The season ahead for Jordan Flores

He didn’t think he had played particularly well, but he had scored the opening goal at a very opportune moment, in the 45th minute. It was a superbly hit strike from outside the box, revealing the kind of technique that could make him a top player.

But Jordan Flores was right: he did not have a good game against Blackpool on Tuesday evening. His goal and a beautifully weighted pass to release Will Grigg were the highlights, but his passing was too often errant and it was clear that he still needs to work on his defensive skills.

But for those who have closely followed Flores’ career the biggest plus of the night was that he played the full 90 minutes plus of the match. It was the first time he had done so in  a competitive match for Wigan after having made his debut at Brentford in the final game of the 2014-15 season.

Jordan Flores is 21 years old, a local lad from Aspull. He played with the Latics juniors, later to re-join the club as a 15-year-old. He was to work his way up through the youth team and the development squad to make that first team debut in May 2015. The club had once prided itself on developing home-grown talent, but had somehow lost its way in recent years. Flores had come on to the field at Brentford to replace Tim Chow, another local lad who had come up through the ranks. Together they represented “homegrown youth” when Latics had for too long preferred to bring in young loan players from other clubs.

Flores is without doubt a talented player. He has the kind of technique that would enable him to feel at home among the talent at La Masia. He is blessed with a sweet left foot, excellent close control and a powerful shot. His best position is probably on the left side of a midfield trio, the kind of role that Chris McCann would often play in the era of Uwe Rosler. Flores is left sided, but not a winger. But in Paul Cook’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system where could Flores fit?

Prior to the Blackpool match the manager had commented: “In Jordan’s case, what’s Jordan’s best position in our line-up? We’re going to have a look at him on Tuesday night in a different position, in the front three behind the striker. Jordan’s a very naturally talented boy, and I think he’s going to be a great player for Wigan Athletic.”

It is not unusual for young footballers with genuine talent to be lacking in the physical side of the game. Flores has clearly been working on his stamina and having to sometimes play at full back or wing back will surely have helped him appreciate more the defensive part of the game. The challenge ahead is for him to be able to display his fine skills, but at the same time complement them with the physical attributes necessary for a successful footballer in the modern era.

When Warren Joyce sent him on loan to Blackpool in January it was by no means certain that Flores would be coming back this season. He was in the final 6 months of his contract with his future at the club seemingly in the balance. However, although he was not able to establish himself as a regular starter he went on to make 14 starts, with 7 appearances off the bench, scoring 3 goals. His total of 1,300 minutes playing time with the seaside club was to dwarf the combined total of 194 minutes he had previously spent on the pitch for Latics.

The relative success of his loan period at Blackpool surely influenced Latics to offer Flores a new two-year contract. It was a surprise at the time that the club were offering new contracts – Craig Morgan and David Perkins also received theirs – when the new manager had not been decided at that stage. Flores was clearly delighted commenting that: “I’m buzzing; I am going into what is my sixth season now and every year I feel like I have made progress. Last season that meant going out on loan and getting game time but this season I will hopefully break into the team. I support this club, I love this club and I have always wanted to play here.”

Cook clearly has faith in Flores’ abilities. However, he also commented about the player that: “But again these lads need to play regular, because you don’t learn much by not playing. These are the challenges ahead, not just for me but for Jordan and players like him. And we’ve got to stick together no matter what the plan is.”

The manager has already let us know that his squad is currently too big and that more players will be leaving. Is he hinting that Flores will be sent off on loan again?

The decision Cook will need to make before the end of August is whether Flores is ready to make an impact in his 4-2-3-1 system, and if he is, in what position? But another loan spell is a distinct possibility.

Jordan Flores remains a bright young talent with his best years ahead of him. With the right amount of nurturing he could become a very fine player.

 

Paul Cook – the right man for the job

Football took a nose dive at Wigan Athletic last season. What we saw in its place was a kind of “fightball” with players allowed to hoof the ball upfield, the end result being players ultimately unable to pass the ball with any consistent degree of accuracy. The end result was another seemingly inevitable relegation.

It had happened before, in the 2014-15 season, when William Kvist’s long throw-ins into the penalty box had become Malky Mackay’s principal attacking ploy. Who could have guessed that Warren Joyce and Mackay would create such a blot on the landscape of football when they were first appointed?

Owen Coyle’s long ball tactics and lack of tactical expertise had been no surprise to those of us who had seen his teams play prior to his arrival at Wigan. The surprise was more that Dave Whelan had appointed a manager whose style of football was diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.  The end result in Coyle’s case was a team that should have been challenging for promotion instead languishing in the bottom half of the table. In the cases of Mackay and Joyce the rot was to prove terminal.

Watching Paul Cook’s Chesterfield in the League 1 playoffs a couple of years ago immediately had me reflecting on his days at Wigan. Cook was the kind of player who probably would not have got a place in the teams of managers such as Mackay and Joyce. Harry McNally brought him in as an 18 year old from modest Marine, a club from Crosby who had been regular adversaries for Latics in their days in the Lancashire Combination. But despite his humble footballing origins Cook was a class act, an intelligent footballer with excellent control and a superb left foot. He was a member of Bryan Hamilton’s exciting Latics side of 1985-86, who were desperately unlucky not to be promoted to the second tier, a late run from Derby County pipping them by a single point. Cook continued to be an important player under Ray Mathias, who like Hamilton, encouraged his teams to play good football. But it was no surprise when he was snapped up by Norwich City in 1988, the next step in a career that was to see him go on to amass 642 Football League appearances, scoring 56 goals in the process.

Cook was a cultured player and he expects his teams to play in a similar fashion. He started his managerial career in the lower leagues, spending some six years at Southport, Sligo Rovers and Accrington Stanley before joining Chesterfield in October 2012. His first season saw the Spireites come within two points of the League 2 playoffs, but they were to win the division the following year. They went on to firmly establish themselves in League 1 in 2014-15, reaching 6th place, losing out to Preston North End in the playoffs.

In May 2015 Cook was appointed manager of Portsmouth. Pompey had fallen from the Premier League to 16th place in League 2 within a period of just five years. In 2015-16 Cook lifted them to sixth place and the playoffs, narrowly going down to Plymouth Argyle in the playoffs. They went on to win the division last season under his guidance.

Paul Cook has an impressive 44% win ratio as a manager. Moreover he has done that by insisting that his teams play a version of football akin to that which led Wigan Athletic to the most successful results in their history. Roberto Martinez had led Latics to wins over giants – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United – plus an FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, by playing possession-based football.

As a young player at Wigan Cook was not universally appreciated by the home crowd. There were those who urged him to “get stuck in” and release the ball quicker. Fortunately in Hamilton and Mathias he had managers who appreciated his style of play and who wanted their teams to play good football.  If there was one thing that Cook lacked it was pace. It meant that he was not to play at the highest levels of English football, despite his technical expertise.

It looks like Paul Cook will be signed up as Wigan Athletic’s manager in the next 24 hours.  Once again he will not be popular with all of the fans. Those who prefer a more direct style of play will be left frustrated. It will signal a reversion to the kind of football most recently employed at Wigan by Gary Caldwell, prematurely dismissed in October. The cynics had said that Caldwell could not get promotion out of League 1 playing possession-based football. They were proven wrong as his team went on to win the division.

On Cook’s seemingly impending arrival at Wigan, his ex-boss Mathias remarked to Wigan Today that:

“He has proved he can do it. I know his upbringing and how he’s lived his life. He can be very strong for Wigan and he can be a strong talker when he has to be.”

 Paul Cook is an experienced manager with an excellent track record in the EPL’s lower divisions. He is the right qualities for the job at Wigan Athletic in this moment of time.

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Jack Byrne –the best of the January 2017 signings?

 

Warren Joyce must have been looking forward to the January transfer window. It presented him with the opportunity to bring in his own men. Joyce had been appointed in early November to take over a squad used to playing possession football under their previous manager. Joyce was determined to change that approach to a more direct style of play.

But by the time the window had opened he had won just one of the nine games he had been in charge. Getting the right players in during the January window was never going to be easy. Clubs are not keen to lose key players in mid-season and the pickings in January tend to be thin.

Joyce went on to contract six new players, plus another seven on loan. He had a fair amount to say about the new arrivals, but his words about Jack Byrne were kept to a minimum:

“Jack is one for the long-term, a really hungry player who we feel can develop here over the next few seasons, a real talent.”

It was almost as if he was playing down Byrne’s signing, although the player had been given a three and a half year contract and had excellent reviews as a young player at Manchester City. The sale of Byrne did not go down well with quite a few City fans, frustrated that another talented young player coming through the ranks had been sold off. The transfer fee was of the “undisclosed” category, but City were unlikely to let the player go for peanuts. They had sold another talented young player to Latics a couple of years earlier. Wigan paid them around £2.5 m for Emyr Huws, who was 20 at the time. City would expect something substantial for Byrne, also 20.

One wonders if Joyce himself was responsible for Byrne’s signing or whether it was someone else within the club. Patrick Vieira, Manchester City youth team coach, had said a year ago that: “If you want to play direct, Jack will be useless but if you want to keep the ball on the floor, and you need someone really creative, Jack will be the player who can do that.” Joyce’s preferred playing style was certainly “direct”.

Byrne did not set foot on the pitch for the senior team during Joyce’s reign which was prematurely terminated in mid-March. But he does seem to feature in Graham Barrow’s thinking, having come on off the bench in the recent wins over Rotherham and Barnsley.

Born in Dublin, Jack Byrne joined Manchester City as a 14 year old. Byrne has played for the Republic of Ireland at U17,U18 and U21 levels. In 2014-15 he was a key player in a  Manchester City team that reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Youth League, scoring 6 goals in 8 appearances, including two against Bayern Munich.

Last season Byrne was sent to Cambuur to play in the Dutch Eredivisie. He made his debut in mid-September against FC Twente after a 6 week layoff due to an ankle injury.

The Irish site SportsJoe spoke to the Chairman of  De Kern van Cambuur (the Cambuur Supporters Club), Kees Elzinga. Referring to Byrne he commented:

Jack reminds me of the Welsh player Gareth Bale but he could probably learn a lot from Wesley Sneijder is mostly playing midfield and is able to give long distance passes to his left and right wing teammates. He also tries to get forward and threaten the goal of the opponent and he tries to score with long distance shots. Jack is well known in our Premier League; Dutch television (mostly FOX Sport) shows quite a lot of his actions and other teams do their best to keep him out of the play.”

 

Byrne went on to play 27 games for the Dutch team, scoring four goals.

Following a successful season in Holland, Byrne was sent on a season-long loan to Blackburn Rovers  last summer. It turned out to be a bad move for him as Owen Coyle so often left him out of the lineup. Byrne’s loan was cut short and he returned to Manchester City in early January.

Wigan Athletic have been desperately short of creativity this season. Jordi Gomez was too often sidelined before leaving in January. Both Nick Powell and Alex Gilbey had long spells out through injury. Byrne appeared late in the 85th minute against Rotherham, but was brought on after 54 minutes against Barnsley. His Wigan Athletic career has now been kick started.

Of all the January signings Byrne was perhaps the least heralded. But given his talent he will surely play a key creative role for Latics over the coming season, if properly nurtured. He has the ability to become a top player. Only time will tell if he proves to be the best of the January 2017 signings.


Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

A case for Luke Burke and home grown talent

 

“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.

 

Rekindling Grigg’s fire

 

Windsor Park erupted into song in the 62nd minute of a World Cup qualifying match on Friday. The chorus reverberated around the old Belfast stadium. The irony is that some Northern Ireland supporters may have been more familiar with the song than the player who came off the bench at that moment

Will Grigg went to the European Championships in France in summer, but never got the chance to play. He found himself the third choice centre forward behind  Kyle Lafferty of Norwich and Conor Washington of Queens Park Rangers. Lafferty has a fine goalscoring record for his country – one in every three games. He opened the scoring against Azerbaijan in the 24th minute, before going off with around half an hour to play. But Washington was not in the squad and Grigg was the replacement.

Will Grigg was born in Solihull and qualifies for Northern Ireland through an Irish grandparent. He made his debut for them in a 6-0 defeat to Italy in June 2012, going on to make five more appearances over the next 12 months, but over the past three years his appearances have become infrequent.

The experience in France will have been desperately disappointing for Grigg. He scored 27 goals last season, the third time in his career when he has exceeded the 20 mark. Given Lafferty’s goalscoring record at international level it was always going to be difficult to claim a place ahead of him. But Grigg’s fans will seriously question why he was not favoured over Washington, who had a good goalscoring ratio at Peterborough, but failed to score for QPR last season after his January transfer.

But despite the knockbacks of France and critics wondering if Grigg was up to the level of the Championship, the player started the season with a flourish. Despite his team’s poor start to the season Grigg not only managed to score 4 goals in the first 5 games, but also to look comfortable playing in the second tier. It looked like Grigg could be on fire in the Championship as he had been in League 1.

At the start of the season Grigg was Wigan’s most marketable player. Were he to make a success of himself in the Championship his potential transfer value would sky-rocket. The figure Latics paid Brentford – rumoured to be around £900,000 – looked like chicken feed compared with the possibilities of a valuation moving up towards the £10 million mark. In a cash-strapped situation the club could not afford to miss out on a big cash-in at a later date.

But since early September Grigg has not so much been on fire, but more like smouldering. With his first child due to be born he opted out of the Northern Ireland squad at the end of August, the arrival of Adam Le Fondre near the end of the transfer window also complicating Grigg’s position. At the end of September in the home game against Wolves Gary Caldwell chose Le Fondre to start ahead of Grigg. The manager could say his move paid off as Le Fondre scored after 5 minutes, with Grigg coming off the bench to score the winner in the 88th minute. In fact that has been Grigg’s only goal in his last 7 matches for Wigan.

Le Fondre was again preferred to Grigg in the goalless draw with Burton in mid-October, but Grigg was to regain his place for the next three matches. However, the arrival of new manager Warren Joyce was to see Le Fondre start in the ill-fated 3-0 defeat to Reading.

One wonders if Joyce will continue to favour Le Fondre over Grigg. The 29 year old Le Fondre arrived on loan from Cardiff with an impressive career strike record, having scored 164 goals in 287 league starts and 152 appearances off the bench. He has played in the lower divisions, but also in the Premier League with Reading. He joined Cardiff City in May 2014 but managed only 4 goals in 19 starts and 4 substitute appearances before being sent off on loan to Bolton then Wolves.

Joyce might well be looking into resting Grigg over the coming weeks. Last week he stated that: “It is a real frustration. Talking to Will, he’s had a long summer, where he maybe only had 10 days off between seasons, and he almost needs a little bit of a break. I know from my experience at Manchester United, the players always had at least a four-week break (over the summer) because the body needs that. It’s something we’ll be looking at with Will, to try to give him a chance to recharge his batteries and go again for the rest of the year.”

Up to this point Grigg has started in 13 league matches, with 3 appearances off the bench. He has scored 5 goals. Le Fondre has started in 3, with 4 substitute appearances, scoring 1 goal.

Both Grigg and Le Fondre have excellent goalscoring records. There are fans who would like to see them play together as twin strikers, but Joyce is likely to take a similar stance to Gary Caldwell and most other modern day managers by playing with one central striker. The 25 year old Grigg is physically bigger than Le Fondre and has shown his ability to play the lone centre forward role with skill and application. But Le Fondre has more experience of playing in higher levels of football.

Joyce also has a fit-again Craig Davies at his disposal. Davies can play the role of an old fashioned battering ram centre forward who can make life uncomfortable for central defenders. He was afforded little playing time last season, so often brought on near the ends of games, with little time to settle in. Davies needs more consistent playing time to be at his sharpest, but with Grigg and Le Fondre ahead of him in the pecking order he will find it tough. But the prospect of a Davies-Le Fondre double act in the final quarter of a tight game could be tempting for Joyce.

It is ironic that at the same time that Joyce is talking about resting Grigg he is at last getting playing time for Northern Ireland. It is a matter which is out of the manager’s hands, but he cannot be happy with the situation.

It remains to be seen not only how much rest Joyce will afford Grigg, but whether the player wants it. He started the season well, but events have conspired to disrupt his rhythm. Many fans advocate a return for Grigg as the undisputed first choice centre forward. Joyce will have to make some difficult decisions over the coming weeks.

An on-fire Grigg could be the key to Latics moving up the Championship table, free of the threat of relegation. He remains the club’s biggest asset and the manager will need to ensure that he is sharp and at his best.

Last season Grigg had only scored 6 league goals by Christmas, but went on to notch 25. He has already scored 5 goals in the Championship this season.

Can he do it again?

Can Joyce rekindle Grigg’s fire?