if he can tend to stick his neck out too far at times.

Having a young rookie chairman and a young rookie manager can be viewed as both a recipe for disaster and as a new broom coming in to herald a new era.

Given two relegations in two years a more experienced chairman/manager partnership would be more likely to look for consolidation in that first season in League 1. A mid-table finish would halt the slide, with building a promotion side being viewed as something to be achieved over two seasons. Rather than talk about “Smashing League 1” it would be more like “There are good teams in League 1 and we aim to be amongst them.”

However brash Caldwell and Sharpe might have been so far in their public statements to there can be no doubting the uplifting effect they have had on the club’s support.

Wigan Athletic fans have had the most miserable past twelve months, during which there have been three managers and performances on the pitch that have beggared belief. The club seemed to be drifting, without clear direction. Perhaps the most shocking of all was in January when the club started to plan “just in case” relegation happened. The net result was thirteen players leaving and the resultant squad lacking in quality.

David Sharpe took over as chairman in March, but the hapless Malky Mackay continued as manager despite an horrendous record of results. While Mackay was manager relegation was getting closer and closer. When Sharpe finally removed Mackay there were only five matches left and Caldwell could not work miracles with a weak squad.

However, it was clear from Caldwell’s very first match in change that good football was returning to Wigan, if not the results, in what remained of the season.

Caldwell will play possession football, but looking at his signings so far, one can see a combative edge will be present. The players signed up to this point have been bargain basement. However, there is already a sense that Caldwell’s vision will come to fruition. Latics have a considerable advantage over their competitors in the division through the parachute payments, highlighted by Sharpe’s assertion that their budget will be will be “five times higher than anyone else’s”. They are therefore able to offer salaries well above par for the division, attracting end of contract players looking for a better deal.

The news that Latics have made a bid of £1m for Nadir Ciftci of Dundee United is no surprise in its magnitude. Sharpe had already stated that “I was brought up on Ellington and Roberts scoring every week. To have that you have to pay good money and I’m prepared to do that”.

Latics will face competition from Celtic in securing Ciftci. The fact that they are in League 1 and Celtic are champions of the Scottish League is going to make it difficult to persuade the young Turkish player to come to Wigan. Can Latics offer a salary well beyond that of Celtic to induce the player to come? One doubts that.

Transfer money will largely be spent on strikers, although there is a clear need for a creative midfielder who can provide the strike force with the right ammunition. Nicky Law of Rangers has been mentioned and he is a possibility.

When Paul Jewell was at Latics he made the famous comment to the effect of “I can’t get anyone to come here”. Latics were the new kids on the block at the time and nobody knew how long they would be able to stay in the top echelons. Players were cautious about joining the club in those days. But times have changed. Together with Sheffield United, Latics are the “big clubs “of League 1. They can more than compete with the other clubs in the division for players. However, competing against clubs like Celtic and those in the Championship is going to be difficult, a “big sell “for Caldwell and his recruitment team.

Both Sharpe and Caldwell are to be commended for their optimism and lifting the spirits of the fans. They have set themselves high targets. But there is a lesson to be learned from the past.

Owen Coyle was appointed in the summer of 2013 with the brief of getting Latics back into the Premier League in a year. It proved too big a challenge. Working under the pressure of such an expectation would not have been easy for either him or his players. Sharpe and Caldwell and the new Latics squad will face a similar risk.

Only time will tell if the young duo can deliver what they promise. Like the Scotland supporters in 1978, the Wigan Athletic fans’ spirits have been lifted. We can only hope that Sharpe and Caldwell will have more luck than MacLeod had in Argentina.

Ally MacLeod sadly passed away in 2004, but there are still Scots who remember him with affection as the man who really believed in his country and the ability of its footballers.

It takes courage to stick your neck out and you might well fail. But then again you can lift others through your belief and you can succeed.

Sharpe and Caldwell are certainly not afraid to stick their necks out. Let’s hope things go better for them than MacLeod.

 

Rebuilding on free transfers

 

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

On this same day two years ago, Wigan Athletic were suffering from the pain of relegation from the Premier League. Six players from the senior squad had already found other clubs after being freed from their contracts. Speculation was mounting about the futures of others whose contracts had run down and when the big clubs would come in and snatch prized assets still remaining.

Owen Coyle had been appointed manager just ten days before with the brief of getting Latics back into the Premier League. Given the prospect of more players leaving, plus the necessity for a large squad because of Europa league involvement, Coyle clearly had a lot of recruiting to do. However, he was to resist going for big money transfers, instead relying on picking up players at the ends of their contracts or those available at discount prices.

On June 27th he made his first signing, Chris McCann from Burnley. The next day he picked up Stephen Crainey from Blackpool, then three days later Thomas Rogne from Celtic. All were on free transfers. During the month of July he was to pick up two more free transfers in Marc-Antoine Fortune and Juan Carlos Garcia, paying transfer fees for Scott Carson, Grant Holt and James Perch. With the new season approaching he paid transfer fees for Leon Barnett and James McClean. However, the total transfer fees paid by Coyle were modest compared with the incoming funds from the sales of James McCarthy and Arouna Kone.

By the start of the season Coyle had signed ten players, five on free transfers and five more for relatively modest transfer fees. In early September he was to sign Nick Powell and Ryan Shotton on loan.

Gary Caldwell too is currently facing a challenge putting together a squad that can challenge for promotion, albeit from League 1. Following a similar timeline to that of Coyle in his early days, he has  signed three players, all on free transfers. He has also been linked to signing players whose contracts have terminated, but whose clubs will be due some compensation as a consequence of their youth. John McGinn (20) of St Mirren and Max Power (21) of Tranmere Rovers , despite their youth, are experienced midfield players. They could prove to be valuable long term acquisitions, should Caldwell manage to acquire their services.

Caldwell has already managed to bring in probably around £2m in transfer fees through the outgoings of Scott Carson, Rob Kiernan and James McClean. He will gain more in his coffers as soon as James Perch is sold off. Reports suggest that he made bids for Sam Clucas of Chesterfield, but the competition from other clubs has driven the player’s value up beyond that Latics should pay. For the moment he will concentrate on finding clubs for the highest wage earners, meanwhile scouring the market for young, up-and-coming talent.  The likelihood is that he will be stuck with a significant number of players that he would have liked to move on, simply because no other club is willing to offer them the kinds of deals they seek.

Coyle has been criticized for his signings, particularly those of Holt and Fortune, who were both 32 at the time. Although he did not pay a huge transfer fee for Holt, offering him a three year contact became an issue. On the other hand, it was remarkable that given the limited time he had available, he put together a squad good enough to challenge for promotion.

Coyle’s problem was always going to be one of melding together two disparate groups, the ex-Martinez players from the Premier League, together with his mish-mash of ex-top  flight players and proven players from lower divisions.  But more than anything else with Coyle it was the lack of a defined style of play that crippled his teams. Too often the long ball would prevail, anathema to the Martinez disciples. It was to prove his undoing.

Caldwell has already clearly enunciated the style of play he expects. Players may be coming in from other clubs where the long ball has been the norm, but they will be required to play in the style the manager requires. Clubs have already shown that they can get out of League 1 playing good football, even if the majority rely on more traditional methods.

Up to this point one could say that Latics’ signings so far have been somewhat underwhelming, but these are early days. Like Coyle, Caldwell will pay fees for potentially key players, providing he can stay within his budget.

Not only does Caldwell face a challenge in signing a sufficient number of the “right kinds” of players, but he faces a bigger challenge in helping them gel into a functional unit. The training camps over the next month or so are likely to see a changing spectrum of different faces as players come and go. With so many players to move on, and so many to bring in, it is unlikely that the camps will be able to provide the “gelling” that they are primarily aimed to produce. Caldwell will have to deal with players who want to move on, but cannot, and their effect on morale. Not an easy prospect.

Given the sheer number of players that Caldwell is going to need to bring in and his budgetary constraints it is likely that more free transfer men will be brought in. However, one recalls the fine form of Chris McCann until he fractured his kneecap in the FA Cup win at the Etihad. Good players sometimes let their contracts run down in the hope of finding something more lucrative, as did Antolin Alcaraz, Franco Di Santo and Maynor Figueroa a couple of years ago.

It appears that Max Power is now on the verge of signing and Oriol Riera is staying with Deportivo. Press reports from Spain about the Riera transfer saga have been plentiful, but the figure for the fee has varied according to the source. The bottom line is that Latics will take a significant loss in terms of transfer fee originally paid and that to be gained in the coming days. Significantly Andy Delort did not show up for training, suggesting he is heading for new pastures, once again at a major financial deficit.

As July approaches the transfer activity is going to hot up. The sooner he can get all his squad in place, the better it will be for Caldwell. Players coming from other clubs will have to adapt to the style of football the Scot will dictate and the process will take time, as will the process of gelling as a team.

The advantage is that this time around the players will know what is expected of them, as they fit into a well-defined style of play.

One can only reflect on where Latics would be now if that had happened just a couple of years earlier.

Keeping your key asset

Emyr Huws

Emyr Huws

With less than a week to go to the first training session of the new season the summer sell off at Wigan Athletic is starting to gather momentum. Scott Carson has already gone to Derby and it looks like James McClean is off to West Bromwich and Rob Kiernan to Rangers. The latest rumour is that James Perch will be joining McClean and Callum McManaman at West Bromwich.

The demand for ex-Premier League players like Carson, McClean and Perch was always going to be there. They were to be the three most likely to attract transfer income  for the club, as meanwhile it will ease its wage bill by some £20,000 per week or more for each of them. Keeping the three of them would have entailed using up around £3 m of an anticipated wage bill of £8- £10 m.

Behind them in the domestic transfer pecking order come Leon Barnett (29 years old), Don Cowie (32), Chris McCann (27) and Andrew Taylor (28) who have played in the Premier League, but are also experienced Championship division campaigners. Although their potential transfer values may not be high, the club will try to move on most of them, given their Championship-level salaries. Transfer fees will be waived as necessary.

The pairing of Andy Delort and Oriol Riera cost a total of around £5m in transfer fees last year. Sadly Delort was not able to regain his old goalscoring form after rejoining Tours on loan in January. He hit the back of the net only twice in fourteen starts. Reports from the French press suggest that there are Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs interested in him, but it is doubtful whether they would be willing to pay the kind of transfer fee that Latics paid last September. Reports from Spain suggest that Deportivo La Coruna would like to keep Riera, but are unwilling to match the kind of transfer figure that Latics would like.

Latics face a dilemma with the two players. Sell them off for maybe a combined transfer input of  £1m, signifying a £4m loss, or bring them back and have to use up 20% or more of the total wage bill for a squad of around 24 players, on their salaries alone. The option remains of a further loan period for each, relieving wage bill costs, but leaving the door open for the future.

However, media reports suggest that Latics are actively seeking strikers from other English clubs. It therefore looks like they will take the first option and sell the two players off at a significant loss.

All of the players mentioned so far are those for whom salaries are an issue for a club facing a change from a £30m wage bill to one of around a third of that within a year. However, there are also the cases of the younger players such as James Tavernier (23), Martyn Waghorn (25), Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (23), whose salaries will also have to be taken into account, together with the Malky Mackay signings Billy Mckay (26) and Jason Pearce (27), whom one assumes will be staying.

David Sharpe talked some time ago about needing up to fifteen new players. The implication is that the majority of the players signed prior to 2015 will be encouraged to move on.

However, if players are to move on they need a club not only interested in their services, but willing to get close to matching the salaries they have been receiving. In Grant Holt’s case the options seem slim. Ostracised by Uwe Rosler, Holt faded out of the Latics’ scene.  He was sent off on loan to Aston Villa and Huddersfield, where he received an anterior cruciate knee injury that kept him out of action for the second half of last season. Holt is 34 years old and with that ACL injury he is unlikely to attract the interest of clubs who can afford to pay a salary probably well in excess of £20,000 per week.

Critics will say that Owen Coyle should not have been allowed to offer a three year contract with a lucrative salary to a 32 year old. At the time it appeared to be not such a bad bet, getting a player with proven goalscoring pedigree for a relatively low transfer fee. Little did we know that just two years later the club would be in League 1 and the player’s salary would be like a millstone around their necks.

Injuries certainly affect the marketability of a footballer. Holt’s injury while playing on loan at Huddersfield will most likely prove to be the factor that will mean him staying at the club. At 34 and past his best, recovering from injury, but playing in a lower division can he be a key player? Can he win back the fan support that he lost before he was dispatched to Villa Park?  The likely scenario is that Gary Caldwell will have to find ways of motivating a player who has had a difficult time at the club, into being part of a successful set-up.

The injury to Holt did Latics no favours, but the ankle problem that prevented Emyr Huws playing in the second half of last season might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.  The 21 year old Huws was initially signed on loan from Manchester City, but Rosler signed him for a fee in excess of £2m last September. Not long after Huws injured his ankle while playing for Wales and suffered a series of niggles with it that prevented him reaching top form.

However, it was an incident in training in early February that caused Malky Mackay to report that “Emyr’s rolled his ankle badly, we’ve had it looked at and he’s going to need operating on. He’s going to be out for three or four months, and that’s a real disappointment. He came back in for a couple of games, he grabbed his chance and did really well, and it’s a real blow for us and him.”

Mackay clearly rated Huws and the young Welshman was one who avoided the huge January sell-off. Midfield was to prove a problematic area under Mackay and one can only speculate what might have happened had Huws been fit.

Because of his injury Huws might well avoid the cull that will happen in the coming weeks. Big clubs will bide their time and see if he can overcome his injury and realise his full potential. Moreover Caldwell might consider him a key player, well worth paying a salary above the League 1 norm.

Huws showed what a quality player he can be when on loan at Birmingham in 2013-14. He has shown flashes of his quality at Wigan, but niggling injury has held him back. However, he has all the attributes needed to become a top midfield player. He is combative in the tackle, has a cultured left foot, good dribbling skills and the technique to score spectacular goals from distance.

In League 1 Huws is capable of being the kind of imposing midfield player that Latics have lacked since the departures of the Jimmy Macs, McCarthy and McArthur. Moreover in shedding players who have played at higher levels there is a danger of a lack of class in the team. Huws can provide that.

Who knows how many of the players from Coyle and Rosler’s days will be at Wigan come August? So many will be shed because of economic necessity.

But Emyr Huws could prove to be the asset most worth keeping from that 2014 squad.

Only time will tell if Gary Caldwell thinks the same.

Judicious use of the loan system

Nick Powell

Nick Powell had a big initial impact as a loan player for Latics.

“As much as I like Patrick Bamford – I think he is a terrific player – Murph has scored more goals and he has scored more in a squad that was pretty unfancied at the start of the season. He is the one that has the dragged us with his boot laces [into the play-offs] with all the goals he has scored. He has been brilliant. Patrick Bamford is a Chelsea player. He is a Premier League footballer on loan. Daryl Murphy is a Championship football player at a Championship club. Congratulations to Patrick, because he is a terrific player, but I think Murph deserved it.”

The words of Mick McCarthy on Patrick Bamford winning the Championship Player of the Year award ahead of his own Daryl Murphy and Watford’s Troy Deeney.

The choice of the 21 year old Bamford for that award raised eyebrows among many fans of Championship clubs. Bamford is technically a Chelsea player, although he has never actually played for them. He was signed from Nottingham Forest for £1.5m, in January 2012, but loaned out to MK Dons, Derby County and Middlesbrough.

In fact this season Chelsea loaned out no fewer than thirty four players. Eighteen went overseas, two to Premier League clubs, the remainder to the Football League. Also among those loaned out was Josh McEachran, who looked like he was going to be a key loan signing for Wigan Athletic last year. McEachran had been a star at youth level, with a combination of vision and skill that made him look an England player of the future. Before joining Latics in January 2014 he had already been on loan at at Swansea City, Middlesbrough and Watford. This season he was dispatched to Vitesse Arnhem.

McEachran made five league starts and two in the FA Cup for Latics in a disappointing stay. It is now doubtful that the player, now 22 years old, will ever play for Chelsea again. Is McEachran’s failure to realise his potential due to a lack application or have all those loan spells undermined his self-belief?

Wigan Athletic had no less than 11 loan players at various times during the 2013-14 season under Owen Coyle and Uwe Rosler. The most notable of them was Nick Powell, who for a while gave the forward line a cutting edge and unpredictability that has not been since evident. Sadly injury and loss of form led to Powell fading away in the second half of the season. This season Manchester United loaned him to Leicester City, but the Foxes cut his loan prematurely in December, citing a lack of commitment to training.

Coyle had prided himself in being an adept user of the loan system during his spell at Bolton, where he had worked with young talents such as Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere. Rosler had used the loan system at Brentford to bring in players with a view to future signings, Adam Forshaw being a prime example.

Only one of those loan players in 2013-14, Martyn Waghorn, was to stay at the club. Nine of the eleven had experience of first team football in the past, with Tyias Browning and Will Keane the exceptions.  Interestingly after returning to their clubs or joining new ones, none of the eleven were to become regular first team players this past season.

In return Latics sent eight players out on loan to other clubs, including Grant Holt to Aston Villa.

The loan system has become a big feature of modern day English football. The big clubs use it to effect in developing players and reducing their salary costs at the same time. Clubs taking players on loan not only usually pay their wages, but give players valuable first team experience. Cash-strapped Football League clubs use it as a means of recruiting players without having to deal with long-term contracts that can be a noose around their necks.

Chelsea have been exceptional in using the loan system to get better value out of their players. They recruited Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht for £13m in 2011, then sent him on loan to West Bromwich Albion and Everton, until the latter club paid £28m for him last summer.  Also in 2011 they signed Thibaut Courtois from Genk for around £8m, but within weeks they sent him off on loan to Atlético Madrid. Courtois was to establish himself as one of Europe’s outstanding goalkeepers during three years in the Spanish capital.

Chelsea have also made a big investment in their academy and their teams won both the FA Youth Cup and the Premier League under-21 competition last season. The majority of their successful young players are sent out on loan to clubs in lower divisions, where they will meet a physicality and competitive edge way beyond that of the under-21 competitions.

Bamford himself says “I’d advise every young player to go out on loan rather than stay and play in the Under-21 development league. There’s a massive difference between playing Under-21 football and being on the bench at Chelsea, and playing every week in a league where you are playing for people’s livelihoods and helping to pay their mortgages. ….The tempo in the Under-21 league is a lot slower, it is very technical and there is none of that nastiness; that is something you have to learn from playing in league games.”

Bamford has certainly made the difference at Middlesbrough, who were in 12th place last year but are now challenging to promotion through the playoffs. It is no coincidence that Bamford went to Boro after a successful loan at Derby, given that Aitor Karanka, ex-assistant to Jose Mourinho, is their manager.

How Wigan Athletic could have used a talent like Bamford this past season.

Of the nine players signed on loan only one was a striker, Jerome Sinclair. Unfortunately the 18 year old, signed in March, was to make just one appearance, as a substitute.

Due to the mass exodus of players in the winter transfer window, Malky Mackay had to bring in a lot of new blood. He signed two players on permanent contracts for modest fees and three free agents. By the closing of the transfer window on February 2nd he had signed four players on loan. He later used the emergency loan option to sign up three more young players.

According to Football League rules a club can have a maximum of five loan players in a match day squad of eighteen. Standard loan rules allow clubs a maximum of four players who are under 23 and a further four over 23 per season.  It is the player’s age on June 30th prior to the start of the season that is taken into account.

Emergency loans exist to cover clubs for injuries and suspensions. But in reality clubs use them as a short term measure of bringing in fresh blood. The two emergency loan windows operate from August 31st to the fourth Thursday in November and from the beginning of March until the fourth Thursday of that month. Mackay brought in Sinclair and Josh Murphy during that latter period.

Mackay came under criticism for bringing in young players on loan from other clubs and giving them match time at the expense of the club’s homegrown talent. But Gary Caldwell was to give opportunities to Tim Chow, Jordan Flores, Lee Nicholls and Louis Robles from the development squad during the five games remaining. Interestingly, none of the young trio of loanees – Murphy, Ojo or Sinclair – taken on by Mackay even made the bench in the final two matches.

Given the pattern of the past couple of years we can expect Wigan Athletic to have some 5 or 6 loan players in their squad. However, Caldwell will most likely seek more experienced loan players while at the same time providing opportunities for homegrown talent.

Mackay’s signing of inexperienced youth loanees on short-term emergency loans smacked of desperation. It is something Caldwell will surely avoid, preferring to send a message out to young players within the club that it is possible to progress through the ranks to the first team.

One wonders if Caldwell can use the loan market to unearth another player with the skills of Nick Powell, but with the application of someone like Patrick Bamford. Good strikers cost a lot of money. Having been unsuccessful before Wigan Athletic will baulk at splashing out a large sum on a striker who might not come off.

The loan system has become an integral part of life for Football League clubs in an environment dominated by the financial might of Premier League clubs like Chelsea.

However, it is a tool that Wigan Athletic can use to their advantage if they are judicious in its use. Only time will tell if Caldwell and the club’s recruitment team can use it to transform the club’s season.

An academy and an identity

David Sharpe: "Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about" Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

David Sharpe: “Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about”
Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

“We strive to keep the way of playing football recognizable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably far away from the own goal on the opponents’ half.”

One could only wish the statement applied to the Wigan Athletic of today. In these times of fightball, rather than football, it seems light years away. But there is no reason why the club could not take on such an identity in the future.

The statement actually comes from Ajax of Amsterdam. Together with a 4-3-3 formation it sets the direction for football at all levels of the club, from academy to first team.

The Ajax youth system produced great players of the past like Dennis Bergkamp, Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard and Clarence Seedorf. Its academy has continued to produce top class players and both the club and the Dutch national team reap the benefit. Brazil World Cup players Nigel de Jong, John Heitinga, Wesley Sneijder, Martin Stekelenberg, Gregory van der Wiel and Rafael van der Waart all came through the Ajax academy.

Johan Cruyff was one of the best players the world has known. Ex-Barcelona president Juan Laporta once said that: “As a player he turned football into an art form. Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.”

It was Cruyff who inspired Barca to develop a football academy to mirror that of Ajax. La Masia has since become the most famous football academy in the world. Its class of 1987 is its most famous, containing Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique  and Pedro Rodriguez. In 2010 it became the first academy to produce the three finalists for the award of the Ballon d’Or in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

The original La Masia was an old Catalan farmhouse where Barcelona housed young players who came from outside Barcelona. The academy was actually moved to a purpose-built facility in Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in 2011.  But the name La Masia remains synonymous with the Barcelona youth academy.

More than 500 young players have been housed at La Masia over the past 30 years. Lionel Messi was one of the three Argentinians who left his family for La Masia. He was 13 years old when he arrived. Although youngsters from Brazil, Cameroon and Senegal have come through La Masia, they were a minority. More than half have come from Catalonia, the rest from other parts of Spain.

La Masia costs around £5 million a year to run, most of the cost being the dormitory. Around 10% have made it into the first team. In 2000 coach Louis Van Gaal was laughed at for his dream of a Barcelona winning the Champions League with a team of La Masia players. But nine years later there were eight of them in the squad that was to win the trophy.

Operating a facility like those at Ajax or Barcelona is clearly way beyond the means of Wigan Athletic. But there are surely basic principles that can be applied in Wigan’s case.

On taking over from his grandfather David Sharpe commented:

Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about, we have to start making and creating our own players. We’ve only really produced two down the years in Leighton Baines and Callum McManaman, and the plan is to see more Wigan boys playing for Latics.”

The new facility at Charnock Richard remains in the future. We await further news from the club on when it will be completed. In the meantime reports suggest that Gregor Rioch and his team of coaches continue to make good progress in bringing up the level of the Academy. It is to be hoped that Rioch will not be poached by one of the big clubs and that he will continue to lead the youth programme.

The purchase of the golf club and its conversion into a football academy is a costly business, but a significant investment in the club’s future. The critics will say it should have happened years ago and question the ability of the club to finance it. However, the club has received funds from transfers that can help fund the capital investment required. It is the year to year operating costs that will be more of an issue, since a figure of £2 million per year would not be unrealistic. Much will depend on whether Latics will be scouring the country for young talent in addition to bringing in local youth or those from Manchester and Liverpool, as has been their wont in the past. Residence costs for those from outside the area, maybe also including overseas, will remain an expensive item.

However, no matter what the scale of the eventual academy at Charnock Richard there are lessons to be learned from both Ajax and Barcelona.

Both clubs have a well-defined style of play which permeates through all levels at the clubs. This helps players develop their roles and the skills that they need to be successful.

Wigan Athletic were approaching something like that in the Martinez era. The style of play was revolutionised during his time of the club. The Martinez style was not popular with all supporters. There were those who wanted a more direct style of play, which has become increasingly evident since he left. However, players at all levels of the club from academy to senior squad, knew what kind of football to strive to achieve. It was successful to the degree of winning the FA Cup on merit, overcoming an immensely talented Manchester City side with style and skill.

The tragic mistake that Dave Whelan made was in appointing a successor who was out of tune with tiki taca, more an adherent of the long ball. The Martinez legacy has since disappeared without trace over the course of the current season. Fightball has supplanted football.

In the meantime we can dream of a successful academy, underpinned by a shared vision of what constitutes good football. With coaches groomed for management from within, like Liverpool of the 1980s, when Bob Paisley and Roy Evans built success on the groundwork provided by Bill Shankly.

Look at what happened at Barcelona following Van Gaal’s dream of Champions League success with a team of players raised in La Masia.

Maybe David Sharpe’s dream of a top-class academy and Wigan boys playing for Latics is another which will become reality.

However, it is unlikely to do so unless the style of play that the club seeks is identified.

What a delight it would be to see Latics adopt a statement of intent similar to that of Ajax.