Five talking points from the month of May at Wigan Athletic


“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that. A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are. If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.”

 Bill Shankly’s quote maintains its powerful message. He was not everybody’s favourite and his teams played a pragmatic brand of football, but he was a great motivator and he laid the foundations for Liverpool’s successes in the 1970s  and 1980s.

Paul Cook demonstrated in the 2017-18 season that he too is a powerful motivator. The passion and commitment of his League 1 title-winning team is a testament to that. The ecstasy of the players and the traveling support alike, at winning the League 1 title with a narrow victory at Doncaster, showed what it meant.

As Shankly said: a lot of football success is in the mind. Can Cook can put success in the minds of his players next season? But then again, what kind of squad will the manager command in 2018-19? Can Latics consolidate in the second tier following the mistakes of 2016-17?

Let’s take a look at five talking points with regard to events during this month:

It was a relief to hear that Paul Cook has signed a new four-year contract.

We, on this site, welcomed Cook’s appointment in an article of May 2016.

We remain convinced that he is the right man to lead the club forward. It could be said that with the quality of squad at his disposal, with a playing staff budget around three times the norm in the division, promotion was an expectation. But it was not so much the promotion, but the positive style of play that impressed, with more goals scored than in any season in Latics’ 40 years in league football.

Cook has never managed a club above the third tier and next season will be more of a challenge for him. Moreover, the financial circumstances will be totally reversed. Instead of having one of the biggest staffing budgets in the division, Latics will have one of the smallest.

However, the length of Cook’s new contract suggests that the club will stick with him if the going gets rough in the transition to the Championship. Two relegations in four years happened largely because managers were sacked prematurely and replaced by others whose approaches were not only inept, but who favoured “fightball” rather than football. These lessons of the past need to be heeded.

The takeover is about to happen: at last

There was talk of the takeover by the IEG as early as December, then again in February. But now it really does seem imminent. Reading between the lines of recent documentation it appears that the IEG will provide some level of funding for the playing staff over the summer. That is backed up by media reports that Latics have offered £500,000 for left back Dan Potts of Luton Town.

To gain promotion back to the Championship Wigan had to take a substantial financial loss over the season. With a salary bill of some £10m and revenues less than half of that, David Sharpe supported his manager by retaining a backbone of ex-Championship players on salaries well above League 1 norms. Some have said that promotion was a pre-requisite for the takeover. We can assume that the losses incurred have been priced in to the sum to be paid to the Whelan family by IEG.

IEG will surely be aware that it is going to cost them money just to keep Latics in the Championship. Brentford are a club with similar revenue capabilities to Wigan. Since buying the major shareholding in Brentford in 2012, it is estimated that Matthew Benham has put £100m into the club. Benham hopes for the club to be self-sustainable, but with low attendances and commercial revenues it is a challenge. The aim is for a streamlined recruitment policy to provide a steady stream of revenue with through incoming transfer fees.

Player recruitment at Wigan has been hit-and-miss over recent years, with so many “up and coming” players not making the grade and being dispatched away on loan. However, recruitment last summer was more effective, with seven senior squad players picked up for free and loan players playing key roles over the course of the season. The sale of Omar Bogle in summer raised around £700,000 but undisclosed fees were paid for Devante Cole, James Vaughan and Jamie Walker in the January window.

IEG have indicated that two individuals from the current hierarchy at the club will be staying on in the transition. David Sharpe previously stated that he was hoping to stay on, but nothing has been confirmed at this stage. Garry Cook had been brought in to sell the club and may be departing shortly. The continuance of Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson, also remains to be confirmed.

The retained list was no surprise

Following the sad news of the departure of Luke Burke from the club, we found out that another four were not being offered new contracts. Donervon Daniels (24) and Reece James (23) were first team regulars in the promotion season of 2015-16, but long-term injuries prevented them appearing in the Championship. Daniels was sent on loan to Rochdale in summer, being recalled in January, but went on to make only one appearance by May. James came back from injury and was playing possibly the best football we had seen from him before he was left out in early March. He did not reappear, although fit. Andy Kellett (24) had had his fair share of injury niggles before being sent on loan to Chesterfield for the season. Sam Stubbs (19) had shown lots of promise in the pre-season, but was sent on loan to Crewe, where he made 3 starts, then to AFC Fylde where he made 6.

At the same time as reporting who had not been offered new contracts, the club announced that five players would be given offers. Of those, Jamie Jones (29) has already signed an extension and it was today announced that David Perkins (36) has been signed by Rochdale. Gary Roberts (34), made 6 league starts and 21 substitute appearances last season. Noel Hunt (35) did not make a league start but made 7 appearances off the bench. Alex Bruce (33) made 4 starts and 2 substitute appearances in the league.

In most football clubs it would raise a red flag to see five players below the age of 25 not offered contract extensions while the same number of players approaching or well over the age of 30, none of whom were first choice starters, being given an opportunity to stay. However, it has been a peculiarity in the tenure of Cook as Latics manager.

But Cook’s admirers will say that the manager built a strong young team, many of whom can serve the club for years to come. More senior players were confined to bench-warming at best but played an important role as squad members.

Knowing the way Cook had deployed his forces during the season it was therefore no surprise to see such a retained list.

We can expect more turnover this summer

It is rumoured that Paul Cook wants 5 or 6 new players for his squad. But his immediate challenge will be to deal with a scenario whereby so many senior players have contracts that end in June 2019. They include regulars Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Nick Powell and Max Power, together with Ryan Colclough, Jordan Flores, Josh Laurent, Craig Morgan and James Vaughan.

Cook will doubtless want to keep his key players through offering them contract extensions. Much will depend on the willingness of the club ownership to meet increased salary demands and commit to longer contracts. Should the contract extensions not be agreed we can expect those players with significant market value to be departing over the summer. Moreover, we can expect movement from some of the “fringe” players.

Loan players had a significant role over the course of last season and we can expect more to come. Lee Evans was excellent before his departure to Sheffield United in January, but Christian Walton and Callum Elder went on to establish themselves as regular starters. Whether the latter two return to Wigan on permanent contracts depends on the demands made by their parent clubs.

The bottom-line for Cook will be to keep the backbone of his squad together but bringing in new players who genuinely are “up and coming” or who have experience in the top two tiers of English football.

Will a home-grown player come into the reckoning this coming season?

Newspaper reports that Everton were interested in the 19-year-old Callum Lang caused ripples among Latics fans. Lang was a star for Latics at youth level and, after a slow start, managed to make an impact on a season-long loan in a struggling Morecambe team. He is a talented young player who can play as a target man or in the hole just behind the central striker. In League 2 he made 14 starts with 16 substitute appearances, scoring 10 goals.

The departures of both Luke Burke and Sam Stubbs once again highlighted the failure of the club in helping talented youngsters to step up to the plate at senior level. Providing Latics can hold on to Lang, will he have a chance of establishing himself in the senior squad?

Cook already has three central strikers in his senior squad in Devante Cole, Will Grigg and James Vaughan. Potential opportunities for Lang in that position would appear slim.

The future of the academy is something that IEG will need to look at. There has been so much promise over the years, but so many of those young players have fallen by the wayside. Will we ever see another career trajectory like that of Leighton Baines?

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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.