Eight pm at Brighton Station on a Saturday, the place buzzing with blue and white, the boisterous chanting and cheering of the thousands milling around the pubs outside. Another train pulls in, loaded with more of them. They come out jubilant, singing, celebrating. After all 34 years is a long time.
The American Express Stadium is a superb football venue, its design not only providing unobstructed views from any seat, but its acoustics heightening the crowd noise. The sound rose to a crescendo as the teams marched on to the pitch, but we Latics fans were sadly muted. We had seen the line up and knew what to expect. The 4-5-1 formation was to be a throwback to the days when Warren Joyce would play with four holding midfielders. Graham Barrow went even further by playing a fifth one, Jamie Hanson, at right back.
Occasional chants of “I’m a Believer” from a group of younger supporters behind us served to remind us of a previous era. It is five years since Latics beat both Manchester United and Arsenal in the space of five days. It is almost unimaginable now. Gabriel Obertan was a lone centre forward in the true sense of the word, devoid of any support, chasing hopeless causes. We inferred from the formation that Barrow wanted to stifle the home side until later in the game when he could bring on his heavier artillery.
Sadly his plan did not work. Although offering almost no attacking threat to the home goal they had defended resolutely for most of the first half, despite inverted right winger Anthony Knockaert looking a class above the others on the pitch. He seemed to have the freedom of the park with no Latics player giving him a dose of “physical presence”. Despite having such protection in midfield Wigan’s full backs were unadventurous, seemingly reluctant to push up further and provide the width that was desperately lacking. Jakob Haugaard looked uneasy, fluffing a Knockaert cross on the quarter of an hour mark, being fortunate not to concede from the loose ball.
Latics looked like a strange hybrid of the Caldwell and Joyce regimes. They were building up from the back in the Caldwell style, but there was no outlet, the midfielders static, reluctant to push forward, preferring to play the ball sideways or back to the defence. But when you play with four holding midfielders that is what you are going to get. It seemed a matter of time until Albion scored. They did so after 37 minutes when Dan Burn lost the flight of a long ball, with Tomer Hamed setting up fellow twin striker Glen Murray for a shot from outside the box which beat Haugaard.
The second half began and the Haugaard continued to look distinctly shaky, a huge worry for the defenders in front of him. The young Dane may one day become a fine keeper: he has the physical attributes. But at this moment in time his confidence was shot and he looked a liability. Haugaard’s inclusion at the expense of Matt Gilks remained a talking point among the fans. During the week a thread had appeared on the Latics Speyk forum, entitled “Do Sharpe and Jackson Believe?” The writer, Studz, had suggested that Latics would have to pay Stoke a considerable amount if Haugaard did not play. The implication was that the two at the top did not want to shell out more money as they had already accepted relegation.
The allegations may be true or completely unfounded, but the bottom line was that Latics went into a crucial relegation game with a shaky goalkeeper, leaving a more solid one on the bench. Some would say that Haugaard should have saved Murray’s shot, although it might have taken a deflection. He should certainly have stopped Solly March’s 65th minute shot which went straight through him.
Being 2-0 down Barrow had to bring on Nick Powell a little earlier than he had possibly planned. He came on for Obertan after 60 minutes, with the hapless Ryan Tunnicliffe being replaced by Ryan Colclough. Powell’s arrival did provide more spark for Latics as he strived to take on the home defence almost single-handedly. He scored with an opportunist header in the 84th minute from a superb cross from Jamie Hanson, who for once had pushed forward into a more attacking position.
Powell continued to do his best to unsettle the home defence, but it was to no avail as his teammates found it hard to keep the ball in the closing minutes. The stadium erupted on the final whistle, thousands of spectators swarming on to the pitch. For me it provided an opportunity for a quick getaway. The Falmer train station is usually swamped just after a match has finished. It was not bad at all yesterday as so many home fans stayed and celebrated. Albion keep their stadium bars open after the game, so it had been no big surprise to see the trainloads boisterously arriving at Brighton station some three hours after the game finished.
The last time I went to the Amex was in November 2014 when I saw Uwe Rosler’s team lose 1-0 to a very poor Albion team in the relegation zone at the time. It was a memorably insipid performance, as was the one yesterday. A month later Albion appointed Chris Hughton who has since built them into a solid, organised team who very much rely on the flair of Knockaert, who might well be poached by big clubs before Albion set foot in the Premier League. He and Powell looked, head and shoulders, the classiest players on the park yesterday.
Albion and Wigan are heading in opposite directions. Albion fans told me before the game had told me that owner Tony Bloom has invested around £250m into the club, including the construction of a £93m stadium. It highlights the situation that Latics will be up against if they are to eventually maintain a status in the Championship division. It is now 4 years since Wigan were in the Premier League, which appears small compared with the 34 years Albion have had to wait to get back into the top tier. Without an owner willing to invest as Bloom has done for Albion, it seems inconceivable that Latics will ever get back to the first tier.
Sheffield United have now secured promotion back to the Championship after six seasons in League 1. This is despite having invested considerably over those years compared with other clubs in the division. Should the seemingly inevitable occur and Latics are relegated it could be very difficult to get back out of it. Without a significant in player salaries by the Whelan family they too could be stuck in League 1 for years.
Given the goalkeeper situation it appears that cash is not freely flowing at Wigan Athletic. The club will surely sell off its main player assets in summer, plus giving others the chance to leave on free transfers to drastically reduce the wage bill. Nick Powell’s recent performances have helped put him in the shop window, providing he can avoid injury until the season ends. We can expect Omar Bogle or Will Grigg to go, hopefully not both. Max Power was a shadow of his old self yesterday, but still has enough potential to interest a Championship club. Playing in a side struggling against relegation can drag a player down, as happened with Gaitan Bong under Malky Mackay. Seeing Bong looking so comfortable playing for a promotion-winning side served to highlight the situation.
It would be no surprise to see Latics appoint a new manager within the next fortnight. He will be in charge of overseeing a summer fire sale, then trying to build up a successful new team from the ashes.A tall order indeed, although much will be dependent on how much money comes in from transfers over the summer and what happens to it.
As the Albion fans continued their jubilant celebrations at Brighton Station last night my own feeling as a life-long Latics fan was closer to one of despair. But nevertheless Wigan Athletic have bounced back from adversity in the past, so hope remains.
The appointment of the “right” manager and some level of investment from the Whelan family of the funds due to come in could provide some light at the end of a gloomy tunnel.