Scenes of jubilation and feelings of despair at Brighton

Jubilant Albion fans swarm on the pitch to celebrate promotion.

Eight pm at Brighton Station on a Saturday, the place buzzing with blue and white, the boisterous chanting and cheering of the thousands milling around the pubs outside. Another train pulls in, loaded with more of them. They come out jubilant, singing, celebrating. After all 34 years is a long time.

The American Express Stadium is a superb football venue, its design not only providing unobstructed views from any seat, but its acoustics heightening the crowd noise. The sound rose to a crescendo as the teams marched on to the pitch, but we Latics fans were sadly muted. We had seen the line up and knew what to expect. The 4-5-1 formation was to be a throwback to the days when Warren Joyce would play with four holding midfielders. Graham Barrow went even further by playing a fifth one, Jamie Hanson, at right back.

Occasional chants of “I’m a Believer” from a group of younger supporters behind us served to remind us of a previous era. It is five years since Latics beat both Manchester United and Arsenal in the space of five days. It is almost unimaginable now. Gabriel Obertan was a lone centre forward in the true sense of the word, devoid of any support, chasing hopeless causes. We inferred from the formation that Barrow wanted to stifle the home side until later in the game when he could bring on his heavier artillery.

Sadly his plan did not work. Although offering almost no attacking threat to the home goal they had defended resolutely for most of the first half, despite inverted right winger Anthony Knockaert looking a class above the others on the pitch. He seemed to have the freedom of the park with no Latics player giving him a dose of “physical presence”. Despite having such protection in midfield Wigan’s full backs were unadventurous, seemingly reluctant to push up further and provide the width that was desperately lacking. Jakob Haugaard looked uneasy, fluffing a Knockaert cross on the quarter of an hour mark, being fortunate not to concede from the loose ball.

Latics looked like a strange hybrid of the Caldwell and Joyce regimes. They were building up from the back in the Caldwell style, but there was no outlet, the midfielders static, reluctant to push forward, preferring to play the ball sideways or back to the defence. But when you play with four holding midfielders that is what you are going to get. It seemed a matter of time until Albion scored. They did so after 37 minutes when Dan Burn lost the flight of a long ball, with Tomer Hamed setting up fellow twin striker Glen Murray for a shot from outside the box which beat Haugaard.

The second half began and the Haugaard  continued to look distinctly shaky, a huge worry for the defenders in front of him. The young Dane may one day become a fine keeper: he has the physical attributes. But at this moment in time his confidence was shot and he looked a liability. Haugaard’s inclusion at the expense of Matt Gilks remained a talking point among the fans. During the week a thread had appeared on the Latics Speyk forum, entitled “Do Sharpe and Jackson Believe?” The writer, Studz, had suggested that Latics would have to pay Stoke a considerable amount if Haugaard did not play. The implication was that the two at the top did not want to shell out more money as they had already accepted relegation.

The allegations may be true or completely unfounded, but the bottom line was that Latics went into a crucial relegation game with a shaky goalkeeper, leaving a more solid one on the bench. Some would say that Haugaard should have saved Murray’s shot, although it might have taken a deflection. He should certainly have stopped Solly March’s 65th minute shot which went straight through him.

Being 2-0 down Barrow had to bring on Nick Powell a little earlier than he had possibly planned. He came on for Obertan after 60 minutes, with the hapless Ryan Tunnicliffe being replaced by Ryan Colclough. Powell’s arrival did provide more spark for Latics as he strived to take on the home defence almost single-handedly. He scored with an opportunist header in the 84th minute from a superb cross from Jamie Hanson, who for once had pushed forward into a more attacking position.

Powell continued to do his best to unsettle the home defence, but it was to no avail as his teammates found it hard to keep the ball in the closing minutes. The stadium erupted on the final whistle, thousands of spectators swarming on to the pitch. For me it provided an opportunity for a quick getaway. The Falmer train station is usually swamped just after a match has finished. It was not bad at all yesterday as so many home fans stayed and celebrated. Albion keep their stadium bars open after the game, so it had been no big surprise to see the trainloads boisterously arriving at Brighton station some three hours after the game finished.

The last time I went to the Amex was in November 2014 when I saw Uwe Rosler’s team lose 1-0 to a very poor Albion team in the relegation zone at the time. It was a memorably insipid performance, as was the one yesterday. A month later Albion appointed Chris Hughton who has since built them into a solid, organised team who very much rely on the flair of Knockaert, who might well be poached by big clubs before Albion set foot in the Premier League. He and Powell looked, head and shoulders, the classiest players on the park yesterday.

Albion and Wigan are heading in opposite directions. Albion fans told me before the game had told me that owner Tony Bloom has invested around £250m into the club, including the construction of a £93m stadium. It highlights the situation that Latics will be up against if they are to eventually maintain a status in the Championship division. It is now 4 years since Wigan were in the Premier League, which appears small compared with the 34 years Albion have had to wait to get back into the top tier. Without an owner willing to invest as Bloom has done for Albion, it seems inconceivable that Latics will ever get back to the first tier.

Sheffield United have now secured promotion back to the Championship after six seasons in League 1. This is despite having invested considerably over those years compared with other clubs in the division. Should the seemingly inevitable occur and Latics are relegated it could be very difficult to get back out of it. Without a significant in player salaries by the Whelan family they too could be stuck in League 1 for years.

Given the goalkeeper situation it appears that cash is not freely flowing at Wigan Athletic. The club will surely sell off its main player assets in summer, plus giving others the chance to leave on free transfers to drastically reduce the wage bill. Nick Powell’s recent performances have helped put him in the shop window, providing he can avoid injury until the season ends. We can expect Omar Bogle or Will Grigg to go, hopefully not both. Max Power was a shadow of his old self yesterday, but still has enough potential to interest a Championship club. Playing in a side struggling against relegation can drag a player down, as happened with Gaitan Bong under Malky Mackay. Seeing Bong looking so comfortable playing for a promotion-winning side served to highlight the situation.

It would be no surprise to see Latics appoint a new manager within the next fortnight. He will be in charge of overseeing a summer fire sale, then trying to build up a successful new team from the ashes.A tall order indeed, although much will be dependent on how much money comes in from transfers over the summer and what happens to it.

As the Albion fans continued their jubilant celebrations at Brighton Station last night my own feeling as a life-long Latics fan was closer to one of despair. But nevertheless Wigan Athletic have bounced back from adversity in the past, so hope remains.

The appointment of the “right” manager and some level of investment from the Whelan family of the funds due to come in could provide some light at the end of a gloomy tunnel.

 

 

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Huddersfield 1 Latics 2 – Joyce gets it right – video highlights and match reaction

“He’s not great running back as a wide player, but you look at what he’s good at and he’s hard to stop.You look at the GPS stuff – his top end pace is quicker than Nani and Ronaldo.That’s a fact. It’s a hell of an attribute to have.”

So said Warren Joyce after Yanic Wildschut’s pace destroyed Huddersfield.

Joyce had been pilloried by so many of the Latics faithful for leaving three centre forwards on the bench in the 0-0 draw at Barnsley, using the Dutch winger in the main striker position. He stuck his neck out even further last night by not even including Will Grigg on the bench, although the striker had travelled with the squad.

But Joyce was to have the last laugh as his game plan worked to a tee, his team defending en masse and counterattacking with gusto. Within the space of three weeks he has instigated a paradigm shift within his squad. The possession-based football of Gary Caldwell has been thrown out of the window for a more pragmatic style based on rugged defence and pace in attack.

Faced with the absence of the suspended Craig Morgan the manager moved Stephen Warnock across into the centre of defence, something that would have been risky against a team with more height up front. But Huddersfield play a smooth brand of football based on possession and pressing, rather than pumping long balls to a big target man. The captain once again had a major role to play, even though he was booked in the opening minutes for a crude foul on winger Sean Scannell who later had to be substituted. He also survived a strong second half penalty claim after pushing  Elias Kachunga to the ground. Earlier in the second half an unsighted referee had waved away home team penalty appeals after Luke Garbutt had tripped Nakhi Wells in the box.

During Caldwell’s brief reign as a manager in the Championship refereeing decisions tended to go against Latics, rather than for them. At times Latics had looked plain unlucky. But over the last couple of games under Joyce the tide has seemed to turn.

Latics had been poor in the first quarter of the game, the home side looking superior. But they gritted their teeth and were rewarded by a superb goal from Reece Burke. The young defender had won the ball in his own half, releasing it to Wildschut who sprinted past the Huddersfield defence to put in a superb cross for Burke who had run through the centre forward channel to score. It would be rash to suggest that this was part of Joyce’s game plan. Full backs don’t normally move into positions like that. But there were other occasions when players made long runs from their own half to support the attack. It did not happen so often, but when it did it was refreshing to see.

Wildschut had been a constant threat to the home team defence who found it hard to cope with his searing pace. Huddersfield had equalised in the 50th minute but ten minutes later the Dutchman raced past three defenders from the half way line before rounding the goalkeeper and slotting home. It proved to be the winner, thanks to a dogged rearguard action in the final half hour.

The statistics showed that Huddersfield had 70% of the possession with 19 shots, of which 5 were on target. Latics had 9 shots with 4 on target. Wigan’s style of play was the polar opposite of what we had come to expect under Caldwell, where so much emphasis was put on possession. Since the humbling experience of being beaten 3-0 at home by Reading in his first game at the helm, Joyce has tightened up defensively, with the midfield providing better cover and the back four playing no-nonsense football. However, there have been some hairy moments at both Barnsley and Huddersfield when the home teams have squandered goal scoring opportunities. Barnsley had enjoyed 62% of the possession, Huddersfield 70%. The pressure on the defence was inevitable given the amount of possession of the opposition.

Joyce’s next challenge will be to prepare his tactics for Saturday’s game against Derby County. Playing at home is a different scenario and he can be expected to introduce at least one more attacking player. However, it is unlikely to be Grigg.

These are still early days for Warren Joyce at Wigan. He now has four points from his three matches in charge, but will be looking for an even better rate of return in the coming weeks. The players who have been chosen in the past couple of matches have shown the kind of fighting spirit that can lift the club out of the relegation zone. It has not been pretty to watch, but with time we can expect a better style of football to come. Although we saw a glimpse of something at Huddersfield the manager still has not clearly enunciated his preferred playing style, preferring to talk about what his players should do on and off the ball.

Caldwell’s teams were stamped with his philosophy, sometimes to the irritation of fans who preferred a faster and more direct approach. It will be interesting to see how the playing style gradually unfurls under Joyce. The Derby match will provide us with further insight.

 

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Echoes of Malky, but a point gained – Barnsley 0 Latics 0 – match reaction

 

They say that results are all important in football. So it could be said that Wigan Athletic supporters should be happy with the point at mid-table Barnsley. Latics played with the kind of passion and spirit that typified their rise up into the higher echelons of English football in latter years. After losing his first game 3-0, Warren Joyce had clearly instilled a backs-to-the wall mentality in his players. It was not pretty, but it got another valuable away point.

Joyce is no shrinking violet. He had the courage to leave his three front line centre forwards on the bench, with Dan Burn and Jordi Gomez totally absent. He brought back the experienced Craig Morgan, who had been marginalised by previous manager Gary Caldwell. Morgan went on to form a solid partnership with fellow veteran, Jake Buxton, as they held their own in repelling the Barnsley attacks. Morgan may not be fast, but his positioning remains as good as ever. He and Buxton were like peas from the same pod. Playing Nick Powell at centre forward and leaving out the likes of Davies, Grigg and Le Fondre certainly made a statement to us all.

But Powell went off after only 31 minutes, reportedly unwell. When Joyce replaced him with Luke Garbutt many of us wondered why would the manager replace a centre forward with a full back? Did he have any attacking intentions? Garbutt too had fallen out of favour with the previous manager. Was Joyce making a statement to say that the slate has been wiped clean and everyone starts from scratch with him? In fact, Garbutt was put into a left midfield position and was to go on to do no better or worse than most of his teammates. The reshuffle saw Yanic Wildschut move to the lone centre forward position. He was particularly lonely, although at times he could take on 3 or 4 defenders to try to salvage something.

I had surprisingly managed to get a live feed for the game, after preparing myself to listen to the audio commentary. Adam Bogdan went off injured after 58 minutes. When Jussi Jasskelainen came on the commentator told us he was a player/coach, which was a surprise to me. Has the big Finn replaced Mike Pollitt as goalkeeping coach?

When Caldwell was manager he would have close contact with Graham Barrow and the coaches during a game. But in this one Joyce seemed solitary, with the coaches in the background. The cynics might say he is waiting for them to leave. Or maybe it is just the manager’s preferred style? All will presumably be revealed in the coming weeks.

It could be said that in this case, the end justified the means. But that in itself would be a worry. The commentator had told us that Joyce had summonsed the players in for regular double training sessions. They certainly looked fit enough and did not cave in the closing minutes as has too often been the case this season. But what was worrying was the football, or lack of it.

Indeed the football was reminiscent of the days of Malky Mackay. It was more fightball than football. Moreover once again seeing a winger playing at centre forward was to further highlight those most painful of memories.

Barnsley manager Paul Heckinbottom summed up Latics’ approach by saying: “Their set-up and line-up, playing without a striker, a centre-midfielder at right midfield and the first sub is a left-back, so that shows that they came here paying us the utmost respect, trying to nullify us, which they did.

Warren Joyce has a reputation as a top coach whose teams have played skilful, entertaining football. But today it seemed like he had told his players to rip up the coaching book they had learned under Gary Caldwell and go back to basics. The possession football that the Scot had instilled in the players was barely evident today. Perhaps the manager had told his players to minimise potential errors at the back by playing the ball long when under pressure? But even that would not explain the lack of creativity and attacking intent from midfield.

Let’s hope that this is a one-off and that hoofball has not returned to Wigan.

Rejuvenation in Cardiff – match reaction

tiger-bay

Tiger Bay – now reborn as Cardiff Bay.

I had been planning to make the journey to Cardiff some time ago. The principal reason had been to watch Latics in the hope that their luck would turn, but if it didn’t there would at least be the solace of being able to visit Tiger Bay.

As a small kid I had actually been to watch a couple of rugby games before becoming taken over by a constant need to visit Springfield Park and watch non-league football. But at one of those rugby games I saw Danny Wilson tear the home team apart. I heard that, like the man on the right wing of the other team that day, and a famous woman singer, he was from the rough port area of Cardiff known as Tiger Bay.

In the event I was to be lucky on both counts. A superb counterattack had seen Jordi Gomez notch an opportunist goal and send the away support into a mixture of shock and rapture. It had looked like if anybody was going to score, it would be the home team. Despite having the edge on possession, Latics had not posed much attacking threat until the 86th minute when that happened.

Although the arrival of Neil Warnock had brought two wins and a draw in the last three matches to lift them out of the relegation zone, the sparse home crowd was muted from the start. Latics dominated the first ten minutes, only to later look vulnerable to well-flighted crosses coming in from the wings. As the game progressed I had the uncomfortable feeling that the Wigan defence would eventually cave in to the pressure as they had notably at both Bristol and Nottingham. But thanks to a solid and resilient rearguard action and a profligate approach by the Cardiff attack they were to hold out for a much needed win.

When Gary Caldwell signed Jordi Gomez it looked like the Catalan’s flair and goalscoring capabilities were going to be invaluable. But in recent matches Gomez had not made the starting lineup. Perhaps Caldwell, like many of us, did not think that the Catalan and Nick Powell could share the midfield. But Powell was injured yesterday, giving Graham Barrow an easy choice to make. But until that goal Gomez had not looked at his sharpest. However,  he was to do what so many midfielders have done much too little of this season, by getting into the box to support the attack. The timing of his run was superb.

There had been speculation among some travelling fans as to whether we would see something different following Gary Caldwell’s premature departure from the club. But the pundits said that Barrow was a rock upon which the possession-style football had been built, not only in Caldwell’s day, but also under Roberto Martinez. In the event it was the same kind of football that we have seen for the past couple of months, the only difference being that this time around Latics were to win.

That win was long overdue and we can only speculate that if the tide of fortune had turned into Wigan’s favour a week ago against Brighton then Caldwell would still be with us. It has been a frustrating season, but Latics’ performances have not been abject. There had been so many games of fine margins where Latics could have won with a tad more luck on their side. Would that tide of fortune have eventually turned for Caldwell as it did for Barrow yesterday? David Sharpe was certainly precipitous in dismissing his protégé so early in the season.

With so many new faces it was always going to take time for the team to gel. The lack of a consistent back line was a particular problem. But yesterday the central defensive pairing of Dan Burn and Jake Buxton continued its steady improvement, looking strong throughout. Stephen Warnock has probably been Wigan’s best performer so far this season and he was excellent again yesterday. Moreover Reece Burke was to put in a good performance in the problematic right back position.

One swallow does not make a summer, but the win at Cardiff will provide a good platform for a new manager to build upon. Caldwell’s squad cannot compete with the best in the division, but it is at least good enough to get a mid-table berth. But who will that new manager be?

Strangely enough Danny Wilson’s son was the glamorous early front runner for the job. But was Ryan Giggs really willing to take a position with Latics and would Sharpe have been able to offer him the kind of terms he would expect? Since then the list of candidates touted for the position has been decidedly underwhelming. The latest bookmaker’s odds favour Manchester United development squad coach, Warren Joyce, who has no prior experience of managing a club in England. Neverthelss he has a fine record as a coach in developing young players. Should Joyce be appointed he will need the support of the fans.

Tiger Bay had a reputation as a tough and dangerous area before its renovation. The names of Wilson, Boston and Bassey are now echoes of its past. Under its new name of Cardiff Bay, it is now a major tourist attraction in a city that has been rejuvenated from its past as a coal and iron and steel exporting port. Will the rejuvenation of Wigan Athletic now begin too?

After five managers in three years and continued turnover of playing staff the club is in need of stability. When Sharpe appointed Caldwell the ten year combined reign of Paul Jewell and Roberto Martinez looked like a blueprint for the future. That was until the young chairman shot from the hip and cut down the Scot.

Sharpe’s grandfather made some of the best managerial appointments in the club’s history in Jewell and Martinez. He also made arguably the worst in Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay, neither of whom showed a love of good football. Let’s hope that Sharpe can rectify his unfortunate and hasty decision to dismiss a manager who had brought a divisional title to the club just six months before. Put simply he needs not only to choose the right person for the job, but to offer him more longevity than Caldwell received.

The win at Cardiff was a great relief, but there are still choppy waters ahead. Having the right leader at the helm is crucial.

A rainbow shines at Brentford

rainbow

Brentford is not a particularly attractive place. Neither is Griffin Park football ground, at first glance. The Bees fans still have three more years to wait before their new stadium is built. But for all its faults the old stadium is well maintained, with a superb playing surface and we had a great view from the away supporters end. Moreover it was a rare pleasure to mingle with home fans before the match started, with no hint of the kind of insularity and hostility that can prevail in the vicinity of some English football stadia.

The home supporters were optimistic before the match, their team having scored nine goals in their last two home games. But they were to be disappointed as a resolute Latics side spoiled their afternoon by coming away with a point. One home fan went so far as to say that the only entertainment of his afternoon was provided by the stunning double rainbow which hovered above the stadium in the second half.

On the other hand the Wigan fans were appreciative of what they had seen. Their team had shown the kind of defensive strength that had been missing since the start of the season. That, together with the rainbow, will stick in many of our memories over the weeks to come.

Gary Caldwell’s tactics certainly worked. He packed his midfield, denying the home team of space. Will Grigg cut a lonely figure for most of the first half, the midfielders holding back rather pushing forward to support him. Wigan’s attack was muted, but so was that of the home team as the Latics defence held firm, shielded by a combative midfield. The home crowd had seemed muted too, their hopes of another goal-fest diminishing by the minute.

When the second half started it looked like a goalless draw was the most likely outcome. Could the Wigan defence hold out or was all the good work going to be ruined by sloppiness as the final whistle would approach? Caldwell was likely to bring Yanic Wildschut off the bench at some stage, but it seemed more likely to happen later rather than sooner.

Strangely enough Caldwell made a double substitution in the 57th minute, bringing on Wildschut and Nick Powell for Nathan Byrne and an ineffective Jordi Gomez. Caldwell was opening up the game with the substitutions. On one hand Latics were to increase their attacking intent. On the other Brentford were to enjoy more space. Powell and Wildschut did enliven the Wigan attack, while an under pressure defence still continued to hold firm. The 0-0 score at the end was a fair result for both sides.

The central defensive pairing of Jake Buxton and Dan Burn was strong in this game. They are clearly developing a mutual understanding. After a shaky start at the club Burn has shown his mettle in recent weeks. He was arguably the Man of the Match yesterday, towering above the Brentford forwards, his positioning sound and tackles firm. However, it could be argued that Buxton was just as good. He does not catch the eye as much as Burn can. Buxton just seems to get on with his job, nothing flashy, but solid and reliable. It was noticeable from an early stage in the game that the two had been given licence to clear their lines when under pressure. The inter-passing between defenders that had been problematic in previous matches had taken the back seat to a more pragmatic approach of safety first.

There has been much talk about the merits of 4-3-3 over 3-5-2. Although seemingly playing with a back four yesterday the presence of Shaun MacDonald so close to the central defenders reminded one of the role Ben Watson could play in the Martinez era. After getting so little playing time over the last two years the Welshman is getting back his match fitness and sharpness. He played a key role yesterday.

The point yesterday puts Latics out of the relegation zone. The cohesion is gradually developing and it is starting to look much more like a team rather than a collection of individuals. There will be ups and downs ahead, but the squad has sufficient quality to at least hold its own in the Championship division.

After the game I met up again with Billy Grant of Brentford fan site Beesotted. Billy has provided us with fascinating articles in the past and his podcasts are always worth a listen. His post-match podcast is to be found below. My contribution from a Wigan perspective starts at 8:00 minutes: