Luke Burke’s departure and its significance

He put a brave face on it, but Luke Burke must have been gutted to be told that he was no longer wanted at Wigan Athletic. Burke was a shining light a couple of years ago, playing Championship football for Latics at the tender age of 18.

In August 2016 he made his debut, starting in the opening game of the season at Bristol City and he looked an accomplished player. Burke had been captain of Latics’ most successful-ever youth team the season before, having played for the development squad when just 16.

But things did not happen as one would have hoped. As the season progressed Burke fell out of the limelight and, in February, Warren Joyce sent him out on a two-month loan to Barrow. That was followed by being loaned to AFC Fylde for the 2017-18 season.

Burke certainly looked to have potential, but his career has taken a step backwards. That 2016-17 season was a difficult one at the club, with the dismissal of Gary Caldwell and the appointment of the inept Warren Joyce. Not an ideal time to focus on nurturing young players. But then again, when is a good time to give youth a chance in modern-day football?

Wigan Athletic give the Michael Millett Award each year in honour of a former youth player who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1995. It recognises the outstanding player in the under-18 team. Callum Lang won it in 2016-17. Lang is a well-built, fast, intelligent central striker who spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Morecambe, where he made a significant impact. The 19-year-old made 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals for the struggling League 2 side. He would seem to have a bright future ahead.

But let’s hope Lang can go further than others who have won that award in recent years. Prior to Luke Burke, Louis Robles won it in 2014-15, Matty Hamilton in 2013-14, Joey Johnson in 2012-13 and Ryan Meadows in 2011-12. None of them made a first team appearance in a competitive game at Wigan and their careers have hardly taken off. But Tim Chow (2010-11) and Lee Nicholls (2019-10) did get first team experience at Wigan and although never regular starters have gone on to play regularly at Ross County and MK Dons respectively.

Looking at the club website there are two players in the senior squad who have come up through the ranks. One is Callum Lang, the other is Jordan Flores. The latter is now 22, having been involved in a serious car crash whilst on loan at Chesterfield. Flores is surely a talent, with that sweet left foot and intelligent movement. What has been lacking in the past has been the physical aspect. The coming season would appear to be make-or-break for the Aspull lad.

The shining example of youth development at Latics over recent years is Leighton Baines. As a 17-year-old in 2002 he made his senior debut with Paul Jewell’s to-be third tier champions a League Cup win against West Bromwich Albion. He went on to make 12 appearances that season, 6 in cup competitions, 6 in the Second Division. Baines went on to an illustrious career, with both Latics and Everton, making 30 appearances for England.

When Luke Burke made his debut at Bristol some long-standing supporters were likening him to Baines. Somehow it did not happen for Burke as it did for Baines. Baines was carefully nurtured by Jewell, given his chance early on, then brought on gradually until he became a top player. Perhaps Burke never really had the kind of potential shown by Baines, but football is so much in the head and in the backing that a player can get from management and good coaching. Or maybe sometimes things are not meant to be?

Burke is still young enough to prove that Latics were wrong in rejecting him. Will he go on to the kind of a career that those previous Michael Millett Award winners have been unable to achieve? We wish him well.

In the meantime we can but ponder on the future of the academy at Wigan Athletic. Some things needs to change if homegrown youth is going to get a real chance at the club.

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5 talking points arising from the win over Notts County

What a pleasant day it was in Nottingham when Wigan Athletic stepped on to a pristine pitch in a stadium that must rank among the best in League 2. After dealing with a less than perfect surface at Southport, Latics would have no excuse for the quality of their football at Meadow Lane.

They had lined up with Paul Cook’s favoured 4-2-3-1 configuration, making a brisk start, immediately imposing their passing game upon County. The home team just could not get the ball as Wigan dominated possession. But possession in itself is not enough to win  football matches and shot-shy Latics hardly troubled the home keeper. It was to be a grim reminder of last season when County broke away and Lewis Alessandra got the better of Nathan Byrne to hammer home a cross from Wigan’s left flank. When the half time whistle went we were left pondering on the lack of cutting edge in Latics’ attacks.

It continued into the second half until around the two thirds mark when Cook made multiple substitutions. The youth of the bench had been supplemented with the experience of the 34-year-old Noel Hunt, who was played as a striker, together with the promising Callum Lang. Lang’s pace took him past the home defence and his cross that was heading for Michael Jacobs was deflected into his own goal by home captain Richard Duffy. Another quick counterattack by Latics was to see Lang put away a close range chance from Hunt’s cross.

In the end Latics managed to cling on to a lead that had hardly seemed likely at half time. But what conclusions can be drawn from the performance?

1. Too many Latics players are still in the hangover phase of last season’s happenings. Cook acknowledged this after the game saying that  “I just didn’t feel our lads felt they were going to win.” The lack of self-belief among the attacking players was plain to see. So often the moves broke down as Latics reached the opposition penalty box, with a sideways pass being the preferred option to a direct shot on goal.

2. Latics need specialist full backs. In the absence of alternative choices Nathan Byrne and Jordan Flores occupied those roles. Byrne himself has made it apparent that he does not want to be regarded as a right back, preferring to be employed as a wing back or winger. Flores has played in the position before and never convinced. He is a midfield player by nature.

Cook was upbeat about the returns of Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell in a friendly game against Llandudno. Daniels would indeed be a contender for the right back position if he were to regain full fitness after a long absence. Luke Burke was absent from the proceedings yesterday and one wonders what chances he will be given under Cook. County’s Matt Tootle was arguably the best man on the pitch yesterday at right back and his display might have sparked interest from Wigan manager Cook.

The left back position will surely be occupied by Reece James, if fit. But he remains in the  recuperation phase from a long absence through injury. Kellett too could offer options at left back, although he is more effectively employed in midfield. But he too has been dogged by injury. David Perkins played the midfield holding role yesterday, but might well be pressed into service on the left of defence during the course of the season.

3. The turnover of goalkeepers looks to have stopped. Christian Walton is an excellent signing for League 1 and he is already providing reassurance for his defenders. Walton once again looked composed and confident, making some fine saves yesterday. Owen Evans too has impressed in pre-season. The question remains whether Cook will settle for him as back-up to Walton or if he will look for an experienced keeper as second choice.

4. The centre forward position is up for grabs. Omar Bogle looks low on confidence and so often is left isolated by his teammates. Will Cook stick with Bogle, who still has the potential to score lots of goals at League 1 level? Will Grigg is still recovering from injury, but is in the final year of his contract and there has already been speculation that he will be sold over summer. Nick Powell would surely be an excellent option, if fit, but the likelihood is that he will be allowed to leave for financial reasons.

Callum Lang has already shown that he is a viable option, although young and inexperienced. How he would cope against robust League 1 central defenders remains to be seen, but he is an exciting addition to the squad.

5. The current crop of youngsters must be given opportunities at the expense of loan players. The introduction of a handful of youngsters in the second half energised Latics’ play. But not only are these players energetic but they have good technical qualities and fit comfortably into the possession football that Cook practices. The impressive Sam Stubbs and Owen Evans were absent yesterday but Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Chris  Merrie and Terrell Thomas impressed. So often in the past loan players have been brought in at the expense of younger players already at the club. The time has come for a change in that policy or practice.

Reflections on an excellent display against Liverpool

 

On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.

Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.

Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.

Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.

Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.

But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.

In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.

Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.

It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.

The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.

Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.