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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A Portsmouth fan’s view of Gary Roberts

 

Wigan Athletic have announced the signing of 33-year-old midfielder Gary Roberts from Portsmouth on a one-year contract. Roberts had been released by Pompey after completing two years of a three-year deal.

Roberts has played under Paul Cook’s management at Accrington, Chesterfield and Portsmouth. On announcing the signing Cook commented: ‘Gary is a player I trust and who has proven himself at this level. He will make a significant contribution and I’m delighted to have him on board.’

Gareth Roberts was born in Chester, joining Liverpool’s academy but being released at the age of 17. He went on to play youth football at Bala Town and Denbigh Town before briefly playing for Rhyl to move on to Bangor City as a 19-year-old where he played 22 games, scoring one goal, in the 2003-04 season. Roberts went on to play for his fifth club in Wales the following season, when he made 22 appearances for Welshpool Town scoring 9 goals.

At the age of 21 Roberts signed for Accrington Stanley where he made 66 appearances, scoring 22 goals. In October 2006, he went on loan to Ipswich Town, signing permanently for the Tractor Boys in January 2007. He went on to make 40 appearances for Ipswich in almost two seasons, scoring 4 goals. He had also played for Crewe Alexandra on a month’s loan  in February 2008.

In summer 2008, Huddersfield Town, then in League 1, paid Ipswich £250,000 for Roberts. In his first season he went on to score 11 goals, winning the Huddersfield awards for best goal of the season, Player’ Player of the Season and Fans’ Player of the Season. Over his four seasons Roberts went on to make 145 league starts, with 17 appearances off the bench, scoring 31 goals.

In summer 2012 Roberts made a parallel move to Swindon Town, where he made 39 league appearances, scoring 4 goals. In June 2013 Paul Cook signed him for Chesterfield where he was to spend two seasons, making 69 starts with 5 appearances as a substitute, scoring 17 goals. When Cook went to Portsmouth in summer 2015, Roberts was to follow. He went on to make 58 league starts, 16 appearances as a substitute, scoring 17 goals over two seasons.

Roberts has won four promotions in his career and was League Two Player of The Year in 2013-2014.

In order to learn more about Roberts’ time at Portsmouth we contacted Jim Bonner  (@FrattonFaithful) of the Fratton Faithful fan site.

Here’s over to Jim:

Gary Roberts going to Wigan after being released from Pompey is the most predictable deal of the summer. He has always been a favourite with Paul Cook so it’s no surprise that the pair have been reunited after Kenny Jackett deemed him surplus to requirements and wanted to remove him from the bill.

Roberts can play on either wing or behind the striker and on his day he can be a major influence on a match as he clearly has ability and scored some very important goals duringhis two-year spell at Portsmouth. However, his days are now few and far between as his 33-year-old legs have gone and he often becomes a passenger in matches because of it.

Do not be surprised to see Cook select Roberts ahead of other, more logical choices for the Wigan starting eleven as our ex-manager probably values him too highly but he will be fondly remembered at Fratton Park for the most part and may well chip in with an important goal or two for his new club. It’s just a question of whether those goals will be worth the time he spends on the pitch being completely ineffective.

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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.

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