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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Cook gets it wrong – Wigan Athletic 3 Scunthorpe 3

“Great credit to the players because we never looked like getting a point and we dug one out.”

Paul Cook was once again displaying that refreshing type of honesty that has characterised his interactions with the media.  But with just one win in their last five league games, Wigan’s promotion challenge is faltering.

We have certainly learned that Cook does not favour squad rotation, preferring to stick with a settled lineup. But with the fixture pileup Latics were facing we could have expected a little more flexibility from the manager. In the event he opted for just two changes from the starting lineup at Blackburn.

The introduction of Reece James for Callum Elder was no surprise. Neither was the insertion of David Perkins for his first league start in six months in place of wide player Gavin Massey. Before the game started it looked like a conservative change. Massey’s recent form had been indifferent, but Cook had resisted the chance to put in either Ryan Colclough, Gary Roberts or Jamie Walker as a like-for-like replacement. It seemed like Perkins would play a wide midfield role.

In the event, Perkins lined up in the centre-left midfield role, with Sam Morsy centre right and Max Power pushed towards the right flank. It changed the chemistry of Wigan’s football. With Nick Powell often dropping back to receive the ball, the midfield looked crowded, somewhat akin to what we saw in the era of Warren Joyce. With more men in midfield we could have expected Latics to nullify much of the threat from the opposition, but far too often Scunthorpe were able to find gaps which they could exploit. The midfield just was not able to provide the cover for the back four that has typified Cook’s teams this season. Moreover, with only one natural wide player, Michael Jacobs on the left, the play lacked the balance we have come to expect.

Scunthorpe had come into the game with a positive approach, with a willingness to push men forward. In Ivan Toney and Will Hopper up front they posed a constant aerial threat that was to prove the undoing of Wigan’s central defence. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley have proven close to invincible in the air this season, but yesterday they were caught out, with all three Scunthorpe goals deriving from lofted balls into the area. Burn had been the stand-out player for Latics this season, but in recent games he has looked lethargic and not at his best. Dunkley was at fault for the second goal, not seeming to know where Hopper was as he headed home from beyond the far post.

Although they lacked fluency yesterday, Latics did show their fighting qualities. Dunkley had put them ahead after Scunthorpe keeper Matt Gilks had not reached Max Power’s corner. The second and third goals were deflected. Cook is not renowned for his tactical flexibility but chose another option yesterday when he brought on Alex Bruce to play in the centre of a back three. Given the recent porosity of the centre of defence it might be an option that he will continue to experiment with at Bradford on Tuesday. Bruce may lack the pace he had before injury intervened but could be part of a formidable trio with Burn and Dunkley.

The FA Cup is once more approaching. Prior to the Manchester City game, Latics were poor in losing to both Southend and Blackpool. At the time we surmised that the players had the big cup match in their heads and just could not apply themselves as normal. Or maybe an imminent takeover of the club was about to happen, unsettling the playing staff.

That takeover still has not happened and we can but ponder on what might happen if the Whelan family continues to hold the reins. In the meantime, it leaves Cook and his staff in a vacuum, not knowing if the necessary funding would be available to consolidate in the Championship were promotion to be achieved.

With the FA Cup continuing to cast a shadow on Wigan’s league performances and severe dropping off in the form of key players, Cook will surely bring in some fresh blood at Bradford. To make wholesale changes would be a mistake, but some adjustments will need to be made. The manager will also have to decide whether to revert to that 4-2-3-1 system that had served him so well before.

Following the victory over Manchester City, Cook’s popularity rating was at a high. However, he faces serious challenges in the coming weeks. Yesterday’s performance was gritty, rather than fluent. His challenge will be in helping his key players get back to their best form. Too many looked jaded yesterday and Cook will need to take a more serious look at squad rotation if the situation is to be rectified.

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 1 Bradford City 2 – talking points

 

“We can’t really complain about the result. We were second best for the majority of the game and we would have taken a point in the end with the way the game was going.  We didn’t look threatening enough, we weren’t at the races and we go punished” said Max Power after the game.

For the neutral fan it was a terrific advertisement for League 1 football, with both sides trying to win the game, neither resorting to long ball or cynical tactics. Only 12 fouls were committed in the whole game, with just one yellow card, possession divided almost equally between the two sides. It had looked like ending up a draw until the 92nd minute when Jamie Jones could only parry Tyrell Robinson’s powerful , swerving long distance shot into the net.

Bradford City had come to the DW Stadium on the back of a 1-0 home defeat to bottom club, Plymouth. Latics had been undefeated in their last seven league games. A Latics win was clearly the expectation of the home supporters, but Bradford had shown from the get-go that they wanted to win all three points. Their football was good to watch, with lots of movement and a willingness to thrust players forward. Other than occasional renderings of the current favourite “Blue White  Army” from a section of the East Stand, the home support was strangely muted, with the noise of the 3,000 Bradford fans dominating.

The combination of Tony McMahon and Alex Gilliead on the visitors’ right flank posed problems for Callum Elder and Dan Burn from the start, as Wigan found it hard to get into the game. Centre forward Charlie Wyke put away a chance after 14 minutes, with Wigan’s defence all at sea. It was cancelled out by a Chey Dunkley header ten minutes later. The home team’s chances for winning the match was to take a hammer blow when a distressed Nick Powell limped off with a hamstring injury on the half hour mark. Gary Roberts made an immediate impact in his place, making a couple of fine passes, but his effect was to diminish as the game wore on.

Let’s look at some points arising from the game.

The substitutions

Powell’s replacement by Roberts was to be expected. The substitution of David Perkins for Gavin Massey after 54 minutes was hardly so. Massey had struggled to impose himself on the game and at times seemed isolated as Nathan Byrne held back on moving forward. But the substitution was made earlier in the second half than we have come to expect from Paul Cook. Was Massey injured or was it a tactical switch? Ryan Colclough was the expected replacement, but David Perkins was brought in to play on the left flank, with Michael Jacobs moving to the right. Perkins’ presence certainly helped reduce the menace of McMahon and Gilliead, but Colclough would surely have offered more of an attacking threat.

But the strangest occurrence yesterday was the arrival of Will Grigg after 93 minutes. Ivan Toney had been struggling throughout the game and it had seemed only a matter of time until Grigg would replace him. But it was not to be. Toney stayed until the end and despite Grigg being seen warming up well before his final arrival, it was Michael Jacobs who he was to replace.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game.

The keyboard warriors are rearing their heads again

Any football manager is a potential target for abuse on the social media and message boards. Wigan Athletic managers are no different than any others in that respect. The social media offers the opportunity to state our opinions and, as such, can be a force for the good.

However, there is a dividing line between critical opinion and downright cynical abuse.

Football managers can be forgiven many things providing they get the results. Paul Cook had enjoyed  a reasonably easy ride until this weekend, when the desired result did not work out. The cancellation of the Rochdale game was frustrating for so many fans who were looking forward to a trip to Spotland. Cook shot himself in the foot with the fans by giving his senior players needed a break. Not only did he get the Rochdale game postponed, but he fielded a woefully inexperienced team in the Checkatrade Trophy against Accrington, at a time when at least half a dozen of his fringe  senior players needed a competitive game to keep up their match sharpness.

Cook might have made some unfortunate decisions in recent weeks, but Latics remain in second place in League 1 and have played the most positive football we have seen for years. He deserves support.

Powell’s injury

Even a half-fit Nick Powell can make a big difference for Latics at League 1 level. The player has not been at his sharpest in recent weeks, but has remained the main creative force within the team. Powell has left the field with hamstring niggles before and returned in upcoming games, but what we saw yesterday suggests it might be a more serious strain than some previous.

The jury remains out on Gary Roberts as Powell’s natural replacement. He certainly started well yesterday, but Roberts needs a run of several games in the starting eleven to be able to perform at his best.

Should Powell be out for some time, Cook will have to decide whether Roberts is up to being a regular starter in the “number 10” position. However, Michael Jacobs would be an obvious option. Although his pace on the flanks would be missed, he has the ability to make the number 10 position his own.

Ryan Colclough might also be considered. Colclough is not a natural winger, perhaps lacking the pace to go outside the full back, but he has considerable technical ability, packing a powerful shot. He is a player whose career has drifted since joining Latics and is in need of a kick-start. Playing him in the centre of the midfield three is an option worth looking at.

Walton is back in action

Christian Walton played for Brighton’s under-23 team at Stoke yesterday. He had been Latics’ first choice between the sticks until his leg injury in late August.  One can only speculate whether Walton would have punched away Robinson’s shot yesterday had he been there and not Jamie Jones.

Up until yesterday Jones had been the automatic first choice goalkeeper, showing the doubters that he was a capable, experienced player.

But how long he will retain his first team place, with Walton challenging him, remains to be seen.

 

 

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An Amigo View – Blackpool 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

There is something special about Blackpool to many Wiganers, especially those of my generation. For me as a kid it was my favourite place to visit and I recall summer fortnights spent there dodging the rain and the wind, relishing those moments when the sun would prevail.

Over two thousand Wiganers travelled to Bloomfield Road yesterday, huddled together under the cover of the Stan Mortensen Stand to shield themselves from the driving wind and rain that prevailed. There was an odd feel: a football ground being attacked by the elements of climate, with the larger East Stand left vacant and an attendance of less than 6,000 for a north-west derby. The disconnect between the Oystons and the fans continues to fester, but despite their sparse support the Seasiders had a home record of W5 D1 L0 going into this match.

The early minutes were to be a nightmare for Latics, the conditions not allowing them to play their typical brand of football, Chey Dunkley’s header over Jamie Jones gifting an 8th minute goal for the hosts. It will not go down in the history books as an own goal, Blackpool winger Vassell getting a touch on the ball before it went in, but the header back was certainly ill-advised in such conditions.

The conditions were so bad that one wondered if the referee would suspend play, with neither side able to pass the ball with any degree of accuracy. Fortunately, the Bloomfield Road pitch has good drainage and did not churn up as many would have done. But gradually Latics started to build up some momentum as they adapted to the conditions. Dunkley partly redeemed himself in stoppage time at the end of the first half lashing the ball home from close range.

The weather was to improve in the second half, not surprisingly Wigan Athletic’s football too. In the improved conditions they were too good for Blackpool, with another goal from Dunkley and a rare one from David Perkins giving them a 3-1 victory.

Let’s look at some talking points arising from the game.

Exceeding the 100 points mark

A couple of years ago, prior to the start of the season, David Sharpe made his remark about smashing League 1 with 100 points. He has not made such comments this time around.

Latics currently have 35 points from 15 games. Were they to be able to maintain their current momentum over the course of the season, the total would be around 107 points. The highest total in recent years was the 103 points gained by Wolves in 2013-14. Gary Caldwell’s Latics won the title with 87 points.

Is this squad good enough to exceed the 100-point mark over the course of the season? On paper certainly, but injuries and potential changes of ownership could well have an important say.

Preparing for rougher weather

Until yesterday Latics had been able to play their football on decent surfaces without extreme weather coming into play. However, as autumn turns to winter the conditions are going to get tougher, sometimes making it difficult to play flowing football.

Latics had their backs against the wall in the first half yesterday, but still showed the grit to compete physically. In reality the weather prevented both teams playing the kind of football they would have liked, although the home team might have wished the deluge had not abated in the second half.

It is a long, hard season, a marathon and not a sprint. Endurance and determination will be the key to holding a promotion position.

Perkins goal causes celebrations

The celebrations at the Wigan end after David Perkins scored in the 82nd minute showed how much he is appreciated by Latics supporters. Perkins was Player of the Season in the League 1 title-winning side of 2015-16. He was inspirational in the centre of midfield with Max Power. But after a disappointing season in the Championship it was by no means certain that he would be offered a new contract at 35 years of age. In the event he signed on for another season.

Perkins’ last goal had been scored for Barnsley in October 2012 against Crystal Palace. Six months earlier he had scored for the Tykes in a 1-1 draw away to Blackpool.

Perks has started in just one league game this season, that being at Peterborough. Yesterday was his third appearance off the bench. Given Cook’s seeming preference for younger players over the senior pros Perkins’ role will largely be that of a squad player. But although his days of being an automatic choice may be behind him he still has so much to offer.

Will Evans get his place back?

Lee Evans’ indiscipline at Scunthorpe resulting in a red card opened the door to a return to contention for Max Power. After an indifferent season in the Championship we have seen the old Max Power in the last three matches.

Up to the point of his red card, Evans had been excellent in his role as both a midfield anchor and providing the link between defence and attack. Cook is indeed fortunate to have players of the quality of Evans, Power and Perkins competing with captain Sam Morsy for a place in central midfield.

We can expect Evans to return for the Checkatrade Trophy game against Middlesbrough on Tuesday, but it will be interesting to see who gets the nod in right central midfield on Saturday against Blackburn.

Player of the Season

We are only around one third of the way through, but if you were to name a Player of the Season who would it be?

My vote up to this point would be for Nathan Byrne, who was outstanding once again at Blackpool yesterday.

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Five talking points arising from the win against Walsall

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 2 Walsall 0

In the end it was a comfortable victory over a Walsall side that is as good as any we have seen at the DW this season. It was a scrappy game, with Latics playing their best football in flashes, but they did enough to pick up three more points.

The result keeps Wigan in second place, with Shrewsbury beating Scunthorpe 2-0 to maintain their impressive start to the season.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

When was the last time Wigan’s home record was so good?

It was this time of year in 2015 when Gary Caldwell’s team played out a goalless draw with Walsall. Their record at home following that match was W3 D3 L0, whereas on the road their record was W1 D1 L3.

This season’s home record is W5 D1 L0. Latics fans will be scratching their heads to remember a better start of a season. However, it has not all been plain sailing and Latics have had to show a lot of patience in breaking down teams who have come to avoid defeat. There have been excerpts of champagne football, mingled with solid defensive play.

Away from home they have fared less well, although there have been several fixtures against teams that were high-flying at the time. The defeats at Shrewsbury and Peterborough were tight affairs. The away record up to this point is W3 D0 L2.

Are Shrewsbury going to be like Burton a couple of years ago?

Burton Albion were formidable in League 1 in 2015-16, a seemingly modest club towering above larger competitors, topping the table for months until Caldwell’s team overtook them in the latter part of the season. By Christmas they were topping the table, with Wigan eight points behind in fifth place. At the time people were questioning whether Burton could maintain their momentum, but they did to a large degree. They had gained 48 points in the first 23 games of the season, going on to accumulate 37 points more in their final 23 outings. That was enough to secure second place to ensure automatic promotion. With shrewd moves in the transfer market they went on to avoid relegation in the Championship last season playing against clubs with budgets that made their own look miniscule in comparison.

Can Shrewsbury do what Burton did? In fact, the Shrews have already made a better start than the Brewers did a couple of years ago. Shrewsbury narrowed their pitch in the summer of 2016 in a move their manager at the time, Micky Mellon, saying that “We had one of the biggest pitches in England and now we have the same size as everyone else, so everybody who we play against will have the same size pitch.” In fact, the current pitch at the New Meadow measures 110 by 72 yards, the same as that of the Pirelli Stadium in Burton. Not many teams will relish a trip to New Meadow these days.

A year ago, Shrewsbury were bottom of League 1, but Paul Hurst arrived in late October and managed to keep them out of relegation, eventually finishing in 18th place. Over the summer Hurst made 8 new signing with 6 players brought in on loan. The transformation has been remarkable.

Jones reaches the 300 mark

When Christian Walton was injured in early September there were concerns about Jamie Jones coming in. However, Jones has done well, giving confidence to his defence through his positioning and handling. Moreover, his intelligent distribution has helped Latics launch rapid attacks. Although he has made 300 career appearances, Jones is still only 28 years old.

Not on fire but getting warmer

Will Grigg’s brace of goals will certainly be good for his confidence. Latics need an “on-fire” Grigg to finish off their often-excellent approach work.

Latics have strength in depth

Michael Jacobs went off at half time, presumably through injury. He had certainly not been his usual self in the first half. But with Ryan Colclough injured, Cook called on David Perkins, who was to prove as lively and industrious as ever.

Reece James had been rested for the game, with Callum Elder having his first home league start. The Australian was excellent, his superb cross leading to the first goal.

Lee Evans has been a key player, but he was taken off after 68 minutes yesterday, Max Power stepping comfortably in to his natural position.

Having a bench which includes the likes of Perkins, Power and Elder, plus Ivan Toney who did not come on, illustrates the strength in depth that Cook possesses.