Windsor Park erupted into song in the 62nd minute of a World Cup qualifying match on Friday. The chorus reverberated around the old Belfast stadium. The irony is that some Northern Ireland supporters may have been more familiar with the song than the player who came off the bench at that moment
Will Grigg went to the European Championships in France in summer, but never got the chance to play. He found himself the third choice centre forward behind Kyle Lafferty of Norwich and Conor Washington of Queens Park Rangers. Lafferty has a fine goalscoring record for his country – one in every three games. He opened the scoring against Azerbaijan in the 24th minute, before going off with around half an hour to play. But Washington was not in the squad and Grigg was the replacement.
Will Grigg was born in Solihull and qualifies for Northern Ireland through an Irish grandparent. He made his debut for them in a 6-0 defeat to Italy in June 2012, going on to make five more appearances over the next 12 months, but over the past three years his appearances have become infrequent.
The experience in France will have been desperately disappointing for Grigg. He scored 27 goals last season, the third time in his career when he has exceeded the 20 mark. Given Lafferty’s goalscoring record at international level it was always going to be difficult to claim a place ahead of him. But Grigg’s fans will seriously question why he was not favoured over Washington, who had a good goalscoring ratio at Peterborough, but failed to score for QPR last season after his January transfer.
But despite the knockbacks of France and critics wondering if Grigg was up to the level of the Championship, the player started the season with a flourish. Despite his team’s poor start to the season Grigg not only managed to score 4 goals in the first 5 games, but also to look comfortable playing in the second tier. It looked like Grigg could be on fire in the Championship as he had been in League 1.
At the start of the season Grigg was Wigan’s most marketable player. Were he to make a success of himself in the Championship his potential transfer value would sky-rocket. The figure Latics paid Brentford – rumoured to be around £900,000 – looked like chicken feed compared with the possibilities of a valuation moving up towards the £10 million mark. In a cash-strapped situation the club could not afford to miss out on a big cash-in at a later date.
But since early September Grigg has not so much been on fire, but more like smouldering. With his first child due to be born he opted out of the Northern Ireland squad at the end of August, the arrival of Adam Le Fondre near the end of the transfer window also complicating Grigg’s position. At the end of September in the home game against Wolves Gary Caldwell chose Le Fondre to start ahead of Grigg. The manager could say his move paid off as Le Fondre scored after 5 minutes, with Grigg coming off the bench to score the winner in the 88th minute. In fact that has been Grigg’s only goal in his last 7 matches for Wigan.
Le Fondre was again preferred to Grigg in the goalless draw with Burton in mid-October, but Grigg was to regain his place for the next three matches. However, the arrival of new manager Warren Joyce was to see Le Fondre start in the ill-fated 3-0 defeat to Reading.
One wonders if Joyce will continue to favour Le Fondre over Grigg. The 29 year old Le Fondre arrived on loan from Cardiff with an impressive career strike record, having scored 164 goals in 287 league starts and 152 appearances off the bench. He has played in the lower divisions, but also in the Premier League with Reading. He joined Cardiff City in May 2014 but managed only 4 goals in 19 starts and 4 substitute appearances before being sent off on loan to Bolton then Wolves.
Joyce might well be looking into resting Grigg over the coming weeks. Last week he stated that: “It is a real frustration. Talking to Will, he’s had a long summer, where he maybe only had 10 days off between seasons, and he almost needs a little bit of a break. I know from my experience at Manchester United, the players always had at least a four-week break (over the summer) because the body needs that. It’s something we’ll be looking at with Will, to try to give him a chance to recharge his batteries and go again for the rest of the year.”
Up to this point Grigg has started in 13 league matches, with 3 appearances off the bench. He has scored 5 goals. Le Fondre has started in 3, with 4 substitute appearances, scoring 1 goal.
Both Grigg and Le Fondre have excellent goalscoring records. There are fans who would like to see them play together as twin strikers, but Joyce is likely to take a similar stance to Gary Caldwell and most other modern day managers by playing with one central striker. The 25 year old Grigg is physically bigger than Le Fondre and has shown his ability to play the lone centre forward role with skill and application. But Le Fondre has more experience of playing in higher levels of football.
Joyce also has a fit-again Craig Davies at his disposal. Davies can play the role of an old fashioned battering ram centre forward who can make life uncomfortable for central defenders. He was afforded little playing time last season, so often brought on near the ends of games, with little time to settle in. Davies needs more consistent playing time to be at his sharpest, but with Grigg and Le Fondre ahead of him in the pecking order he will find it tough. But the prospect of a Davies-Le Fondre double act in the final quarter of a tight game could be tempting for Joyce.
It is ironic that at the same time that Joyce is talking about resting Grigg he is at last getting playing time for Northern Ireland. It is a matter which is out of the manager’s hands, but he cannot be happy with the situation.
It remains to be seen not only how much rest Joyce will afford Grigg, but whether the player wants it. He started the season well, but events have conspired to disrupt his rhythm. Many fans advocate a return for Grigg as the undisputed first choice centre forward. Joyce will have to make some difficult decisions over the coming weeks.
An on-fire Grigg could be the key to Latics moving up the Championship table, free of the threat of relegation. He remains the club’s biggest asset and the manager will need to ensure that he is sharp and at his best.
Last season Grigg had only scored 6 league goals by Christmas, but went on to notch 25. He has already scored 5 goals in the Championship this season.
Can he do it again?
Can Joyce rekindle Grigg’s fire?