Five talking points from the month of May at Wigan Athletic


“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that. A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are. If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.”

 Bill Shankly’s quote maintains its powerful message. He was not everybody’s favourite and his teams played a pragmatic brand of football, but he was a great motivator and he laid the foundations for Liverpool’s successes in the 1970s  and 1980s.

Paul Cook demonstrated in the 2017-18 season that he too is a powerful motivator. The passion and commitment of his League 1 title-winning team is a testament to that. The ecstasy of the players and the traveling support alike, at winning the League 1 title with a narrow victory at Doncaster, showed what it meant.

As Shankly said: a lot of football success is in the mind. Can Cook can put success in the minds of his players next season? But then again, what kind of squad will the manager command in 2018-19? Can Latics consolidate in the second tier following the mistakes of 2016-17?

Let’s take a look at five talking points with regard to events during this month:

It was a relief to hear that Paul Cook has signed a new four-year contract.

We, on this site, welcomed Cook’s appointment in an article of May 2016.

We remain convinced that he is the right man to lead the club forward. It could be said that with the quality of squad at his disposal, with a playing staff budget around three times the norm in the division, promotion was an expectation. But it was not so much the promotion, but the positive style of play that impressed, with more goals scored than in any season in Latics’ 40 years in league football.

Cook has never managed a club above the third tier and next season will be more of a challenge for him. Moreover, the financial circumstances will be totally reversed. Instead of having one of the biggest staffing budgets in the division, Latics will have one of the smallest.

However, the length of Cook’s new contract suggests that the club will stick with him if the going gets rough in the transition to the Championship. Two relegations in four years happened largely because managers were sacked prematurely and replaced by others whose approaches were not only inept, but who favoured “fightball” rather than football. These lessons of the past need to be heeded.

The takeover is about to happen: at last

There was talk of the takeover by the IEG as early as December, then again in February. But now it really does seem imminent. Reading between the lines of recent documentation it appears that the IEG will provide some level of funding for the playing staff over the summer. That is backed up by media reports that Latics have offered £500,000 for left back Dan Potts of Luton Town.

To gain promotion back to the Championship Wigan had to take a substantial financial loss over the season. With a salary bill of some £10m and revenues less than half of that, David Sharpe supported his manager by retaining a backbone of ex-Championship players on salaries well above League 1 norms. Some have said that promotion was a pre-requisite for the takeover. We can assume that the losses incurred have been priced in to the sum to be paid to the Whelan family by IEG.

IEG will surely be aware that it is going to cost them money just to keep Latics in the Championship. Brentford are a club with similar revenue capabilities to Wigan. Since buying the major shareholding in Brentford in 2012, it is estimated that Matthew Benham has put £100m into the club. Benham hopes for the club to be self-sustainable, but with low attendances and commercial revenues it is a challenge. The aim is for a streamlined recruitment policy to provide a steady stream of revenue with through incoming transfer fees.

Player recruitment at Wigan has been hit-and-miss over recent years, with so many “up and coming” players not making the grade and being dispatched away on loan. However, recruitment last summer was more effective, with seven senior squad players picked up for free and loan players playing key roles over the course of the season. The sale of Omar Bogle in summer raised around £700,000 but undisclosed fees were paid for Devante Cole, James Vaughan and Jamie Walker in the January window.

IEG have indicated that two individuals from the current hierarchy at the club will be staying on in the transition. David Sharpe previously stated that he was hoping to stay on, but nothing has been confirmed at this stage. Garry Cook had been brought in to sell the club and may be departing shortly. The continuance of Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson, also remains to be confirmed.

The retained list was no surprise

Following the sad news of the departure of Luke Burke from the club, we found out that another four were not being offered new contracts. Donervon Daniels (24) and Reece James (23) were first team regulars in the promotion season of 2015-16, but long-term injuries prevented them appearing in the Championship. Daniels was sent on loan to Rochdale in summer, being recalled in January, but went on to make only one appearance by May. James came back from injury and was playing possibly the best football we had seen from him before he was left out in early March. He did not reappear, although fit. Andy Kellett (24) had had his fair share of injury niggles before being sent on loan to Chesterfield for the season. Sam Stubbs (19) had shown lots of promise in the pre-season, but was sent on loan to Crewe, where he made 3 starts, then to AFC Fylde where he made 6.

At the same time as reporting who had not been offered new contracts, the club announced that five players would be given offers. Of those, Jamie Jones (29) has already signed an extension and it was today announced that David Perkins (36) has been signed by Rochdale. Gary Roberts (34), made 6 league starts and 21 substitute appearances last season. Noel Hunt (35) did not make a league start but made 7 appearances off the bench. Alex Bruce (33) made 4 starts and 2 substitute appearances in the league.

In most football clubs it would raise a red flag to see five players below the age of 25 not offered contract extensions while the same number of players approaching or well over the age of 30, none of whom were first choice starters, being given an opportunity to stay. However, it has been a peculiarity in the tenure of Cook as Latics manager.

But Cook’s admirers will say that the manager built a strong young team, many of whom can serve the club for years to come. More senior players were confined to bench-warming at best but played an important role as squad members.

Knowing the way Cook had deployed his forces during the season it was therefore no surprise to see such a retained list.

We can expect more turnover this summer

It is rumoured that Paul Cook wants 5 or 6 new players for his squad. But his immediate challenge will be to deal with a scenario whereby so many senior players have contracts that end in June 2019. They include regulars Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Nick Powell and Max Power, together with Ryan Colclough, Jordan Flores, Josh Laurent, Craig Morgan and James Vaughan.

Cook will doubtless want to keep his key players through offering them contract extensions. Much will depend on the willingness of the club ownership to meet increased salary demands and commit to longer contracts. Should the contract extensions not be agreed we can expect those players with significant market value to be departing over the summer. Moreover, we can expect movement from some of the “fringe” players.

Loan players had a significant role over the course of last season and we can expect more to come. Lee Evans was excellent before his departure to Sheffield United in January, but Christian Walton and Callum Elder went on to establish themselves as regular starters. Whether the latter two return to Wigan on permanent contracts depends on the demands made by their parent clubs.

The bottom-line for Cook will be to keep the backbone of his squad together but bringing in new players who genuinely are “up and coming” or who have experience in the top two tiers of English football.

Will a home-grown player come into the reckoning this coming season?

Newspaper reports that Everton were interested in the 19-year-old Callum Lang caused ripples among Latics fans. Lang was a star for Latics at youth level and, after a slow start, managed to make an impact on a season-long loan in a struggling Morecambe team. He is a talented young player who can play as a target man or in the hole just behind the central striker. In League 2 he made 14 starts with 16 substitute appearances, scoring 10 goals.

The departures of both Luke Burke and Sam Stubbs once again highlighted the failure of the club in helping talented youngsters to step up to the plate at senior level. Providing Latics can hold on to Lang, will he have a chance of establishing himself in the senior squad?

Cook already has three central strikers in his senior squad in Devante Cole, Will Grigg and James Vaughan. Potential opportunities for Lang in that position would appear slim.

The future of the academy is something that IEG will need to look at. There has been so much promise over the years, but so many of those young players have fallen by the wayside. Will we ever see another career trajectory like that of Leighton Baines?

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Luke Burke’s departure and its significance

He put a brave face on it, but Luke Burke must have been gutted to be told that he was no longer wanted at Wigan Athletic. Burke was a shining light a couple of years ago, playing Championship football for Latics at the tender age of 18.

In August 2016 he made his debut, starting in the opening game of the season at Bristol City and he looked an accomplished player. Burke had been captain of Latics’ most successful-ever youth team the season before, having played for the development squad when just 16.

But things did not happen as one would have hoped. As the season progressed Burke fell out of the limelight and, in February, Warren Joyce sent him out on a two-month loan to Barrow. That was followed by being loaned to AFC Fylde for the 2017-18 season.

Burke certainly looked to have potential, but his career has taken a step backwards. That 2016-17 season was a difficult one at the club, with the dismissal of Gary Caldwell and the appointment of the inept Warren Joyce. Not an ideal time to focus on nurturing young players. But then again, when is a good time to give youth a chance in modern-day football?

Wigan Athletic give the Michael Millett Award each year in honour of a former youth player who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1995. It recognises the outstanding player in the under-18 team. Callum Lang won it in 2016-17. Lang is a well-built, fast, intelligent central striker who spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Morecambe, where he made a significant impact. The 19-year-old made 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals for the struggling League 2 side. He would seem to have a bright future ahead.

But let’s hope Lang can go further than others who have won that award in recent years. Prior to Luke Burke, Louis Robles won it in 2014-15, Matty Hamilton in 2013-14, Joey Johnson in 2012-13 and Ryan Meadows in 2011-12. None of them made a first team appearance in a competitive game at Wigan and their careers have hardly taken off. But Tim Chow (2010-11) and Lee Nicholls (2019-10) did get first team experience at Wigan and although never regular starters have gone on to play regularly at Ross County and MK Dons respectively.

Looking at the club website there are two players in the senior squad who have come up through the ranks. One is Callum Lang, the other is Jordan Flores. The latter is now 22, having been involved in a serious car crash whilst on loan at Chesterfield. Flores is surely a talent, with that sweet left foot and intelligent movement. What has been lacking in the past has been the physical aspect. The coming season would appear to be make-or-break for the Aspull lad.

The shining example of youth development at Latics over recent years is Leighton Baines. As a 17-year-old in 2002 he made his senior debut with Paul Jewell’s to-be third tier champions a League Cup win against West Bromwich Albion. He went on to make 12 appearances that season, 6 in cup competitions, 6 in the Second Division. Baines went on to an illustrious career, with both Latics and Everton, making 30 appearances for England.

When Luke Burke made his debut at Bristol some long-standing supporters were likening him to Baines. Somehow it did not happen for Burke as it did for Baines. Baines was carefully nurtured by Jewell, given his chance early on, then brought on gradually until he became a top player. Perhaps Burke never really had the kind of potential shown by Baines, but football is so much in the head and in the backing that a player can get from management and good coaching. Or maybe sometimes things are not meant to be?

Burke is still young enough to prove that Latics were wrong in rejecting him. Will he go on to the kind of a career that those previous Michael Millett Award winners have been unable to achieve? We wish him well.

In the meantime we can but ponder on the future of the academy at Wigan Athletic. Some things needs to change if homegrown youth is going to get a real chance at the club.

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Latics almost washed out at the Memorial Ground

Result: Bristol Rovers 1 Wigan Athletic 1

The Sunday Times named Bristol the best place to live in Britain in 2017. Indeed, a trip to the south of the city in the August sunshine of 2016 was quite pleasant, despite Gary Caldwell’s team going down in the 90th minute. Latics will be back to Ashton Gate next season, this time with memories of a difficult night in the north of Bristol at the rustic Memorial Ground.

The Memorial Ground was named in honour of rugby union players who died in the First World War. It hosted rugby from 1921 until Bristol RUFC moved to Ashton Gate in 2014. Bristol Rovers moved there in 1996 and, despite efforts to build a purpose-built stadium elsewhere, remain rooted at the old stadium. Arriving there last night in torrential rain I asked a steward how to find my seat, being told that it was under the canopy around the corner. The term “temporary stand” did not fully depict that canopy.

It was a difficult night for spectators and Wigan Athletic players alike. Rovers adapted extremely well to the terrible conditions and posed an attacking threat from the onset. Latics had their fair share of the ball in the first half, but there was no penetration to their attacks and James Vaughan was a truly “lone” striker. There had been talk among Latics fans prior to the game about players being out on the town at the weekend, celebrating the promotion sealed at Fleetwood. Indeed, many of us wondered if the team would be at its best, given what had happened. Those fears proved to have some foundation.

Paul Cook had let us know beforehand that he would be making changes in his line-up, that Michael Jacobs would be back after being rested at the weekend. “Crackers” did return in place of Ryan Colclough, with James Vaughan replacing Will Grigg, but Cook once more resisted a more significant  freshening-up of the team. For most of the game a “washed out” Latics were outplayed by a Rovers team who moved the ball round well in the appalling conditions, the Memorial Ground pitch somehow holding up despite the quantities of water pouring down on it.

Rovers opened the scoring in the 28th minute as Liam Sercombe’s low shot beat Christian Walton. It was not the first time we had seen the big keeper beaten by a shot like that, but to his great credit the young Cornishman went on to be Wigan’s Man of the Match, making a series of excellent saves to keep his side in the game. The 6 ft 5 in Walton will surely need to keep working on getting down to low shots, but the rest of his all-round play has been excellent throughout the season.

So often when Latics have not been firing on all cylinders the lack of impact of the wingers has been particularly noticeable. Last night neither Jacobs not Massey were able to get past their markers, with the latter being called off after 67 minutes for Colclough. The simultaneous introduction of Will Grigg for Vaughan was no surprise. Many of us were hoping for a change in tactical shape, but it remained 4-2-3-1.

With Rovers continuing to threaten, Latics somehow managed not to concede another goal and on the 76th minute mark Cook finally bit the bullet and brought on Devante Cole for an ineffective Gary Roberts. The introduction of a second striker made an immediate difference, energising the Wigan attack. Cole was soon to put the ball in the back of the net, controversially being called offside by the linesman. But Colclough’s long-range drive was fluffed by home keeper Slocombe after 80 minutes and Latics went on to claim a point, although Rovers hit the post in the closing minutes.

Cook’s next challenge will be to get his players mentally and physically ready to face a Wimbledon team on Saturday that will be keen to pick up at least a point, being placed just above the relegation zone. Nick Powell was very much missed last night, but rumours suggest he is out for the rest of the season. Cook will have to decide whether to continue with the 34-year-old Roberts in the number 10 position, to bring in Jamie Walker, or change his tactical formation.

I have not seen a Wigan win in my two recent visits to Bristol. Perhaps at the more luxurious Ashton Gate next season? Meanwhile Rovers’ Jordanian owner Wael Al-Qadi will continue to look at refurbishing the Memorial Stadium as well as building a new training ground at Almondsbury.

After many years in the doldrums, Bristol Rovers are looking to move ahead. In the meantime, Wigan Athletic fans will have to wait and see whether the club will be taken over by a consortium willing to invest the kind of money needed to survive on a regular basis in the Championship. Should the anticipated takeover by IEG not happen over the coming weeks we can bet that Messrs Sharpe and Jackson will be anxious to secure the continuance of Cook, who has shown before that he can work wonders on a small budget.

Do we show these teams too much respect?

 

“Rotherham were a tough test for us ahead of the last five games, so it was important for us not to get beat.”

The words of Dan Burn after a disappointing performance.

Prior to this goalless draw at the DW Stadium, Rotherham United had lost their previous three away games, conceding eight goals in the process. But they deserved not to lose yesterday. They packed the midfield, pressing Latics into making mistakes and their big lone striker proved a physical handful for the Wigan defence.

Latics looked pedestrian, plodding along, not the dynamic outfit who had scored nine goals in the previous two games. Passes were misplaced, and the build-up was painfully slow. Although it was their third game in the space of eight days, once again Paul Cook resisted the opportunity to freshen up his pack and stuck with the same starting eleven.

Thanks to a Bristol Rovers goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Latics remain on top of League 1, ahead of Blackburn on goal difference. They are in pole position, with a game in hand to Blackburn and five-point buffer ahead of Shrewsbury. Latics have five games left: two at home and three away.

Dan Burn emphasised the importance of not having lost to Rotherham, who remain in fourth place. His comment begs the question as to whether Latics were  focused on not losing more than actually winning.

It was the kind of performance that we have seen before in home games against teams from the top ten. In so many of them Latics have seemed unwilling to fully commit men forward, in fear of counterattack. At the DW they have beaten only one team currently in the top ten and that was a tight 1-0 win over Plymouth, who were bottom of the table at the time. On the other side of the coin, they have only lost one, that being against Blackpool prior to the Manchester City epic. They shared the points in the others, five of those being goalless draws.

The counter-argument is that Latics are the prize scalp in the division and that visiting teams come looking for a draw, doing all they can to dull Wigan’s attacking threat. Most of Latics’ best performances this season have been away from home, where the opposition has had to show more attacking intent. The stats show that Wigan have picked up 44 points from 20 games on the road, compared with 43 points from 21 games at home. Against the top ten teams away from home they have a record of W4 D2 L3, whereas at home it is W1 D7 L1.

Cook’s record last season at Portsmouth against the other teams who finished in the top ten makes interesting reading. Like Wigan their results against their closer rivals were not impressive. Pompey’s home record read W4 D2 L3, whereas on the road it was W4 D1 L4. They  failed to score in two of those home games against top ten opposition.

Yesterday Cook resisted the chance to bring on James Vaughan after half time for the injured Nick Powell, instead introducing Gary Roberts. Vaughan had teamed up with great effect with Will Grigg after coming on at Rochdale but Cook chose the more conservative option by making a like-for-like replacement. Cook was clearly concerned about losing further control in the midfield.

After the game the manager commented that:

“We can’t win every game and steam roll every team, football is not like that. It’s a difficult game and every point towards the end of the season is golden.”

Cook was obviously keen to pick up one point if he could not pick up the three.

Wigan’s performance yesterday and in previous home games against top ten opponents begs the question whether too much respect has been shown to such opposition. But for the moment Latics are in a great position to consolidate their promotion to the Championship division. Cook deserves commendation for helping his team get to such a point with only three weeks of the season remaining.

 

Thanks to Jordan for his revealing analysis on Twitter.

Unlocking the Jacobs enigma

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

It is the 11th minute of Saturday’s home encounter against the Milton Keynes Dons. Under pressure Nick Powell launches a long ball from his own half. It looks ambitious, speculative. But Wigan’s number 17 gets his head there to nod it on, accelerating past two defenders. It seems like he has run up a blind alley as he finds himself at the by-line, but he squeezes out a left foot cross that allows Will Grigg the formality of putting the ball away.

Michael Jacobs was involved in another assist in that 5-1 win, sprinting at full throttle from his own half to the edge of opposition penalty box to lay on a superb pass for Grigg to claim his hat trick. In the defeat at Fratton Park five days earlier, we saw a different Michael Jacobs, being peripheral, seemingly lacking in energy. More often than not, when Jacobs has been at his most dynamic, it has been reflected in a good team performance.

Stats suggest that scoring first in a football game is so important. That piece of magic from Michael Jacobs produced the opening goal in a game that Latics went on to win. A study based on the Premier League published by smarkets.com shows that the team scoring the first goal from 2014-2017 won 70% of the matches, losing only 12%.

Jacobs showed his drive and creativity against the Dons, but his ability to get crucial goals has had a major effect on Wigan’s promotion push. Indeed, of the 10 he has scored, no less than 8 were opening goals that led to victory for his team. Three of those victories were by 1-0 margins, one of those being in the 90th minute in a crucial game at Bradford. Jacobs was in the right place at the right time as he coolly dispatched a sublime flick from Will Grigg. His 30-yard screamer was the only goal in the home game against Northampton in September, his superb left footed finish from just outside the box gave a weakened Latics a similar result at the DW against Rochdale in February.

Jacobs was a key player in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side in 2015-16. He scored 10 league goals in 38 appearances. The sceptics said that he would not be able to perform at the same level in the Championship, where he struggled to with both Derby County and Wolves. His return to the second tier of English football could hardly be called an unqualified success, with just 3 goals under Caldwell and Warren Joyce. However, Jacobs was playing for a struggling side and under Joyce he found himself laden with more defensive duties than previously.

Even at League 1 level Michael Jacobs can be enigmatic. So often he can get himself into great positions but cannot show the composure needed to finish a move. His critics would say that he has trouble staying on his feet, going to ground too easily, that his left foot is poor. But Jacobs remains popular among Latics fans for his willingness to put run himself into the ground for his team, together with his moments of brilliance. Some will say that the player would not be at Wigan if he were able to consistently perform to his maximum potential but would be playing in a higher tier of football. But Jacobs is still only 26 and has time to continue to progress as a footballer.

Given the level of commitment that Jacobs shows on the field of play and the physical demands of his role, it is no surprise that the player cannot “turn it on” game-in, game-out. With a hectic schedule where games come in thick and fast it is difficult for any player of his type to consistently perform at a high level. Moreover, Paul Cook is not a manager who favours squad rotation and Jacobs has almost invariably been the first name on the team sheet for one of the wing positions. He has started in 42 games this season, league and FA Cup.

In October 2017 Jacobs signed a new contract that will keep him at Wigan until the summer of 2020. At the time Paul Cook remarked that:

Michael is such a talented footballer who is really thriving off the way we are playing at the moment. I know he is a really popular player amongst the fans, not just for his ability but being such a great lad as well and I am sure this is news that goes down well with everyone associated with the club.”

Jacobs has been a key player for Latics over the course of the season. Cook will be hoping he will be at his scintillating best for the seven matches that remain. The acid test for Jacobs will be a return to the Championship, providing Wigan get promoted. With the backing of Cook and his coaching staff, could the player gain that extra little bit of composure that would make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier?

 

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