An initially challenging period is coming for Wigan Athletic

Au Yeung Wai Kay was understating the challenges that he and co-owner Stanley Choi will be facing. Leader Fund L.P. have a mountain to climb over the coming months with the coronavirus pandemic having a huge effect on football club finances.

Comments from Andy Pilley, Fleetwood Town owner, provide a chilling overview of what might happen to English football in general:

“We run the real risk of losing many famous football clubs. It could destroy the integrity of the competitions we love as football supporters. Ultimately the crisis may threaten the very existence of our football clubs if sufficient action is not taken. My concern is that we might have double figures of clubs that go to the wall.”

Huddersfield Town chairman Phil Hodgkinson spelled out the revenue shortfalls that clubs will be facing:

We are in the middle of a pandemic. The Government have confirmed categorically that there will be no crowds at sporting events until such a time where there is a vaccine; that’s looking like it could be 2021. What that means for football, at every level, is that there will be no match day revenue, no income coming through. It’s very unlikely that there will be much through sponsors, advertising, season ticket sales, corporate hospitality, everything. Football will be without income other than broadcast income.”

For the moment Latics must focus themselves on retaining a place in the Championship. All 24 clubs in the division have significant numbers of players whose contracts expire at the end of this month. At Wigan this includes Chey Dunkley, Joe Garner, Michael Jacobs, Lewis MacLeod, Anthony Pilkington and Gary Roberts. The loans of Leon Balogun, Alex Dobre, Keiron Dowell, Jan Mlakar and Dujon Sterling also expire on June 30.

Charlton manager Lee Bowyer last week announced that his key striker Lyle Taylor and full back Chris Solly do not want to play when the season resumes on June 20. Their contracts will be expiring and they do not want to risk injury preventing their moves to other clubs. Birmingham City’s David Davis is currently on loan at Charlton but does not wish to return for the brief period before his loan expires.

The EFL will allow short-term extensions of contacts until the season is completed, but clubs have until June 23 to either offer a new contract or release the player. If a player is not offered a new contract for the 2020-21 season he can be recruited by another club from June 24. That period between June 24 and June 30 could be crucial for clubs seeking promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

With such an uncertain scenario, planning for the 2020-21 season is going to be extremely difficult for football clubs. The pundits have already been saying that large numbers of out of contract footballers will become unemployed as clubs have to severely tighten their financial belts. Some will say that it will be a wake-up call to Championship clubs who have ludicrously lived so far beyond their means for so long. Latics remain one of the better-run clubs but even their revenue does not come close to their outgoings.

Matchday revenues for the current season for Wigan Athletic are unlikely to reach much more than £2m. With a wage bill of some £19m the club has been largely depending on broadcasting revenues and the financial support of the owners to stay afloat. Broadcasting brought in £7.7m in the 2018-19 season, when the club made an operating loss of £9.2m.

In order to slash costs Latics will have to drastically reduce their wage bill. It is unlikely that out of contract players will be offered new contracts unless they are on much-lowered terms or the player has a potentially high resale value. Moreover, we might see a fire sale akin to that executed by Dave Whelan in January 2015 when an expensively assembled squad looked headed towards relegation.

The breakdown of Antonee Robinson’s transfer to AC Milan in March was a bitter blow financially to Latics. The season’s balance sheet will be in negative territory. Over the summer the major assets will most likely be sold off.

The prize asset is Joe Gelhardt and Latics will hope a bidding war between competitive clubs in the Premier League will raise prime income, somewhere between £5m-£10m. However, with figures around £50m being toted for Jude Bellingham at Birmingham City, Latics might regret the minimal game time Gelhardt has been given. Will he be put in the shop window by becoming a more regular starter in the nine matches that remain?

In the long term Latics seem to be on firmer ground. The signing of the 15-year-old prodigy Alfie Divine on professional forms is another masterstroke from a well-oiled Latics academy system.

For more on Devine from the Liverpool Echo click here.

There is a wealth of talent coming from the area and Gregor Rioch’s staff continue to pick up young players of high quality.

In order to survive financially at this level over the long term Latics need to capitalise on an excellent youth setup. The system and staffing at those levels is already in place and delivering outstanding results. The next step is to ensure progression for these youngsters to the upper tiers. Devine is only 15 but has already played for the U23 team.

If Paul Cook can once more save Wigan Athletic from relegation from the Championship the season can be regarded as a relative success, given the budget he was given. Cook has talked so much about shielding Joe Gelhardt from pressure, giving him the right conditioning. There has been much debate as to his treatment of the talented young player. Only time will tell if the manager was right or wrong.

But all of this raises the question of whether Cook is the man to deliver the IEC strategy of developing home-grown talent as a means of survival and growth in the long-term. The academy system is as good as it is going to get for a club at this level. But is Cook the manager who will give young players the right amount of exposure? Gelhardt is an outstanding young talent but has only made 3 starts all season in a team short of creativity and goal-scoring threat.

Many things will change over summer at Latics, as will be the case in other clubs. The bottom line for us is that the club survives the crisis imposed on English football by the Coronavirus. But  we cannot expect owners to constantly pump money into an ever-empty pot.

IEC provided a valid blueprint for Latics’ future. We can only hope that ”Leader Fund” can help deliver, by providing the financial backing and appointing the staff they need to create the dream.

 

Resting senior squad players – was Cook right?

In November 2016 five clubs were fined a total of £60,000 by the EFL for contravening “full strength” rules in the Checkatrade Trophy. Luton Town and Portsmouth broke the rules in three games, each being docked £15,000. The third and final matches in the group stages had seen attendances in most of games plummet below four figures with Portsmouth having their lowest attendance since WW2 for a competitive match at Fratton Park.

Luton and Portsmouth had not complied with full strength rules that involved them putting five first team players in their starting line-up. The “first team players” could have been from those who played in the last league game, or the next league match, or the highest appearance makers in the season so far. Bradford City had found a way to circumvent the rules by substituting their “first team” goalkeeper after just three minutes in a game against Bury. Their assistant manager joked “I thought he had a poor 45 seconds”. Since then other clubs have followed suit. Accrington Stanley did it on Tuesday night at Wigan by taking off Billy Kee after four minutes.

Wigan Athletic will surely face a fine of at least £5,000 for the line-up put out by Paul Cook three days ago. The only member of the senior squad who played was Tyrell Thomas, who is 21 years old, his three league appearances this season having been as a substitute. Ten of the starting line-up were under 20 years of age, with the 15-year-old Jenson Weir coming on as a substitute after 69 minutes.

The 4-0 scoreline in favour of the visitors was no surprise, given the inexperience in the Wigan team. The game could be roughly described as one between Accrington’s second choice side and Latics’ third choice. It proved to be a mismatch which few of the 1,473 spectators present would have truly enjoyed. So why did Cook put out such a line-up? Did he give due warning to the fans that it would be the case?

Cook had given some indication of his line-up before the game by saying “I enjoy the youngsters coming in and showing what they can do. We took 700 fans to Blackpool in the first game, and it’s great for the kids to be playing in front of those numbers. I’m sure there’ll be more kids in the team for this one, and that’s great for Gregor (Rioch) and the Academy.”

But the team that started at Blackpool was largely composed of members of the senior squad, including the likes Donervon Daniels, Alex Gilbey, Jamie Jones, David Perkins and Max Power who had years of EFL experience under their belts. Was the manager being fair to the youngsters who played, or on the fans who turned up on Tuesday? Why did he not include senior squad members in need of match practice?

Cook had alluded to resting players in his pre-match comments: “We felt this week, with all the games we’ve played recently, it was a bit of a ‘lower’ week in terms of giving some lads a break. I just feel that with 16 league games, the Checkatrade Trophy, the Carabao Cup, and now the FA Cup, lads are just starting to show the first signs of fatigue.”

However, what he did not explain is why players who had been side-lined or spent most of their time on the bench were not played. Was it because he wanted to maintain harmony in the senior squad by giving them all (barring Terell Thomas) a rest, not just those who have played a lot of games up to this point? Or was it because he holds scant regard for the Checkatrade Trophy?

The EFL Trophy, currently sponsored by Checkatrade, started in the 1983-84 season as the Associate Members’ Cup. It was a competition involving clubs from the bottom two tiers of the Football League. Wigan Athletic were winners in its second season in 1984-85 was, beating Brentford 3-1 in front of 39,897 spectators at Wembley. At the time it was sponsored by Freight Rover.

 

 

In 1992 the third and fourth tier clubs received full voting rights after the First Division had broken away from the Football League to form the Premier League. Its name was duly changed to the Football League Trophy. Latics went on to win the competition again in April 1999 when they beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 55,349. It was then sponsored by Auto Windscreens.

 

 

Since those heady days the competition has had its ups and downs. In the year 2000 eight clubs from the Football Conference were invited to compete, but in 2006 this stopped. In 2016-17 it was renamed the EFL Trophy and Premier League and Championship clubs with Category 1 academies were included. The inclusion of those teams was voted in by EFL clubs but has been unpopular with most supporters of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2, to such an extent that some fans have boycotted the tournament as a form of protest.

However, despite the sparse attendances that typify the earlier stages of the competition it still maintains some status. Last season saw Coventry City win it by beating Oxford United 2-1 in front of a crowd of 74,434.

However, with 46 league games and the League Cup and FA Cup to compete in, were Wigan Athletic really interested in winning the EFL Trophy this season? The clear priority for Latics is promotion back to the Championship division, so how does the club view the Checkatrade Trophy?

Jonathan Jackson provided some perspective on the matter prior to the Accrington match. He stated that it was a much-maligned competition, but added that: “Within football, it’s seen as a great way of getting young players out there on to the pitch. Other than this competition, it’s very difficult to get young players into a competitive environment”. Jackson also revealed that there is a financial benefit for competing EFL clubs, through the prize money.

According to an article in the Coventry Telegraph in February 2017, the prize money for winning a group stage match was £10,000, with £5,000 for a draw. With the prize money increasing in later rounds Coventry City would have received around £400,000 in their winning the trophy.

Looking at Paul Cook’s decision from a pragmatic angle it appears that Latics will have made a small profit from their participation in the Checkatrade Trophy this season, even allowing for a fine in the region of £5,000. Although the Accrington game proved far from ideal for the development of young players, the previous games provided opportunities for youth, backed up by the presence of senior squad players.

Cook’s decision to field such a young and inexperienced team on Tuesday night was certainly controversial. Moreover, the postponement of Saturday’s fixture at Rochdale did not go down well with so many fans. However, the absence of the current second and third choice goalkeepers on international duty this weekend would surely have been an issue.

Only time will tell whether Cook giving his senior squad players a break of a fortnight between games will produce the result he seeks.

It is indeed a long season ahead.

 

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The turnover continues: will Latics have a 20-goal striker this season?

It was not Alan Nixon this time, but another journalist putting the cat among the pigeons on Twitter. Wilson Whitefield’s tweets certainly caught the imaginations of both Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers fans.

Twitter comments can certainly be controversial. Sometimes their statements never come to fruition, but sometimes they can prove to be accurate. We await confirmation from the club regarding the veracity of Whitefield’s comments.

A couple of years ago Gary Caldwell signed a 20 goal per season striker in Will Grigg. Grigg had done it at both Walsall and MK Dons and he was to do it again at Wigan in 2015-16, spearheading Latics’ League 1 title triumph. Omar Bogle exceeded the 20-goal mark last season. He scored 22 goals in 44 league appearances for Grimsby Town and Latics.

The more optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans have been relishing the prospect of both Bogle and Grigg being at the club this season, together with the hugely talented Nick Powell who can play either at centre forward or in midfield. The presence of the three would surely provide the momentum to push Latics back into the Championship

But economic factors cannot be ignored and the realists will say that at least two, or possibly all three of them, will be gone over the coming weeks. Put simply, despite the PR and propaganda that emanates from the club and local press, the huge drop in revenue due to relegation and loss of parachute payments will cause continued turnover at the club.

Both Grigg and Michael Jacobs are in the final years of their contracts. Latics could conceivably offer them contract extensions, but that could prove tricky not knowing which division the club will be in a year from now. An alternative is to cash in on their value in the transfer market this summer or in the January transfer window. Another option is to allow them to run their contracts down and decide on whether to offer them extensions later in the season. Being a proven goal scoring centre forward Grigg will continue to attract a considerable transfer fee, despite his disappointing season at Championship level. The likelihood is that he will be leaving in the coming weeks.

Powell is reputably the highest paid of the current squad and that added to his injury record would prove a very expensive luxury for a club looking to cut its budget by 60-70%. His inspiring cameo appearances at the end of last season certainly whetted our appetites, but his departure seems almost inevitable, providing he is fit.

So, given a scenario where Bogle, Grigg and Powell all leave, can we expect a centre forward of such qualities to come in and propel the promotion push?

The media rumours continue to link manager Cook to ex-players of his at Portsmouth. It seems that the signing of 34-year-old free agent Noel Hunt appears imminent. Hunt has scored 8 goals in 70 appearances over the past four years for Portsmouth, Ipswich and Leeds United. The names of Eion Doyle, Gary Roberts and Michael Smith have also been mentioned, together with Whitefield’s tweet about Chaplin.

In the meantime the turnover appears to be continuing with not only the speculation on Bogle, but the message below from Max Power that was tweeted in the last hour.

Despite the utterings of keeping the nucleus of the squad together on Paul Cook’s arrival it appears that this will hardly be the case.

More upheaval for Latics over summer?

“The squad is in good shape: it doesn’t need major surgery.”

Journalists use headlines to grab our attention. Sometimes they give us a good idea of what the article is all about, sometimes less so. Some internet sites use information already made public on others, repackaging it under a different label or more compelling headline. After a while you get to know which sites do that and learn to steer clear and not be drawn in.

If you get most of your Latics news from the internet you will almost certainly be using a news aggregator. NewsNow is the one I most commonly employ to check out Latics facts, opinions and gossip. Every day they give a list of the most  popular clicks and the other day  I found one at the top of their list entitled “From a Wigan reject to a Serie A star – Rangers’ rebuild gets serious.”

It was by no means a bad article, published on a Rangers fan site, largely enthusing about the Scottish club’s signing of an experienced Portuguese defender.  But what had drawn me to the article was the “Wigan reject” tag. This came in the penultimate line with the phrase “From Rob Kiernan to Bruno Alves”. No further comment was made about the ex-Wigan player, but the inference was that Alves is a much better player. In the end I wondered why I had read it.

I noticed one this morning that persuaded me to immediately click on the link. It was near the top of the charts, entitled “Sharpe: Some players need to change their attitude.” I found it hard to believe that the chairman would openly and blatantly criticise his players in public. It just did not fit in with his profile. Did he really say that?

In fact, no quote as such appeared in the article, which was focused on possible changes in playing staff with a new manager coming in. Sharpe was quoted as saying: “You’ll see some movement, no doubt.  I think he wants to get the players back in for pre-season and I think within a couple of weeks he’ll know who he wants out and who he’d love to keep, so that’s his decision.If there’s any players not buying into him and his way of thinking I’m sure they’ll be quickly moved on.”

So it looks like Sharpe never did say that some players need to change their attitude, thank goodness. Wigan Athletic did have a bad season, but most of that was probably more related to mismanagement rather than to lack of effort from the players. But although I was relieved in one sense, reading through what the chairman was quoted as saying was perhaps equally disturbing. Is it a signal that there will be even more upheaval in the playing staff over summer?

A couple of  days earlier, on Paul Cook’s appointment,  Sharpe had been said:  “I think the club but also the squad was the attraction to Paul; it gives him the chance to be at the top end of League One and that will be his aim. The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.

Reading between the lines of what Sharpe said, and on the basis of what has happened in the past, it appeared that he was largely willing to keep the squad intact. Two of the club’s most saleable assets – probably Will Grigg and Dan Burn – would be sold off to help balance the books in a season where revenues would not come close to paying a wage bill of players coming down on Championship salaries.

But Sharpe’s latest statements give cause for concern. When is the upheaval at Wigan Athletic going to stop?

The chart above shows that Latics used 41 players last season, indicating more turnover than any other club in the EFL. It mirrors what has been happening for far too long. Instability has eaten away at the foundations of Wigan Athletic Football Club.

Although Sharpe stated that he thought the squad had been attractive to Paul Cook, there is also the other side of the coin. That is of a new manager coming in and wanting to bring in his own players. Will we once again see wholesale changes as we saw in the summer of 2014 under Uwe Rosler, in January 2015 with Malky Mackay, in the summer of 2015 under Gary Caldwell and in January 2016 with Warren Joyce?

Let’s hope not. It is rumoured that the concept of a Director of Football was mooted at Wigan Athletic, but was rejected. One advantage of that position is having someone with an overview on potential turnover at the club. In the absence of such a person are we going to continue with the process of a new manager coming in and breaking up the squad he has inherited?

Gary Caldwell was, to a large degree, forced through economic necessity to release a whole flock of players on lucrative contracts in the summer of 2015. The line-up in the first match at Coventry had just one player – Chris McCann – from the previous season. It took months for the new players to gel and it was only in January that the results started to turn.

If anything, next season’s League 1 looks stronger than it was a couple of years ago. Blackburn Rovers will be buoyed by Venky’s money, Portsmouth maybe even more so if ex-Disney billionaire, Michael Eisner, takes over the club. With three up and four down each year the composition of League 1 varies significantly each season. The map for League 1 in the 2017-18 season reveals a number of clubs strong enough to challenge for promotion and the prospect of derby games against six other clubs in the North West.

Over recent weeks we have seen the departure of Graham Barrow, James Barrow and John Doolan from the coaching and conditioning staff. Only two the players whose contracts were expiring – Jordan Flores and David Perkins – have been offered extensions. Crowd favourite and captain, Stephen Warnock, has left. Garry Cook has come in at board level, Paul Cook and Leam Richardson as manager and assistant.

The question is whether the nucleus of the current squad will be retained over summer. Although Sharpe previously said the squad does not need major surgery has there been a change of mind with the arrival of a new manager?

When will the turnover of players at Wigan slow down?

Let’s hope it will be this summer.

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A Director of Football for Wigan Athletic?

Mark Warburton was Brentford’s director of football when Uwe Rosler was manager.

 

“We want to be a modern football club, and we see that sometimes when managers leave a lot of the structure leaves with them. That is no use. You put a lot of time, a lot of investment and a lot of resource into developing that side of the business and you can’t have that changing every time a manager changes.The director of football gives you that continuity. They oversee the overall football department, all aspects of it, including the academy, performance and preparation, analysis and everything as well as the first team. It means that if a manager or a coach does leave, you are only replacing that one person and the club’s philosophy continues unbroken if you have that director of football in there.”

The words of a member of the Latics hierarchy? Jonathan Jackson or David Sharpe maybe?

The statement summed up what has been happening at Wigan over the past four years. The calamitous appointments of Owen Coyle, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce destroyed what their predecessors had set up, leaving the club’s philosophy in tatters. Both Coyle and Joyce made not only wholesale changes in the playing staff, but their style of football was diametrically opposed to that of the previous managers. In both cases possession-based football was replaced by a physical approach embracing the long ball.

Ex-manager Uwe Rosler has been quoted recently as suggesting that Wigan Athletic need a period of stability. He was referring largely to Latics having had three managers this season and the instability it has caused. But it brought to mind another aspect of instability: that of player turnover. Alan Nixon’s “A mental amount of movement” tweet in January sticks in the mind. The Sun journalist had mentioned Latics’ interest in 5-6 new players. But by the end of the transfer window no less than 12 new faces had been brought in.

Few could disagree with Rosler’s comment. There is a clear need for continuity and stability at the club. Too many managers and players have come and gone. In the 2015-16 season there were 31 incomings and 44 outgoings of senior squad players at Wigan Athletic. The stats for the current season show 26 coming in and 29 leaving.

Strangely enough Rosler himself contributed to the lack of continuity and stability by bringing in a swathe of new players in the summer of 2014, despite the fact that his previous squad had reached the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the Championship playoffs, due to his fine efforts. Sadly the majority of the new players could not make their mark and the manager was surely undermined by senior players from previous administrations. His departure in November 2014 was to lead to the appointment of Malky Mackay, a January fire sale and an avoidable relegation.

In his previous position at Brentford, Rosler had worked in tandem with Mark Warburton, who was Director of Football. Our Brentford sources tell us that it was Warburton who was largely responsible for the recruitment of players. One wonders what might have happened at Wigan if a Director of Football had been in charge to deal with recruitment with Rosler giving his input. It was sad to see a manager who had done so much to bring Wigan Athletic back into prominence the previous season being dismissed in a matter of months.

Although it might appear that the context was that of Wigan Athletic the preliminary comment came not from Wigan, but from Glasgow. The speaker was Rangers’ managing director Stewart Robertson talking to Sky Sports just a couple of months ago.

Although in continental Europe many clubs have sports directors, akin to the general manager role in American sport, the role of director of football in England has yet to be clearly defined. Essentially the director of football acts as an intermediary between that the board and the manager, but clubs have tailored job descriptions according to their own requirements. An experienced and competent director of football can advise both the manager and the board. The role seems to inevitably involve tensions between the director of football and the manager, especially in the area of player recruitment.

At this stage we are not advocating the appointment of a director of football at Wigan Athletic, but the concept merits due consideration. Stewart Robertson’s comments might have been made about Rangers, but they ring true to us supporters of Wigan Athletic.

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