A critical time for Darren Royle and the IEC ownership

Will Darren Royle back Paul Cook? Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

 

Another 3-0 home defeat and the social media and notice boards are laden with the comments of fans concerned that Wigan Athletic could suffer relegation once again unless something changes.  They have won only once in their last 13 league games and are now dangerously close to the drop zone.

 

 

Paul Cook’s post-match interview was a sad thing to witness. Some managers might shy away from a post match media conference after such a heavy defeat, but Cook once again stepped up to the plate. Things just have not been going well for the manager since mid-September.

Injuries have deprived him of his first-choice front four, the team subsequently lacking the cutting edge and creativity that we saw in the early weeks of the season. Michael Jacobs has been out since October 6, Nick Powell has not played since November 28 and in the weeks prior to that did not look to be one hundred percent fit. Will Grigg was unavailable for six weeks in October/November. Gavin Massey came back from a three-month absence on December 22, but suffered a serious recurrence of his hamstring injury on Saturday. Defensive lynchpin Chey Dunkley missed two months before returning to the team for the visit to West Bromwich on Boxing Day.

The takeover by IEC seemed to take for ever until it was eventually announced on November 7th. We hoped that, following the takeover, extended contracts would be finalised for key players whose current ones run out in June. But of those nine players in that situation only Sam Morsy’s case has been resolved.

Nick Powell is the most high-profile of those players:

The injuries and uncertainty surrounding the takeover surely have had an impact on the manager and his staff. Cook is not one to complain, but his situation over the past months has been less than satisfactory. What is happening at the club?

Whether the current situation is solely down to Cook is open to debate. But the standard of football has plummeted, and the manager has frustrated fans by rigidly sticking to certain players, sometimes playing them out of position, whilst snubbing others.  But despite these issues we at this site do not advocate sacking Paul Cook.

In mid-November 2014 Uwe Rosler was sacked with Latics in 22nd place in the Championship at the time with three wins from 17 games. Gary Caldwell suffered a similar fate in late October 2016 with Latics in 23rd place with two wins from 14 games. Their successors, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce, were unable to stop the rot and relegation was the consequence. Although there are fans calling for Cook to be removed there are many who will cite the lessons of the past, fearing what might happen if that were to unfold.

Chairman Darren Royle is faced with a difficult decision regarding Cook’s position. It is compounded by the fact that the transfer window has reopened. If Royle backs Cook, giving him more time to turn things around, how will it affect player recruitment this coming month? If Cook were to be moved on some weeks from now any new manager would be saddled with his recruits.

Uwe Rosler’s downfall was largely brought about by his recruiting over the summer of 2014. So many of his new recruits just did not perform up to the standard expected. The German had done a wonderful job the previous season, after taking over from Owen Coyle in December 2013. He guided Latics to both the FA Cup semi-final and the Championship play-offs.

There are some parallels between Rosler and Cook. Cook too enjoyed considerable success in his first season, winning League 1 and going on an epic FA Cup run, with that stunning win over Manchester City. But his signings have met with mixed success.  Bringing in players who played under him at Portsmouth has not been particularly well received by fans.

Reports suggest that IEC made funds available to Latics for summer signings. Although the club does not usually disclose transfer fees the summer incomings probably amounted to around £6 m, whereas the fee received for Dan Burn’s transfer to Brighton was around £3 m. Cook spent most on Josh Windass (around £2m), Joe Garner (£1.2 m), Cedric Kipre (£1 m), Leonardo da Silva Lopes (£800,000) with Lee Evans being signed on January 1 (£800,000) after playing on a loan-to-buy agreement.  £6 m may be a small outgoing on transfers for most clubs in the Championship, but it is sizeable by Wigan standards. Critics say that Cook paid above market value for those players, some of whom have not impressed to date. It remains to be seen whether how much further cash will be speculated in January and if the Royles, Darren and Joe, will be the prime drivers in the recruitment process even if Cook stays.

Royle might well decide that he must sack Cook. If so, he will need a replacement to step in promptly before further recruitment is effected. A new manager would not only need to look at bringing in new players, but also at moving on others within the club to make space for the newcomers.

If Cook is given the backing of Royle and IEC we can only hope that he will select lineups with more positive intent, giving his players the chance to show their skills, not resorting to the hoofball that we have seen on too many occasions. It is the manager’s first season in charge of a Championship side and he is finding it tough. With adjustments due to be made to the squad during January he will have different options. In the meantime we have to assume that Cook has been reflecting on what he could have done better over these past months, despite the unavailability of players through injury and the uncertainties involved in a long and drawn-out takeover.

 

Thanks to all whose tweets are included above.

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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