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.

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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.

Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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An excellent performance – Wigan Athletic 0 Southampton 2

 

“At half-time, it was a case of whether we could keep it going, whether we could keep up the intensity. The fitness levels to play like that have to be very good to press them high up the pitch.”

So said Paul Cook after the game.

Wigan’s high press and their enterprising attacking play had made Southampton look distinctly ordinary in the first half. The pity was that they could not convert the half chances they had created into goals. They had certainly put pressure on the away team defence, with a 10-0 corner count in their favour. But football is about goals and Wigan had not been able to convert their outstanding first half performance into a lead.

Whether Southampton came back to dominate the second half might well have been due to a dressing rule rollicking from manager, Mark Hughes. They certainly came out with more purpose they had shown before, but the tiring Wigan legs surely must have influenced the eventual outcome. In the event, the Saints scored a scrappy goal from a corner after 62 minutes. A goal behind, Latics had to try to push forward and the defence became more exposed. It led to Dan Burn giving away a penalty after 73 minutes, with Christian Walton going on to make a fantastic save. Cook had rolled his dice and brought on Noel Hunt in the 80th minute, withdrawing the excellent, but seemingly exhausted, Nathan Byrne. The Irishman had a half chance, but could not put it away, then Southampton sealed their result through the speed of right back Cedric Soares attacking through the left channel.

So, while Southampton look ahead to a semi final against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United, Wigan must now immediately focus upon a trip to Walsall on Wednesday.

The previous time I had seen Latics play at home in a sixth round FA Cup tie was in mid- March 1987. Latics were then in the third tier and were to go down 2-0 to second tier Leeds United in front of a crowd of 12,471. The game had been made all-ticket because of the FA’s fears of problems with the away fans at Springfield Park. The game was broadcast live at the Town Hall and the Queens Hall in a bid to deal with ticketless fans. Conditions were very difficult, with a rock-hard pitch and fierce winds. Latics had been unbeaten at home up to that point and they were the better team in the first half but could not put away the chances they had made. The visitors had the wind behind them in the second half and went on to take advantage of it with two long range goals in the second half. Bobby Campbell and Paul Jewell were playing up front for Wigan, with a 20-year-old Paul Cook on the bench.

Ray Mathias’ team went on to finish fourth in the Third Division that season, losing out to Swindon in the playoffs. The season became remembered largely through the cup run when Latics had beaten Hull City and Norwich City on the way to the sixth round. Promotion to the second tier was to take another 16 years, when Jewell’s side won the division title.

Whether Paul Cook’s side can emulate that of Ray Mathias by achieving promotion from the third tier, in addition to reaching the last eight of the FA Cup, remains to be seen.

The critics have already been suggesting that, should Latics win promotion, a lot of new players will have to be brought in to keep them afloat in the Championship. However, so many of the players have already shown that they can compete at higher levels through their terrific performances in the cup.

Latics certainly have a group of players that are well above the quality of League 1. The question now is whether they have the grit and determination to fight their way through a fixture backlog largely created by this famous FA Cup run.

A rapturous ending – Bradford City 0 Wigan Athletic 1

Photo courtesy of the Telegraph and Argus.

 

The rapturous scenes of celebration witnessed last night at Valley Parade will stick in the collective Latics memory for years to come. It was certainly a good goal, Michael Jacobs slotting home from Will Grigg’s sublimely weighted pass. But it was more than that. It was a reaffirmation that Wigan Athletic are serious contenders for automatic promotion from League 1.

It had been a scrappy game against a Bantams team that was barely recognisable from the one that played such good football in winning at the DW Stadium in November. Stuart McCall was sacked in early February after six consecutive defeats. With him went the stylish football we had seen, to be replaced by a long ball approach under Simon Grayson. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley gobbled up those high balls and, as a result, Bradford City posed a minimal threat on the Wigan goal. They have now gone nine games without a win.

On paper an away win would have appeared a good bet to make, but despite Wigan’s dominance and coming close to scoring several times, it looked like the game was to remain goalless. But this Latics team is certainly resilient and they kept plugging away until that moment of magic in the 91st minute.

The type of football we saw from Latics last night was nowhere near that silkier brand we had seen so often in the latter months of 2017. This was based on sheer effort, with lots of long balls and crosses flung into the penalty box seemingly willy-nilly. But, nevertheless there was a rekindling of the kind of tackling and movement that had been so prominent in Wigan’s play in brighter times. Players who had looked jaded and sluggish against Scunthorpe on Saturday had somehow been beamed back to their previously high-energy states.

Ever since the arrival of Owen Coyle, Latics had just never looked as fit as many of the teams they had played. But Paul Cook and his staff have transformed fitness levels in such a way that one wonders why previous regimes had not been able to do so. For it to be successful Cook’s style of play needs players with energy and enthusiasm in abundance. If either is lacking it can flounder as we have seen in recent weeks.

After the game Cook had talked about “going back to basics” and that is what we saw last night. The tackling was keen, the movement was there. What was in short supply was poise, until that memorable moment in time added-on. But that will surely return if those energy levels can be maintained.

Beating a team that had already lost 8 home games and in such awful run form might seem unremarkable, but it could prove to be the psychological turning point in Wigan’s season.

Those rapturous celebrations showed us just how important that win was to the Wigan players. Blackburn and Shrewsbury will surely have taken note that Latics are back on track and are once more serious contenders for those automatic promotion slots.

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