Five talking points following a champagne-popping win over Stoke

Wigan Athletic 3 Stoke City 0

Champagne football returned to Wigan last night as Latics blew away Stoke City with the best display of the Paul Cook era. Gone was the hoofball that characterised the worst displays of the season. In its place was champagne football.

Granted, the first two goals were down to poor defensive play, although the third was something special. But the scoreline could have been much greater had Latics taken more of their chances. They were so superior throughout the game.

After the match Paul Cook commented: “That was an absolute top-class performance from us tonight. The only disappointment possibly was that it was only 1-0 at half-time. We created clear-cut chances, we dominated possession, and our appetite for work when we didn’t have the ball was so impressive.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game:

It’s all in the head

Jonjo is right. It is bonkers!

Wigan’s play last night exuded a confidence based upon an impressive unbeaten run.

In November Latics lost 2-1 at Stoke through a Mame Diouf goal in the 93rd minute.

They have come so far since then. But who can explain it?

Cook’s popularity rating rises

There have been times over the past two seasons when Paul Cook’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom. At times the football has been either awful or too frustrating to watch.  Comments on the social media have been brutal at times.

However, since embarking on this unbeaten run in mid-February his popularity with the fans has been gradually increasing. People want results and they have been coming. Some of the previous performances were abysmal, others quite the opposite even if the results did not always correlate with the performances.

The manager summed things up well following the victory over Blackburn at the weekend:

It’s hard to be a manager at this level, because you get abused for much of the time. But then all of a sudden because your team wins a few games, you’re suddenly a good manager again.

The brutal reality is you’re only as good as your player and my players have never, ever let me down, over anything other than inexperience, naivety. When it comes to passion, desire, determination, attitude, they’ve always given me everything. I’ve never had a problem with any of them this season, never had a dressing-room row when I’ve had to question that side of things.”

I’ve certainly had plenty of rows questioning some of the stuff we’ve done, but that’s football. To see them now playing against such strong sides, and limiting them to not many clear-cut chances, is great credit to them.”

Last night we saw a performance matched by a result. It is when the two coincide that we can begin to see a brighter future ahead.

Butland has an off night

Peter Schmeichel once said: “Every player makes mistakes; every goalkeeper makes mistakes. Every manager does, every broadcaster – every person in life makes mistakes. But for goalkeepers, often when they make a mistake, it leads to a goal.”

Jack Butland’s own goal and assist for Kal Naismith’s first goal certainly helped Latics on their way.

Butland is 27 years old and has 9 caps for England. He is by no means a rookie goalkeeper, but his mistakes were costly for his team last night.

Naismith’s second goal was a stunner

When Kal Naismith came on for an injured Michael Jacobs after 32 minutes he went to the right wing. The Glaswegian has played in so many different positions for Latics and opinion is divided as to which is his best. Many would say he has had his best performances at centre back. But he had hardly shone in the past on the few occasions he had been employed on the right wing.

However, he had a fine game last night, giving veteran full back Stephen Ward a torrid time. Ten minutes after coming on he chested down a high ball and unleashed a tremendous effort from over 30 yards which was somehow pushed wide by the ‘keeper. Naismith’s first goal was a tap-in, but the second was the kind that will stick in the mind for years to come. The sheer power of the strike showed the excellent technique that the player has.

(Naismith’s second goal after 1:56 min)

It was a surprise not to see Naismith take the field in the first two games of the season restart. It will be even more of a surprise if he does not feature more regularly in the six games that remain.

Brentford – the acid test

Can Latics keep up their form for the trip to Brentford on Saturday?

The Bees have won their last four games and are only two points away from an automatic promotion place. However, Wigan have already notched up wins away against the teams above Brentford: Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

Keeping up an unbeaten run of nine games against another team in fine form is not going to be easy. The encounter will provide an acid test for Cook’s Latics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following an important victory over Blackburn

Wigan Athletic 2 Blackburn Rovers 0

“I genuinely felt Blackburn had taken control of the game in the second half, and then we go and score the first goal at a vital time. Great credit to my players, they’ve got this never-say-die attitude at the minute, and they deserve all the credit for digging in. The second goal at the end gives in my opinion a totally false scoreline, it was never a 2-0 comfortable victory for Wigan. But we’re delighted with the result and delighted with the three points.”

Paul Cook’s honesty in his post-match comments continues to put other managers to shame. He was certainly spot-on in what he said.

The first half was even with the teams paying each other maybe too much respect. When the half time whistle blew the game looked like it was heading for a goalless draw. But Blackburn started to dominate in the second half and Latics were forced back into defence. It took an error from Christian Walton in the Blackburn goal for Latics to open the scoring, as he made a mess of Antonee Robinson’s cross, the ball falling to Lee Evans to hammer home. Then in the last minute of added time Joe Williams put through a wonderful long pass for Michael Jacobs to run past Rovers’ diminished defence to score with aplomb.

Let’s look at points arising:

Another clean sheet for Wigan

Latics are now unbeaten in the last eight games. After sharing four goals with both Middlesbrough and Cardiff City in February they have not conceded in their last six matches.

Courtesy of Soccerstats.com

Only Middlesbrough have scored less goals than Wigan, but Latics’ defensive record places them in the top half of the table. It is that defensive solidity that will keep Latics in the Championship for another season, barring any unforeseen calamities.

Game management

When Evans scored in the 80th minute one wondered if Blackburn would pull one back. If it had been earlier on in the season that might well have happened, but a feature of Wigan’s upsurge in form has been in their game management. Rovers certainly pushed men forward in an effort to equalise, but the Wigan defence held firm. Moreover, rather than hoof the ball to safety Williams put that beautifully weighted pass forward for Jacobs to seal the game.

Latics have matured as a team and are making less mistakes collectively, making it harder for other teams to get back into the game.

Cook and substitutions

With Blackburn dominating possession as the second half progressed one wondered if the manager would bring on Joe Gelhardt to provide some much-needed creativity and goal threat. But once more it was not to be, Cook sticking with his senior pros.

However, on this occasion the manager deserves credit. Lee Evans was brought on for Anthony Pilkington after 56 minutes and he went on to score the goal that broke the deadlock. Moreover, Michael Jacobs came on for Kieran Dowell after 73 minutes, going on to score a very well-taken goal in the 94th minute.

A feature of Cook’s strategy in the two games since the season restarted is that he has used less substitutions than the opposition managers. Tony Mowbray used five yesterday whereas Cook used three, with Joe Garner coming on in time-added-on. The upside of Cook’s approach is that it has caused less disruption to the flow of Wigan’s play. The downside is that there is another match coming up on Tuesday and some players, Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore in particular, looked very tired in the closing minutes.

The full backs play a key role

Both Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson had fine games, solid in defence and supportive in attack.

Watching Robinson yesterday gave us a glimpse of the reasons why he is being coveted by other clubs. He looked a complete player, worthy of a step up into a higher level of football whether it be Serie A or the Premier League.

Nathan Byrne is now 28 years old. Latics signed him from Wolves for an undisclosed fee in August 2016. However, he struggled in the Championship under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce dispatched him on loan to League 1 Charlton Athletic in January 2017. However, he came back to Wigan for the 2017-18 League 1 season under Paul Cook making 51 appearances, being voted “Player of the Season”. It looked like Byrne was going to be the first choice right back in the 2018-19 season back in the Championship but Latics signed the impressive Reece James on loan from Chelsea. Later in the season James was moved into the centre of midfield with Byrne returning to his best position at right back.

This season Byrne has established himself as the first choice right back for Latics in the Championship. He has had his ups-and-downs but as the season has progressed, he has looked more composed and established at this level. Byrne’s form has been integral to Wigan’s unbeaten run in the past eight matches.

Looking forward to Stoke

Over the coming weeks all clubs in the Championship are going to find it tough with regular midweek games sandwiched between the weekend fixtures. There are seven matches remaining before the regular season ends on July 22. The managers are going to have to make good use of their squads, given the physical demands on the players.

Stoke City have had a difficult season and are under threat of relegation. Their wage bill far outweighs that of Latics, but they have struggled. The home loss to Middlesbrough yesterday was a tough one for them and they will come to Wigan anxious to pick up points. However, they will come without the services of Nick Powell, who was sent off in the 89th minute.

It remains to be seen how Cook will use his squad over the coming weeks. Once again, he stuck with a winning lineup yesterday and he is likely to do the same on Tuesday, barring injuries. He is not a fan of the kind of squad rotation that some managers employ. However, he must be wary of burnout from his key players.

The Stoke encounter could prove tougher than it looks on paper. Much will depend on the energy levels of Wigan’s key players.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following a deserved three points at Huddersfield

Huddersfield Town 0 Wigan Athletic 2

Table courtesy of the Guardian

The Championship table shows how important this win was for Latics. They now have seven teams below them, grappling with the threat of relegation. It was a win based on solid teamwork. Despite having only 30% possession Wigan were solid in defence and offered threat going forward.

Paul Cook put out a well-balanced side, with Kieran Dowell played in the number 10 role behind Kieffer Moore. Prior to receiving a long-term injury in January Dowell had been played out wide in the few games he had played since joining on loan. Two other players who had been out of action long-term, Danny Fox and Antonee Robinson also returned.

Following the game Cook commented: “It was important that we came away from here with something and I felt a point would have been a good point because Huddersfield are a good side with good players. To get a 2-0 win we’re delighted with that. The reality was there wasn’t many chances at both ends of the pitch but fortunately we’ve come out on the right side. We travel back knowing that five home games and three away and everything’s in our own hands which is great.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game:

Wigan looked fitter

It was worrying to see five players out of the Latics squad through injury. But apart from the first quarter of an hour when they struggled to get any fluency to their play, Wigan looked so much sharper than the home side. Huddersfield were trying to build up moves from the back, with Latics taking a more direct approach.

Huddersfield visibly tired and manager Danny Cowley made five substitutions by the 72nd minute. Cook had only made one by then and three of his five changes came in the 86th minute.

The long-term injured players made impressive returns. Antonee Robinson had not played since January 28, but he looked comfortable on his return. Danny Fox had not played since November 9 but slotted in seamlessly alongside Cedric Kipre in the centre of defence. Kieron Dowell’s ankle injury in January had been a blow to Cook at a time when Latics were lacking in creativity. He is a natural number 10, capable of scoring goals and making assists.

A funny old game

As the saying goes “football is a funny old game”. Both Wigan goals were aided by deflections. Kieffer Moore’s cross in the 24th minute was deflected by the Huddersfield left back Harry Toffolo for Jamal Lowe to score. Then in the 48th minute Anthony Pilkington, surrounded by defenders, managed to squeeze out a shot that took a major deflection off home team midfielder Lewis O’Brien.

A few months ago, the opposite was much more likely to happen. Latics were not getting “the rub of the green” and deflections were so often working against them.

Lowe shines

Jamal Lowe’s fourth goal of the season was opportunistic. He reacted more quickly than the Huddersfield defenders to reach Moore’s cross. Following the game Cook commented on Lowe: “He’s had the chances throughout the season, Jamal could easily have a lot more goals, but he’s no different to every player because confidence is key. If you keep getting in the correct areas, the correct thing will happen and Jamal gets into those areas regularly, so there are a lot more goals in him.”

It has been a struggle for Lowe to adjust to the play in the Championship division. At times he has looked lightweight, losing the ball too easily, short of confidence on his finishing. But the player’s confidence had been growing and he was looking better when the season was curtailed in March. Yesterday he looked strong and determined in possession. It was his run down the left and his intelligent cross to Pilkington that led to the second goal.

Cook has shown a lot of faith in Lowe, sometimes playing him when performances hardly merited it. But Lowe is now starting to look like the kind of player we were hoping for following his much-hyped arrival from Portsmouth in summer.

Almost safe by the end of June?

With two home games by the end of June Latics have a chance to really consolidate their place in the Championship. Back to back victories would give them 50 points. Last season 41 points would have been enough to stay up, 42 points in 2017-18. But totals like that will not be sufficient this season with the third from bottom team Hull already having 41 points with eight games to go.

Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City will be no pushovers. Rovers games can be fiercely competitive and Stoke are in the relegation zone and desperate for points.

A crucial week

This coming week is not only crucial to what will follow in July, but also for the coming season. All 24 clubs in the division have significant numbers of players whose contracts expire at the end of this month.

Cook has a dozen players who are currently available only up to the Stoke game on June 30. The club have come to an agreement with Leon Balogun to continue into July, his contract with Brighton expiring at the end of June.

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.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

What did IEC achieve at Wigan Athletic?

The IEC announcement of the sale of Wigan Athletic to Next Leader Fund L.P. was certainly carefully worded. However, it provided a chilling overview of the task facing the new ownership.

The IEC purchase of the club from the Whelan family was finalised in November 2018, but a little over a year later they gave notice of their intention to sell-up.

IEC had provided a vision of Latics becoming a club which would make itself sustainable by the development of home-grown talent through the academy system. Although they were not going to throw huge amounts of money around in a frantic rush, they nevertheless hoped to get the club back into the Premier League over a period of years, providing prudent financial backing.

The investments made by IEC in improving the academy facilities signaled a rise to Category 2 status, providing the U18 and U23 teams a healthier environment against more challenging opposition. IEC supported a wage bill that was modest by Championship standards, but far outweighed the revenue coming in. Moreover, last summer they provided money for the transfer market for Latics to sign players whose combined market value would surely appreciate. Four were in their early to mid-twenties: Antonee Robinson (22), Tom Pearce (22), Joe Williams (23), Jamal Lowe (25). Kieffer Moore was 27. Robinson, Pearce and Williams had played at Championship level before. Lowe and Moore had not played above League 1 and would need time to adjust to playing in the higher division. IEC’s investments in those players appeared well-judged at the time.

In order to do the above IEC say they invested over £44m in total in Wigan Athletic.

A wealth of information on the process by which IEC dealt with the sale of the club, its assets and debts can be found in the Investor Relations section of the IEC website. However, the documents are by no means easy reading for the layman.

It appears that IEC sold their shares to Next Leader for £17.5m. According to the document entitled Completion of Major and Connected Transactions of May 29, 2020 a “loan” of £24.36m provided by IEC to the club was repaid to them:

“In accordance with the Sale and Purchase Agreement, upon Completion, the Company (as the lender) and the Club (as the borrower) entered into the Loan Agreement in an aggregate principal amount of GBP24.36 million (equivalent to approximately HK$232.08 million),and the Deed of Guarantee was also entered into by the Purchaser in favour of the Company along with the Loan Agreement. Details and background of the Loan Agreement and Deed of Guarantee are set out in the Circular. Immediately subsequent to the entering into of the Loan Agreement, the Pre-Existing Loan in the amount GBP24.36 million (equivalent to approximately HK$232.08 million) has been repaid to the Company, and as a result, the Club is no longer indebted to the Company.”

The period of ownership of Wigan Athletic by IEC was some 19 months, during which the club has been in the Championship division. In November 2018 when IEC took over Latics were struggling on the field of play. That continued until a 2-1 away win at Leeds in April 2019 sparked a revival that saw them escape the relegation zone. However, accounts published in June 2019 showed that the club had made a net loss of £9.2m, their eighth consecutive loss for the season.

Given the effect of Covid-19 on EFL clubs, lowered average attendances at the DW Stadium and an imbalance in transfer revenues we can expect the losses for the current season to be well above those incurred in 2018-19.

Having bought the club and its debts Next Leader will face a mountain of a task getting the finances of the club in good order.

Were IEC over-optimistic in expecting more on the field of play during their period of ownership? Given the budget that Paul Cook was presented compared with those of rival clubs last season’s placing of 18th in the Championship was by no means a failure. Perhaps IEC, like many fans, were more hopeful of an improved placing this season, given the net investments made in the transfer market last summer? This has been a disappointing season, although the rally in the last six games before the EFL suspended its fixtures provide a ray of hope.

The priority for the club now that the season is about to restart is to avoid relegation. If this were to happen the market values of “prized asset” players would plummet. An added complication is that with the financial hardships that clubs will be facing market transfer values can be expected to decrease over these coming months.

Next Leader must cash in on its main transfer assets to cut down the cumbersome debt that the club has accumulated. If the club plays in the Championship next season it must set its staffing budget at a sustainable level, well below the £19m mark it currently has. The injection of young players from the U23 squad would be a viable option. The likelihood would be that Latics would struggle to avoid relegation under such circumstances, but other clubs will also struggle in the impending financial crisis.

The very existence of the club will be under threat. We can only hope that Next Leader can stay the course and judiciously steer the club back on an even keel. Can that IEC dream of the club sustaining itself through the fruits of its academy and sound investments become a reality?

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.