Regaining the feel-good factor

Relegation can dampen the spirits of even the keenest football supporter. But three such occurrences in just five years, combined with a profligate waste of some £74 million of parachute payments is a real downer.

Morale had not been particularly high for Wigan Athletic fans over these recent weeks. But then came the announcement  that local lad Jordan Flores had signed a new two year contract. It came as a bit of a surprise as there had been no news about the player for weeks.

Always good to reward one of our own” were David Sharpe’s words as he announced the new contract on Twitter. In one instant it brought visions of a future where Wigan Athletic would at last have faith in home-grown talent, rather than incessantly bringing in loan players. It raised the feel-good factor, at least for a while.

But the warm feeling started to wither somewhat as the tweet above appeared on Twitter. The article went on to quote the chairman as saying:

“There’s going to be a couple of changes before the start of the season. There’ll be a couple of players hopefully coming in, and maybe a couple of players leaving.”

Those words of Sharpe caused the alarm bells to ring. Did he really mean just two of the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Sam Morsy, Max Power or Nick Powell will be going and the others staying?

A couple of years ago Latics had been relegated to League 1, but the chairman’s optimism over the summer of 2015 was uplifting. The famous quote about “smashing League 1 with 100 points” was a trifle overexuberant, but it set the tone over a summer of huge changes in the playing staff. Most of the high earners were sold off, paid off or loaned out, but the chairman played his trump card in paying up to £1 m for Will Grigg.

The end result was that the budget had been massively cut, but with the parachute money the club was still able to offer above-average salaries to attract players more than good enough for the third tier. Sharpe’s positivity continued into the season and at the midway point he paid somewhere approaching £1 m to sign Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract. The Dutchman and Grigg proved to be crucial signings as Caldwell’s team won the division title.

Sharpe made efforts to keep the bouyant feeling obtained by winning League 1 by offering season tickets at levels well below the market rate. In the meantime Gary Caldwell started to bring in many more new players than he had previously predicted. The manager clearly did not believe the squad was good enough to survive in the Championship after all. There was no £1 m signing this time around, but ex-players Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell were brought in as marquee players on relatively high salaries.

Caldwell’s team had a poor pre-season and his tactics in the early league games were conservative. The manager had reportedly wanted Callum Patterson from Hearts to solve the problematic right back position, but Wigan’s bids had fallen far short of the Scottish club’s valuation. Midfield player Conor Hourihane of Barnsley was also apparently on Caldwell’s wanted list but nothing resulted. The woeful decision by Sharpe to replace Caldwell with Warren Joyce was to ultimately lead a demoralised squad to relegation. The possession football we had seen under Caldwell evolved into “fightball” under the ultra-defensive Joyce.

According to the Premier League website Wigan Athletic received £16,298,146 in parachute payments last season. Transfer fees paid out in summer 2016 were relatively modest. In January they jettisoned two of the highest wage earners in Jordi Gomez and Adam Le Fondre. Speedy winger Nathan Byrne was sent on loan to Charlton. The sale of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich was reputed to be in excess of £7 m including add-ons. It was rumoured that the wage bill at the start of the season was around £17 m. Joyce himself remarked on how he had reduced that wage bill by the January comings and goings. But the end-result on the field of play was the loss of a proven goal scoring centre forward, a creative midfielder who had previously proved himself to be a top Championship player and two wide players with searing pace. Some fans at the time had remarked that it looked like Latics were planning for relegation even in January.

After his disastrous appointment of Joyce, Sharpe wisely took his time in searching for the right man for the coming season. Paul Cook has a fine managerial record and his teams play the kind of good football that went out of the window under Joyce. However, after the initial hype of Cook’s appointment, including the angry reactions of Portsmouth fans, it has been surprising that we have not seen much of the new manager in the media since then. When Cook was appointed, Sharpe had said that “The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.”

Since Cook’s appointment a couple of players have already left. Matt Gilks went to Scunthorpe who were able to offer him the kind of contract that Latics were unable or unwilling to provide. Jake Buxton was a rock in defence last season, but has already left the club by mutual consent.

The departures of Gilks and Buxton can be seen as indications of the club lowering its budget, which it clearly needs to do, given its huge potential loss in revenues. Despite what the chairman is saying it would be a surprise if only two more of the present squad leave before the season starts on August 5th.

The question is how Sharpe is going to use the remainder of the substantial revenues that came in last season? Will they be used to service the club’s debt? Or is he really planning to keep all of last season’s squad that remain, bar two?

At this stage there is not the level of optimism among the fans that one would expect with  a new manager coming in who has an impressive track record. The loss of parachute payments weighs heavily in our minds. Will Cook receive the level of financial and personal support from the chairman that is needed to get Latics back to the Championship?

Sharpe’s gesture in offering an extended contract to Jordan Flores is certainly good PR and we can only hope that it is a sign that home-grown talent will be given a better chance to succeed than we have seen in recent years. However, the chairman needs to enunciate his broader strategy.

What is his vision of what he wants for the current season and how he will achieve it? If he were to say that it was to be a period of austerity for the club, with any profits from last season used to pay off debts, few could argue with him if he is looking at the club’s long-term sustainability. If he were to say that he will have to make major cuts in the squad since the club needs to cut its cloth according to projected revenues, then once more it would be hard to argue against.

David Sharpe has a difficult task ahead of him. Like all of us he has made some good decisions and some bad ones. Perhaps his most redeeming quality as Wigan Athletic chairman is that he considers himself a fan, first and foremost. Moreover he is eloquent and very comfortable with the media.

The coming season will be the acid test for the young chairman. Should he take a gamble and back the new manager with a war chest to get the club back to the Championship? Or should he look at financial consolidation and future sustainability?

Without the parachute payments the feel-good factor has dropped alarmingly. How will the chairman deal with it?

 

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A busy week ahead for Caldwell in the transfer market

Will Jordi Gomez be willing to take a pay cut to rejoin Latics?

Will Jordi Gomez be willing to take a pay cut to rejoin Latics?

 “We tried to sign players last year who would not only do well in League One, but who were really Championship quality and I’ve got real confidence that they’ll be able to do a job at this level.”

So said Gary Caldwell, giving a public show of support to the players he signed. But the question is: how many of them will be a success in the Championship?

One player who has been a success in that division is Jordi Gomez. He was voted Player of the Season for Latics in 2013-14 after scoring 11 goals in 43 appearances. Gomez had received a similar award at Swansea in 2008-09, when the Welsh club was in the Championship division.

Rumours of a return for Gomez surfaced several weeks ago, but Gary Caldwell has now confirmed it as a possibility. However, whilst being keen on a return for the Catalan the manager stated through Wigan Today that “If it doesn’t make sense financially, then we’re not going to do it. We have to work within certain budgets, and we have done that.”

Should Gomez return he will have to take a sizeable pay cut. He is on Premier League wages at Sunderland and any offer from Latics is likely to fall short even of the figure he had been on when he left Wigan in the summer of 2014. However, it could be that Sunderland are willing to continue to pay Gomez a fraction of his wages for the coming season in a bid to move him on.

In his heart of hearts Caldwell surely knows that some of his current squad will fall short in the higher division. With the players due back for training in just over a week he will be keen to finalise deals for new players who he believes can be successful in the Championship. But his problem is doing so within a tight budget for a wage bill that will not be supported by parachute payments a year from now.

One year contracts for experienced players in their thirties is a viable option, providing Caldwell can beat off opposition from other clubs willing to offer contracts of longer duration or of more money. The latest rumour is that Latics are looking at the 35 year old Leon Osman, released by Everton.

Transfer rumours abound at this time of year and it is never easy to sift through them to ascertain which are realistic. However, given Latics’ recruitment policy it is unlikely that they will look at signing two other Sunderland players whose names have been mentioned through the social media. Caldwell will be searching for another centre forward but is unlikely to be able offer the right kind of terms for Danny Graham (30) or Steven Fletcher (29).

Last season’s recruitment process involved largely focusing on players out of contract or available at knock-down prices. Indeed the Player of the Season, David Perkins, was recruited when his contract with Blackpool terminated. Moreover Max Power, who finished in second place in the voting, was also a free agent although Latics had to pay compensation to Tranmere Rovers because of his age. Rumours suggest that Latics are currently interested in free agents John McGinn (23, right back, Dundee), Curtis Nelson (25, central defender, Plymouth Argyle) and Alex Gilbey (21, midfielder, Colchester United).

However, David Sharpe has backed Caldwell in paying serious money when a player has become available who could serve the club for years to come. Around £900,000 was spent on Will Grigg and £600,000 for Yanic Wildschut, both in their early to mid-twenties. Latics have reputedly made bids over £500,000 for 25 year old Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane and 28 year old Aberdeen winger Jonny Hayes. The latter would be a surprise, given the player’s age.

Last summer Caldwell had a budget advantage over rival managers in League 1. The reverse is the case this summer, with so many Championship clubs having parachute payments exceeding those of Latics in terms of size and longevity. Moreover the budget that Caldwell has is not sustainable beyond one more year.

Caldwell and his recruitment team will continue to focus on picking up younger players who are out of contract or available at bargain prices. But funds will be available for signing young players who represent good value for the future and can add value in the coming season. Caldwell will also ensure that an age balance is maintained by bringing in quality players in the latter stages of their careers on shorter contracts.

We can expect Caldwell to be increasingly active in the transfer market over the coming week as the pre-season training date comes closer and closer.