The last match of the 2014-15 season at Brentford typified the kind of football we had been witnessing far too often.
Latics had dominated the game up to the 25th minute, at least in terms of possession. But once a wicked deflection had beaten Lee Nicholls a team with such brittle confidence was never going to be up to the task of getting back into the game. What was to follow was merely a replay of the football we had seen so often over those past months.
Toothless in attack, woeful in defence, passing awful. But there were some saving graces in that 3-0 whitewash.
Gary Caldwell had already sent Leon Clarke back to Wolves and he left out young loanees Josh Murphy, Sheyi Ojo and Jerome Sinclair for the visit to Griffin Park. Moreover he had given Tim Chow the chance to show what he could do in the first team, the 21 year old rewarding his manager’s faith with a headed goal in his first start against Brighton. Caldwell was to give Lee Nicholls his first start of the season in goal. Then after 64 minutes he introduced the 19 year old Jordan Flores and 18 year old Louis Robles for their debuts.
Caldwell’s actions looked like a bold statement at the time, giving a chance to home grown players. Fans had been asking questions for months. Why had Malky Mackay continued to ignore the young talent already at Wigan, giving priority to those from the likes of Liverpool and Norwich?
Caldwell was to continue in a similar vein in the pre-season, bringing in a host of development squad players alongside the senior professionals for the games at Altrincham and Southport. Then Flores, Robles and Ryan Jennings were to make the starting lineup against Partick Thistle, the latter scoring a well taken goal. Sadly Chow was injured in the next game at Dundee and has not yet reappeared. But Flores was to go a step further with an excellent performance in his first competitive game as a starter against Bury in the League Cup, with Jennings making his debut off the bench.
Caldwell has sent a clear message to the youth ranks within the club – if you can show you are good enough we will give you the chance. Had he learned from the mistakes of his hapless predecessor?
Mackay’s first signing had been that of Liam Ridgewell on a six week loan. Fans immediately questioned the value of such a short term loan, some suggesting that Portland Timbers had sent him to get match fit for the upcoming MLS season. Ridgewell certainly did not look fit in his first game, being taken off after 45 minutes at Birmingham. However, little by little he was to impose some stability into a rickety Wigan back line. Mackay was to replace Ridgewell with the loan of Harry Maguire from Hull.
With the departure of thirteen senior players over the January transfer window, Mackay had a mountain to climb. It could be argued that the loan of Ridgewell was a qualified success and Maguire did even better. Mackay was unlucky in losing the experienced loanee Chris Herd to serious injury early on in his stay, but it was his signing of young, developing players from other clubs that was to mystify the fans.
However, Mackay was faced with the likelihood of a threadbare squad and had to find loan players to bring in. The mid-season loan market was never going to supply Mackay with the quantity of experienced players he needed to fend off relegation. Moreover the signing of young loanees would come with strings attached, their clubs wanting some kind of reassurances that their players would be given first team opportunities.
Despite the positive messages Caldwell has sent out to young players within the club, he has also involved himself in the recruitment of young loan players, with Francisco Junior (23) and Sean Murray (21) being signed on a one month basis, and Jonjoe Kenny (18) for two months.
Having created a positive impression, both on and off the field, Junior’s loan has since been extended until January. Should he continue to progress there would be a likelihood of a permanent deal, given that the player’s contract at Everton terminates at the end of the season. In the case of Junior it can be argued that the club had given itself time to fully assess the player before committing itself to a more long term deal.
Murray’s case has been less straightforward. Junior had been recruited in July, giving him time to settle in during the pre-season. Murray joined in early August, making his debut as a 72nd minute substitute at Coventry. He was ineligible to play in the League Cup match against Bury, but came back as a substitute against Doncaster (54th minute), Scunthorpe (76th minute) and Gillingham (46th minute). Unlike Junior, Murray has a wealth of senior team experience with 75 appearances for Watford, despite being only 21 years old.
With the impending returns of Tim Chow and Emyr Huws from injury, Caldwell has a significant number of midfielders at his disposal. On Saturday he chose to bring on Murray ahead of Max Power who has impressed in his early games for the club. Time is running out on Murray’s loan and Caldwell may be faced with having to make a decision on the player’s future at the club without being able to give him a starting berth.
Kenny is clearly a different type of proposition to Junior and Kenny. Although only 18 years old he is already looking like a future Premier League player. With the injury to Kevin McNaughton, Caldwell will be leaning heavily on the youngster in the coming weeks. Although there may be possibilities for permanent signings in the cases of Murray and Junior, it is a matter of time before Kenny goes back to Everton. Should Caldwell be able to lengthen Kenny’s loan beyond that initial two months period he will surely do it.
Caldwell has already brought in 15 new players to the club and there will surely be more to come in the next couple of weeks. Some will be permanent signings, others loanees. There will also be more outgoings.
The long saga of Billy Mckay and Dundee United will surely be resolved soon. Caldwell had given Mckay his first start in that Brentford game and it will probably be the Northern Ireland international’s last at the club. With Mckay off the books and Shaq Coulthirst back at Tottenham, Caldwell will be anxious to bring in another striker, even if Grant Holt regains full fitness and is back by October.
Rumours are circulating regarding interest in Wycombe’s 22 year old central defender Aaron Pierre. The futures of both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann remain uncertain.
Caldwell will surely continue to keep the door open for home grown talent. Sending the 18 year old Sam Cosgrove out to Barrow on a short term loan looks like a good move. One wonders if Caldwell will look at similar opportunities for the likes of Flores, Jennings and Robles, or whether he will be able to offer them ample first team opportunities with the club.
In the meantime Caldwell will continue to scour the transfer market. His squad is close to being complete but there are still pieces missing in his jigsaw puzzle. Moreover it will be interesting to see if he will continue to look at short term loans as a means of assessing players with a view to signing them in the future or uses them as temporary to provide replacements to cover for injuries.
The “new era” has begun with one outstanding performance and four indifferent ones. However, the changes in the squad are still not complete and it is going to take some time before everything comes together. Despite the young chairman’s unfortunate “smashing League 1 ” statement it is clear that there are going to be some difficult times ahead for Caldwell and his squad.
A mid-table place by Christmas might be the best that we can expect. It is in the second half of the season that we are most likely to see Caldwell’s plans move towards fruition.
I really think extending Sean Murray’s loan is unnecessary. We have senior midfielders like Jacobs and Power who can play in a similar role, but we also have young players in Flores and Jennings who can play behind the strikers and look like very promising players. Extending Murray’s loan would deprive them of opportunities, and I believe they have the quality to be good players at this level and even beyond. Personally I’m very excited at the thought of seeing them and the likes of Chow, Robles and Nicholls become regulars in the Latics’ line-up. Junior is a different case as we don’t have enough defensive midfielders and he has genuine class. I hope we can extend Kenny’s loan for the same reasons.