“Luke who’s back for Rotherham”
So said Paul Kendrick’s seemingly uplifting headline on the Wigan Today website. Was it a sign that Warren Joyce was showing faith in the club’s home grown young talent? Wasn’t that one of the major drivers in his appointment?
Alas, I was mistaken. The article referred to the return of Luke Garbutt, a 23 year old left full back on loan from Everton until January 2. In my mind it had been Luke Burke, the 18 year old right back who has been at the club since he was 13. Maybe my hopes were high because Burke had appeared on the bench against Ipswich last Saturday. His last first team appearance had been on September 10 at Sheffield Wednesday.
Now I have nothing against Luke Garbutt, who was signed as a left back. The Yorkshire-born player has done well to force his way back into the team under Warren Joyce, after a couple of months on the sidelines under Gary Caldwell. Garbutt has a sweet left foot, his delivery from set pieces being particularly good. Joyce has played him in various positions, including right back.
The regular left back, Stephen Warnock, has been Wigan’s most consistent performer this season. But Joyce decided to switch him to the right against Ipswich to keep an eye on the Tractorboys’ winger Tom Lawrence. Warnock was not at his best, a left footer playing on the right.
Since Luke Burke’s last appearance Latics have used a myriad of players on the right of defence, none of whom are specialists at playing that position. Those who have played right back/right wing back include midfielders Alex Gilbey, David Perkins, Max Power and Yanic Wildschut, together with Andy Kellett who was a left back but is now regarded as a midfield player. Joyce’s first choice for the position had been 20 year old West Ham loannee, Reece Burke, who was signed as a central defender, before injury meant he had to return to his parent club. Nathan Byrne has also played there but was signed as a wing back or winger, lacking the defensive qualities of a natural right back.
Luke Burke was playing for Liverpool Schoolboys when he was spotted and brought to Wigan. He has had an impressive career within the club, playing for development squad when 16, forcing his way into the first team at 18 after an impressive pre-season. Last season, Burke was captain of arguably Wigan Athletic’s best-ever youth team which won the Youth Alliance and reached the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup, taking Manchester City into extra time in an inspired display. In the previous round they had beaten Derby County, a Category 1 academy team. Most of those players have now risen up to the development squad. Once they have got sufficient experience at that level their potential will be appraised. Some will be sent on loan in lower leagues to strengthen their competitiveness, others will be released. It is only the rare cases like Burke who leapfrog straight into a first team place.
Burke certainly impressed in this year’s pre-season, so much so that he had been likened by pundits to Leighton Baines, the most successful of Latics’ academy graduates in recent years. The resemblance to Baines showed itself to some degree in his competitive debut at Ashton Gate. Burke gave a fine performance before having to come off after 77 minutes due to a head injury. He continued in the 3-0 win against Blackburn, being withdrawn after 75 minutes. Burke started in the next match against Birmingham, but was withdrawn tactically after 48 minutes, an attacking ploy by Caldwell who brought on Michael Jacobs in his place. Burke found himself on the bench for Caldwell’s ill-judged venture of playing Yanic Wildschut as a wing back at Nottingham Forest. He was to be brought after 64 minutes after the manager attempted to tighten up his defence. Burke started in the 2-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, but was withdrawn at half time for Adam Le Fondre.
Burke received the Michael Millett Award as youth team player of the year for 2015-2016. But sadly, receiving that award has hardly been a precursor for future success at the club. Only time will tell if Burke does better than his predecessors.
The winner in 2014-2015 had been Louis Robles with Gregor Rioch commenting that: “Louis is a shining example on and off the pitch of what everyone at Wigan Athletic is striving to achieve.He’s a leader in both senses too, wearing the armband and scoring 30 goals in the process, including a hat-trick in the recent Lancashire FA Youth Cup final.”
Sadly Robles was released a year later and is now playing college soccer in the south of the United States. The previous winners Matthew Hamilton (2013-2014), Joey Johnson (2012-2013) and Ryan Meadows (2011/2012) too were released without making the first team. But the 2010-2011 winner, Tim Chow, went on to make 18 senior appearances for Latics. The 2009-2010 winner,Lee Nicholls, made 12. Both were released last summer.
It has been reported that Burke has had some injury problems this season that have impeded his challenge for a first team place. But the right full back position has remained problematic and nobody has established himself in that position over a series of matches. Too many players have been played out of their best positions where they have looked less than comfortable on the right of defence. Four of them have been naturally left footed players, making things even more difficult for them. However, they have all been members of the senior squad, while Burke has been training with the development squad.
Luke Burke was injured prior to Joyce’s arrival, picking up a hamstring strain in a development squad match against Oldham Athletic on October 19. He was starting his recovery when Caldwell was dismissed on October 25. Following rumours that other Championship clubs were keen on signing Burke he was offered a new contract until the summer of 2018. Gregor Rioch commented that:
“Luke has made huge strides in what has been a whirlwind 12 months or so for him. He was one of the stand-out performers last season for the Under 18s and, having been offered pro-terms, to find himself in the first team picture so early on in his career was a great boost that has given him a knowledge of the standards he needs to reach. This is a recognition of all his hard work, so big congratulations to him and his family and I am confident he can continue to progress.”
Following the signing of the new contract he made development squad starts in the 3-2 win against Port Vale on November 23, the 1-1 draw at Fleetwood on November 29 and the 3-3 draw with Barnsley on December 6.
Burke also played for the development squad in another game against Fleetwood last Tuesday when Latics fielded a couple of trialists. However, on the same day an article appeared in Wigan Today where Joyce was quoted as saying:
“Luke’s been injured since I’ve been at the club, and he’s only just coming back. I’ve not seen a lot of him, it’s only the last week or so that he’s been back involved.”
Joyce’s comments are puzzling to say the least.
It appears unlikely that Burke will start at Rotherham, although he could get a place on the bench. The likelihood is that Garbutt will start at right back.
The preference of recent Wigan managers to play young loannees over homegrown talent has been a bone of contention with so many fans. It is something that was particularly frustrating in the Malky Mackay era when the young loan players largely failed to deliver.
Latics confirmed their faith in Burke by extending his contract. The player himself acknowledged the challenges ahead for him after signing his new deal:
“To get the chance to play in the first team was amazing. I know I have to work really hard to impress the new manager and show him what I can do. The leap in standards from Under 18s to first team was huge and I think I improved massively with the experience of playing at that level and against top professionals. It’s just given me a taste for more but I know that I need to work really hard to earn my chance again.”
Joyce’s appointment was very much influenced by his proven record of developing young players. Luke Burke promises to be the first of a talented cohort of 18/19 year olds at the club to establish himself as a first team player. Burke was joined on the bench against Ipswich last weekend by winger James Barrigan and defender Sam Stubbs, but there are other talented home grown youngsters also worthy of such an opportunity.
It will be interesting to see which route Joyce will set for Burke over the coming months. Will he send the talented youngster on loan to get more first team experience? Or is he willing to give him a chance of playing for a Wigan first team currently facing a relegation battle?
Much will depend on Joyce’s efforts to get hold of a quality right back in the January transfer window. The position has remained a problem for the past 18 months. Donervon Daniels would be an option, but remains some way away from full fitness. One can only wonder if Gary Caldwell would still be here if he had been backed in the transfer market when he went for Hearts’ exciting young full back Calum Paterson over summer. What a difference he might have made to the balance of the team.
Joyce’s immediate attention will be on the Rotherham game and the relegation dog fight that Latics currently face. Only time will reveal how his more long-term plans for developing young players within the club materialise.