The importance of a Category 2 Academy for Royle and IEC

Last Saturday Wigan Athletic’s under-18 team strengthened their leadership of the EFL Youth Alliance Group B with a 2-0 win over Rochdale.

The first goal was scored by Scotland under-18 left back Luke Robinson with a beautifully struck free kick from well outside the penalty box. Another Scotland under-18 player, Kyle Joseph, got Wigan’s second with an opportunist tap-in. Wigan’s England under-17 striking sensation, Joe Gelhardt, did not play and his teammate at national level, Jensen Weir, came on after 88 minutes. Click here to see the highlights.

The Youth Alliance is effectively the third tier of U18 football. The Alliance consists of 49 teams divided into four groups on a geographical basis. The vast majority come from clubs in League 1 and League 2.

Although Gelhardt, Joseph, Robinson and Weir represent their countries at international level they are confined to the third tier of English youth football. They cannot play in the top tier Premier U18 League or in the second tier Professional Development League.

Over 23 years the Whelan family pumped in some £100m to keep Wigan afloat in the higher levels of English football. Like so many football clubs in the country, Wigan Athletic have rarely been able to accumulate enough revenue to exceed their outgoings. Put simply, the Whelans have had to constantly subsidise the club for it to punch above its weight.

Despite eight years in the Premier League and an FA Cup win, Latics still have a small fan base compared with most clubs in the Championship division. In order to keep the fan base that they have it has been necessary to keep ticket costs that a level that has been economically unfavourable for the club. Moreover, commercial revenues have been low compared with other clubs in the upper tiers.

The IEC, through the guidance of executive chairman, Darren Royle, will surely look at increasing commercial revenues. Royle will review season ticket prices in due course, but even a 20% increase in prices would not bring the club anywhere near to breaking even, let alone risk reducing the fan base. The club is basically a loss maker, as are the majority in the Championship with wages exceeding revenues. Barring significant sums coming in over the January transfer window Latics will lose in excess of £10m in the current season, in an attempt to consolidate in the division.

Royle has set his sights on a return to the Premier League for the club, although he has not given any kind of timeline for it. His strategy is based on building a strong academy which can provide a constant stream of players for the first team. The first step is investing in the kinds of facilities and programmes that can elevate the Wigan Athletic academy to Category 2 status rather than the current Category 3.

There are 7 Championship clubs that have their youth teams in the Premier U18 League, that which consists of clubs with Category 1 academies.  Another 12 of them participate in the Professional Development League from clubs with Category 2 academies.

Should Latics gain Category 2 status they would be largely joining clubs whose senior sides are in the Premier League or the Championship. But it is to be noted that League 1 clubs Barnsley, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City, together with League 2 Colchester United and Crewe Alexandra also compete at that level.

There can be no doubt that Wigan’s talented youngsters would benefit from playing at a higher level that of the Youth Alliance. The move towards Category 2 status is to be commended. However, so often in recent years the club has had exciting young players whose development has been limited by lack of opportunity within the club. So many have fallen by the wayside.

Critics will say that the club has so often nurtured young players on loan from upper tier clubs at the expense of its homegrown talent. It is something that Royle will need to look at in terms of not only developing homegrown youth, but as a part of overall recruitment policy.

Jensen Weir (left) and Joe Gelhardt.
Photo courtesy of skysports.com

 

Where will the likes of Gelhardt and Weir be some five years from now?

Let’s hope they too don’t fall by the wayside.

 

 

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Difficult times ahead for Paul Cook after the Sun’s news of a Chinese takeover?

The Sun newspaper’s revelation that Dave Whelan is about to sell much of his majority shareholding to a Chinese consortium does not come as a surprise. As far back as April we published an article regarding such a buy-out.

But if the thing actually does happen over the coming weeks will it affect the promotion push under Paul Cook and is it something that could prove beneficial in the long-run?

Cook is no stranger to such events. Indeed he found himself in a difficult situation at Portsmouth over summer with American billionaire Michael Eisner in the process of buying the club. There was talk about Eisner bringing in a Director of Football above Cook, but more than anything else the manager was caught in a situation of uncertainty. It was surely a major factor in his moving to Wigan.

There is speculation as to whether David Sharpe would continue if the takeover materialises, possibly with a minority shareholding in the club. Such a move would be welcomed by most supporters who would see it as a means of ensuring a degree of continuity.

The Sun’s report did not mention a particular critical item regarding a possible sale. The DW Stadium is not owned by Latics, but belongs to a company controlled by Whelan. It is unlikely that a consortium would want to buy a club unless it had a stadium to play in. Would a stadium sale happen concurrent with the sale of the club? Or would Whelan come to a long term agreement regarding the rental of stadium facilities?

In the meantime Latics play at Gillingham tomorrow night and Blackpool on Saturday. It is to be hoped that the news will not upset the positive mood among the players and Cook and his staff.

Assuming that Cook stays promotion is a strong possibility. It is to be hoped that any possible ownership changes will not upset the momentum that Latics have gained on the field of play over these recent months.

Five talking points arising from the home win against Plymouth

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Wigan Athletic did not play badly, but found a massed Plymouth defence difficult to penetrate. Despite having 23 attempts on goal it took a penalty to break the deadlock and give Latics a single goal victory.

The three points gained from the match enabled Wigan to move up to second place, still four points behind a Shrewsbury side which continues to play out of its skin. The Shrews record of W8 D2 L0 is highly impressive. But do they have the quality in the squad to keep it going?

Let’s take a look at some points from yesterday’s game.

Was Nick Powell kept on too long?

Nick Powell had not completed 90 minutes in a competitive match for so long. He did yesterday and it could be seen as an indicator that he is on the way to overcoming those fitness issues that have beset his career. But the player was clearly in discomfort as he was helped off the field in the 90th minute to be substituted by Noel Hunt. Up to that point Paul Cook had been judicious in the amount of time he was giving Powell in each game. But was 90 minutes too long?

Cook had kept Powell on the field much longer than usual, presumably because he needed the kind of spark that the ex-Man U player could provide to break down a stubborn Plymouth defence. But after Powell had put away the 82nd minute penalty one expected Cook to withdraw him.

It could prove a costly mistake.

The centre forwards need to score goals

Wigan Athletic have scored 18 league goals up to this point. The two centre forwards have scored a combined total of three of those.

But Grigg just has not got back to his best since his injury. Grigg’s key strength is his movement. We have seen that, but the end-result has not been forthcoming. One goal in six starts and four appearances off the bench is unimpressive from a striker who has passed the 20 goal per season mark three times previously.

Toney has more physical presence than Grigg and is more likely to score headed goals. But his two goals so far have been a perhaps fortunate deflection and a tap-in. He has come close so many times but has not been able to put the ball in the net with enough regularity.

Grigg is the first to admit that he is not yet up to peak fitness. He speaks with confidence about his ability to get another 20 goal haul this season. Toney has looked lively in his approach play and fits well into the style of play. Toney has a career record of 0.23 goals per league game, having scored 26 goals from 70 starts and 43 appearances off the bench. Grigg’s average is 0.31 goals per game, with 82 goals from 173 starts and 87 appearances off the bench.

Most League 1 managers will envy Cook for having both Grigg and Toney at his disposal. Both are good players at this level. It appears to be a matter of time until one or the other starts firing on all cylinders. Cook is fortunate that his advanced midfield trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell have already notched a combined total of 12 goals in 10 matches up to this point.

Goal threat from corner kicks

Latics had 15 corners yesterday. With Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley coming forward into the box and with good headers of the ball like Powell and Toney also there, could we not expect more of a threat from corner kicks? Lee Evans usually takes them, from the right and left. His delivery is by no means bad, but could more variety be introduced? Using left footers Reece James or Callum Elder could be a possibility.

Is it something that Cook and his coaches will be working on during training?

The full backs are important in Cook’s system

Nathan Byrne’s form has been a revelation this season. His attacking down the right hand side has been a pleasure to watch and he has worked hard on the defensive side of his game. The problem is that Cook has no back-up right back if Byrne gets injured.

On the left-hand side Reece James has been impressive since his long lay-off from injury. Callum Elder looked lively yesterday when he came on for James. He is a naturally attacking left back with a sweet left foot.

Cook expects a lot physically from his full backs, being expected not only to be solid in defence, but to race forward almost like wingers. They have been a key part of the good football we have been seeing so far this season.

Expect more parking of buses

In 2004 Jose Mourinho coined the term “parking the bus” following a match between his Chelsea team and Tottenham. It has come to convey a team using all of its players defensively when they want to draw a game or defend a narrow margin. Wigan Athletic’s Warren Joyce tried it several times last season.

Both Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle came to Wigan to park their buses. Their tactics were ruined by a spectacular goal (by Michael Jacobs) and giving away a “soft” penalty.

With Latics being the favourites to win the League 1 title we are likely to see lots more teams come to the DW to park their buses. In the last two home games Latics have certainly had to show patience against massed defences.

The key to such games lies in Wigan getting an early goal, forcing the visiting team to change its tactics. It remains to be seen if Walsall will try to park the bus on Saturday. From an entertainment point of view one hopes not, but an early Wigan goal could be the signal for more to follow later.

 

 

Key players stay – five talking points about the transfer window for Latics

Great news that Nick Powell is staying. Can he stay fit and reveal his true potential?

As a Wigan Athletic fan, I have come to dread the last days of the transfer windows. Last night I was anxiously waiting for news, hoping and praying had the chairman would back his manager by letting him keep his key players. Were the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Sam Morsy, Max Power and Nick Powell going to stay?

The end result was largely a feeling of relief, tempered by the surprise late departure of Alex Gilbey and the absence of a new right back among the signings. But David Sharpe had resisted the urge to cash in on his prized assets, despite the economic pressure weighing heavily on him. It can be seen as a statement of intent that the chairman is willing to provide the broad financial backing needed to get the club back in the Championship division, given the low potential revenues coming in. However, the bitter pill will be somewhat sweetened by some £1.2 m brought in during the summer sales.

How many times in recent years have the dealings made in those transfer windows put the club in a better situation in the longer term? Warren Joyce signed eight last January, only one of whom is with the club now. Uwe Rosler signed nine new players in the summer of 2014, giving him a squad that was too big, making it difficult to handle. Almost half of the new boys were gone by the end of the January window. But worse was to come as Malky Mackay signed twelve in the winter months, only one of whom remained when the 2015-16 season started.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer activity will leave Latics in a better state that they were in at the end of last season. Harsh economics have come into play, forcing the club to cut its budget in the region of 60%. The reality is that the revenues the club will have coming in League 1 are way below what they had in the Championship, where they were buoyed by parachute payments.

Let’s look at some key points:

The squad remains strong enough to fight for automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove too troublesome.

The squad is well balanced and has a wealth of quality players for the division they are playing in. When Gary Roberts was brought in it looked like Nick Powell was on his way out, but it turned out to be Alex Gilbey. Like Powell, Roberts has a lot of flair and can both create and score goals. The long-term injury suffered by Craig Morgan meant that another central defender would be brought in. Providing he stays fit Alex Bruce has the know-how and experience to be a top player in League 1.

The right back position remains problematic. It was a surprise not to see a new player drafted in. Nathan Byrne has established himself as the first choice in that position, but both Luke Burke and Donervon Daniels have been sent out on loan. We can only assume that if Byrne is unavailable then one of the central defenders or Max Power will be drafted in there.

Injuries took a major toll last season. Donervon Daniels and Reece James did not play a single league game and Alex Gilbey, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell were absent for long periods. Gilbey has now been sold. Daniels and Kellett have been sent out on season-long loans with just one year of their contracts remaining. Grigg appears to be approaching full fitness and James has done well since his return. Powell appears to be building up his fitness, but has not yet been able to last the full 90 plus.

However, an injury to the excellent young loan goalkeeper, Christian Walton, is a real blow for Latics. Paul Cook has brought in Matija Sarkic from Aston Villa, but the 20-year-old lacks EFL experience. It appears that Jamie Jones will be first choice until Walton is fit to return.

Paul Cook has made some good moves  in the transfer and loan markets.

Cook’s signings of Noel Hunt and Gary Roberts from Portsmouth have hardly gone down well with most fans. Hunt is 34 and Roberts 33. However, they are on one-year contracts. Based on what happened at Portsmouth, Roberts is more likely to appear more regularly than Hunt who is most likely to be used as a substitute.

But Cook has not paid a penny for any of his 7 permanent signings, all of whom were recruited as free agents. He has raised funds by selling Omar Bogle, Kaiyne Woolery and Alex Gilbey. He has brought in 5 loan players, with Lee Evans, Christian Walton and Ivan Toney being ever-presents in the starting line-ups so far.

Cook has used the pre-season and cup games so far to give youth a chance. The club has some fine prospects coming through its academy, including the 16-year-old Catalan, Victor Maffeo, who made his debut at Blackpool on Tuesday. Cook has sent out four of them on loan to clubs of a suitable level – Luke Burke to AFC Fylde (National League Premier), Callum Lang to Morecambe (League 2), Chris Merrie to Southport (National League North) and Sam Stubbs to Crewe Alexandra (League 2). James Barrigan, Luke Burgess and Josh Gregory remain.

Economics need to be considered.

Dave Whelan has owned Wigan Athletic since 1995. Although his grandson is the club chairman it is Whelan’s financial backing that underpins the club’s future. During the club’s ascent to the Premier League and its eight years in the top-flight Whelan put close to £100 m into the club.

In recent years the club has been closer to making revenues and expenditures match. However, four years of parachute payments have been spent since Latics got relegated from the Premier League and the club is once again in League 1.

It is rumoured that players were asked to take pay cuts when the club was once again relegated. But even if this has been the case and funds have come in through transfers (including that of Yanic Wildschut in January), the imbalance between revenues to be gained and player salary costs is a major issue.

Given the recent history of cutting back on salaries when projected revenues could not support them, it is a surprise that Nick Powell is still at the club. Powell might well have taken a cut on his reputed £16,000 per week, but his salary almost certainly will still dwarf that of other players in League 1.

Has Powell been retained in an ambitious bid for automatic promotion or has his horrendous injury record deterred other clubs from signing him or taking him on loan? Or are the Whelan family taking a gamble on the player regaining full fitness and not only propelling Latics back into the Championship, but also vastly increasing his net worth on the transfer market?

Should this squad secure promotion, how would survival in the Championship look?

The recruitment focus in the early Gary Caldwell era was to bring in “hungry” players in their early to mid-twenties who could provide the backbone of the team for the future. Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Max Power were among those. Ryan Colclough, Alex Gilbey, Sam Morsy and Yanic Wildschut were to follow.

Six of those players remain for Cook to call upon next week. Gilbey and Wildschut have gone and Daniels and Kellett sent on season-long loans in the final years of their contracts. Last season’s squad was good enough to ensure survival in the Championship. It was the inept management of Warren Joyce that took Latics down. However, some £12 m in parachute payments underpinned a wage bill of around £18 m.

Put simply: if Latics were to go up it would need significant investment by the Whelan family to keep them there in the absence of parachute payments.

Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs need to be offered new contracts.

Cook had said that contract extensions would be looked at once the transfer window was closed and he had the squad he wanted. Failure to offer the two players extended contracts will mean they will be free agents at the end of the season. The complication is not knowing what division Latics will be in next season.

Let’s not forget Reece James, who will also be out of contract next summer. James has done well to come back after being out for so long and has looked impressive so far. If he can prove his fitness, surely he too will be offered a contract extension.

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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