Chairman Talal Al-Hammad and Chief Executive Mal Brannigan have set such a positive tone since their arrival at Wigan Athletic. Their shrewd running of the club has been underpinned by a skilful and sensitive approach to human resources and PR. The have not only brought the club back on to an even keel, but they have given supporters so much hope for the future. Their recruitment has been particularly impressive, bringing in the experienced and savvy James Beattie and Rob Kelly to support Leam Richardson and showing real shrewdness in the transfer market.
From the get-go the representatives of Phoenix 2021 stated their intention to continue to develop the Latics Academy. Over the past seven days they have secured the long-term services of academy products Callum Lang and Thelo Aasgaard through new contracts. The length of the contracts is stunning. The 22 -year-old Lang’s new contract goes to summer 2025, that of the 19-year-old Aasgaard to summer 2026.
Both players joined Wigan Athletic as 14 -year-olds. However, their career trajectories differ.
After being a key player in the Latics youth team Lang was sent on a season-long loan to Morecambe in League 2 while still only 18. He went on to make 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals. The following season saw him continue to do well in League 2 with 13 goals in 42 appearances for Oldham Athletic. The next loan was at League 1 Shrewsbury where a metatarsal injury limited him to 16 appearances, scoring two goals. Last season saw him score 3 goals in 17 appearances for Motherwell before being recalled by Latics in January. He proved to be a key player in the fight against relegation, his 7 goals in 17 appearances being crucial.
Lang’s form this season has been sensational. Despite usually playing in a wide position he is the leading goalscorer with 10 goals and 4 assists.
Aasgaard’s passage through the Academy to the first team squad was by no means easy. In his own words:
“I had a tough journey with the Under 18s because I was growing so much, I was missing games through injuries and the staff really helped me all the way, from sports science to the physios and analysts.
Gregor Rioch has really looked after me from the development phase to stepping into first team football and Leam Richardson had his trust in me last year to perform on the pitch and hopefully, I can continue to do that.
With the issues we had last year, it was a tough time for the Club but for me, it was a chance to prove that I am up for the challenge. It was up to me to take advantage of the opportunity and luckily I did.”
Aasgaard too played an important part in helping Latics avoid relegation last season. Although his natural position is as a number 10, he showed his versatility by appearing in various midfield roles. He made 13 starts in League 1, with 20 substitute appearances, scoring 3 goals.
The confirmation of the prolonged contracts for Lang and Aasgaard has brought a sigh of relief among Latics fans. Following the raiding last season of Alfie Devine, Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir by Premier League clubs and Kyle Joseph by Championship team Swansea, for fees way below market value, the club has made a statement. It will resist efforts by elite clubs to poach its young talent. Should Lang or Aasgaard eventually leave, the club will receive compensation around market value.
Lang is a key player in Leam Richardson’s promotion-seeking side. His name is among the first on the team sheet.
Aasgaard has only had one league start this season, with four appearances off the bench. His appearances have been somewhat curtailed by injuries, plus he has had to compete with a bunch of capable and experienced pros to even gain a place on the bench. What Aasgaard needs to develop further is regular game time and given the current situation at Wigan he is not going to get it. Richardson faces the choice of sending the player out on loan in January or retaining him as a fringe member of the senior squad. There is no doubt that should the player stay injury-free and get regular games under his belt, he will be a force to reckon with. He has always had that sublime skill, but now has the physique to resist the rough and tumble of the third tier.
Decisions will also need to be made about Adam Long and Luke Robinson, who made major strides last season in stepping up to the senior squad. With a large senior team squad packed with experience they have fallen way down the pecking order. Long is only 21, Robinson is 19.
Phoenix 2021 have made a major statement about investing in their young talent though the long contracts offered to Lang and Aasgaard. Elite clubs take note!