Will Grigg has been on fire but the dust has now settled on Wigan Athletic’s achievement of winning League 1. Now it is time to look ahead to the start of the Championship season on August 6th.
Gary Caldwell will surely be relieved that he will not have to go through the massive restructuring of last summer. But at the same time he will know that the current squad will need strengthening if Latics are to hold their own in the higher division. At least half a dozen reinforcements are likely to be brought in.
Caldwell’s immediate priority will be to deal with players out of contract and players who have come in or gone out on loan.
Caldwell has already secured the services of Stephen Warnock for the next couple of seasons following a very successful loan from Derby County. Warnock has looked a class act in League 1, whether playing as a left back or on the left side of a back line of three. However, he is 34 years of age and it comes as a surprise that a contract of more than a year was offered.
Rumours also suggest that Caldwell is trying to tie up a deal with Everton for Conor McAleny. The 23 year old scored 4 goals in his 9 starts and 4 appearances as a substitute since joining Wigan on loan in January. McAleny’s career has been dogged by injury, but Caldwell must feel reasonably confident that the player can maintain a good level of fitness. McAleny can hit the ball as hard as anyone, as evident on the screamers he scored at Walsall and Shrewsbury.
Haris Vuckic is the third loan player who finished the season for Latics. The 23 year old Slovenian has a great left foot and can both score and create goals. The question mark over Vuckic has been his fitness. He made 5 starts for Latics, but never completed the 90 minutes. Vuckic has reportedly gone back to Newcastle and given his inability to establish himself at Wigan it is unlikely he will be sought after by Caldwell.
Caldwell has the option of bringing back three players who were packed off on loan to other clubs at the start of last season. With Reece James and Stephen Warnock, Latics do not need another left back, so it is likely that Andrew Taylor will once again be sent away on loan until his contract expires in June 2017.
Billy Mckay was given minimal opportunities at Wigan, but has scored 12 goals in 28 starts for Dundee United who finished bottom of the SPL. However, it is reported that there is interest in him from other Scottish clubs and it is unlikely he will return.
The prospect of Emyr Huws playing in midfield with the likes of Max Power is mouth-watering, but it appears that he might have burnt his bridges at Wigan. Huws is a combative midfielder who oozes class, but comments attributed to him as not wanting to play for Latics when they were going down to League 1 were unfortunate to say the least. Moreover it appears that the ankle problem the player suffered at Wigan has continued to plague him. Huws has another two years to run on his contract and the likelihood is that Latics would accept any reasonable transfer fee put forward.
There are seven players out of contract. Both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann were recruited by Owen Coyle in the days when the club’s annual salary bill was well above what we can expect for the near future. Barnett is an experienced ex-Premier League player, but has found it difficult to adjust to the possession football that Caldwell demands. McCann on the other hand has thrived under Caldwell. The Scot has not only called on him to play in the centre of defence as he did at times under Uwe Rosler, but has reinvented the big Irishman as a wing back. Although Barnett’s stay at the club looks to be coming to a close, Caldwell will be keen to retain McCann, although he will have to ask the player to take a significant salary cut if he wants to stay.
Reece Wabara was signed on a short term contract in January, since when he made 14 starts with 3 appearances off the bench. Although Wabara has by no means played badly, neither has he convinced us that he must stay. Wabara is already being linked with other clubs and rumours suggest he is on his way out of the club.
Kevin McNaughton missed most of the season out through injury and although the 33 year old Scot is an accomplished full back it is unlikely Caldwell will offer him a further contract.
The positions of three younger players who are out of contract are unclear. The 23 year old goalkeeper Lee Nicholls has amassed nine league appearances over his five years or so at the club. He has had loan spells at six clubs, his most successful being in 2012-13 when he was an ever-present for Northampton Town. Fan opinions on Nicholls vary. Some say that he is the kind of commanding keeper that Latics need and that successive managers have never given him the chance he has deserved. Others cite a lack of concentration, that some of the goals he has conceded should have been easily saved. Rarely has the rift in fan opinion been more apparent than in the last game of the season. On the Vital Latics forum 18% of readers voted him ‘’Man of the Match’’ whereas others slated him for all four Barnsley goals. The signing of young Dan Lavercombe from Torquay in January could prove a key factor in the decision whether or not Nicholls will be offered a new contract.
The other two young players whose contracts are due to expire are Jordan Flores and Ryan Jennings, both 20 years old. It was always going to be hard for young, inexperienced players to break their way into a team aiming for promotion. Both have certainly showed promise, although only Flores played in league games this past season. He made two league starts, both in September, scoring a fine goal against Fleetwood but getting sent off at Oldham a week later. Flores has had injury issues, but he has a great left foot and shows some silky skills. Jennings made his senior Latics debut as a substitute in the League Cup game against Bury and has been on loan at Grimsby and Cheltenham, making a total of 9 starts and 9 appearances as a substitute.
So what are the areas that need strengthening?
David Sharpe has recently made it clear that Latics will not be spending big money to bring in players in their late twenties or beyond. However, that does not preclude money being spent on young players who have already shown what they can do at other clubs. Any more experienced players coming in are likely to be free agents or those available at knockdown prices.
With Jussi Jaaskelainen now 41 years old, Caldwell is likely to seek an experienced goalkeeper to challenge the Finn for his place. Rumours suggest that they will once again try to sign the 32 year old Andy Lonerghan. The ex-Preston and Bolton man has a wealth of experience and is midway through a two year contract at Fulham.
Right back was a problem position last season and Caldwell will be keen to recruit someone who can fill the bill. Donald Love (21) could be that player should Latics be able to persuade Manchester United to part with him for a reasonable fee. Love’s loan spell at Latics was interrupted by injury and call-ups from the Scotland under-21 team, but he did enough to suggest that he would be a good investment for Wigan.
Caldwell will also be looking for a quality central defender with the speed to cope with pacey Championship forwards. With the likely departure of Barnett it will be a priority.
Rumour suggests that Latics are interested in the 31 year old Darren Pratley, a holding midfielder with a wealth of experience with over 300 appearances under his belt at Swansea and Bolton. Together with the 22 year old Danny Whitehead, signed from Macclesfield Town in January, Caldwell would be adding a balance of youth and experience to his midfield if he were to sign Pratley.
Caldwell will also seek another centre forward. Much depended on Grigg last season and Latics need alternatives in case he is called up for international duty or injured. Craig Davies had his most injury-free season for some time, but was only used as a substitute in the second half of the season. Caldwell will broaden his options by going for a third central striker.
Should Vuckic not be returning, another left footed winger/creative player would help maintain a balance. Ryan Colclough, Michael Jacobs, Conor McAleny and Yanic Wildschut are all right footed although Andy Kellett can play a left footed role on the right of midfield.
Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job over the past year. Their next challenge is to find half a dozen new recruits who can add further balance to a squad that is going to have to come to grips with playing at a higher level this coming season.