Regaining the feel-good factor

Relegation can dampen the spirits of even the keenest football supporter. But three such occurrences in just five years, combined with a profligate waste of some £74 million of parachute payments is a real downer.

Morale had not been particularly high for Wigan Athletic fans over these recent weeks. But then came the announcement  that local lad Jordan Flores had signed a new two year contract. It came as a bit of a surprise as there had been no news about the player for weeks.

Always good to reward one of our own” were David Sharpe’s words as he announced the new contract on Twitter. In one instant it brought visions of a future where Wigan Athletic would at last have faith in home-grown talent, rather than incessantly bringing in loan players. It raised the feel-good factor, at least for a while.

But the warm feeling started to wither somewhat as the tweet above appeared on Twitter. The article went on to quote the chairman as saying:

“There’s going to be a couple of changes before the start of the season. There’ll be a couple of players hopefully coming in, and maybe a couple of players leaving.”

Those words of Sharpe caused the alarm bells to ring. Did he really mean just two of the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Sam Morsy, Max Power or Nick Powell will be going and the others staying?

A couple of years ago Latics had been relegated to League 1, but the chairman’s optimism over the summer of 2015 was uplifting. The famous quote about “smashing League 1 with 100 points” was a trifle overexuberant, but it set the tone over a summer of huge changes in the playing staff. Most of the high earners were sold off, paid off or loaned out, but the chairman played his trump card in paying up to £1 m for Will Grigg.

The end result was that the budget had been massively cut, but with the parachute money the club was still able to offer above-average salaries to attract players more than good enough for the third tier. Sharpe’s positivity continued into the season and at the midway point he paid somewhere approaching £1 m to sign Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract. The Dutchman and Grigg proved to be crucial signings as Caldwell’s team won the division title.

Sharpe made efforts to keep the bouyant feeling obtained by winning League 1 by offering season tickets at levels well below the market rate. In the meantime Gary Caldwell started to bring in many more new players than he had previously predicted. The manager clearly did not believe the squad was good enough to survive in the Championship after all. There was no £1 m signing this time around, but ex-players Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell were brought in as marquee players on relatively high salaries.

Caldwell’s team had a poor pre-season and his tactics in the early league games were conservative. The manager had reportedly wanted Callum Patterson from Hearts to solve the problematic right back position, but Wigan’s bids had fallen far short of the Scottish club’s valuation. Midfield player Conor Hourihane of Barnsley was also apparently on Caldwell’s wanted list but nothing resulted. The woeful decision by Sharpe to replace Caldwell with Warren Joyce was to ultimately lead a demoralised squad to relegation. The possession football we had seen under Caldwell evolved into “fightball” under the ultra-defensive Joyce.

According to the Premier League website Wigan Athletic received £16,298,146 in parachute payments last season. Transfer fees paid out in summer 2016 were relatively modest. In January they jettisoned two of the highest wage earners in Jordi Gomez and Adam Le Fondre. Speedy winger Nathan Byrne was sent on loan to Charlton. The sale of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich was reputed to be in excess of £7 m including add-ons. It was rumoured that the wage bill at the start of the season was around £17 m. Joyce himself remarked on how he had reduced that wage bill by the January comings and goings. But the end-result on the field of play was the loss of a proven goal scoring centre forward, a creative midfielder who had previously proved himself to be a top Championship player and two wide players with searing pace. Some fans at the time had remarked that it looked like Latics were planning for relegation even in January.

After his disastrous appointment of Joyce, Sharpe wisely took his time in searching for the right man for the coming season. Paul Cook has a fine managerial record and his teams play the kind of good football that went out of the window under Joyce. However, after the initial hype of Cook’s appointment, including the angry reactions of Portsmouth fans, it has been surprising that we have not seen much of the new manager in the media since then. When Cook was appointed, Sharpe had said that “The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.”

Since Cook’s appointment a couple of players have already left. Matt Gilks went to Scunthorpe who were able to offer him the kind of contract that Latics were unable or unwilling to provide. Jake Buxton was a rock in defence last season, but has already left the club by mutual consent.

The departures of Gilks and Buxton can be seen as indications of the club lowering its budget, which it clearly needs to do, given its huge potential loss in revenues. Despite what the chairman is saying it would be a surprise if only two more of the present squad leave before the season starts on August 5th.

The question is how Sharpe is going to use the remainder of the substantial revenues that came in last season? Will they be used to service the club’s debt? Or is he really planning to keep all of last season’s squad that remain, bar two?

At this stage there is not the level of optimism among the fans that one would expect with  a new manager coming in who has an impressive track record. The loss of parachute payments weighs heavily in our minds. Will Cook receive the level of financial and personal support from the chairman that is needed to get Latics back to the Championship?

Sharpe’s gesture in offering an extended contract to Jordan Flores is certainly good PR and we can only hope that it is a sign that home-grown talent will be given a better chance to succeed than we have seen in recent years. However, the chairman needs to enunciate his broader strategy.

What is his vision of what he wants for the current season and how he will achieve it? If he were to say that it was to be a period of austerity for the club, with any profits from last season used to pay off debts, few could argue with him if he is looking at the club’s long-term sustainability. If he were to say that he will have to make major cuts in the squad since the club needs to cut its cloth according to projected revenues, then once more it would be hard to argue against.

David Sharpe has a difficult task ahead of him. Like all of us he has made some good decisions and some bad ones. Perhaps his most redeeming quality as Wigan Athletic chairman is that he considers himself a fan, first and foremost. Moreover he is eloquent and very comfortable with the media.

The coming season will be the acid test for the young chairman. Should he take a gamble and back the new manager with a war chest to get the club back to the Championship? Or should he look at financial consolidation and future sustainability?

Without the parachute payments the feel-good factor has dropped alarmingly. How will the chairman deal with it?

 

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How many more loan players for Latics?

Maguire on loan at Wigan.

Hull City’s Harry Maguire signs for Leicester City on five-year deal” ran the headline.

The fee associated with the move is reported to be some £12 m rising up to £17 m.

I must admit: it took me by surprise. Granted Leicester could probably use another powerhouse centre half in the ilk of Huth and Morgan. But has Maguire’s game improved that much since his spell at Wigan a couple of years ago? Is the price inflated?

Harry Maguire was signed on a short term loan from Hull City in February 2015. He was without doubt Malky Mackay’s best loan signing, forming a rugged central defensive partnership with Jason Pearce. He was excellent in the air, powerful in the tackle, but does he have the passing skills to make it as a top Premier League defender? Only time will tell.

Over the past three seasons Wigan Athletic have brought in no less than 30 players on loan. They have often been young players from higher placed clubs, being sent out for experience. Only 3 of those 30 went on to permanent contracts at Wigan: Emyr Huws, Stephen Warnock and Yanic Wildschut.

A statistical analysis shows that the average age of the loanees has been around 24, the odd 30-pluses such as Alex Bruce, Alex Revell and Liam Ridgewell being balanced out by teenagers such as Marcus Browne, Callum Connolly, Jonjoe Kenny and Sheyi Ojo.

The influx of loan players, particularly over the past couple of seasons, has been subject to much debate by Latics supporters. The clubs sending their players to Wigan on loan can make stipulations about first team opportunities for their players, with financial implications if they are not met. The situation with goalkeepers near the end of last season was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as many fans were concerned. Moreover it has been felt that the presence of too many loanees has deprived the club’s own young talent of opportunities.

However, a new manager has come in. Will we see any change in the use of loan players under Paul Cook?

Last summer Cook made two summer loan signings for Portsmouth. The 36 year old goalkeeper David Forde was acquired for a season-long loan from Millwall, going on to make 47 appearances. Dominic Hyam, 20, was loaned from Reading, but made no appearances. Interestingly the January loan window saw Cook pick up Eion Doyle, 28, from Preston, who was to make 12 appearances. But the 19 year old Aaron Simpson, from Wolves, suffered the same fate as Hyam, making no appearances.

Among the theories put forward by Portsmouth supporters regarding the manager’s surprise exit was that the new ownership would appoint a director of football. It was an idea mooted at Wigan too, but did not come into fruition. However, as manager at Wigan he will need to take a look at the link between the recruiting department and the coaching staff. Not only have experienced players been signed who have not made their mark, but those who could be loosely labeled “players for the future” have been given minimal opportunities on the field of play.

The present squad includes players like Jack Byrne, Josh Laurent, Dan Lavercombe, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi and Kaiyne Woolery. All were seemingly signed for the future but have made hardly a handful of appearances between them. They are in their early twenties and were bargain signings from other clubs. Danny Whitehead also falls into that category, although he no longer appears in the first team squad on the club website. Yesterday’s new signing Terell Thomas, 19, will hope that he will receive more opportunity than his predecessors have had.

The current first team squad also contains six players who have come through the academy and the development squad – Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Owen Evans, Josh Gregory and Christopher Merrie and Sam Stubbs. Last season Luke Burke made the transition to the first team, making an immediate impact at the start of the season. Sadly he was underutilized as the season progressed.

The futures of the “players for the future”, both homegrown talent and those brought in from other clubs, will depend on them being given opportunity to develop. Some will be sent off on loan to other clubs to get more experience, but far too often in recent years such players have not come back to have an impact on the first team. So often loan players from other clubs have been given opportunities in their stead.

An article from the Portsmouth News entitled “Pompey deny Wigan to retain coaches” has informed us that Robbie Blake nor John Keeley will be leaving Portsmouth, although physios Nick Meace and Andy Proctor may be on their way to Wigan. It says they are confident that head of player recruitment, Nick Howarth, will be staying.

Cook is gradually putting together his coaching and backroom team at Wigan. With the pre-season looming he will be keen to get that sorted as soon as he can. We can only hope that there is a better connection between recruitment and coaching than we have seen at Wigan in recent years. Moreover that there will be a planned strategy towards the recruitment of loan players from other clubs, bearing in mind the presence of the club’s own young talent.

The departure of Matt Gilks to Scunthorpe this week is indicative of the club being unwilling to offer him a contract as good as that put forward by the Irons. It appears that Gilks had a get-out clause in his contract in case relegation occurred. Having spent much of his career in the higher divisions he would have been accustomed to the kinds of salaries offered at those levels. Given such a scenario it is unlikely that Paul Cook will either be handed a large war chest for potential transfers, nor be able to offer salaries that give him a competitive advantage over other contenders in the division.

Yet again it is a time of change at Wigan, this time involving wholesale changes in coaching and backroom personnel. Moreover we can expect considerable player turnover over the coming weeks, with an exodus of the higher earners.

Of all 30 loan players at Wigan in the past three years it can be argued that Stephen Warnock and Yanic Wildschut made the greatest impact at the club. But Harry Maguire did a solid job and it remains to be seen whether he will ultimately be the most successful of those loan players in his career that follows.

Will Cook’s loan signings play an important role this season? Or will he prefer to utilize players he already has at the club?

Or will it be a healthy balance between the two?

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Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Another centre forward for Latics?

Eion Doyle

“PNE striker bound for Wigan?” 

So said a Lancashire Evening Post headline on Saturday.

The article went on to explain that Paul Cook was initially aiming to take Eion Doyle from Preston North End to Portsmouth, but that the centre forward’s  new destination  “might now be” Wigan.

Sometimes newspaper headlines can be pure speculation, but this one seemed to be well within the realms of possibility, if by no means confirmed. The 29 year old was on loan at Portsmouth in the second half of last season and previously played under Cook’s management at both Sligo and Chesterfield. But Paul Cook is known to favour the lone centre forward system and Wigan Athletic already have five of them on their books. Do they really need another?

But managers do sometimes like to bring in players who have been with them in the past.  Indeed Warren Joyce signed three in January – Gabriel Obertan, Ryan Tunnicliffe and James Weir – who were with him at Manchester United. Long will Latics fans remember the hapless Jason Scotland who had scored 53 goals in two years at Swansea under Roberto Martinez, but could muster only 2 in 36 appearances after the Catalan took him to Wigan. The Premier League had proved to be too big a step up for the Trinidadian.

But Doyle is a different matter. He was an important player for Cook at Chesterfield, scoring 38 goals for him in 64 starts and 20 appearances off the bench.  Indeed 21 of those goals had been scored at League 1 level in little more than half a season before he was transferred to Cardiff City at the beginning of February 2015. Admittedly Doyle’s goalscoring record since leaving Chesterfield has been less impressive, but it would be a surprise if Cook is not considering an offer for the player.

But Latics already have central strikers who could make a major impact on League 1 next season. If Doyle were to be brought in which ones would depart?

Will Grigg has scored in excess of 20 goals per season three times before in the third tier. His critics will say that he could not make the step up to the Championship last season, his last league goal being scored in September 2016. However, his supporters will say that the player had made a good start and looked comfortable at that level, only to be left on the bench or played out of position by his managers. But Grigg has just one year of his contract remaining and the likelihood is that Latics will invite offers over the summer, looking to recoup the £1m they paid Brentford for him a couple of years ago.

Omar Bogle we hoped would be the key figure in all of Joyce’s January signings. Full of confidence from his goalscoring exploits at Grimsby, he started off well, but he was to find Championship defenders a different kettle of fish to those in League 2. Injury also played its part in the player not making the impact that was hoped. However, although Bogle as a player is still a rough diamond in need of polishing, he has the physique and technique to be a top player. He is capable of making a major impact on League 1 if he can overcome his fitness issues.

Nick Powell‘s appearances near the end of last season showed his huge talent. Although he prefers to play in midfield, he can be devastating at centre forward. It could be argued that Latics would never have been relegated if Powell had been fit all season, giving his quality. But that was not a likely scenario, given his injury woes over recent years. If fit, Powell could take League 1 by storm, but therein lies the question. Would the club want to continue to pay a high-end salary to a player whose fitness is so uncertain? Powell put himself in the shop window with his displays over those closing weeks. There will surely be another club willing to take a gamble on a player of such quality.

Mikael Mandron was signed from Eastleigh Town in January. He had scored goals in the first half of the National League season and was known to Joyce’s assistant, Andy Welsh, through his time at Sunderland. He made just one start and two substitute appearances early on, but did not feature again after mid-March. Only 22 years old, Mandron could well be sent off on loan to gain further experience.

Billy Mckay remains a Latics player, although things never worked out for him at Wigan or on his loan at Oldham. But Mckay has a record of success in Scotland. He returned to his old club, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, on loan in January. It would not be a surprise to see Mckay complete his contract at Wigan with a further loan spell in Scotland. A return to the Latics squad would be a surprise, but by no means impossible.

The “PNE striker bound for Wigan?”  headline might have been speculative to some degree, but Doyle’s arrival might well come to fruition.

 

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Another Oxford United fan’s view of Chey Dunkley

The arrival of Chey Dunkley at Wigan certainly has the fans talking. Some initially thought of him as a squad player, but is a player who played over 50 games last season likely to be merely warming the bench?

Dunkley was usually employed on the right hand side of central defence at Oxford, with ex-Plymouth defender Curtis Nelson on the left. Craig Morgan too is more of a right sided central defender, as is Jack Hendry. Last season the position on the left side of Wigan’s defence was usually taken up by the left footed Dan Burn, with Jake Buxton also able to perform comfortably there. Burn was excellent last season and that, together with a wealth of experience in the second tier, could make him a prime target for Championship clubs. It has already been rumoured that Burton Albion want Buxton to return there eight years since he left to go to join Nigel Clough at Derby County. With Clough now at Burton and the player’s salary being a factor, Latics might well release the 32 year old.

We have had mixed messages from David Sharpe in recent weeks about keeping the nucleus of last season’s squad together. However, David Perkins has since signed an extended contract for another year. It could be viewed as a gamble, since Perkins is now 35 and had injury problems last season. However, the experience of players like Perkins and Morgan will be important if Paul Cook decides to build for the future by putting the accent on youth as far as new signings are concerned. Latics have also been linked with Remy Streete, a 22 year old central defender from  Port Vale, a free agent.

There has been no news from the club about an agreement with Wigan-born Jordan Flores over a new contract. The new Wigan Athletic website was put up yesterday, but Flores did not appear with the other names in the first team squad.

Yesterday we published fan views on Chey Dunkley, but since then we received another one through the fan site Yellow Army (www.yellowarmy.co.uk). We have Thom Airs to thank for his comments below:

Chey was signed from Kidderminister Harriers and was very raw when he arrived. However, under the guidance of Michael Appleton he quickly became one of our key players.

He is athletic, brave and very good in the air. For a long time our attacking corner routine revolved around trying to tee up one of his bullet headers. He was slightly unlucky not to have scored more goals from attacking set pieces. 

Off the pitch he’s clearly intelligent, hard working and very driven to improve.

That said, he’s not an elegant ball-playing defender. His distribution and control can let him down at crucial moments.

I think almost every Oxford fan would’ve preferred to keep him, but he was obviously intent on leaving for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

 
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