A rapturous ending – Bradford City 0 Wigan Athletic 1

Photo courtesy of the Telegraph and Argus.

 

The rapturous scenes of celebration witnessed last night at Valley Parade will stick in the collective Latics memory for years to come. It was certainly a good goal, Michael Jacobs slotting home from Will Grigg’s sublimely weighted pass. But it was more than that. It was a reaffirmation that Wigan Athletic are serious contenders for automatic promotion from League 1.

It had been a scrappy game against a Bantams team that was barely recognisable from the one that played such good football in winning at the DW Stadium in November. Stuart McCall was sacked in early February after six consecutive defeats. With him went the stylish football we had seen, to be replaced by a long ball approach under Simon Grayson. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley gobbled up those high balls and, as a result, Bradford City posed a minimal threat on the Wigan goal. They have now gone nine games without a win.

On paper an away win would have appeared a good bet to make, but despite Wigan’s dominance and coming close to scoring several times, it looked like the game was to remain goalless. But this Latics team is certainly resilient and they kept plugging away until that moment of magic in the 91st minute.

The type of football we saw from Latics last night was nowhere near that silkier brand we had seen so often in the latter months of 2017. This was based on sheer effort, with lots of long balls and crosses flung into the penalty box seemingly willy-nilly. But, nevertheless there was a rekindling of the kind of tackling and movement that had been so prominent in Wigan’s play in brighter times. Players who had looked jaded and sluggish against Scunthorpe on Saturday had somehow been beamed back to their previously high-energy states.

Ever since the arrival of Owen Coyle, Latics had just never looked as fit as many of the teams they had played. But Paul Cook and his staff have transformed fitness levels in such a way that one wonders why previous regimes had not been able to do so. For it to be successful Cook’s style of play needs players with energy and enthusiasm in abundance. If either is lacking it can flounder as we have seen in recent weeks.

After the game Cook had talked about “going back to basics” and that is what we saw last night. The tackling was keen, the movement was there. What was in short supply was poise, until that memorable moment in time added-on. But that will surely return if those energy levels can be maintained.

Beating a team that had already lost 8 home games and in such awful run form might seem unremarkable, but it could prove to be the psychological turning point in Wigan’s season.

Those rapturous celebrations showed us just how important that win was to the Wigan players. Blackburn and Shrewsbury will surely have taken note that Latics are back on track and are once more serious contenders for those automatic promotion slots.

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Cook gets it wrong – Wigan Athletic 3 Scunthorpe 3

“Great credit to the players because we never looked like getting a point and we dug one out.”

Paul Cook was once again displaying that refreshing type of honesty that has characterised his interactions with the media.  But with just one win in their last five league games, Wigan’s promotion challenge is faltering.

We have certainly learned that Cook does not favour squad rotation, preferring to stick with a settled lineup. But with the fixture pileup Latics were facing we could have expected a little more flexibility from the manager. In the event he opted for just two changes from the starting lineup at Blackburn.

The introduction of Reece James for Callum Elder was no surprise. Neither was the insertion of David Perkins for his first league start in six months in place of wide player Gavin Massey. Before the game started it looked like a conservative change. Massey’s recent form had been indifferent, but Cook had resisted the chance to put in either Ryan Colclough, Gary Roberts or Jamie Walker as a like-for-like replacement. It seemed like Perkins would play a wide midfield role.

In the event, Perkins lined up in the centre-left midfield role, with Sam Morsy centre right and Max Power pushed towards the right flank. It changed the chemistry of Wigan’s football. With Nick Powell often dropping back to receive the ball, the midfield looked crowded, somewhat akin to what we saw in the era of Warren Joyce. With more men in midfield we could have expected Latics to nullify much of the threat from the opposition, but far too often Scunthorpe were able to find gaps which they could exploit. The midfield just was not able to provide the cover for the back four that has typified Cook’s teams this season. Moreover, with only one natural wide player, Michael Jacobs on the left, the play lacked the balance we have come to expect.

Scunthorpe had come into the game with a positive approach, with a willingness to push men forward. In Ivan Toney and Will Hopper up front they posed a constant aerial threat that was to prove the undoing of Wigan’s central defence. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley have proven close to invincible in the air this season, but yesterday they were caught out, with all three Scunthorpe goals deriving from lofted balls into the area. Burn had been the stand-out player for Latics this season, but in recent games he has looked lethargic and not at his best. Dunkley was at fault for the second goal, not seeming to know where Hopper was as he headed home from beyond the far post.

Although they lacked fluency yesterday, Latics did show their fighting qualities. Dunkley had put them ahead after Scunthorpe keeper Matt Gilks had not reached Max Power’s corner. The second and third goals were deflected. Cook is not renowned for his tactical flexibility but chose another option yesterday when he brought on Alex Bruce to play in the centre of a back three. Given the recent porosity of the centre of defence it might be an option that he will continue to experiment with at Bradford on Tuesday. Bruce may lack the pace he had before injury intervened but could be part of a formidable trio with Burn and Dunkley.

The FA Cup is once more approaching. Prior to the Manchester City game, Latics were poor in losing to both Southend and Blackpool. At the time we surmised that the players had the big cup match in their heads and just could not apply themselves as normal. Or maybe an imminent takeover of the club was about to happen, unsettling the playing staff.

That takeover still has not happened and we can but ponder on what might happen if the Whelan family continues to hold the reins. In the meantime, it leaves Cook and his staff in a vacuum, not knowing if the necessary funding would be available to consolidate in the Championship were promotion to be achieved.

With the FA Cup continuing to cast a shadow on Wigan’s league performances and severe dropping off in the form of key players, Cook will surely bring in some fresh blood at Bradford. To make wholesale changes would be a mistake, but some adjustments will need to be made. The manager will also have to decide whether to revert to that 4-2-3-1 system that had served him so well before.

Following the victory over Manchester City, Cook’s popularity rating was at a high. However, he faces serious challenges in the coming weeks. Yesterday’s performance was gritty, rather than fluent. His challenge will be in helping his key players get back to their best form. Too many looked jaded yesterday and Cook will need to take a more serious look at squad rotation if the situation is to be rectified.

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Another Cup or League dilemma?

Can Paul Cook emulate Gary Caldwell by winning League 1? Or will the FA Cup get in the way?
Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

 

Wigan Athletic have a habit of giving the media something to feed upon. Dave Whelan certainly gave them plenty of ammunition when he appointed Malky Mackay and consequently made politically incorrect comments that the press lapped up. But he also appointed Roberto Martinez, who brought home the biggest prize in the club’s history amid worldwide media acclaim.

That FA Cup win will remain in our collective memories for years to come. Moreover it created a story that the media found irresistible. As a result Wigan Athletic became known on the world stage and it is no surprise that they are now about to be taken over by a Far East consortium.

Prior to that fateful day in May 2013 there were debates among Latics fans about what was more important – the league or the cup. There were two extremely difficult games coming up within the space of a few days: Manchester City at Wembley and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. The bookmakers did not think Wigan Athletic could win either game.  In the event Roberto Martinez managed to fashion a team out of an injury-ravaged squad which went on to win the FA Cup on merit. It was a dream come true, especially for those of us who had seen the club rise from its humble origins over the years. That old debate is now settled – who would want to put the clock back and swap a cup win for a longer stay in the Premier League?

Almost five years later and a parallel debate is opening up following Monday’s remarkable win against the same club. Some in the media are saying Manchester City are the best team in the world. It remains to be seen whether they can win the Champions League, then the World Club Cup to justify that label. But they have certainly been outstanding up to this point in all competitions bar the FA Cup. That a club from the third tier could knock them out beggars belief, even if they played half of the game with ten men.

It was the third FA Cup giant-killing act by Wigan Athletic against Manchester City in five years. In that 2013 Cup Final, Wigan had 48% possession, equaling City in shots with 11 and committing 5 fouls to their opponents’ 11. A year later Uwe Rosler’s team won 2-1 at the Etihad in the quarter finals, the stats perhaps being reflective of Wigan’s status as a Championship division team, having 32% possession, 5 shots to City’s 12, each team committing 10 fouls. The stats from Monday’s game reflect what a remarkable performance it was from a side currently in League 1. City had 82% possession and 29 shots to Wigan’s 4 , but could not get a goal. Wigan conceded 11 fouls, although a number of those decisions were debatable, City committing 6.

The application, effort and discipline required to hold off the continuous waves of City attacks was remarkable and reflects on the mentality Paul Cook has instilled into his players. It was another unforgettable day for Latics fans.

So, Wigan Athletic have reached the last 8 of the FA Cup for the third time in the last half decade. A sixth-round home tie with Southampton beckons. What chance do Latics have of beating the Saints?

“Believe” remains the Wigan Athletic theme. Lots of fans will say that Latics have already beaten three Premier League sides, including the champions-elect, so why not Southampton too?

The realists will point out that Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City fielded weakened teams. If Southampton play their strongest lineup then they are likely to overcome third tier Wigan.

But will the victory over Manchester City, followed by another tie with Southampton in mid-March have an impact on Wigan’s quest to get back to the Championship division? Is the FA Cup a distraction that could cost Latics promotion?

The defeats at Southend and at home to Blackpool were an unwelcome surprise for a team that had seemed to be cruising towards the League 1 title. Some suggested that the impending takeover might have something to do with what was happening on the pitch. Others pointed to the upcoming game against Manchester City being a major distraction for the players. Or was it simply a matter of time until that good run would come to such a resounding halt?

Moreover, Monday’s heroic performance could carry a heavy toll. The sheer exertion of running for 90+ minutes with just 18% possession is something that should not be dismissed. In addition to the next FA Cup encounter, Latics have played three games less than their promotion rivals, leaving them 15 league games to play in a 10 week period. Fans will recall the long run-in that Uwe Rosler’s side faced in 2013-14, which left them jaded for the Championship play-offs. However, that season not only included a run to an FA Cup Semi Final but also six games in the Europa League.

Paul Cook’s team will be on a psychological high after that amazing performance. The question is whether they will have the stamina to cope with the bread-and-butter events of League 1. Cook is not a man who likes to rotate his squad, but he will surely have to do so over the coming weeks if Latics are to keep up their momentum for promotion.

Cook’s main challenge is to keep his players firmly focused on League 1. A win against Southampton would put Latics in the FA Cup semi-final once more, but a return to the Championship is surely the club’s main focus.

In the meantime, reports suggest that both Cook and David Sharpe travelled to Spain this week. Not surprisingly it is being linked to the change in ownership, which appears due to be completed by the end of this month. But perhaps it was to celebrate Cook’s birthday (February 22)?

Following the cup tie Cook’s popularity ratings have reached an all-time high at Wigan. He has done a wonderful job up to this point but there remain considerable hurdles to cross  over the next couple of months.

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The transfer window – a sign of things to come for Latics?

 

“Of course Luis wants to work and play at the top level. But unless something drastic happens, he will be staying here.”

Brendan Rodgers’ hapless quote did not go down too well with the fans. The Luis Suarez saga dragged on for so long, but the end-result was that the player got what he wanted with a move to Barcelona.  Suarez had been pivotal in Liverpool’s challenge for the Premier League title. His departure seriously weakened a team that had come so close to winning the Premier League.

Nick Powell’s departure from Wigan Athletic over the January transfer window would also have seriously weakened a team striving to win their division. The media was awash with stories telling us that other clubs were bidding for him. We had to hold our breath until the window closed on Wednesday evening.

Powell’s case is remarkable among modern day footballers. Indeed, it was so refreshing to get away from the media hype of Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United, instead hearing how a player did not want to go a higher division to earn a much bigger salary. Powell quite simply told his chairman that he wanted to stay at Wigan and consecutive bids from Brighton were turned down by the club.

January transfer windows have been depressing affairs over recent years at Wigan Athletic. The decimation of January 2015 immediately comes to mind, when Dave Whelan had Malky Mackay boot out so many household names, together with players who had only been signed in summer. It was a matter of reducing the wage bill more than anything else. Relegation was not a surprise consequence of those actions. Add to that the woeful comings and goings in 2017 under the inept Warren Joyce. None of the 13 players he signed were at the club when the current season began. But the January 2018 dealings were by no means depressing, and if anything, they were positively uplifting. So, what has changed at the club?

First and foremost is the manager. Paul Cook has shown the kind of shrewdness in hiring and moving-on of players that has been lacking at Wigan in recent years. When Lee Evans left to join Sheffield United, early in the transfer window, it looked like a case of David Sharpe not being willing to put up that extra money to keep the player. Evans had been excellent and wanted to stay at the club.

But the signing of Jamie Walker from Hearts looked like a step forward, a player who can play the number 10 role that Nick Powell currently occupies. Within a few days James Vaughan was signed from Sunderland, an experienced player who has not only played most of his football in the upper two tiers of English football but has a superb goalscoring record in League 1. The loan signing of Jay Fulton from Swansea was to follow, then on deadline day Devante Cole was signed from Fleetwood for reportedly £400,000 and Donervon Daniels brought back from Rochdale.

Cook has brought in largely younger players, together with the 29-year-old Vaughan. Walker is 24 years old, Fulton 23 and Cole 22.  Daniels is still only 24. His contract runs out in summer. Cole’s signing was a bit of a surprise, a third central striker to challenge Will Grigg and James Vaughan. However, Cole might well be used on the flanks when needed.

Only time will tell if the players brought in during January 2018 will make a success of it at Wigan. But their profiles certainly look promising and the blend seems right. What is surprising is that David Sharpe has spent more money over January when the club are heading for a financial loss for the season. It is not what we have come to expect in recent years.

Reports suggest that the current wage bill is around £10 m, which cannot even be met half way by gate receipts and EFL subsidies. Part of the funds paid out in January will be offset by a 30-40% share of the £1.5 m transfer fee of Jack Hendry from Dundee to Celtic. However, the takeover by the Asian consortium appears imminent. Has this influenced the transfer window dealings? Moreover, will David Sharpe continue when the takeover happens?

Does Sharpe’s tweet give us a clue?

 

A Swansea City fan’s view of Jay Fulton

 

Wigan Athletic have signed 23-year-old Jay Fulton on loan from Swansea City for the remainder of the season. The 5 ft 10 in Fulton’s contract with the Swans expires in June.

Following the announcement of his latest recruit Paul Cook said that: “Jay will fit right in here. It is a good move for him and we are really looking forward to working with Jay and integrating him into our squad.”.

Following his signing, Fulton identified his style of play: “I am a central midfielder, I like to break up the opponents play and start up our play. I spoke to the manager about how he wants me to play and hopefully I can fit into that.”

Jay Fulton was born in Bolton, his father Steve having signed for the Wanderers after playing for Celtic. Steve’s stay at Bolton only lasted a year and he left to play for Falkirk. Jay was only a few months old when he moved to Scotland.

Curiously Jay joined Falkirk as a youth and made his first team debut as a 17-year-old in April 2011. He went on to make 83 appearances, scoring 5 goals, for the Bairns, before signing for Swansea in January 2014.

In December 2013 Fulton had been highlighted by the Tell Him He’s Pele website as one of the top 25 superstars in the lower leagues of Scotland. The writer commented:

Jay Fulton is the best footballer at the club. With the vision and ability to execute through-balls like no other in the lower leagues, Fulton marries these with expert balance and an uncanny ability to slalom past players in tight spaces, making him a player who could seamlessly fit into any role in midfield.

Where exactly his best position is can sometimes be difficult to judge: should his ability to see the game unfold in front of him (and play audacious through balls like this) mean that he operates as a deep playmaker as part of a double-pivot? Or ought his willingness to take the ball in compressed space and play wall-passes dictate that he should be used behind a forward? It could be that he would be most effective further forward at this stage in his career and then eventually fall back, but he is equally capable of playing on the flanks.

Fulton made his Swansea debut in April 2014, coming on as a substitute in a Premier League game against Aston Villa. In June 2014 he signed a new four-year contract with the Swans. However, Fulton’s first team appearances at Swansea were to be limited and he went on loan to Oldham Athletic in the first half of the 2015-16 season. He made 11 appearances for the Oldham Latics, including one against Gary Caldwell’s Wigan side at Boundary Park in September 2015.

He has represented Scotland at U18, U19 and U21 levels.

In order to learn more about Fulton’s time at Swansea we contacted Phil Sumbler of the Planet Swans fan site https://www.fansnetwork.co.uk/football/swanseacity).

Here’s over to Phil:

Jay Fulton has barely had a look in at Swansea but from when I have seen him play he is a composed midfielder who certainly knows what the game is about.

 His lack of first team opportunities at Swansea should be put down more to maybe not being ready for the Premier League rather than a reflection of general ability.

 For me this loan move will be exactly what he needs and we will be watching his progress at Wigan keenly and willing him to succeed.

I’m not sure the fans have much of a view to be honest – his chances were limited although there were often calls for him to be given a chance (given how bad we have been for a few years)

He’s always looks strong in the challenge and composed on the ball but without the regular flow of competitive football then he has struggled.

For me I don’t think he is a Premier League player (and not sure he would be).

 

We gathered further insight on Swans fans’ views on Fulton through postings on the Planet Swans Forum.

In November Magidaps10 revealed Fulton’s Premier League record:

8 STARTS

5 WINS

1 DRAW

2 DEFEATS

 Not too shabby!

In late December TheKirkyLife  commented that:

Back from loan at Oldham. I must say whenever he played last year he was a really solid and confident addition to the squad. Good to have him back and actually would love to see him in Britton’s role a bit. Almost let Leon take him under his wing. Fantastic prospect from everything I’ve seen.

SwanfortheMoney recently added:

I’ve always liked Fulton when I’ve seen him. Big lad, tackles, gets headers, decent on the ball. A much cheaper version of Clucas.

The Manager sees more of him than we do, so we have to assume he’s surplus to requirements. Good luck to him.

JFSWAN  said:

Never let us down when he’s played. Always snappy into tackles. Southampton away comes to mind with a midfield 3 of Fulton, Carroll and Shelvey where he performed exceptionally.