These are unsettled times at Wigan Athletic. A team that has relegation staring in its face unable or unwilling to show the urgency needed to stave it off. The departure of the Head of Football Operations with barely a murmur from the fans. A new contract for a player who has hardly made an impact this season. The Sun newspaper telling us that another of Alex Ferguson’s men could be taking over as manager. Then the blockbuster rumour that Dave Whelan is looking to sell up, with a Chinese consortium visiting the facilities at Christopher Park, Euxton and the DW Stadium.
The players are surely caught up in this too. It has been an awful season with so many of last year’s squad finding the step up to the Championship division tough.
Some will say that the squad just has not had enough quality to compete in the higher division, but there were players of flair and high technical quality there at the start of the season. Nick Powell was always going to be a risky signing, given his horrendous problems with injury in recent years, and so it has proved. Saturday’s cameo appearance shows what a difference he could have made if he could have stayed fit. Jordi Gomez was another flair player and he had a great record in the Championship division with Latics and Swansea. Gary Caldwell used him sparingly, Warren Joyce too, being seemingly content to shunt him off to Spain in January. Joyce also lost Latics’ most dynamic player and potential match winner, Yanic Wildschut, to Norwich City’s over-generous offer in January. Alex Gilbey too had shown flair early in the season before receiving a serious injury from which it took him months to recover.
Having had to make the massive shift from the possession football of Gary Caldwell to the hoofball of Warren Joyce the players have lost much of their ability to pass and receive the ball. Moreover with the end of the season approaching and League 1 beckoning, so many will be unsettled. Until the last couple of games a willingness to fight for the cause has rarely been lacking in the players, who have suffered so many heart-breaking defeats by fine margins. The seeming lack of urgency is surely a manifestation of a feeling of insecurity for so many of them. They know that the last time Latics were relegated there was a huge exodus of players, with 22 new players coming in. Indeed some may have already been told to start looking for another club.
Matt Jackson’s departure was labelled as “the end of a consultancy period” on the club web site. After rejoining Latics in 2011 the ex-team captain had taken over as Head of Football Operations. Interestingly the club communique tells us that Jackson had not been involved in player recruitment for the past 18 months, although he was part of the newly formed Player Recruitment Department from the summer of 2015. Jackson was heavily involved in the Latics Academy and the switch to Euxton.
The announcement of a new two year contract for another ex-captain came as a surprise to many of us. Craig Morgan was a rock upon which League 1 was won last season, but has not had an easy time this year. Injuries and an infection have limited his availability and the 31 year old has made just 12 starts and 5 substitute appearances this season. The contracts of Jussi Jaaskelainen, David Perkins and Stephen Warnock are also due to expire in June.
Given the results it is appears more and more unlikely that Graham Barrow will continue as manager next season. Indeed there are even rumours that a new manager may be brought in before the season finishes. Doing so would give a new incumbent the opportunity to decide on contracts and the players he would like to keep.
For weeks now we have heard rumours that ex-Hibernian and Rotherham manager and Bolton and Everton player, Alan Stubbs was a frontrunner. The rumours may have been fuelled by the fact that John Doolan, who was Stubbs’ first team coach at Hibs, has already rejoined Wigan. Moreover Stubbs will have been visible watching his son, Sam, play for Latics’ youth team and development squad. However, the assertion that ex-Manchester United assistant manager, Mike Phelan, might be taking the reins has already been met with concern by fans. It also appears that a return for Gary Caldwell is a possibility.
To add to all of this uncertainty the alleged visit of a Chinese consortium is of even more import. The visit might well be tentative, but is this an indication that the 22 year Whelan dynasty will soon come to an end?
Much has been said and written about DW’s incredible success at the club. If he had not taken over in February 1995 what would have happened? Would another buyer have come in and made the investments that Whelan made? Not likely. The club was not an attractive proposition at the time, languishing in the fourth tier with attendances so often below 2,000. Its only real asset was Springfield Park. Whelan invested with a mission to propel his home town club into the Premier League. Estimates vary as to how much he put into Wigan Athletic, but the figure appears to be somewhere between £90 m and £100m.
The club is surely more sellable in 2017 than it was in 1995. It has a more tangible “brand” after its successes in recent years – winning the FA Cup, reaching the final of the League Cup, eight years in the Premier League. But other than its players what assets does it have? Both the DW Stadium and the Euxton facility are owned by companies linked with the Whelan family, not the club itself.
Should the Whelan legacy continue we can expect continued financial backing for the near future at least. The club will be expected to be as financially self-sufficient as possible, although achieving that whilst maintaining success on the field of play will be a challenge. Wigan Athletic’s fan base has grown to maybe five times what it was in 1995, but still does not match those of the majority of clubs in the Championship. It is more akin to those of clubs in League 1. Moreover to maintain attendance levels the club has had to resort to cut-price season tickets. Put simply, the club will not have the revenue to seriously compete, even in League 1, unless there is backing from the ownership.
However, although Dave Whelan will surely provide a buffer for the club in the near future there appears to be no way that he will be making the scale of investment he has in the past. Given the club’s current predicament it is highly unlikely that it will reach the top tier of English football again in the foreseeable future.
Eleven of the twenty four clubs in the Championship are now owned by overseas investors. Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Wolves are Chinese owned.
In the long term it is unlikely that the Whelan family will continue to inject funds into Wigan Athletic. There will surely come a point where they will say “enough is enough”, but would anyone be tempted to buy a club that does not own its own stadium or training ground?
It is a time of uncertainty at all levels within the club. Ownership and management issues further cloud a murky near future.