Season in review: One step back but a giant leap forward

Wigan celebrate FA Cup win with parade shortly after Premier League relegation - video

No sooner had the dust settled on Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup semifinal success over Millwall a month ago than a notion started circulating that the Latics could become the first club to win the FA Cup and suffer relegation during the same season.

Deep in their hearts, most Wigan supporters suspected that the combination of defensive injuries and late season fixture congestion would probably make the dream double of survival and FA Cup a step too far. By the time a ball was kicked in the FA Cup final, just about every Latics supporter in the world had been asked what they would prefer: stay up or win the cup?

Though a complicated question, the answer was never really in doubt. Thirty thousand people — three eighths the town’s population — coloured the town of Wigan blue for yesterday’s FA Cup victory parade, emphatically putting ignorant and outdated “rugby town” stereotypes to bed. They sang and cheered, and even drowned out their manager, on-stage with a microphone, with chants “Roberto Martinez, we want you to stay.” There was not a boo or a negative word to be heard — not at the parade, nor at the Emirates last Tuesday when the team was consigned to relegation. The enduring sentiment was and is one of sheer pride.

This is not to say that relegation doesn’t hurt. Football, and the Premier League in particular, is a game of fine margins. Matches turn on a single incident, and there were a host of them this season, that if reversed, probably would have kept Wigan up. James McArthur’s missed opportunity to seal the game against Swansea, Tottenham’s incredibly fortunate last-gasp equaliser at the DW, Joe Hart’s unbelievable save to deny Franco Di Santo — all recent — stick in the memory.

But relegation from the league was always a possibility — no, a probability — and has been for years. Sunderland, who finished three points above Wigan, signed Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N Diaye and Danny Graham within the past year alone for a total of 30 million pounds. Fellow relegation rivals Aston Villa, for context, signed Wigan’s best player two seasons ago for 9.5 million and kept him on the bench for most of the campaign — next to 18 million Darren Bent. They could afford to leave them out because they’d signed a gem of a player in Christian Benteke for 10 million pounds the previous summer. Newcastle spent more than 25 million this season. Southampton almost 33. Wigan’s total spending amounted to 9 million on four players, all of which were covered by the sale of Victor Moses to Chelsea. Conor Sammon’s 1.2 million deal to Sheffield Wednesday earned the club a net profit on transfers, something none of the aforementioned achieved. (Source: http://www.transferleague.co.uk/)

The good news when it comes to league status, as Martinez has said, is that it can be rectified. Not many teams bounce back up to the Premier League immediately following relegation. But not many teams that go down were living within their means during their Premier League stays like Wigan was. How many clubs have we seen promoted, overspend, get relegated and disband upon the realization that they cannot afford to keep paying the players they overspent on?

Sure, Latics will lose some of their stars — and those players deserve the chance to move to a top flight club. They were brought to Wigan on the promise that they would be allowed to move to a bigger club when the time was right for both parties. The stable financial footing Dave Whelan and Martinez have guided Wigan Athletic to means that they are not obligated to sell any of their players. They will, but only because it is beneficial to the club’s future. For every N’Zogbia or Moses — or this year probably McCarthy — that goes, four or five young talents are signed. Four such youngsters — Roman Golobart, Eduard Campabadal, Nouha Dicko, Fraser Fyvie — are likely to play big roles next season and cost Whelan very, very little.

A popular claim at the moment says that league status is temporary while trophies are forever. While certainly true, it does not quite sum up Wigan’s emotional season, or explain the absoluteness of their fans’ pride. If it had been QPR that had won the FA Cup but been relegated, it is highly doubtful that the overwhelming feeling at their parade would have been one of pride and progress. Their team has been messily run since being promoted two years ago, thrown money — a lots of it — at the problems and assembled an overpaid, overrated team of opportunists who will likely be sold off auction-style during the summer as they try to slash the astronomical wage bill they’ve created for themselves.

With apologies for harsh words to supporters of QPR, the point is that celebrations at yesterday’s parade were not solely focused on the amazing, unimaginable fairy-tale story of little Wigan spectacularly toppling the richest team in the land and defending league champions to lift the oldest football competition in the world. They were an acknowledgement of how far Wigan Athletic has come as an institution and the work of the last decade. The team will play in the Charity Shield and Europa League for the first time next season. A product of the youth and reserve squads was named man of the match in the FA Cup final. The New York Times has featured the Latics three times in the past month. Thirty thousand people came out to support the team. State of the art training facilities are on the horizon. Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup. Wigan won the FA Cup. The Latics won the bloody cup!

Relegation may be a step back, but the infrastructure is in place to keep this club in the Premier League or thereabouts for years to come. Of course, much hinges on the future of the iconic hero of this Wigan revolution, from player in the lower divisions to the manager who lifted the FA Cup, Roberto Martinez. But for now, it is safe to say that despite going down, Wigan Athletic is on the up.

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Wigan Athletic & Honduras: A love story

It was a chilly evening in Bloemfontein. The 2010 World Cup was in full swing, and while the rest of the world adjusted their TV sets for the decisive Group H match — Spain vs. Chile — my party set off for Free State Stadium amid a sea of blue and white stripes.

My wife Kat and I, fresh from a 12 hour drive from Port Elizabeth where we’d taken in England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia a couple days prior — wore Wigan Athletic shirts. My brother-in-law John, also dressed in Wigan from head to toe, had followed Honduras’ progress through the qualifiers and ensured we had tickets for the group match against Switzerland. Everyone else wore Honduras colours, but by the time we arrived at the stadium, the distinction was blurred.

On paper, the match was a drab 0-0 that dumped Switzerland out of the tournament (Honduras had already been knocked out after defeats against Spain and Chile). But for Hondurans, this was an historic night. Second World Cup, their first since 1982. And it might have been a first win but for some good goalkeeping from the Swiss. The draw was seen as a dignified way to bow out of an extremely tricky group, in their second World Cup appearance. Switzerland had defeated Champions-to-be Spain only a week prior — they were no slouches.

On the pitch, former Latics favourite Wilson Palacios bossed the midfield alongside Hendry Thomas, still a Wigan player at the time. They never got to play together at the JJB or DW, a shame based on the tenacity displayed that evening. Maynor Figueroa, heroic in previous matches despite the defeats, continued his fine form in defense. Current Latics target Roger Espinoza was on the bench. As Figueroa walked toward the tunnel at the end of the match, I shouted in Spanish, “Maynor, por favor quedate en el Wigan!” [Maynor, please stay at Wigan] As the words registered, he retreated back out of the tunnel, stuck his back out head out, and gestured a thumbs up my way. True to his word, he remains a fixture at Wigan Athletic to this day.

I’ve since learned that we were not the only Latics supporters following Honduras at that World Cup. For years now, a curious bond has formed between the Central American nation and the northern town of Wigan.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in Colombia, I know what it means for a Latin American country to see their footballer exports succeed abroad. My dad would pull me out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch Faustino Asprilla play for Parma, and later Newcastle. This was long before the days of Ivan Cordoba’s success at Inter Milan, or the present day golden generation of Colombians succeeding in Europe led by Radamel Falcao. There were two or three players plying their trade abroad, and their every movement was watched with pride.

In many ways, Wigan Athletic has become dear to Hondurans as Parma did to Colombians back in those days. If Roger Espinoza completes his rumoured move from the MLS upon the expiration of his contract, he will become the fourth Honduran to play for the Latics. It is no coincidence that Honduras qualified to their first World Cup in 2010, as their players found first team football in top level leagues. Wigan continue to give their players a stage, an opportunity to grow — and they are reaping the benefits. Needing a win to progress in CONCACAF qualifying yesterday, they annihilated Canada 8-1 and in turn leapfrogged them and Panama to win their qualifying group in the final fixture. Their excellent showing at the Olympics proved there is more talent coming through, Espinoza included. A second consecutive World Cup is a possibility.

And so, there is a real bond between Honduras and Wigan Athletic. Jet-lag aside, Honduras’ success in the qualifiers can only be good for the Latics. Maynor Figueroa has grown immensely over the years. Honduras was the first to use him as a left centre-half, and it wouldn’t be surprising if watching Honduras had persuaded Roberto Martinez to use him in the same way in Wigan. The experience these players gain in major tournaments ultimately strengthens their performances for the club. If Rodallega had been able to break into the Colombian team, he too, might have further developed. As it was, he fell down the pecking order and stagnated for both club and country.

So keep an eye out for our Honduran brethren in the final six-team CONCACAF group stage. With Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica for company — three automatic berths, and a playoff against Oceania — you may have another reason to travel to Brazil in 2014.

iSaludos a nuestros lectores en Honduras! Siguenos en Twitter y Facebook.

Dreaming of financial fair play — can Wigan ever win the league?

Ask a room of Premier League fans if Wigan Athletic could ever win the Premier League title, and your question will be met with derision and laughter. It is widely accepted that such an achievement is beyond a club of Wigan’s size and means. But what if the fundamental nature of financial competition were to radically change within English football? Is a future Premier League that Wigan Athletic could win, feasible?

It is not likely to happen this year. In fact, Ladbrokes are currently offering odds of 3500/1 against it. On the other hand they have Manchester City at 13/10, Manchester United 19/10 and Chelsea at 3/2. After that, the odds on the remaining clubs range from 14/1 to those of Latics. The bookmakers are clearly convinced that  the title will be gained by one of the two Manchester giants or Chelsea. However, if the financial ground rules under which the Premier League operates were to change radically, maybe a door would open for such dreams to come true?

In other sports, and in other countries, systems are put in place to stop elite clubs signing on dozens of highly paid players, preventing them from being available to other clubs. They also try to ensure that games are not so heavily weighted to one side that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion who is to win. Having the top players more evenly distributed between the clubs means that all clubs have some hopes for success. Their supporters are then more likely to stay with them, rather than being drawn to other sports, other entertainment, or other more wealthy clubs.

The Premier League was formed in 1992, after First Division clubs broke away from the Football League. The elite clubs had considered doing so for some time and the idea of a European League was mooted. At the time, English clubs lagged behind the top clubs in Italy and Spain in terms of revenues. Television money was burgeoning and the First Division clubs wanted a much larger slice of that cake, not wanting to share it with those in the lower divisions.

Since then the Premier League has become the most economically powerful league in the world, largely through selling itself to a global TV market. Its attendances are the second highest in Europe. Last year the average Premier League attendance was 34,601, beaten only by Germany 41,205.
It is no surprise in a league dominated by the elite that Premier League television revenue is far from evenly distributed among the 20 clubs. In the 2011-2012 season. Wigan Athletic received  £42.8 million in TV money. Manchester City received  £60.6 m and Manchester United  £60.3 m. Wolves received the lowest with  £39.1 million. It will be argued that the public are more likely to want to watch the elite teams, but the inequality clearly exacerbates the huge financial gap between rich and poor in the league.

In the 2013-2014 television rights are set to steeply rise, making it even more lucrative for Premier League clubs. At the same time, footballers’ salaries have escalated almost beyond control, the absurd spending of Manchester City and Chelsea exacerbating the problem. The League is looking at ways to provide more financial control. One realistic option is to follow UEFA’s initiative, which will require clubs to break even financially. According to BBC.co.uk, Dave Whelan supports the adoption of a financial fair play policy, saying that a proposal in this area has come from Manchester United. The strong inference is that United are envious of their near neighbour’s success last season.

Clearly a move towards Manchester United’s proposal would favour the interests of big clubs with huge fan support  like themselves and Arsenal, cutting out the excesses of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. This might help to redress the issue of spiralling player salaries and stop multi-millionaires financing huge debt in top clubs. However, the end result is still going to be a huge divide between rich and poor in the league.

This columnist advocates the implementation of not only financial fair play rules, but also of a salary cap per club. The latter would prevent the elite clubs hoarding so many top players, making them unavailable for other clubs. It sets a limit on the total salaries that a club can pay each season. This does not preclude a club paying the ridiculous wages to some players that have become the norm, but it does limit how many players they will be able to accommodate this way.

The salary cap concept is used widely in American sports as means of stopping wealthy clubs achieving dominance by signing up the majority of outstanding players available. The National Football League (NFL) of the USA had a salary cap of $120 million per club in 2011. It is to be noted that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only 5 clubs have won championship titles. Manchester United have won it 12 times, Arsenal and Chelsea 3 times each, Blackburn and Manchester City once. In comparison the NFL has had 12 clubs winning its championship in that time.

The implementation of financial fair play rules and club salary caps would not be easy. There are so many potential loopholes involved. However, there has to be a way forward from the current situation which has such inequities that it makes it virtually impossible for any club without huge revenues or massively rich benefactors to reach the top. Let’s at least give the average club in the Premier League some chance – although it may be slim – to win the title.

It is highly unlikely that Wigan Athletic will ever win the Premier League. At present, their chance is almost zero. Lets at least lower the odds and give clubs outside the elite few at least a chance to dream.

¿Que fue de Hendry Thomas?

ENGLISH VERSION

Despues del partido contra Wolves, me senti completamente deprimido, una sensacion demasiado comun para el hincha del Wigan Athletic en lo que va de sus años Premier. “¿Por qué no apoyas a otro equipo? Estas insoportable, y siempre es asi cuando pierden los Latics. Es lo peor que te he visto!”, me dijo mi mujer, y estaba en lo cierto. Tal como Wigan, me hacia falta inspiración este ultimo fin de semana. Estaba hecho un miserable.

Un par de días despues estaba caminando por mi vecindario cuando vi un hombre alto y de piel oscura, vestido con camisa de rayas azul y blancas con el nombre “Thomas” en su espalda. ¿Otro aficionado de los Latics en esta parte lejana del mundo? (el autor vive en Indonesia). ¿Un seguidor de Hendry Thomas? Imposible. Resulto no ser camiseta del Wigan sino el que lucio Honduras en el mundial de Sudafrica. Lo debi haber saludado pero no lo hice. Pero si le vi la cara, y definitivamente no era el mismo Hendry. Seria imposible no reconocer esa cara!

Se me ocurrio que los dioses del futbol me estaban mandando un mensaje. Casualidad o no, me levantó los ánimos y me puse a pensar en Hendry Thomas y sus predecesores en esa labor de destructor, de volante seis: Lee Cattermole, Wilson Palacios y Michael Brown, por ejemplo. ¿Qué pasó con Hendry? Mi ultima memoria de el es del partido contra Tottenham el año pasado cuando regalo un penal. Desde entonces no se ha visto, ni en la banca ni en las reservas. Es dificil saber si se trata de su nivel futbolistico o algo mas. Cuando Roberto Martínez se hizo cargo del Wigan, vendio a Cattermole y a Brown, mientras Palacios ya habia sido cedido al Tottenham. Los tres fueron claves en la transformación de Steve Bruce, quien se decidio en construir el equipo de atras hacia adelante, con una defensa solida y protegida, con un par de atacantes creativos y oportunistas. El futbol no era tan bonito, pero funcionó.

Durante la primera etapa de su temporada debut en la Premier League, Hendry Thomas fue muy efectivo en ese papel de destructor. Las estadísticas confirmaban que el Hondureño era uno de los dos jugadores de la liga con mas pelotas recuperadas. El otro fue Scott Parker — quien fue votado el mejor jugador de la Premier el año pasado. Pero se desvaneció en la última parte de la temporada y no lo hemos vuelto a ver. Desde entonces, Ben Watson — quien ha mejorado en marca pero es mas armador que luchador — se ha establecido en esa posicion.

Para mi, hace falta la labor de Hendry, especialmente en tiempos dificiles como los que estamos viviendo. Algunos dicen que esta version de los Latics estan obsesionados con el fútbol bonito. ¿Pero qué dicen las estadísticas? Hasta ahora, el Wigan Athletic ha cometido 153 faltas, segundo lugar detras de nuestros viejos amigos, Blackburn, con 157. Wigan ha ganado 106 faltas, colocándolos en el puesto 18 con sólo Everton (105) y Blackburn (104) debajo de ellos. QPR ha ganado 159 faltas. Las estadísticas son informativas: los Latics comenten muchas faltas, pero no lo hacen efectivamente. Ni me acuerdo de una falta tactica, para romper ritmo, para frustrar al mejor jugador del rival A nosotros nos hacen faltas estrategicas, profesionales. Nosotros las cometemos desesperados.

Hendry Thomas es un gran contencion. La mayoria de las veces gana la pelota limpiamente, pero cuando no lo hace asi, tambien cumple una labor importantisima — le inyecta miedo al rival. Entra fuerte, es fisico. Sus pases son simples pero no la regala, y el tipo lo da todo por el equipo. Cada equipo necesita un Hendry Thomas.

Roberto debe cambiar su sistema táctico para adaptarse a la situación en la que estamos. Hay espacio para ambos Thomas y Watson. Para sobrevivir en la Premier, le tenemos que dar mas proteccion a nuestra defensa. Le tengo mucha fe a Martinez, un tecnico joven idealista, pero su rigidez táctica es su talón de Aquiles. No se olvide del Hondureño Roberto!

1932 and all that — is Wigan a rugby town?

A twelve year old boy went to watch his first football match on August 27th, 1932. It was the beginning of what was to become a life-long addiction to his hometown team and in his later years he would still talk about that match with great affection, although the result was not favourable. It was the opening league game for Wigan’s new football club: they lost 2-0 to Port Vale Reserves in front of 6,000 people. It was during the time of the great depression. Wigan Borough had folded the previous year, following the familiar pattern set by other clubs who had been set up to represent our  ‘Ancient and Loyal’ town in the football world.

That boy was my Dad. Although he was a Latic fanatic he was also proud of our rugby club, although the rugby matches he actually attended were few. However, I do remember him going to Central Park to watch Wigan rugby league club’s highest attended  game when they met St. Helens in March,1959. The recorded crowd was 47,747. Latics were drawing crowds of one to two thousand those days.

As a kid I was brought up around the corner from where George Orwell lodged in Sovereign Road when he started writing “The Road to Wigan Pier”. He chronicled the misery of life in Wigan at the time. It was superb documentary, way ahead of its time.  It is totally chilling and gives you a real feel of how hard life was at the time. The year was 1936, a handful of years after the great depression. It was the forty second season of the Northern Rugby League (NRL). Wigan RLFC finished fifth that season, three points behind the fourth placed team Liverpool Stanley and nine behind champions Salford.  There were 29 clubs in the NRL that year (there were 35 clubs in the three divisions in 2010-2011). That same season  Sunderland won the First Division for the sixth time and Arsenal won the FA Cup for the second time. The Football League was composed of 88 clubs in four divisions.

The early thirties was a tough time for any football club to be born. Wigan Athletic were fighting against the odds  then, as they continue to do now. Wigan remained economically depressed for decades. Could a town of its size and economy support two professional sports teams? Could both clubs co-exist and survive economically?

According to Wikipedia:  “Wigan are the most successful club in the history of British rugby league, having won 19 League Championships, 17 Challenge Cups and 3 World Club Challenge trophies. Wigan enjoyed a period of sustained success from the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s which included winning the Challange Cup eight seasons in succession and the League Championship seven seasons in succession.”

Wigan Athletic’s record is quite different. They were a non-league team for their first 46 years. During that time they won the Northern Premier League twice,  the Cheshire League four times and the Lancashire Combination four times. Since entering the Football League in 1978 they have gained promotion four times, winning their division twice in the process. They reached the League Cup final in 2005-2006.

Wigan Athletic continue to defy the odds. Despite being in a so-called rugby town the fact is that they consistently pull in superior attendances than their historically more successful counterparts do. This despite having struggling teams, fighting to avoid relegation. Since they got into the Premier League their average attendances have been around  the 18,000-20,000 range. According Wikipedia they have been:

2005-06                20,160

2006-07                18,169

2007-08                19,046

2008-09                18,413

2009-10                18,006

Those of Wigan Warriors rugby  team in the Super League have been around the 14,000-16,000 range during the same period (Wiki figures again) :

2006                       14,404

2007                       16,040

2008                       13,955

2009                       14,080

2010                       15,181

From 2000-2005 their attendances were lower, the highest average attendance being 13,894 in 2005.

Is Wigan really a rugby town?  Can it support two teams? Let’s take a look at the statistics.

Since entering the Premier League Wigan Athletic’s attendances have been significantly higher than those of the Warriors every year. However, it is to be noted that the Warriors’ attendances too have shown a positive trend since Latics got into the higher echelons.

Providing both clubs can balance their books with those attendance levels and maintain their status in their current divisions then the answer must be that the town can support the two. Things have changed a lot since the 1930s. Football clubs used to base their budgets on gate revenues, but now the reality for Latics is that the gate receipts are a relatively small part of their overall income. The Premier League is marketed worldwide and gets revenues which are way beyond those of any other football division in the world. Latics may be a small club by Premier League standards, but economically they can compete on more than just an even footing against their rugby counterparts.

Wiganers have  a choice: to support a club that is  a big fish in a small pond or to support a smaller fish in a giant pond.  Or they can support both. Wigan Athletic are an example to the football world. The rugby team’s  performances and attendances do not need to concern them. There is room for two teams, but the tables have turned. This is not the 1930s. The football team is now the more dominant economic force in the town, in terms of revenue and scale of operation. The myth of Wigan being a rugby town needs to be put to bed.