Relegation from the Championship saw a Wigan Athletic fire sale that was surely unparalleled in the club’s history. Players on Championship-level salaries were jettisoned at bargain prices as the club made efforts to drastically slash its wage bill with the prospect of much reduced revenues in League 1. It was anybody’s guess who would remain from last season’s squad as the cull neared its completion.
Many of us thought they would keep up-and-coming young talent and cash in on the players with rich Championship or Premier League experience. It was therefore a surprise to see the 28 year old Chris McCann line up for the opening match of the season at Coventry. Here was a player who had appeared disaffected in the latter part of the previous season, who had not started a game since early February.
McCann could have been expected to be one of the first to be offloaded. But it was not to be. In fact, the Dubliner has played in all eleven league games up to this point. His versatility in being able to play in midfield or on the left side of a central defensive trio has been of paramount importance to Gary Caldwell, given the injury problems he has already had to cope with.
Owen Coyle must rank as one of the most unpopular managers that Wigan Athletic have ever had, although most fans would probably rank Malky Mackay even lower. Coyle lasted less than six months in charge at Wigan before he left “by mutual consent”.
Coyle was given the mountainous task of taking Latics back into the Premier League within a year, together with leading through an historic Europa League campaign. He inherited a group of players who had played under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, but given the mass exodus of players in the summer he had a lot of recruiting to do.
Coyle’s first signing was to be Chris McCann. The Dubliner had played under him at Burnley and was available for free at the end of his contract. McCann had been at Turf Moor since arriving from Home Farm in 2004. He had an outstanding season in 2008-09, when Burnley won promotion to the top tier of English football. Sadly he sadly was only able to make half a dozen Premier League appearances for the Clarets before receiving a cruciate knee injury. McCann returned in January for a couple of games before injury ruled him out for rest of the season. However, the Irishman was to come back to start in 83 Championship matches over the next two seasons. But he was unable to once more reach the heights of that promotion season form at Burnley, with further knee problems not helping.
McCann’s early performances for Latics were solid, if uninspiring. Some said that Coyle had brought in an ex-player who was not up to par and was snubbing players from the Martinez era. However, McCann gave a fine display against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, being tireless in defence, with his cultured passing when under pressure helping Latics keep possession. He followed that up with a fine performance at Charlton, being unlucky with a flick header that hit the crossbar. McCann had clearly now settled in and was to become an important cog in Coyle’s machine.
McCann must have wondered what would come next when Uwe Rosler replaced Coyle in December 2013. The Irishman is not the world’s most fortunate footballer and he was sadly sent off in Rosler’s first match in charge, leading to Latics being eliminated from the Europa League. Latics had been a goal up at Maribor when a shot from the edge of the box hit McCann’s upraised arm after he had turned his back to the shooter. It was clearly not intentional, but the Polish referee not only gave a penalty, but also gave McCann a yellow card. Since he already had an earlier one he was sent off.
But McCann was to become a key player for Rosler in Latics’ rise up the table and into the FA Cup semi-finals. He would usually operate on the left of midfield, where his surging runs forward, accurate passing and toughness in the tackle were a real asset. However, from time to time Rosler would play him on the left of a back line of three. He was playing in that position in the FA Cup sixth round match at Manchester City on March 9th, when he sadly fractured his knee cap during the first half of what was to be another stunning victory. Once again a serious injury had interrupted McCann’s career.
He was to make his return as a late substitute at Brighton on November 4th, in the penultimate game of Rosler’s reign. Mackay’s first match as Wigan manager saw them draw 1-1 at home to Middlesbrough, with McCann putting in an excellent performance. He became a frequent starter, although his performances had started to wane. McCann’s last appearance as a starter was on February 7th in a home defeat to Bournemouth. After that he was limited to three appearances off the bench for the remainder of the season.
McCann has staked his claim for a future under the management of Gary Caldwell. He has had his downs in his career, particularly with injuries, but continues to show his resilience. He has bounced back after appearing to be on his way out.
When McCann plays at the back Latics are pretty much guaranteed cultured passes coming in from the left hand side. Moreover at 6 ft 1 in and with a strong tackle McCann is able to cope with the physical side of defensive play. However, his best position is on the left side of a trio of midfield players. It is from such a position that his attacking abilities are most effectively employed. On occasions when he has been played as one of two holding midfielders he has been less effective.
It has been a remarkable turnaround from McCann. Although seemingly destined to leave the club he has stayed and fought his way back to a regular starting place.
Over the coming weeks, providing the injured players gradually ease their way back in, it will be a challenge for McCann to maintain his place. But then again, given the player’s resilience, who can say that he will not be a key player in Caldwell’s plans?