“ 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.