We had been waiting so long with bated breath for news about the exciting training complex project. Latics had bought the Charnock Richard Golf Course last year, but no news had been forthcoming. Then this week the club confirmed that the Chorley Borough Planning Committee had given its approval.
Chief Executive Jonathan Jackson commented “To compete in the highest levels of English football, Wigan Athletic needs facilities that are comparable with other clubs in the Premier League and Sky Bet Championship. The Charnock Richard proposal will allow us to attract players of all ages and also develop future professionals.”
The Wigan Athletic development squad won 4-3 at home last week, but it could hardly be called a monumental result. The match was against Wrexham, a club that finished 17th in the Conference Premier League last year. In contrast Blackburn Rovers’ last development team game was at Aston Villa.
There are seven Championship clubs who compete in the Under 21 Professional Development League 1, including local rivals Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers. League 1 is only for clubs who have an academy of Category 1 status. It is divided into two divisions, the upper division being known as the Under 21 Barclays Premier League for sponsorship reasons. There are currently 12 clubs in each division .
Another nine Sky Bet Championship clubs play in the Under 21 Professional Development League 2, which also includes six clubs from Skybet League 1. League 2 is for clubs with Category 2 status academies. There are 19 clubs competing this season. Both of the Under 21 Professional Development Leagues are adminstered by the Premier League.
Wigan Athletic’s development squad plays in the Central League, currently called the Final Third Development League. The Central League started in 1911 as a mix of first teams and reserve teams from the big clubs. When the Football League expanded in 1921, all the first teams became founder members of the Third Division (North). It was to become the main reserve league for the fully professional clubs from the north and midlands. Liverpool hold the record for winning the Central League with 16 titles, followed by Manchester United with 10.
In 2006 the Premier Reserve League was formed and the Central League took a big hit. With the formation of the Professional Development League in 2012 it lost even more clubs. What remains now is 23 clubs divided into two divisions. Latics play in the West Division.
The current reality for Wigan Athletic is that the Central League cannot meet their needs for immersing young players into the right kind of environment. The gap between the Central League and the Championship division is huge.
The current Wigan Athletic squad contains two fine young players who came up through the ranks. Lee Nicholls and Callum McManaman played in the Premier Reserve League against quality opposition. The experience prepared them well for Latics’ senior squad and loan spells with Football League clubs. McManaman is an outstanding prospect and although Nicholls currently lags behind, he has huge potential.
In the club’s official communique Jonathan Jackson commented: “To compete in the highest levels of English football, Wigan Athletic needs facilities that are comparable with other clubs in the Premier League and Sky Bet Championship. The Charnock Richard proposal will allow us to attract players of all ages and also develop future professionals.”
The club expects the training ground to be in operation by August 2016. Were that to become a reality they would then need to apply for Category 1 status. That would mean employing at least 18 full time staff and an operational budget of at least £2.5m. Category 1 status also means more contact time with young players, which includes making arrangements for schooling.
Latics’ aim is to gain Category 1 status as soon as possible. However, it is clearly going to take some time. In the meantime they run the risk of youth prospects being poached by the big clubs for minimal reward. Moreover the club’s under 21 and under 18 teams will continue to play in competitions that are mediocre.
The main priority for Latics this season is promotion to the Premier League. However, in terms of long term sustainability the club needs to produce young players who can graduate to senior level. The cynics say that Dave Whelan should have made this investment years ago. His supporters would respond that the Chairman’s priority was to keep the club in the Premier League. A hugely beefed-up Academy scheme was not in his immediate thinking.
The Academy project is an indication that Latics are trying to secure long-term viability as a club in the upper echelons of English football. It is an investment of appreciable cost, both in the purchase of new facilities and the future staffing and general running costs of a large youth training facility.
In the meantime, given the quality of opposition offered in the Central League, they will continue to use the loan scheme as a way of preparing their best young players for the senior squad.