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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Attendances Looking Good

Wigan-Shrewsbury-27_11_93

Just twenty years ago Wigan Athletic were in dire straits.

1993 had been a bad year for Latics, losing their place in Division 2 – the third tier of English football – after an eleven season stay. Long serving manager Bryan Hamilton had left in March, to be replaced by Dave Philpotts, but to no avail.

Now Latics were in free-fall, struggling in the drop zone of Division 3. New manager Kenny Swain was to have the unenviable task in keeping Latics in the Football League with a rock-bottom budget. The prospect was looming of a return to the realm of non-league football, which had been their home for 46 years prior to election into the Football League in 1978.

Fans breathed a sigh of relief when they eventually  finished in  19th place.  The  average attendance in that 1993-94 season was 1,897.

Twenty years on and Latics have been relegated again – this time from the first tier to the second.

But 2013 has not been such a bad year for Wigan Athletic. They won the FA Cup, they have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Europa League and they have a squad good enough to make a fair crack at getting back into the Premier League.

After 7 home matches the average attendance for Championship matches stands at 14,986.

Wigan Athletic’s fan base has grown way beyond expectations.

Where do these fans come from?

A fascinating study by real estate company Rightmove in August 2012 revealed that Latics had the highest level of local support of any club in the Premier League. Rightmove found that 65% of Wigan Athletic’s fans live in the same post code as the DW Stadium. Norwich came a close second with 61%, Southampton next on 51%.

The study showed each of  the big four northwest clubs – the two from Manchester and the two from Liverpool –  having  a score of less than 20%. Manchester United finished bottom on 9%.

The big four from Manchester and Merseyside clearly attract a lot of support from outside their city.

For so many years the media ridiculed Wigan Athletic’s level of support. The defence was that Wigan was a small town of 81,000 people that supported both football and rugby.  The big clubs from Manchester and Liverpool drew prospective fans away, let alone the neighbours up the road in Horwich.

However, the truth is that Wigan can support the two sports.  In fact the rugby club had its largest ever average attendances during the time Latics were in the Premier League.

Getting reliable attendance data for the Warriors is not an easy matter. Wigan Athletic  publish their historical attendance data on the club website and it makes fascinating reading. The Warriors do no such thing, neither does the Super League.

2013 has been a good year for the Warriors, winning both the championship and the Challenge Cup. Sky Sports quotes their average league attendance at 13,556. Their  clash with St Helens – as almost always – drew their best of the season at 23,861.  Their lowest was 6,327 against Widnes.

Latics averaged 19,375 in the 2012-13 season.

A couple of years ago I published an article “1932 and all that  – Is Wigan a Rugby Town“. I used data from Wikipedia to compare the attendances of Latics and Warriors. The updated figures are shown in the table below.

The figures for Latics have come directly from the club’s official site. Those for the Warriors from 2006-2010 come from Wikipedia. Those for 2011 and 2012 come from the Wiganwarriorsfans.com fan site.

AVERAGE ATTENDANCES

Football season

Rugby season

Wigan Athletic

Wigan Warriors

2005-2006

2006

20,160

14,464

2006-2007

2007

18,159

16,040

2007-2008

2008

19,045

13,995

2008-2009

2009

18,350

14,080

2009-2010

2010

17,848

15,181

2010-2011

2011

16,976

16,125

2011-2012

2012

18,634

16,043

2012-2013

2013

19,375

13,556

Average

18,568

14,936

Wigan Athletic’s average attendance went up by almost ten times from 1,897  in 1993-94 to 18,568 over the eight years in the Premier League. A remarkable transformation in a space of 20 years.

Moreover the current average of around 15,000 is a good sign for a club that has been relegated, with a team that has not yet hit its best form.

Gone are the days when the media can ridicule Latics’ attendances.

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