The importance of a Category 2 Academy for Royle and IEC

Last Saturday Wigan Athletic’s under-18 team strengthened their leadership of the EFL Youth Alliance Group B with a 2-0 win over Rochdale.

The first goal was scored by Scotland under-18 left back Luke Robinson with a beautifully struck free kick from well outside the penalty box. Another Scotland under-18 player, Kyle Joseph, got Wigan’s second with an opportunist tap-in. Wigan’s England under-17 striking sensation, Joe Gelhardt, did not play and his teammate at national level, Jensen Weir, came on after 88 minutes. Click here to see the highlights.

The Youth Alliance is effectively the third tier of U18 football. The Alliance consists of 49 teams divided into four groups on a geographical basis. The vast majority come from clubs in League 1 and League 2.

Although Gelhardt, Joseph, Robinson and Weir represent their countries at international level they are confined to the third tier of English youth football. They cannot play in the top tier Premier U18 League or in the second tier Professional Development League.

Over 23 years the Whelan family pumped in some £100m to keep Wigan afloat in the higher levels of English football. Like so many football clubs in the country, Wigan Athletic have rarely been able to accumulate enough revenue to exceed their outgoings. Put simply, the Whelans have had to constantly subsidise the club for it to punch above its weight.

Despite eight years in the Premier League and an FA Cup win, Latics still have a small fan base compared with most clubs in the Championship division. In order to keep the fan base that they have it has been necessary to keep ticket costs that a level that has been economically unfavourable for the club. Moreover, commercial revenues have been low compared with other clubs in the upper tiers.

The IEC, through the guidance of executive chairman, Darren Royle, will surely look at increasing commercial revenues. Royle will review season ticket prices in due course, but even a 20% increase in prices would not bring the club anywhere near to breaking even, let alone risk reducing the fan base. The club is basically a loss maker, as are the majority in the Championship with wages exceeding revenues. Barring significant sums coming in over the January transfer window Latics will lose in excess of £10m in the current season, in an attempt to consolidate in the division.

Royle has set his sights on a return to the Premier League for the club, although he has not given any kind of timeline for it. His strategy is based on building a strong academy which can provide a constant stream of players for the first team. The first step is investing in the kinds of facilities and programmes that can elevate the Wigan Athletic academy to Category 2 status rather than the current Category 3.

There are 7 Championship clubs that have their youth teams in the Premier U18 League, that which consists of clubs with Category 1 academies.  Another 12 of them participate in the Professional Development League from clubs with Category 2 academies.

Should Latics gain Category 2 status they would be largely joining clubs whose senior sides are in the Premier League or the Championship. But it is to be noted that League 1 clubs Barnsley, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City, together with League 2 Colchester United and Crewe Alexandra also compete at that level.

There can be no doubt that Wigan’s talented youngsters would benefit from playing at a higher level that of the Youth Alliance. The move towards Category 2 status is to be commended. However, so often in recent years the club has had exciting young players whose development has been limited by lack of opportunity within the club. So many have fallen by the wayside.

Critics will say that the club has so often nurtured young players on loan from upper tier clubs at the expense of its homegrown talent. It is something that Royle will need to look at in terms of not only developing homegrown youth, but as a part of overall recruitment policy.

Jensen Weir (left) and Joe Gelhardt.
Photo courtesy of skysports.com

 

Where will the likes of Gelhardt and Weir be some five years from now?

Let’s hope they too don’t fall by the wayside.

 

 

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Five talking points following a defeat at Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough 2 Wigan Athletic 0

 

“You’re always going to be put under pressure against the top teams, but the goals we’re conceding at the minute are not goals that are coming from pressure. They’re coming from individual mistakes, stemming from what we’re trying to do, and it’s something we’ve got to eradicate.”

Paul Cook summed it up in a typically forthright manner. In the 38th minute Darron Gibson gave the ball away to George Friend, who won a penalty following a naïve intervention by Cedric Kipre. Then five minutes later Christian Walton palmed a cross to Jordan Hugill who blasted the ball into the Wigan net.

Cook had fielded a balanced line-up. Nick Powell returned, with Josh Windass moving to centre forward. Lee Evans came in for the suspended Sam Morsy, Gary Roberts for Kal Naismith in left midfield.

In the first half hour Wigan had not played at all badly, although Middlesbrough had looked dangerous from crosses coming in from the wings. Indeed, it looked like they had a goal coming but Nick Powell cleared Aden Flint’s header off the goal line.

The second half saw the home team play a massed defence, protecting their two-goal lead. Boro’s tactics allowed Latics to see a lot of the ball, but they were unable to seriously threaten goalkeeper Darren Randolph. Cook summed things up after the game by saying: “The biggest thing in football is scoring at one end and not conceding at the other. At the minute we’re not very good at both.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

It was a particularly tough run of games

Latics have gained just four points from their last eight matches. However, during that time they faced all the teams currently in the top five positions of the Championship table.

The term “unforgiving” can be employed in depicting the challenges of a Championship division. Cook mentioned it again yesterday: “The lads did extremely well at the start of the season. We knew looking at the fixture list in the last months or so – West Brom, Sheffield United, Leeds, Middlesbrough – it would be unforgiving.”

He did not mention the visit to Norwich City, the current leaders. But that 1-0 defeat at Carrow Road at the end of September must seem like an awful long time ago to him now.

Three of those games coming up are against teams currently in the bottom five of the table. However, games at Bolton have never been easy for Latics. Moreover, Wigan’s head-to-head record against Blackburn is not good.

But four of those six fixtures are at the DW Stadium. For the moment Cook will be looking at the Reading game a couple of weeks or so from now. The Royals have lost their last three away games, with just one victory on the road in mid-September at Preston.

Cook will be looking for a solid performance, free of major errors.

What has happened to Darron Gibson?

In the opening game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday Gibson really impressed and left the field to an ovation from the crowd. He looked a fine player that day, spraying out accurate first time passes, solid in his defensive duties.

Yesterday he looked a shadow of his former self, imprecise in his passing and inconsistent in his tackling and covering. Gibson arrived in summer after having a difficult time in a struggling Sunderland side. In recent weeks he has found himself once again in a team that has been struggling.

The 31-year-old has pedigree, evidenced by more than 80 appearances at Premier League level.

During his suspension period after receiving a red card at Preston in mid-October Gibson commented: “Do you know what, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed my football as much as I have this year. The gaffer’s been brilliant with me, it’s a great set of lads, there’s no egos in the camp, everyone gets on with each other. I’m here for a year initially, but I’d be delighted to stay here for longer…for the rest of my career, I’d be delighted.”

Gibson was one of many Latics players who were struggling to find their best form yesterday. With captain Sam Morsy due to return from suspension Gibson will most likely be competing with Lee Evans for the second spot in holding midfield.

Another learning experience for Robinson

Stewart Downing might be 34, but he remains a fine player at Championship level. His presence on the right wing was always going to be a tough test for Wigan left back Antonee Robinson.

Downing was certainly a headache for Robinson to deal with in the first third of the game. But Robinson stuck to his task and Downing was less and less of a threat as the game progressed.

Robinson’s defensive frailties have been exposed in the past couple of months, with his displays at international level for the USA coming under scrutiny of the mass media.

However, the 21-year-old remains a good prospect. He has lightning pace and a sweet left foot. The variety of players used on the left wing certainly cannot have helped Robinson over these months. The mutual understanding between full back and winger is a key aspect in Cook’s football. Moreover, the protection that Robinson has received from those wide players has been variable. At times he has been left horribly exposed.

Don’t write off Dan Burn

Burn had a poor game against Leeds United, but there was some improvement yesterday, when we saw flashes of confidence from him. Wigan’s back line had not pressed up so high and Burn looked more comfortable. Moreover, Boro put more emphasis on lofted crosses from the flanks than Leeds, who relied more on pace and movement.

Some critics on the social media have questioned Burn’s commitment to Wigan, given that he is due to leave for Brighton in January. Others have questioned his ability to succeed at Premier League level.

However, by naming Burn captain yesterday Cook gave him a vote of confidence. Having missed much of the season due to an injury in a pre-season game at Rangers it is taking Burn some time to get back to his sharpest. With Chey Dunkley out for some time following a knee operation the manager will need Burn to forge an understanding with Cedric Kipre. Yesterday was only the second time they have started a game together as the central defensive pairing.

IEC, new contracts and the January window

The recorded interview with the Chief Executive of IEG, Yan Min Zhang, provided us with a glimpse of the group’s plans for the club. Zhang came over as bright, eloquent and thoughtful. He was also very diplomatic in his praise for Dave Whelan and what he has done for the club. Zhang carefully responded to questions about financial investments in the club, basically saying that money will be available but will it not be splashed about.

Since then we have been informed that Darren Royle will be the new chairman. But we have not yet heard anything from him, which is somewhat surprising.

In the meantime, the contractual situations of key players remain unresolved. Media coverage has largely focused on Nick Powell, although Sam Morsy has also been mentioned. Add to that should be the names of Alex Bruce, Nathan Byrne, Darron Gibson, Jamie Jones, Callum McManaman, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Gary Roberts and James Vaughan. All have contracts that end next summer.

The club and various mouthpieces for it have so often repeated that the morale of the squad remains high. But having around half of a senior squad out of contract at the end of the season must surely have influenced the climate within the club. Moreover, the players’ states of mind can hardly have been helped by the protracted nature of the takeover.

We can only hope that the new chairman will make it a matter of priority to finalise extended contracts for the players that the manager wants to retain. Failure to do so would prove very costly in the long run.

In the meantime, Paul Cook remains positive in his dealings with the fans and the media. These past months can hardly have been easy for him. He deserves credit for taking Latics to where they are in the Championship division at this stage, given what has been happening around him.

Cook needs the financial support from the new leadership of the club to deal with the contractual issues and make meaningful moves in the January transfer window. Let’s hope it will be available.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com