Wigan Athletic: a club renting a stadium to survive?

“There’s an offer of £500,001 in.”

The Sun reports that the offer, presumably £500,000 for Christopher Park and £1 for the club has been made. We can assume it has been made by Frenchman Gauthier Ganaye on behalf of American businessmen Randy Frankel and Michael Kalt.

Although the administrators have stated their preference of selling the club and the stadium together the prospect of them having different owners is becoming more and more likely.

On July 7 news of an initiative to raise funds to buy Latics was made on the Wigan Warriors web site. It mentioned a “unique opportunity here to bring the ownership of these two great clubs together under one roof, each operating independently as before, but under a Wigan Sporting Partnership banner. It is envisaged that each club would retain all its training grounds, management and facilities.

The initiative was to be led by Ian Lenagan, Darryl Eales and Gary Speakman.They stated their belief that Wigan Athletic would be better locally-owned and as far the DW Stadium was concerned they stated that “sustainability and ownership of the stadium is equally important to both clubs, we are currently working with our longstanding advisers KPMG and talking to external parties.”

The communique was met with cynicism by the majority of Wigan Athletic fans who considered it to be an attempt by Lenagan to purchase the DW Stadium. What were Lenagan’s initial motives and what are they now?

Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the football club it was understandable that Lenagan and the Warriors would want to safeguard their tenure at the stadium. Buying into it would be the obvious way to do so. Were Lenagan to succeed he would own 85% of the shares, with the council continuing to own a 15% portion.

However, the running costs of the stadium, including salaries, maintenance and local taxes are significant. In the past Warriors have perhaps had the better of the deal they made with Dave Whelan before the stadium opened in 1999. Warriors were given a long-term lease and it has been reported that they were to pay 10% of their gate receipts for the use of the ground.

Alan Nixon reported that the “French American team” and Lenagan “couldn’t agree on numbers between them”. If the deal were to go through and Lenagan were to take on the considerable costs of stadium ownership he would need incoming funds from the football club to avoid making heavy losses. Put simply, it would not be in Lenagan’s interests not to make a deal with Latics’ new owners.

Now Nixon is talking about an auction for the stadium. Are there other parties ready to bid against Lenagan?

The work of the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club through these tense and difficult months has been admirable. The ‘Save Our Club’ Crowdfunder currently stands at over £634,000 which is a terrific response from all associated with Wigan Athletic. Moreover, they have been involved in discussions with the administrators and parties interested in buying the club.

In their announcement on September 4 they stated that they “…have already met with one of the interested parties who have put in a bid to the administrators. They are very positive about working with us should their bid be successful, and they are keen to ensure that they have local partners working with them to make the Football Club a future success. We are also continuing to work with the council, the Community Trust, Jonathan Jackson, and other partners to ensure that there is a solution to the survival of our Football Club.”

The announcement makes no mention of the stadium but does indicate that the prospective new owners of the club appear to want to work together with them for the future benefit of the club.

However, Nixon’s comment about an auction for the stadium might suggest that there are other interested parties as well as Lenagan.

The prospect of the DW Stadium being owned by another party, especially one associated with the rugby club, is a bitter pill to swallow for Wigan Athletic supporters. However, at this moment in time it appears to be the best option to ensure the survival of the club.

Already there are people suggesting that Latics might eventually build their own new stadium with a smaller capacity. Much would depend on any agreement made between the new owners of the club and the current stadium. Were no agreement to be reached Latics would be forced to seek an alternative venue. Leigh Sports Village has been touted as a possible alternative.

When Dave Whelan built the stadium, he was ambitious for Latics to become a Premier League club able to attract attendances approaching its 25,000 plus capacity. In their first season in the top tier Latics attracted the highest attendances they have ever had, with an average of 20,160 per home game. In the first five years in the Premier League home attendances averaged between 18,000-20,000. Warriors at the time averaged between 14,000 and 16,000. Wigan Athletic could have increased their home attendances during that period had they allowed more away supporters, but they would have run the risk of being outnumbered in their own stadium.

Since then attendances have plummeted for both football and rugby clubs. In the 2018-19 season Latics averaged 11,663, dropping to 10,614 last season. In the 2018 and 2019 seasons the Warriors averaged 11,528 and 12,060.

In early July David Sharpe was interviewed on TalkSport. He gave an honest and realistic appraisal of the club being able to survive:

“If you look at what my granddad achieved, that makes people feel that Wigan is a bigger club than it is.  If you strip away the fact that we were in the Premier League for so long, we got to Europe and we won the FA Cup, it is really not a huge football club.

In reality, Wigan’s population is not huge, under 100,000 people, it’s surrounded by big football clubs, it’s a working-class town, the stadium for our fanbase is probably too big, it should only be around a 10,000.

So I feel, just for the football club to survive with a lower wages bill in League One I would very much be happy with that. As much as I’d love the team to stay in the Championship, with the wages they have in the Championship you have to be a very, very wealthy man to afford the running of that football club.

So, for me, the best person would be somebody who isn’t going to come with grand ambitions to say Premier League and European football, because that’s been and gone. As a Wigan supporter we’ve got to leave those days behind us and just concentrate on the club surviving.”

Over the past months Latics supporters, as a whole, have become more realistic about the club’s place in the football ladder. Most realise that the days of a benevolent owner in Dave Whelan are gone and that future owners are unlikely to put in the kind of funding that kept the club in at a level beyond what could have ever have been dreamed of.

For the moment we have to accept that selling off assets and bringing in new owners is the only way for the club to survive.

More players will depart as the administrators continue to get wages down towards those at a level appropriate to a League 1 club with the prospect of limited revenues in the coming season. Funds raised from transfers will be needed to defray the considerable costs of the administrators and legal fees.

Once the ownership issue is decided new players can be brought in. There are a lot of free agents out there, with so many clubs not renewing their contracts with the prospect of much decreased revenues coming in. Latics must build a team incorporating the fruits of the club’s excellent academy with the experience of senior professionals brought in to provide the backbone.

From a personal point of view, I just want the club to survive, albeit in much-changed circumstances. On the playing front the goal would be to avoid relegation to League 2. Anything more than that would be a bonus.

 

Another Cup or League dilemma?

Can Paul Cook emulate Gary Caldwell by winning League 1? Or will the FA Cup get in the way?
Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

 

Wigan Athletic have a habit of giving the media something to feed upon. Dave Whelan certainly gave them plenty of ammunition when he appointed Malky Mackay and consequently made politically incorrect comments that the press lapped up. But he also appointed Roberto Martinez, who brought home the biggest prize in the club’s history amid worldwide media acclaim.

That FA Cup win will remain in our collective memories for years to come. Moreover it created a story that the media found irresistible. As a result Wigan Athletic became known on the world stage and it is no surprise that they are now about to be taken over by a Far East consortium.

Prior to that fateful day in May 2013 there were debates among Latics fans about what was more important – the league or the cup. There were two extremely difficult games coming up within the space of a few days: Manchester City at Wembley and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. The bookmakers did not think Wigan Athletic could win either game.  In the event Roberto Martinez managed to fashion a team out of an injury-ravaged squad which went on to win the FA Cup on merit. It was a dream come true, especially for those of us who had seen the club rise from its humble origins over the years. That old debate is now settled – who would want to put the clock back and swap a cup win for a longer stay in the Premier League?

Almost five years later and a parallel debate is opening up following Monday’s remarkable win against the same club. Some in the media are saying Manchester City are the best team in the world. It remains to be seen whether they can win the Champions League, then the World Club Cup to justify that label. But they have certainly been outstanding up to this point in all competitions bar the FA Cup. That a club from the third tier could knock them out beggars belief, even if they played half of the game with ten men.

It was the third FA Cup giant-killing act by Wigan Athletic against Manchester City in five years. In that 2013 Cup Final, Wigan had 48% possession, equaling City in shots with 11 and committing 5 fouls to their opponents’ 11. A year later Uwe Rosler’s team won 2-1 at the Etihad in the quarter finals, the stats perhaps being reflective of Wigan’s status as a Championship division team, having 32% possession, 5 shots to City’s 12, each team committing 10 fouls. The stats from Monday’s game reflect what a remarkable performance it was from a side currently in League 1. City had 82% possession and 29 shots to Wigan’s 4 , but could not get a goal. Wigan conceded 11 fouls, although a number of those decisions were debatable, City committing 6.

The application, effort and discipline required to hold off the continuous waves of City attacks was remarkable and reflects on the mentality Paul Cook has instilled into his players. It was another unforgettable day for Latics fans.

So, Wigan Athletic have reached the last 8 of the FA Cup for the third time in the last half decade. A sixth-round home tie with Southampton beckons. What chance do Latics have of beating the Saints?

“Believe” remains the Wigan Athletic theme. Lots of fans will say that Latics have already beaten three Premier League sides, including the champions-elect, so why not Southampton too?

The realists will point out that Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City fielded weakened teams. If Southampton play their strongest lineup then they are likely to overcome third tier Wigan.

But will the victory over Manchester City, followed by another tie with Southampton in mid-March have an impact on Wigan’s quest to get back to the Championship division? Is the FA Cup a distraction that could cost Latics promotion?

The defeats at Southend and at home to Blackpool were an unwelcome surprise for a team that had seemed to be cruising towards the League 1 title. Some suggested that the impending takeover might have something to do with what was happening on the pitch. Others pointed to the upcoming game against Manchester City being a major distraction for the players. Or was it simply a matter of time until that good run would come to such a resounding halt?

Moreover, Monday’s heroic performance could carry a heavy toll. The sheer exertion of running for 90+ minutes with just 18% possession is something that should not be dismissed. In addition to the next FA Cup encounter, Latics have played three games less than their promotion rivals, leaving them 15 league games to play in a 10 week period. Fans will recall the long run-in that Uwe Rosler’s side faced in 2013-14, which left them jaded for the Championship play-offs. However, that season not only included a run to an FA Cup Semi Final but also six games in the Europa League.

Paul Cook’s team will be on a psychological high after that amazing performance. The question is whether they will have the stamina to cope with the bread-and-butter events of League 1. Cook is not a man who likes to rotate his squad, but he will surely have to do so over the coming weeks if Latics are to keep up their momentum for promotion.

Cook’s main challenge is to keep his players firmly focused on League 1. A win against Southampton would put Latics in the FA Cup semi-final once more, but a return to the Championship is surely the club’s main focus.

In the meantime, reports suggest that both Cook and David Sharpe travelled to Spain this week. Not surprisingly it is being linked to the change in ownership, which appears due to be completed by the end of this month. But perhaps it was to celebrate Cook’s birthday (February 22)?

Following the cup tie Cook’s popularity ratings have reached an all-time high at Wigan. He has done a wonderful job up to this point but there remain considerable hurdles to cross  over the next couple of months.

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Evans on his way out – what kind of legacy will the Whelan family leave behind?

Lee Evans’ departure will be a blow for Paul Cook.
Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic.

Things had been going so well for Wigan Athletic. Promotion back to the Championship had been looking a near certainty, following the club’s best-ever start to a league season. But will the impending departure of Lee Evans prove to be an indicator that the promotion will not be as inevitable as it might have seemed?

Evans will certainly be missed. He and Sam Morsy have been the most successful central midfield pairing since the halcyon days of the “Jimmy Macs”, McArthur and McCarthy. That Latics have conceded only 12 goals in 25 league matches is not only due to having a solid defence. lt should rightly be attributed as a whole team effort, but the protection provided by Evans and Morsy in front of the back four has been exceptional. However, Evans is much more than a midfield enforcer, his range of passing adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play, particularly in his delivery from set pieces. It is no coincidence that he leads the team in assists.

According to media reports, Wolves will sell Evans to Sheffield United for a fee of around £750,000. The player will join a club with aspirations of promotion to the Premier League. A couple of seasons ago Wigan paid more than that to sign Will Grigg, to help them get out of League 1. They also paid around £600,000 to secure the services of Yanic Wildschut, whose permanent signing proved to catalyse that League 1 title win. By paying out that kind of money Latics had shown ambition, albeit buoyed by the parachute payments the club was receiving at the time.

Sadly the ambition showed in 2015-16 was not to be replicated the following season, when pre-season spending of around £3 m was modest compared with the norms of the Championship. Gary Caldwell had reportedly wanted Hearts right back Callum Paterson and Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane, but it did not happen. The right back position was to prove problematic and the quality  of delivery that Hourihane can provide could have made a big difference to Caldwell. In the January 2017 transfer window, Sharpe found Norwich’s generous offer for Wildschut too good to refuse. The end-result was the club getting relegated, but nevertheless making a profit.

Reports suggest that the K8 consortium is poised to take over Wigan Athletic, but is awaiting EFL approval. The Whelan dynasty at Wigan therefore appears to be reaching its end.

The club had overachieved for so long, winning the FA Cup, reaching the League Cup final, with eight years in the Premier League, including luscious wins over the elite clubs that dominate the English game. Dave Whelan’s drive, vision and financial backing underpinned those successes.

However, in recent years some bad decisions have been made and, despite having received well in excess of £100m in parachute payments, the club finds itself in the third tier. The appointments of Owen Coyle, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce were disasters waiting to happen and their lack of success was no surprise to the more discerning of fans.

The appointment of Paul Cook in summer had appeared to set Latics back on the right track. But now with the club in limbo, waiting for the change of ownership to be confirmed, what can we expect to happen over the January transfer window? Will other key players in Cook’s squad be departing over the next three weeks?

We can only surmise on what would have happened in the transfer window if the takeover had already taken place. Would the K8 consortium have given Cook the financial backing to keep Evans and to hold on to the club’s most prized assets? Would Cook have been given a treasure chest to buy players for an anticipated return to the Championship next season?

Given the reality of the situation, with an ownership change still in process, what can we expect from Sharpe and his grandfather over the window period?

We do not know whether Sharpe made a bid to Wolves to sign Evans on a permanent contract. But even if he had, would he have been willing to get into a bidding war with Sheffield United? The probability is that with Max Power and Shaun MacDonald ready to step into Evans’ shoes, the club was unwilling to seriously compete for the player’s services. Latics no longer have parachute payments and are unlikely to shell out big money over the window. Given that Sharpe appears likely to continue to hold the reins for some weeks at least, are we likely to see more player exits?

Cook and the recruitment team spent no money on transfer fees over summer. Players were picked up as free agents or on loan. However, the media reports that the £300,000 transfer of Jamie Walker from Hearts is currently going through, despite the fact that the player has a knee injury and will not be available for some time. The 24 -year-old Walker may well prove to be a good signing in the long run, but what does it tell us about Sharpe’s intentions? Will Sharpe expect funds to be coming in to compensate?

The media has been telling us that Steve Bruce wants to take Nick Powell to Aston Villa, although the player was under Bruce’s charge at Hull in the second half of the 2015-16 , but could not command a place in the starting lineup.Now the Sun complicates the situation by telling us that Powell will stay at Wigan if the Asian consortium takes over.

Cook is in an unenviable position as this transfer window unravels. He is depending on Sharpe, who is in a sitting duck position, waiting for the takeover to happen. Will Sharpe, or ultimately his grandfather, allow clubs to come in and pick off key players, with the club in limbo? In addition to Evans and possibly, Powell, is there a danger of such as Dan Burn and Sam Morsy leaving too? Has there been any discussion between Whelan/Sharpe and K8 about how the transfer window will be handled?

Whelan generally has the backing of the Wigan Athletic support, although there are critics who tell us that he is at heart a businessman. Would he sanction the selling-off of players prior to the takeover, damaging Cook’s attempts to get Latics back into the Championship?

All will be revealed in the coming weeks.

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An Amigo View – Northampton Town 0 Wigan Athletic 1 – five talking points

It was not the most inspiring display of the season, but a fifth minute goal from Nick Powell, combined with resolute defence, was enough to collect three points at Sixfields. Paul Cook had once again resisted rotating his squad, making just one change to his starting lineup, despite it being Latics’ fourth game in eight days. Reece James had returned to the left back position, where he once again performed well. It is a mystery why the 24-year-old has still not been signed on an expended contract.

After a pretty bright first half, Latics did what is colloquially known as” a professional job” in the second, restricting the home team. It looked like their tired legs were just not up to keeping up the degree of intensity of the first 45 minutes.

Despite their humble league position, the Cobblers proved to be worthy opponents. They had some bright spells in the first half, then came out in the second determined to get back into the game. That they did not is a reflection on both Wigan’s capable defending and a lack of conviction in their finishing.

Let’s look at some talking points:

Another clean sheet

Wigan Athletic have conceded just 12 goals in 25 league matches, with 16 clean sheets. Yesterday saw their sixth consecutive game shutting out the opposition from scoring.

Those last six matches coincide with the return of Christian Walton between the posts, following injury. Yesterday he was excellent, not only in his confident handling but in his role as “sweeper” behind the defence, racing out of his box to clear danger from through balls.

Dunkley excels

Dan Burn is usually the one who wins the plaudits for his defensive work, but Chey Dunkley too has proved himself to be an excellent acquisition. Like Burn, he was signed as a free agent, having run his contract down at Oxford.

Dunkley was Man of the Match for me yesterday. He was as powerful as always in the air, resolute in the tackle, showing excellent positional sense. Although a physical type of player he has conceded only 9 fouls in 22 league starts, a commendable statistic for a big central defender. His sending off against Portsmouth in August distorts an otherwise excellent disciplinary record, with just one yellow card to his name this season.

The need for another winger

The rumours of Latics trying to sign winger Jamie Walker from Hearts are no surprise. Walker is on the final year of his contract and Wigan could get a bargain price on the player.

Ryan Colclough was once again conspicuously absent from the team sheet yesterday and when Gavin Massey went off after 70 minutes it was central midfielder, Max Power, who came on to replace him.

Massey had started with some promise but faded out as the game progressed. But it was a surprise that Michael Jacobs was not taken off. There had been media coverage of the player’s return to his home town club, but it turned out to be another indifferent performance from Jacobs.

It really needed wingers with fresh legs out there yesterday, but both Massey and Jacobs looked jaded. Massey is a hard-working team player who relies on rapid acceleration to get past defenders. That is what happened in the 5th minute, when he latched on to Sam Morsy’s excellent crossfield pass, before putting in a measured cross for Powell’s opportunist goal.

Jacobs is a different type of player, a right footed left winger encouraged to cut inside to shoot. He has already scored 7 goals in the league this season in addition to being a major creative force in the team when on-song. However, the player’s all-action style means he burns up so much energy. Jacobs has looked far from energised in recent games, which is no negative reflection on him, but on the lack of alternatives available to Cook.

In the meantime, we will await news from the club on Colclough and Walker.

The importance of Powell

Nick Powell’s languid style sometimes gives people the impression he is not giving his all for the team. Moreover, there are fans who berate him, suggesting he thinks he is too good to play at Wigan. Others will say the team has played better as a unit when he has not been available. However, Powell’s performances speak for themselves. He not only orchestrates the midfield, but is the leading goalscorer with 11 from 22 starts. Moreover, his manager has emphasised that Powell does have the right attitude, despite his critics.

Rumours of an impending departure to Aston Villa are worrisome. Powell is an essential cog in a very effective team unit, his creativity catalysing Wigan’s best football. Put simply, although he has to play within himself due to hamstring problems, he is a class above any other player at the club.

A time of uncertainty

The projected takeover of the club by the K8 consortium was due to happen before Christmas, if one can believe media reports. Recent theories suggest it has not happened yet because no agreement has been made regarding the continuation of David Sharpe, and possibly Jonathan Jackson, at the club.

In the meantime, Paul Cook and his players will continue to focus upon getting Latics back in the Championship division. Having such a degree of uncertainty revolving around the ownership of the club is hardly conducive to Cook’s efforts.

The transfer window

The rumours regarding Jamie Walker fit in with what we have come to expect over recent years at Wigan. Latics have made a number of important signings of players whose contracts have been running down.

Neither is it a surprise to hear that Jack Byrne might be going to the Edinburgh club. The talented young Irishman seemed to be doing well at Oldham, but their manager, Riche Wellens, unleashed a stinging attack on the player, saying:

“I’ve given Jack Byrne a free role for a number of games but I’ve been disappointed with Jack. He looks good on the ball but his end product is no assists. He got two goals against Northampton and a goal at Crewe, but that’s a long time since he’s scored a goal. For the position and the amount of freedom I give him in a game, I would expect more. That deal is down to whether we want to do it or not, so we’ll make a decision. Jack is speaking to a couple of other clubs anyway, which is his right to do.”

Byrne is certainly a talented player, but Cook appears reluctant to bring him back, even with the possible departure of Nick Powell. There have been rumours about the young Irishman being difficult to manage, but the more likely factor is an unwillingness on Cook’s behalf to give any player a free role.

An exchange plus cash deal might be in the pipeline.

However, the shadow of a possibly imminent takeover of the club looms above the transfer window. Some cynics even go so far as suggesting Sharpe will sell off prized assets to make a quick buck for the Whelan family prior to a takeover. But the more positive among us will say that the pursuit of Walker is a sign that Sharpe continues to run the club in his familiar style.

The sale of Yanic Wildschut in the last January window severely weakened the Latics’ attack. We can only hope that something similar does not happen this time around.

 

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Difficult times ahead for Paul Cook after the Sun’s news of a Chinese takeover?

The Sun newspaper’s revelation that Dave Whelan is about to sell much of his majority shareholding to a Chinese consortium does not come as a surprise. As far back as April we published an article regarding such a buy-out.

But if the thing actually does happen over the coming weeks will it affect the promotion push under Paul Cook and is it something that could prove beneficial in the long-run?

Cook is no stranger to such events. Indeed he found himself in a difficult situation at Portsmouth over summer with American billionaire Michael Eisner in the process of buying the club. There was talk about Eisner bringing in a Director of Football above Cook, but more than anything else the manager was caught in a situation of uncertainty. It was surely a major factor in his moving to Wigan.

There is speculation as to whether David Sharpe would continue if the takeover materialises, possibly with a minority shareholding in the club. Such a move would be welcomed by most supporters who would see it as a means of ensuring a degree of continuity.

The Sun’s report did not mention a particular critical item regarding a possible sale. The DW Stadium is not owned by Latics, but belongs to a company controlled by Whelan. It is unlikely that a consortium would want to buy a club unless it had a stadium to play in. Would a stadium sale happen concurrent with the sale of the club? Or would Whelan come to a long term agreement regarding the rental of stadium facilities?

In the meantime Latics play at Gillingham tomorrow night and Blackpool on Saturday. It is to be hoped that the news will not upset the positive mood among the players and Cook and his staff.

Assuming that Cook stays promotion is a strong possibility. It is to be hoped that any possible ownership changes will not upset the momentum that Latics have gained on the field of play over these recent months.