“Walsall delay Wigan’s promotion” the headline said.
Trawling the internet for football news can be often entertaining, if sometimes frustrating. We are so drawn in by headlines. The spurious premise of this headline drew me in and I opened the article.
It told us that had if Walsall had not beaten Shrewsbury last night, Latics would have been promoted. Mathematically true it could be said. But the realists among us know that Walsall stood as much chance in making up the 22 goal difference gap between the two clubs as one might have winning a lottery. Why did I bother opening the article?
Gary Caldwell’s thoughts must be all over the place at the moment. He will be keen to win the League 1 title by his team being victorious in one of its last two games – mathematically speaking of course, in case Burton make up the 17 goals by which they trail Latics. The probability is that Wigan Athletic will win at least one of the two; the likelihood is that they will win both. But as much as winning the division is important surely Caldwell’s mind will be looking on next season, back in the Championship division.
It is a nice feeling to win a division. The last time Wigan Athletic did it was in 2002-03 when Paul Jewell’s expensively assembled team won the League 1 title in his second season at the club. His first season had not been easy. Latics were to drop from a playoff position the previous season to 10th place. But Jewell managed to clear out much of the deadwood that was blocking the club’s progress and had been able to bring in players on salaries well above the norm of the division.
Jewell’s team amassed 100 points, 14 ahead of second placed Crewe. They scored 68 goals, conceding 25. The following season they were to finish 7th in the Championship, scoring 60 goals, conceding 45. The players were largely the same that won League 1, buoyed by the arrival of Jason Roberts from West Bromwich in January.
Should Caldwell’s team win their last two games their points total will be 90. They already have 71 goals, although they have conceded 36. Jewell’s team had been based on a solid defence with John Filan, Nicky Eaden, Matt Jackson and Jason De Vos making a combined total of 204 appearances in league and cup games that season.
Inevitable comparisons have been made regarding the merits of the players in the teams of 2002-03 and 2015-16. Nathan Ellington’s 22 goals in 48 appearances were pivotal as have been Will Grigg’s 26 goals in 41 displays in the current season to date. Ellington went on to score goals in the Championship. Caldwell will be hoping Grigg will make a similarly successful transition.
Six of Jewell’s 2002-03 squad – John Filan, Leighton Baines, Matt Jackson, Jimmy Bullard, Gary Teale and Lee McCulloch – were to go on beyond the Championship to play in the Premier League in the 2005-06 season. Are there players in Caldwell’s squad who could reach that level?
Caldwell and his recruitment team have certainly done a fine job since last summer. Neither Max Power (22 years old) nor Sam Morsy (24) have played above League 1 level. They were signed for bargain fees and have looked a class above the third tier. Donervon Daniels was signed for free, but has made 43 appearances this season. Daniels is still only 22 and can play in the centre of defence or on the right. Like so many young defenders Daniels can lose concentration at times, but he has great physique and has a surprisingly good touch on the ball for a man his size.
Will Grigg (24), Reece James (22) and Yanic Wildschut (24) were signed for fees that were considerable for a club in League 1, but they are young and have made major contributions to Latics’ promotion. Yet none has yet reached his true potential. Michael Jacobs is still only 24, signed for a bargain fee from Wolves. Jacobs has played in the Championship before, but not with the success he would have liked. Jacobs has been a key player in Caldwell’s system and shows genuine quality. Will these players be able to step up to the mark next season in a more competitive division?
Caldwell has wisely resisted the opportunity to spend serious money on experienced players who are nearing the end of their careers. The players aged or 30 or over that he picked up were on free transfers, signed on short term contracts. However, together with experienced players already at the club, they have provided a balance that has enabled Caldwell to bring in players in their early to mid-twenties who have genuine potential.
Making realistic comparisons between the League 1 squads of Caldwell and Jewell is simply not possible, given how much the game has changed in those past thirteen years. However, Caldwell will certainly try to emulate Jewell’s success. Jewell was a great motivator, but his teams were all built around 4-4-2. Caldwell is very much the modern manager who is tactically aware and ready to change his tactical approach according to the state of play.
For the moment Wigan Athletic supporters will be focusing on winning the League 1 title. Should this happen, as expected, they will certainly celebrate as many of them will have done in May 2003. It was Paul Jewell’s first success as a Latics manager and he went on to make many more.
Can Gary Caldwell follow in his footsteps, albeit in a very changed environment?