They say that you have to experience the lows in life to truly appreciate its highs.
It is certainly a low time for Wigan Athletic. They stand second from bottom of the Championship after 19 matches, having won only three. Moreover the positions of both the new manager and the chairman are precarious, pending the results of FA investigations. The last manager was undone by player power and the new manager has failed to win either of his first two games.
Who will be running the club six months from now? How many players and staff will be gone by then? Will Latics still be in the Championship division? Will the financial future of the club be safeguarded?
It is indeed a time of doom and gloom, amid a prevailing air of uncertainty.
It is in such times that negativity and pessimism come to the fore. Fans are justifiably disillusioned with a squad of players that have let the club down up to this point. Indeed one of the Latics fan forums is currently running a thread entitled “Who would you get shut of?”
But despite the frustrations, pointing the finger at individual players is not going to help matters. Despite his rotation policy and mesmerizing team selections, Uwe Rosler put together a squad good enough to challenge for promotion. What has happened since the season started in August is now water under the bridge, but it has left the players in a crisis of confidence.
Good players have not become bad ones over these three months. It is not so much that individuals have played so badly, but more to do with their ability to play as a unit. The sum has been much less than aggregation of its parts.
Dave Whelan has taken flak for his appointment of Malky Mackay, not just from the national media but from Latics fans. At times it has seemed that Whelan made a big error of judgment. Fans have been frustrated by the lack of goals, but Whelan has appointed a manager whose teams have not been known for their flowing, attacking football. There is more unsettling gossip in the media about Latics bringing in Ryan Giggs as manager should Mackay be suspended by the FA.
However, there exists the possibility that Whelan did know what he was doing. Mackay knows the environment of the Championship division. He is also reputed to be a motivational manager. Mackay has also had lots of experience in dealing with significant turnovers of players at the end of their contracts. Could it be that Mackay has been brought in to clear out the bad eggs in the Latics dressing room?
Mackay wisely turned to the old guard in his first match in charge. He needs them behind him if he is going to create stability and raise morale in the dressing room. Moreover in times of adversity managers typically rely on their most experienced players. The starting eleven against Middlesbrough contained five players from the Roberto Martinez era and four signed by Owen Coyle. The average age of the back four was thirty plus. Just two of the eleven players signed by Uwe Rosler – Adam Forshaw and Andrew Taylor – started in that game and the next one at Sheffield Wednesday.
No fewer than ten players have contracts which finish at the end of the season. Most of those are approaching 30 or are on the wrong side of it. Eight of them – Al Habsi (32 years old), Boyce (35), Caldwell (32), Espinoza (28), Maloney (31), Nicholls (22), Ramis (30) and Watson (29) – remain from the Martinez era. The other two are Fortune (33), signed by Coyle, and Kvist (29) brought in on a one year contract by Rosler.
Given that Latics have only 17 points from their first 19 matches, Mackay will be looking at consolidation rather than promotion. Financial considerations will increasingly come into play.
Mackay recently stated that “This is a business, and after we’ve assessed the situation. There will be players moving out as well as coming in. After two or three weeks you get to know every player, how they train, their strengths and weaknesses. It will take two or three transfer windows for it to be ‘my team’, for the team to be sufficiently tweaked.”
His remarks indicate that the merry-go-round of players that we have seen over the past year will continue. Coyle brought in ten new players and Rosler signed eleven.
Since the summer of 2013 Latics have made a profit in the transfer market. The fees recouped through the sales of cup final winners McCarthy, Kone and McArthur have more than compensated for the relatively small fees paid by Coyle for Barnett, Holt, McClean and Perch plus the more considerable sums spent by Rosler on Delort, Forshaw, Huws and Riera. The flip side is that Latics lost quality when McCarthy and co left the club. Even more quality was lost as Beausejour and Gomez left at the end of last season as free agents.
In order to bring in his own players Rosler allowed the senior squad to swell beyond 30 players. He had clearly been keen to transfer out higher salary earners such as Al Habsi, Holt and Ramis but was unable to do so. Moreover the signing of Figueroa on loan meant that Latics had not only four left backs on their books, but had enlarged a squad that was already bloated.
Next year the club’s parachute payments will halve to £9m. Not only will Mackay have to follow in the footsteps of Coyle and Rosler by staying in the black in the transfer market, but he will have to make significant cuts in the wage bill. He will need to shed higher wage earners and considerably reduce the size of the squad.
Latics are clearly going to lose more quality players by the end of the season. They could well start the 2015-16 season without any of the players that played in that magical FA Cup final of 2013. The moment of Watson’s famous header will stay etched in the minds of Latics supporters for the rest of their lives. But somehow it needs to be put out of mind for a period of time as Latics adjust to a new reality.
Dave Whelan backed Uwe Rosler and Latics got within touching distance of the Premier League last season, but could not quite make it in the playoffs. He continued to back Rosler this season in bringing in new players. It all looked so promising, but it just did not happen.
A significant proportion of Latics fans remain critical of Rosler’s signings, whose performances up to this point have been less than eye-catching. Adam Forshaw has not yet lived up to his transfer fee and the hype he received at Brentford and the form of overseas strikers Andy Delort and Oriel Riera has been below par. Martyn Waghorn, signed last season, has fallen under the radar. Andrew Taylor has shown flashes of his best, but does not yet convince. However, Mackay had taken both Taylor and Don Cowie with him from Watford to Cardiff and we can expect them to feature regularly.
Cowie is already under criticism from a section of fans, but he is the kind of unspectacular “water carrier” that a Championship team often needs in midfield. William Kvist is Denmark’s captain and can surely do a job as a holding midfield player. Emyr Huws is an exciting young talent, who has all the skills needed to play at the highest level. What he lacks is experience and he will find that hard to get now, given the competition for midfield places. James Tavernier is one for the future, his quality crossing and delivery from set pieces a real asset, even if he is not yet up to par defensively. Young left back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair has yet to step on the pitch in a league game.
It may be that Rosler’s signings will come good with time. They came into a struggling side, with a manager who had lost the plot. Latics made major investments in the signings of young players. Forshaw is 23 years old, as is Delort. Huws is 21. Only time will tell if Rosler picked up free transfer bargains in the 23 year olds, Tavernier and Taylor-Sinclair, and the 24 year old Waghorn.
Coyle will be remembered more than anything else for the signings of the then 32 year old strikers, Grant Holt and Marc-Antoine Fortune. However, in Leon Barnett, Scott Carson, James Perch and Chris McCann he signed experienced practioners who will most likely form the backbone of Mackay’s team.
If there is a cancer within the playing staff then Mackay will deal with it. Rosler had a clear view of the style of football he wanted but the players were apparently unable or unwilling to deliver it. Did Rosler just did not have the credibility with the players that he needed to motivate them to deliver his vision?
Mackay will need to be tough in cutting out any cancer that might be there. He will also have to show the kind of fortitude that we saw in Martinez, insisting on his preferred style of play and not bowing to fan pressure. He will need to show the door to certain players, even if some are popular with supporters.
It remains to be seen what will happen with the FA charge against Whelan. However, at 78 years of age the chairman will surely be looking at handing over the reins in any case. If the FA decision causes him to resign as chairman he will remain the owner of the club and will surely continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. With his home base in Barbados, Whelan has been devolving authority to the Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson to run the club’s daily business.
No matter what happens on the pitch this season the club is likely to be in a far superior position financially than most in the Championship division. Latics’ balance sheet for the 2013-14 season is due to be published shortly and it will make interesting reading. Whelan has insisted on prudent financial management and it will be a surprise if the club went into the red last season after receiving parachute payments and gaining extra revenue from its Europa League campaign and reaching the semifinal of the FA Cup.
Yesterday was the deadline for clubs to submit their accounts for the 2013-14 season to the Football League. Any club breaking FFP rules will have a transfer embargo imposed until it turns itself around to meet them again. A fascinating study by Ed Thompson suggests that Birmingham, Blackburn, Bolton, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest are ‘very likely’ to fall into that category. Latics fall into the category of ‘very unlikely’ to receive a transfer ban.
Wigan Athletic’s sustainability in the long term will partly depend on their ability to develop young talent. An article on the club’s official site yesterday highlighted the under-18 side being undefeated in 11 matches. Coach Peter Atherton quoted that: “Things are heading in the right direction, Gregor Rioch has come in as Academy Manager and he’s implemented a lot of changes to put us on that correct track…….. The success has come sooner than we probably expected, but we’re not getting carried away. The lads will continue to work just as hard. We should be at the top of this league and we’re aiming higher up the Academy pyramid. We’re happy with the direction we’re heading in and what we’re achieving.”
To be heading a division of the Football League Youth Alliance largely composed of clubs from League 1 and 2 would not appear such an achievement, but it is a sign of the improvement shown at academy level. The new facility at Charnock Richard is due to be completed by 2016 and it is clear that Latics are ramping up their youth programme aiming for a Category One Academy.
A year from now Malky Mackay may or may not be the manager, Dave Whelan may or may not be the chairman. A swathe of players will have departed, possibly backroom staff too. But the club will be financially stable and well run.
The squad will not have the quality to which we have grown accustomed. Most of the household names will have departed. But Latics will have a team that is hungry for success, with a nucleus of capable and experienced pros together with exciting young talent.
Latics will have bucked the trend of overspending as has been the wont of so many other clubs .
Then there is the prospect of a Category One Academy and long-term sustainability.
Things might seem gloomy at the moment, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
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