Five talking points arising from an uplifting win at MK Dons

Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year. It is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, unlike any other of its size in the UK with its wide open spaces and network of roads and shopping malls giving it an almost American feel. It is not everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live, but the city continues to grow as foreign investment continues to come in.

A prior review of the MK Stadium had forewarned us that, from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a football ground and that it was far too big for a club in League 1. But maybe it was planned in the same way as the city itself, with attendances expected to grow in parallel with the surrounding population. It is a fabulous stadium, better than many in the Championship and even some in the Premier League. The presence of some 1,100 Latics fans yesterday swelled the attendance to over 9,000.

The visit to Milton Keynes proved to be enjoyable, not least due to an uplifting display from Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic team. The referee almost spoiled it with a first half red card decision against Latics, but he even things up in the second period when he sent off a home player.

In the end Latics thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory. They were much the better team, with a solid defence protected by a strong and creative midfield. Cook’s starting lineup had looked ambitious, with so many new players drafted in. But despite that there was a look of cohesion, with every player seemingly knowing his role and willing to put in the required amount of sweat and toil for his team. It was instantly noticeable how much movement there was compared with last season, with Latics able to break out of defence with strength and purpose.

The display certainly gave us lots to talk about:

1. Dan Burn must stay. Burn was formidable yesterday, his head seemingly a magnet for the ball. The Dons are by no means a long-ball team. They try to play good football, but whenever the ball did go into the air in the box it was soon snaffled up by Burn or Chey Dunkley. But Burn looked assured in all aspects of his play yesterday and must rank among the best central defenders in the division. He will prove invaluable against teams who prefer the aerial approach above all.

However, despite the departures of Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks, Jack Hendry, Mikael Mandron, Billy McKay and Sanmi Odelusi and with Kaiyne Woolery close to a move back to Forest Green Rovers the clear-out continues. Jack Byrne, Omar Bogle and Max Power are being pushed out and not allowed to train with the senior squad. Nick Powell’s goal yesterday helped to put him back into the shop window, with a loan move to a Championship side a likely outcome.

Burn has become one of Wigan’s major assets. Were he to be sold off by the end of August it would be a massive blow to Cook’s plans.

2. Recruitment up to this point is looking pretty good. The starting lineup yesterday included six new players, four of whom are on loan. Christian Walton continues to exude authority in his box, Chey Dunkley was excellent in the centre of defence. Callum Elder looked lively at left back until his premature departure. Lee Evans is a very important signing: a rock in front of the defence, but with the ability to spray passes around from the back. He and Sam Morsy looked a formidable partnership, willing to scrap it out when necessary, but both capable of launching attacks. Gavin Massey showed flashes of skill, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Ivan Toney was lively up front, willing to drop back into midfield, his movement causing the home defence some headaches. Terell Thomas came on at left back following Elder’s dismissal, very solid despite being a naturally right-sided central defender playing out of position.

Noel Hunt was on the bench, as he was 19 times last season at Portsmouth. In fact, Hunt only made 3 starts last season and can hardly bear expected to challenge for a regular starting place in Cook’s  starting line-up.

3. Michael Jacobs has been rejuvenated. His display yesterday was a revelation following his disappointing season in the Championship. Jacobs worked tirelessly, showing no mean amount of flair, his performance marred only by his finishing on occcasions. He is an essential component in Cook’s tactic of rapid counterattack. With one year remaining on his contract will he be offered an extension?

4. Will Grigg is back. After so many months out because of injury he looked lively when coming on as a second half substitute. With Bogle seemingly on his way out, will Grigg be offered a contract extension? Or will he be sold off this month? The option of Grigg or Toney, or even both, is something Cook will want to retain. But is David Sharpe going to support his manager by retaining key players, despite Cook’s admission that his squad is still too big and that Latics are a “selling club”?

5. Cook will be hoping his long-term injured players will soon be match fit.  Alex Gilbey and Will Grigg are back in contention, but none of Donervon Daniels, Reece James or Andy Kellett were in the squad.

Nathan Byrne is trying hard at right full back despite it not being a position he enjoys. He steadily improved yesterday after looking a little uncomfortable early on. But is Cook going to bring a specialist right back from outside or is he going to rely on Byrne, Daniels or Luke Burke to cover the position?

With Callum Elder due to be suspended, Cook will need to assess the fitness of James. After 18 months out through injury, James needs to be brought in cautiously, but the team’s needs could push things along. Kellett too can play at left back, but is more productively employed in midfield.

 

 

5 talking points arising from the win over Notts County

What a pleasant day it was in Nottingham when Wigan Athletic stepped on to a pristine pitch in a stadium that must rank among the best in League 2. After dealing with a less than perfect surface at Southport, Latics would have no excuse for the quality of their football at Meadow Lane.

They had lined up with Paul Cook’s favoured 4-2-3-1 configuration, making a brisk start, immediately imposing their passing game upon County. The home team just could not get the ball as Wigan dominated possession. But possession in itself is not enough to win  football matches and shot-shy Latics hardly troubled the home keeper. It was to be a grim reminder of last season when County broke away and Lewis Alessandra got the better of Nathan Byrne to hammer home a cross from Wigan’s left flank. When the half time whistle went we were left pondering on the lack of cutting edge in Latics’ attacks.

It continued into the second half until around the two thirds mark when Cook made multiple substitutions. The youth of the bench had been supplemented with the experience of the 34-year-old Noel Hunt, who was played as a striker, together with the promising Callum Lang. Lang’s pace took him past the home defence and his cross that was heading for Michael Jacobs was deflected into his own goal by home captain Richard Duffy. Another quick counterattack by Latics was to see Lang put away a close range chance from Hunt’s cross.

In the end Latics managed to cling on to a lead that had hardly seemed likely at half time. But what conclusions can be drawn from the performance?

1. Too many Latics players are still in the hangover phase of last season’s happenings. Cook acknowledged this after the game saying that  “I just didn’t feel our lads felt they were going to win.” The lack of self-belief among the attacking players was plain to see. So often the moves broke down as Latics reached the opposition penalty box, with a sideways pass being the preferred option to a direct shot on goal.

2. Latics need specialist full backs. In the absence of alternative choices Nathan Byrne and Jordan Flores occupied those roles. Byrne himself has made it apparent that he does not want to be regarded as a right back, preferring to be employed as a wing back or winger. Flores has played in the position before and never convinced. He is a midfield player by nature.

Cook was upbeat about the returns of Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell in a friendly game against Llandudno. Daniels would indeed be a contender for the right back position if he were to regain full fitness after a long absence. Luke Burke was absent from the proceedings yesterday and one wonders what chances he will be given under Cook. County’s Matt Tootle was arguably the best man on the pitch yesterday at right back and his display might have sparked interest from Wigan manager Cook.

The left back position will surely be occupied by Reece James, if fit. But he remains in the  recuperation phase from a long absence through injury. Kellett too could offer options at left back, although he is more effectively employed in midfield. But he too has been dogged by injury. David Perkins played the midfield holding role yesterday, but might well be pressed into service on the left of defence during the course of the season.

3. The turnover of goalkeepers looks to have stopped. Christian Walton is an excellent signing for League 1 and he is already providing reassurance for his defenders. Walton once again looked composed and confident, making some fine saves yesterday. Owen Evans too has impressed in pre-season. The question remains whether Cook will settle for him as back-up to Walton or if he will look for an experienced keeper as second choice.

4. The centre forward position is up for grabs. Omar Bogle looks low on confidence and so often is left isolated by his teammates. Will Cook stick with Bogle, who still has the potential to score lots of goals at League 1 level? Will Grigg is still recovering from injury, but is in the final year of his contract and there has already been speculation that he will be sold over summer. Nick Powell would surely be an excellent option, if fit, but the likelihood is that he will be allowed to leave for financial reasons.

Callum Lang has already shown that he is a viable option, although young and inexperienced. How he would cope against robust League 1 central defenders remains to be seen, but he is an exciting addition to the squad.

5. The current crop of youngsters must be given opportunities at the expense of loan players. The introduction of a handful of youngsters in the second half energised Latics’ play. But not only are these players energetic but they have good technical qualities and fit comfortably into the possession football that Cook practices. The impressive Sam Stubbs and Owen Evans were absent yesterday but Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Chris  Merrie and Terrell Thomas impressed. So often in the past loan players have been brought in at the expense of younger players already at the club. The time has come for a change in that policy or practice.

Reflections on an excellent display against Liverpool

 

On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.

Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.

Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.

Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.

Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.

But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.

In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.

Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.

It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.

The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.

Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.

Latics go down with spirit, but do they need more shooting practice?

Pre-match shooting practice in progress for Latics at the Madejski Stadium.

It was their best performance for weeks. Latics had looked the better team for the majority of the game against a side destined for the playoffs. For once Wigan Athletic had pushed players forward, making a genuine effort to get a goal after falling behind after another  “sloppy” goal  had gifted Reading the lead after just five minutes. But it was just not to be. Despite the spirited rally from the away side no goals would come.

The Madejski Stadium is a fine venue situated on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by futuristic industrial and high tech estates and park areas. The view from the away supporters was as good as any that one would normally get, made even better by the wide choice of seating available. It was no surprise that Latics fans had not arrived in numbers. We all knew that a win for either Birmingham or Blackburn would seal relegation even in the unlikely event that Latics were to beat Reading.

The pre-match entertainment at our end was to become a harbinger of doom. A portable goal had been put up to our right of the actual goalposts. Wigan Athletic’s attacking players were to come along, one at a time, to see if they could beat the keeper. Sadly the keeper was hardly troubled, so many shots being wayward or miscued. Only Max Power seemed to be able to hit the ball properly, but since he has not hit the back of the net all season in league football, it hardly filled us with hope. If the quality of finishing in the warm-up were to be translated into the match itself we would be lucky to see any goals from our side. Sadly that proved to be the case.

Graham Barrow had once again fielded a lineup with four central midfielders. Gabriel Obertan and Sam Morsy were not even on the bench, but Nick Powell started at centre forward.

Yann Kermorgant had outjumped a Latics defender to head home after just 5 minutes, then 12 minutes later Shaun MacDonald was badly injured following a tackle by George Evans, who might have been lucky to escape with a yellow card. The game was held up for some ten minutes before MacDonald was stretchered off with a double leg fracture. Barrow brought on another central midfielder, Max Power, as substitute.

Given the circumstances Latics could easily have crumbled, but much to their credit they took the game to the home side, with Powell looking lively. The best move of the match came in the 35th minute. It involved Ryan Tunnicliffe running down the left wing with genuine pace before curling the ball to Powell using the outside of his right foot. Powell did well to get in a diving header that Ali Al-Habsi saved. It was a pleasure to see such dynamism after a season of pedestrian football.

Reece Burke was the next to leave the field injured just before half time, with Callum Connolly the replacement.

The second half began with Barrow already having used two substitutes and with Powell a near certainty to come off at some point. The caretaker manager’s hands were tied to a large degree. Nevertheless Latics continued to press, showing a fluidity that we have not seen for some time. For once the centre forward had some support as players pushed forward. Dan Burn made numerous forays into the Reading half, looking full of enthusiasm and drive. There was much more of that evident in David Perkins too, albeit near the end of a difficult season for him.

Powell was to go close several times as he caused the home defence problems, but neither he nor his teammates could put the ball in the back of the Reading net. He was replaced by Omar Bogle on 79 minutes, but to no avail.

The stats show Latics having 20 goal attempts, with 3 on target. Reading had 10 attempts, with 2 on target. For once there had been enough running off the ball, creating opportunities on goal. Sadly, just as in the pre-match shooting practice, the precision finish was lacking.

After the game Graham Barrow commented that: “The lads have been great for me but clearly it hasn’t been enough to keep us up. There are things we’ll have to look at internally, which haven’t been right, and that’s fact. We are where we are, the table tells no lies.”

Jonathan Jackson not surprisingly told us after the match that there will be “some” changes in the squad, but also added that “we want to keep the core there”. When asked about the appointment of a new manager he told us “we know the type of manager we are looking for”.

We can only speculate whether Graham Barrow might be the type of manager that Jackson and David Sharpe seek. He certainly deserves credit for a fine display yesterday at Reading, despite the adverse result.

Despite Jackson’s possible understatement of “some changes” we can expect another major clear out of players over the coming weeks. The aim will be to build a new squad not only capable of getting the club out of League 1, but one which has enough depth to cope in the Championship.

The question to be asked is how much funding will the Whelan family be willing to put in to make it possible?

 

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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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