Restructuring at Wigan Athletic: can it bring more stability and hope for the future?

Can Talal steady an unsteady ship?

“As an ownership group we have invested well in excess of £20m since we came on board in 2021. Clearly mistakes have been made and this investment has not been spent in the right areas meaning finances this season have been difficult to sustain. This latest payment will ensure our wage obligations are secured until we finalise a sustainable budget for next season.

Clearly mistakes have been made and this investment has not been spent in the right areas meaning finances this season have been difficult to sustain. This latest payment will ensure our wage obligations are secured until we finalise a sustainable budget for next season.

“There will also shortly be announcements made regarding board and staff re-structures which will help us deliver this. I finally again want to reassure all staff, players and fans that Mr. Al Jasmi and I are fully committed to the club with manager Shaun Maloney at the helm.”

Talal Al Hammad’s announcement was long overdue, but it did provide a glimmer of hope for what is to follow. The Wigan Athletic Chairman has been subjected to some vile attacks by fans on social media over these past weeks, a far cry from the adulation he was receiving this time last year after Leam Richardson’s team had secured the League 1 title.

Following administration, the senior squad was down to just a handful of players and a massive recruitment process had to be undergone. At the time the recruitment looked impressive, with relatively little spent on transfers and experienced players brought in on free transfers. There had been stories in the national media of Latics offering salaries that few other clubs in the division would or could match, but they were somehow downplayed by the club. Unbeknown to the fans those “competitive” salaries were to become the root cause of the club making a £7.7m loss for the season.

In terms of achieving promotion to the Championship the recruitment had done the trick. However, over the summer fans were getting increasingly concerned about the lack of Championship-level quality in the squad. Recruitment was minimal and Latics line-up in the opening game showed no new faces. Richardson was to rely on the players who formed the backbone of the team in 2021-22. Although fans had been buoyed by the results of the previous season there were those who questioned whether the manager’s physical – some would say outmoded – style of football would work in the Championship. It did at first, until the cracks started to appear when the momentum provided by the successes of the previous season was slipping away. By the time Richardson was sacked the football had become dire to watch.

The recruitment drive of summer 2021 had left the club with so many players on long-term contracts. Moreover, the squad was one of the most aged in the division, containing so many players with minimal “resale value”. Having already incurred a significant financial loss the previous season, Phoenix 2021, had to cut back on recruiting new players. Nevertheless, Latics sources were quoting their wage bill to be the 12th or 13th highest in the Championship.

The overspending by Phoenix 2021 is by no means rare in the Championship but it raises a red flag to a fan base that has been through the trials of administration: one that worries about the continued existence of the club. The ownership itself can surely not have envisaged the kind of investment made to get the club promoted, then to see it drop back down to the third tier. It is a lesson they have learned the hard way.

We will probably never know the reasons why staff salaries were paid late on so many occasions. One can only assume it has been caused by liquidity issues with the owner seemingly unprepared for the sums of money needed over the course of the season. The whole thing has been so unsettling to all associated with the club. However, it is of key importance that Phoenix 2021 have already wiped out £20m of debt by buying shares.

There are complications in having an owner and chairman who are based overseas. It means that the directors and CEO have a key role to play. Mal Brannigan’s sacking was no surprise given the losses made, but who was overseeing the CEO himself? It would be no surprise to see locally-based representatives at director or CEO level in the restructuring that Talal is considering. It would be a wise move on a PR level as a means of rebuilding trust with fans and the wider community.

For a number of weeks, it has been rumoured that Gregor Rioch will take over a new role as Director of Football. The creation of such a position is something that has been mooted by fans for several years. If there had been one when Roberto Martinez left would a DOF have agreed to bring in Owen Coyle, whose long-ball approach was diametrically opposed to that of the Catalan? Creating an all-encompassing footballing ethos around the club will surely give it more direction. One of Phoenix 21’s prime goals has been to bring more home-grown talent into the senior squad. It was Kolo Toure who gave Charlie Hughes his EFL debut and how he has shone since. Previous managers had resisted bringing in the club’s academy players, preferring to rely on senior professionals or bringing youngsters from other clubs, except in the season of administration when they simply had to.  

Al Hammad and Maloney will need to bring down the running costs of the club to a sustainable level. Rumour suggests that there are dissatisfied players at the club: those whose contracts are expiring and those remaining under contract. Given the problems with late pay it is to their credit that they put in the effort for so long. The chairman and manager must reassure those who they want to keep that the club’s future is secure and those late payment are a thing of the past.

The club is once again at a turning point. If the restructuring is handled well, it could provide Latics with more direction for the future. The restructuring together with the continued financial support of Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi can help steady an unsteady ship.


Talal sets the target of financial sustainability

“It’s important for us to be financially responsible going forward, and we’re fully committed to doing so. Beginning next season, we’ll operate within our means and we will prioritise maintaining a solid financial standing. Our strategies for the upcoming transfer window and beyond will take this into account and we’re determined to build a sustainable future for the Club in line with a modern data-backed approach.”

The past couple of weeks have been particularly unsettling for Wigan Athletic fans. For the fourth time this season players and staff were not paid on time, resulting in disciplinary action from the EFL. The three-point deduction imposed will almost certainly see the club relegated back into League 1. Moreover, there could be further punishment to come because the club’s owner failed to deposit an amount equal to 125% of the forecast monthly wage bills in a designated Club account as previously instructed by the EFL. Should there be a further points deduction it is likely to be imposed for the upcoming season.

Fans have been bewildered by these events and unsure of the direction in which the club is heading in the short term. Many took to the social media and message boards. Most sought an explanation from club management why this could have happened, seeking reassurance for the future. Sadly others were condemning in their tone, some sending totally unacceptable tweets to the chairman, Talal Al Hammad. They had perhaps overlooked that the owner had previously settled club debt to the value of at £14m through the purchase of shares, leaving the club debt free at the time.  

We had been therefore been waiting for Talal Al Hammad to give us a statement of the direction in which he intends to take the club. Al Hammad had tweeted that the first priority was to make sure the players were paid for the recent missed pay date. After that he would provide further information. His statement came on Friday, when the player payments had been processed.

Although we still do not know why the payments were not made on time – perhaps the true reasons will never be revealed – Al Hammad stated that “This issue has now been resolved and I can assure you that the late payment of wages will not happen again. It simply cannot happen again.” He also recognised the need to rebuild trust with players, staff and fans.

On March 8 the club announced a loss of £7.7m for the 2020-21 season, with staff costs of £13.4m and turnover of £8.3m. The announcement included a statement that “Phoenix 2021 Limited will continue to fund the future commitments as equity rather than debt”. A similar loss was made in Dave Whelan’s last season as chairman, 2017-18, with a similar staffing cost. Both Leam Richardson and Gary Caldwell were successful in winning League 1, buoyed by the club paying wages well above the norm for the division.

A financial loss for a season was commonplace in Dave Whelan’s time as Latics owner. Despite the lucrative TV money coming in during the eight years they were in the Premier League the club only made a profit once. Whelan was the local benefactor who wrote off debt and enabled the club to live beyond its means. 

When Whelan sold to IEC in November 2018 the club was already on the way making a significant loss for the season, as it sought to consolidate in the Championship. The £9.2m loss for the 2018-19 was largely down to a salary bill of £19.4 to achieve an 18th place position in the league table. Despite the loss IEC continued to loan funds to the club, with somewhere close to £10m spent on signing Jamal Lowe, Kieffer Moore, Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams in the summer of 2019. We will probably ever know the ins and outs of the takeover by Next Leader Fund in June 2020 and why the club was put into administration, but a loan of over £24m from IEC to the club was written off in the process.

Faced with a significant financial loss in their first full season of ownership Phoenix 2021 trod cautiously in the transfer market in the summer of 2022. Ryan Nyambe was acquired as a free agent and Anthony Scully was signed from Lincoln City for an undisclosed fee. With so many  players recruited on long term contracts the previous summer the squad was largely going to be that of the previous season. With the momentum of winning League 1 behind them, they started fairly well. However, the physical long-ball approach that had enabled them to do well in the third tier was not going to be successful against the more sophisticated opposition in the Championship. The alarm bells were already ringing when Leam Richardson was given a new three-year contract, only for him to be sacked weeks later, after winning only one of the last ten home games.

The appointment of Kolo Toure was at best ambitious, at worst naive. The team’s performances in Toure’s first two games – a draw at Charlton and a narrow home defeat by high-flying Sheffield United – showed some promise as the manager encouraged his players to be “brave on the ball”, veering away from the long ball strategy. However, major defensive lapses saw results take a major turn for the worse and the manager was sacked after 59 days with no wins in 9 games.

Shaun Maloney was appointed in late January. His record up to this point is W1D6L3. Maloney has impressed fans with his eloquence, openness and realistic approach. He has talked of improvement in both boxes and he has tightened up a defence that had leaked so many goals before his arrival. However, the attacking aspect is in need of considerable improvement. Al Hammad commented in his statement that:

 “Shaun and his staff have worked relentlessly since he was appointed and we have all seen in the last few weeks the improvement in both the team and individuals. The connection between the manager, players and fans is back and this progress is the first step in our long-term journey together. He has my and the Board’s full support.”

Mistakes have certainly been made that have proved very costly. Richardson and Toure and their associated staff will need to be paid off and the club now faces a return to League 1. Al Hammad has stated his view that the club needs to be financially responsible, operating within its means. This is a different approach to that of the Whelan/Sharpe/IEC eras.

The financial balance sheet for this season will show another considerable loss, but can Al Hammad get close to balancing the books next season? What steps will he have to take to do so?

The first step is to reduce costs by shedding players on relatively large salaries. There are 10 players whose contracts expire in June, along with 5 on loan from other clubs. That leaves 14 who remain under contract. They are:

Defenders: Charlie Hughes, Jason Kerr, Tom Pearce, Jack Whatmough

Central Midfield: Tom Naylor, Graeme Shinnie

Wingers/creative: Thelo Aasgaard, Jordan Jones, Callum Lang, Jamie McGrath, Anthony Scully

Centre forwards: Stephen Humphrys, Josh Magennis, Charlie Wyke

The board will set a budget for the coming season and Maloney will need to work within it. Some of the players whose contracts run out in June may yet be offered extensions, although on reduced terms. The highest earners of those still under contract may be urged to move on or sent on loan to reduce costs.

Talal Al Hammad’s statement has been welcomed by so many fans who were seeking clarity as to the stability and direction of the club. However, there are those who have come to expect the club to have a benevolent owner in the mould of Dave Whelan, enabling to punch above its financial weight. There are others who are angry at the board for the late payments of players, incurring a points penalty making the chances of avoiding relegation become smaller still.

Al Hammad will be visiting Wigan in the coming week in an attempt to rebuild trust with stakeholders and the wider community. It is an unenviable task that he has ahead of him.

With a period of austerity coming up at the club there will be fans who will not accept the situation and attendances will drop. However, most fans will accept that if the club continues to be run like it has in the past there is always a risk of amassing great debt and subsequent liquidation.

Wigan Athletic: five talking points after grabbing a point at Cardiff

January 14, 2023: Cardiff City 1 Wigan Athletic 1

A game between the two teams with the worst records in the division over the past 10 matches was always going to be tense. It was a mediocre spectacle, with neither team able to play with any fluency.

Kolo Toure had opted for another conservative lineup with Steven Caulker coming in to play in the middle of a back three and Callum Lang and Will Keane up front.

Callum O’Dowda’s 82nd minute deflected shot gave the home team the lead, but Latics did not cave and Keane was once again in the right place at the right time to equalise after 96 minutes.

Following the game Toure commented:

“I have to praise the players because they worked hard, and gave everything in the game. We started the game well, and I believe we were the better team in the first half. We created so many chances, but we have to be more clinical. In the second half, it was more balanced, but they started to dominate and scored.

This afternoon, you could see the players were together and wanted to come back. It shows the team spirit that we are trying to create here, and we want our players to hate losing games.I have to praise them (the players) for their fighting spirit, and their mentality in refusing to lose. We want to make sure we give everything in every single game, so we can have no regrets.”

Some talking points:

A valuable point gained

Following three successive 4-1 defeats in the league it was important to halt that losing streak. Toure continued with the defensive approach that he used for the draw in the FA Cup at Luton. It looked like he was playing for a draw until Cardiff scored, after which Latics had to play with more attacking intent.  

At this stage of the season with the composition of the squad in a state of flux, with morale so low, any point gained is a blessing.

The point helped keep Wigan from falling further away from the rest of the relegation pack.

How long will it take for Toure be able to find a happy medium with his tactical approach?

Kolo Toure remains winless after 7 games in charge. His first two games showed promise: a composed performance producing a 1-1 draw at Millwall, then a second half fight back after going two goals behind against high flying Sheffield United. Latics had shown bravery on the ball, loose long balls from defence were minimised and the quality of their football really improved.

However, the following three matches saw the defence torn apart with the team looking short of organisation and shape.

What we saw yesterday was akin to the approach shown by Leam Richardson in his worst times before he was dismissed. It was effectively playing five at the back with three holding midfielders, with the two front men starved of decent service. Max Power’s ugly long throws, largely ineffective under the previous manager, once again reared their ugly head.

The hope is that Toure can find a happy medium between the two extremes.

Caulker makes a good debut

Much has been said about Steven Caulker’s career and the number of clubs he has had. However, he played a key role in the point gained at Cardiff. Caulker was a rock in the centre of the back line, not only having a good game individually, but playing a key role in marshalling the teammates around him.

Latics had needed that kind of experience in their rearguard for some time.

Azeez offers something different

When Jordan Cousins limped off after 49 minutes Miguel Azeez took over his role in left midfield. He entered the field with a bit of a swagger, wearing short socks with little protection for his shins. He went close to scoring 6 minutes after being on the field, making an intelligent run to the centre of the box latching on to an incisive pass from Tom Naylor. His effort sadly passed over the crossbar, but his movement was good to see.

Azeez clearly has a touch of class, something that Toure can build on. But will the defensive aspects of his game be strong enough for him to warrant a regular place in the starting lineup?

Lang and Power off form

Callum Lang has had a difficult season adjusting to the play in a higher division. He looked a forlorn sight yesterday, unable to retain possession of the ball. It was no surprise when he was substituted after 71 minutes.

Max Power was largely anonymous in this game until he made a superb cross for that last-minute equaliser. His recent form has been disappointing.

Both players have lost their way over these months. Lang would be a constant danger to League 1 defences and Power’s pinpoint crossing produced so many chances last season.

Toure’s dilemma is in whether to continue to show faith in them or to give them time on the bench to go back to re-examine their games.

Wigan Athletic: Mackay and Joyce could not avoid relegation. Can Kolo Toure?

The January transfer window was approaching and Wigan Athletic had just lost their fifth game out of seven under their latest manager. They were second from bottom of the Championship with 20 points from 24 games, but just three points behind the pack above the relegation zone.

That was in the 2014-15 season and the manager was Malky Mackay. A couple of seasons later they were in another precarious position in early January with 19 points from 25 games, six points behind that pack. Warren Joyce had been appointed manager on November 2, 2016. He was dismissed on March 13, 2017 after achieving 6 wins in 24 matches.

In both instances the club had appointed new managers in November following a run of poor results. They made sweeping changes in their playing staffs during the month of January, but the results did not improve, and relegation was not going to be avoided.

Kolo Toure too was also appointed in the month of November and faces an uphill task as did Mackay and Joyce.

The “fire sale” of January 2015 was a means of drastically slashing the wage bill. There was surprisingly little uproar from the fans at the time, with cup final heroes being dispatched at bargain prices. People had been so disillusioned by a perceived lack of effort from the players that many did not question that a big shake-up was required. The fans were not over-concerned about the outgoings of January 2017, many players in the squad being labelled as League 1 players, not of Championship standard.

Changes of manager during the course of a season is always a gamble. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The newcomer typically wants to bring in his own men, supposedly to fit into the style of football he prefers, but also to rid himself of players loyal to his predecessor who are not fully supportive.

A run of three 4-1 defeats has been a hammer blow following what we had seen in Toure’s first two games. A composed display at Millwall brought in a well-deserved point. Latics were not expected to get a good result against a high-flying Sheffield United side, built upon a budget dwarfing that of Wigan. But after going two goals behind after 56 minutes Latics began to show the kind of “bravery on the ball” that Toure was seeking. “Hopeful long balls” from defence were minimised and the quality of their football was of a level that we had not seen for a long time. However, the visitors’ first half goal was gifted by woeful marking from a set piece. Sadly, the marking got worse in the following three games which resulted in resounding defeats.

Toure continues to work on a transformation in style and approach that would have ideally been worked on in pre-season. However, his more immediate priority is to tighten up his defence, stopping those “soft” goals being conceded. Although he may have a clear vision of what type of football he wants his team to play, he must also be pragmatic. Expansive, aesthetically pleasing football might be a delight to watch, but with his team under threat of relegation he must put an emphasis on solid defence. This does not imply a return to the hoofball we saw too often over the past year, which would concede possession and invite the opposition to put more pressure on the Wigan defence. But the transition from long ball/hoofball to building up moves from the back must be phased in.

Toure has made it clear that he is looking towards bringing in new players who can fit into the style he wants to implement. However, before bringing in new players he must shed some from his current squad to balance the books.  There are almost certainly players in the squad who are uncomfortable with the demands of the new manager and will ask to be released this month. However, the departure of Graeme Shinnie on loan to Aberdeen was a surprise. Of all the midfielders in the squad Shinnie looked like the one who would fit best into Toure’s scheme. However, the Scot clearly did not feature in the manager’s plans. Shinnie’s departure coincided with strong rumours that Latics are interested in Conor Wickham, recently released from Forest Green Rovers by mutual consent. Wickham is a big target man, 32 years old, who has a less than impressive career strike record. Is this simply a rumour??

There will certainly be incomings and outgoings over the month of January. However, history at the club has shown that too much change can be counterproductive. The fire sale of January 2015 was followed by further upheaval in January 2017: neither led to an improvement in the playing staff or performances.

Toure recently stated that:

“If we want to sign players, then they need to improve us and make us much better than we are at the minute.”

Let’s hope the manager and the recruitment team can do a better job than was done in 2015 and 2017. Failure to do so will most likely mean that Kolo Toure will be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce.

Kolo Toure’s New Year Shopping List

The dust of Leam Richardson’s shock departure has practically settled. Kolo Toure has already made a positive impact, but can he succeed in keeping Wigan Athletic in the Championship division?

Yesterday’s defeat at Middlesbrough was not a surprise against a team in a rich vein of form. What was disturbing was the manner is which the home team’s goals were conceded.

In the space of just three games Toure has revolutionised the way Latics play when they have the ball: now when a player goes forward, he has so many more attacking options. The manager was brought in to modernise the way the team plays football and he has already made rapid progress. But although they look so much better on the ball, there are concerns about closing the opposition down when they have possession.

The Wigan defence looked porous yesterday. There were big gaps in midfield in front of them, leaving the centre backs and full backs exposed. Moreover, the absence of Jack Whatmough was a blow to Toure, given that he was already short of centre backs with Jason Kerr being ruled out for the season.

Whatmough has had a tough season adjusting to the Championship, too often losing his man on opposition set pieces, guilty of launching so many hopeful long balls which the opponents would gobble up.  The arrival of Toure has required him to be braver on the ball, to search for an accurate pass rather than take the easier “going long” option. However, Whatmough has the potential to be a top player at Championship level: he is strong in the tackle and in the air, with pace to match most opposition central strikers. If he can improve on his concentration and his passing of the ball, he will be a key player in Toure’s team.

The Toure style of play certainly requires defenders who can play their way out of trouble without conceding possession. It also needs midfielders to provide adequate cover to those defenders. Tom Naylor was a key cog in Leam Richardson’s machine, playing an important protective role in front of defence. Naylor’s tackling and intercepting was excellent, as was his height and heading ability from set-pieces. However, so often he would make a simple pass sideways or backwards, with Max Power taking on the responsibility of being the more creative central midfielder. Power thrived on that in League 1, his crossing providing so many goalscoring opportunities. However, on his return to the Championship he has found it difficult to replicate the accuracy of his passing and crossing, particularly against teams playing a high defensive line.

Much has been said over the course of the season about the recruitment over the summer. The critics will say not only that the board did not back Richardson sufficiently in the transfer market, but also that too many players in the existing squad were always going to struggle in the second tier. In hindsight there has been speculation that the board already had reservations about the style of football and were reluctant to make major investment in players that would fit into Richardson’s scheme.

January is not the best time for bargains in the transfer market. Clubs are loath to lose key players for the second half of the season. However, in January 2021, with Latics under administration, Leam Richardson managed to bring in a group of seasoned professionals that would play a key role in avoiding relegation to League 2.

Given the Kerr injury at least one more central defender needs to be found. The left back position has proved problematic and will surely be a priority. Some fans will advocate for sweeping changes in the squad: goalkeeper, right back, a speedy winger, a mobile central striker, a box to box midfielder. For major changes to occur some of the existing squad would need to be shipped out.

It remains early for Toure to make instant decisions on what positions are priorities for recruitment. If he is to directly replace players, he will need to find now ones who are better than what he already has, or at the very minimum, would fit into his style of play. He will need to make decisions on possible recalls of Stephen Humphrys, Jordan Jones and Jamie McGrath, who the previous manager sent on loan to Scottish clubs. They might not have fitted into the Richardson style of football, but would they fit into the Toure version?

For the moment the new manager will continue to give opportunities to senior squad members who were starved of opportunities in the previous regime.

But whether Toure ultimately brings in a host of new players or whether he largely sticks with the hand he has been dealt; it will take time for the team to adapt to the more modern style of football that we are to see. As Mal Brannigan recently said:

“There’s an awful lot of games still to be played, including hopefully a few games in the cup. and we’ll know a lot more about where we are, maybe after the games in January.”