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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More upheaval for Latics over summer?

“The squad is in good shape: it doesn’t need major surgery.”

Journalists use headlines to grab our attention. Sometimes they give us a good idea of what the article is all about, sometimes less so. Some internet sites use information already made public on others, repackaging it under a different label or more compelling headline. After a while you get to know which sites do that and learn to steer clear and not be drawn in.

If you get most of your Latics news from the internet you will almost certainly be using a news aggregator. NewsNow is the one I most commonly employ to check out Latics facts, opinions and gossip. Every day they give a list of the most  popular clicks and the other day  I found one at the top of their list entitled “From a Wigan reject to a Serie A star – Rangers’ rebuild gets serious.”

It was by no means a bad article, published on a Rangers fan site, largely enthusing about the Scottish club’s signing of an experienced Portuguese defender.  But what had drawn me to the article was the “Wigan reject” tag. This came in the penultimate line with the phrase “From Rob Kiernan to Bruno Alves”. No further comment was made about the ex-Wigan player, but the inference was that Alves is a much better player. In the end I wondered why I had read it.

I noticed one this morning that persuaded me to immediately click on the link. It was near the top of the charts, entitled “Sharpe: Some players need to change their attitude.” I found it hard to believe that the chairman would openly and blatantly criticise his players in public. It just did not fit in with his profile. Did he really say that?

In fact, no quote as such appeared in the article, which was focused on possible changes in playing staff with a new manager coming in. Sharpe was quoted as saying: “You’ll see some movement, no doubt.  I think he wants to get the players back in for pre-season and I think within a couple of weeks he’ll know who he wants out and who he’d love to keep, so that’s his decision.If there’s any players not buying into him and his way of thinking I’m sure they’ll be quickly moved on.”

So it looks like Sharpe never did say that some players need to change their attitude, thank goodness. Wigan Athletic did have a bad season, but most of that was probably more related to mismanagement rather than to lack of effort from the players. But although I was relieved in one sense, reading through what the chairman was quoted as saying was perhaps equally disturbing. Is it a signal that there will be even more upheaval in the playing staff over summer?

A couple of  days earlier, on Paul Cook’s appointment,  Sharpe had been said:  “I think the club but also the squad was the attraction to Paul; it gives him the chance to be at the top end of League One and that will be his aim. 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.

Reading between the lines of what Sharpe said, and on the basis of what has happened in the past, it appeared that he was largely willing to keep the squad intact. Two of the club’s most saleable assets – probably Will Grigg and Dan Burn – would be sold off to help balance the books in a season where revenues would not come close to paying a wage bill of players coming down on Championship salaries.

But Sharpe’s latest statements give cause for concern. When is the upheaval at Wigan Athletic going to stop?

The chart above shows that Latics used 41 players last season, indicating more turnover than any other club in the EFL. It mirrors what has been happening for far too long. Instability has eaten away at the foundations of Wigan Athletic Football Club.

Although Sharpe stated that he thought the squad had been attractive to Paul Cook, there is also the other side of the coin. That is of a new manager coming in and wanting to bring in his own players. Will we once again see wholesale changes as we saw in the summer of 2014 under Uwe Rosler, in January 2015 with Malky Mackay, in the summer of 2015 under Gary Caldwell and in January 2016 with Warren Joyce?

Let’s hope not. It is rumoured that the concept of a Director of Football was mooted at Wigan Athletic, but was rejected. One advantage of that position is having someone with an overview on potential turnover at the club. In the absence of such a person are we going to continue with the process of a new manager coming in and breaking up the squad he has inherited?

Gary Caldwell was, to a large degree, forced through economic necessity to release a whole flock of players on lucrative contracts in the summer of 2015. The line-up in the first match at Coventry had just one player – Chris McCann – from the previous season. It took months for the new players to gel and it was only in January that the results started to turn.

If anything, next season’s League 1 looks stronger than it was a couple of years ago. Blackburn Rovers will be buoyed by Venky’s money, Portsmouth maybe even more so if ex-Disney billionaire, Michael Eisner, takes over the club. With three up and four down each year the composition of League 1 varies significantly each season. The map for League 1 in the 2017-18 season reveals a number of clubs strong enough to challenge for promotion and the prospect of derby games against six other clubs in the North West.

Over recent weeks we have seen the departure of Graham Barrow, James Barrow and John Doolan from the coaching and conditioning staff. Only two the players whose contracts were expiring – Jordan Flores and David Perkins – have been offered extensions. Crowd favourite and captain, Stephen Warnock, has left. Garry Cook has come in at board level, Paul Cook and Leam Richardson as manager and assistant.

The question is whether the nucleus of the current squad will be retained over summer. Although Sharpe previously said the squad does not need major surgery has there been a change of mind with the arrival of a new manager?

When will the turnover of players at Wigan slow down?

Let’s hope it will be this summer.

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A Portsmouth fan’s view of Paul Cook

 

 Paul Cook – the right man for the job

As expected, the announcement came yesterday of the appointment of Paul Cook as manager of Wigan Athletic. He joins the list of ex-Latics players who have managed the club in recent years along with Gary Caldwell, Paul Jewell and Roberto Martinez, together with Graham Barrow in short term stints.

Cook’s  impressive track record as a manager is reflected in his stats:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Following Cook’s appointment, chairman David Sharpe commented on the club’s official site that:

“Paul was the man that I felt was best to take this club forwards after looking at the jobs he has done at Chesterfield and Portsmouth in the last four seasons.He has won two promotions, has never been outside of the top six, has a 50% win ratio and also plays the brand of football that I think is the best for this football club. Moving forwards, I’ll be delighted to see Paul’s work in progress and I have a good feeling about it.”

Adding that:

“The man I met, in terms of his character and how lively and energetic he is, makes me believe he will be a lift for the whole place and I think we need that sort of character.He’s very bubbly, will have the boys playing with a smile on their faces and I am looking forward to what he will bring it.”

The social media and message boards have been awash with comments from Pompey fans regarding Cook’s departure with one year still remaining on his contract. The Portsmouth FC official site stated that:

“Paul Cook has stepped down as Pompey boss to take up the vacant managerial position at Wigan Athletic. A financial compensation agreement was reached with Wigan over the weekend, resulting in permission being granted for the Latics to speak to Paul. Assistant manager Leam Richardson has also left Fratton Park. Cook arrived at Pompey in May 2015 and led the club to the League Two play-offs in his first season in charge. There was even more success at the end of last term, with the Blues earning automatic promotion and securing the title on a dramatic final day. Portsmouth Football Club would like to thank Cook and Richardson for their service to the club. “

The likelihood is therefore that Richardson will be joining Cook at Wigan as his assistant.

The 37 year old Richardson, born in Leeds, began his playing career at Blackburn Rovers as a right back. He signed for Bolton Wanderers in July 2000 for a fee of £50,000. Loan spells followed at Notts County and Blackpool before the Tangerines signed him on a permanent contract. Richardson went on to make 71 appearances for Blackpool before joining Accrington Stanley in August 2005. He was to stay there for 8 years making 133 appearances. He took over as caretaker manager in January 2012 until Paul Cook took over a month later. When Cook left Accrington in October 2012, Richardson took over as manager. However, he was to join Chesterfield in May 2013 as Cook’s assistant manager, subsequently moving on to Portsmouth with him.

In order to get an overview of Paul Cook’s time at Portsmouth we contacted Jim Bonner  (@FrattonFaithful) of the Fratton Faithful fan site.

Here’s over to Jim:

There can be no disputing that Paul Cook is a good manager. After all, he won Portsmouth the League Two title by sticking to his principles and winning games in the right manner. However, it should be remembered that he delivered this league title when Pompey were favourites to win the division on goal difference from Plymouth and including an inexplicable collapse by Doncaster who lost all four of their final matches when they required just one.

Cook will have your team playing attractive, possession football and his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation means that the back four are well protected whilst the attacking midfield trio are free to attack and create chances for the lone striker. He is also an excellent motivator as rarely did Pompey lose more than a single consecutive game under his management and any bad performance was usually followed by a good one.

 His record in the transfer market was mixed. He has the eye for a quality player as proved in his first season with the Blues as he virtually rebuilt a poor squad and moulded it into a good one with signings like Christian Burgess, Enda Stevens and Gareth Evans proving to be shrewd. However, his second season saw him sign many players who either couldn’t get into the team or had their stays abruptly ended by either having their contracts terminated or being shipped out on loan. Milan Lalkovic must be secretly delighted that Cook has gone.

The negatives of Cook’s management is that whilst Plan A can work extremely well, he doesn’t have a Plan B. His stubborn attitude meant he would rarely stray from his 4-2-3-1 formation and when he did, the results and performances were worse! He also struggles to work out how to break down teams that will “park the bus” and play for a draw on home turf. Thus, you should prepare yourselves for grating post-match interview soundbytes such as “All credit to Shrewsbury, they’re an excellent team and had a gameplan which stopped us scoring. We go again next week.”

Whilst he may be good enough to get a squad of Wigan’s quality back up to the Championship, there is a feeling amongst people that he isn’t tactically smart enough or indeed professional enough to succeed at a higher level.

Cook also seems to struggle under pressure as he felt the heat with 16,000 expectant Pompey fans constantly scrutinising him as he occasionally lashed out at the media whilst having indirect digs at them. The crowds at the DW Stadium may be half the size of what he was used to at Fratton Park, but the expectation will be exactly he same and he may well feel the heat if the Latics fans aren’t happy with performances next season.

In a nutshell, it should speak volumes that the reaction of Pompey fans is anger at the manner he left rather than any kind of sorrow that the event even took place. He’s a good manager but there are arguably even better bosses that Portsmouth can attract to replace him with Kenny Jackett rumoured to take his place.

 

 

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A look at the stats for Wigan Athletic manager candidates

Odds according to skybet.com

“Our immediate priority is to identify and appoint a first-team manager or head coach. That recruitment process is already well underway, and we will focus on ensuring that we appoint a manager who fulfils the criteria we have set in terms of the type of person we wish to employ and someone who has the ambition, drive and intelligence to enhance and help develop the structure we have created over the last few years. It’s important to appoint someone who will create a culture for success, which is something we have failed to do this season.”

The words of David Sharpe published in Wigan Today this Monday.

Sharpe is clearly following a different route than he or his grandfather, Dave Whelan, have taken over recent years. He has been looking at a host of potential employees, hoping that he will make the right decision. The stats show that Wigan Athletic have had seven managers in the last five seasons. Too many rash decisions have rocked the club back on its heels. The end result has been turmoil, with a massive turnover in players as new managers have come and gone.

But the process of selecting the “right” manager is a slow, deliberate process. In the meantime the club is without someone at the helm as players contracts come to an end. It seems inevitable in football that when a new manager comes in he wants to bring in his own backroom and coaching staff and his own new players.

However, according to Sharpe’s recent comments we will not be seeing the kind of turnover of players that we have seen in recent summers:

Unlike in 2015, when we had to significantly rebuild the squad, the basis of a very strong group of players is already in place. We may see some movement in the transfer market, and we want players who are prepared to achieve success in League One next season. But compared to previous transfer windows, we will not have the same level of movement. Stability is important, and we will stress that to any new manager.”

Names of potential managers for Latics have been constantly bandied around the social media and message boards. Moreover supporters have claimed that some of those candidates have been spotted at the DW Stadium. But Sharpe is holding his cards close to his chest, possibly waiting for the playoffs to be completed before coming to any decision.

The bookmakers’ odds change rapidly. Previous favourites disappear down the list and new names appear. Moreover it depends on which bookmaker you choose to consult.

For the purposes of this article we will take a statistical look at the top seven candidates according to the current odds offered by SkyBet.

It was the American writer, Mark Twain, who attributed that famous comment on statistics to ex-British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

However, in this modern football age stats are enjoying an increasing use. Here, for better or worse,  are the WDL stats for the candidates (supplied by Wikipedia):

Paul Cook

Odds: 5/4

Age:  50

Born: Kirkby

Current club: Portsmouth

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Jones

Odds: 2/1

Age: 43

Born: Rhondda

Current club:  Luton Town

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

Alan Stubbs

Odds: 7/1

Age: 45

Born: Kirkby

Previous club: Rotherham United

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

 

Michael Appleton

 Odds: 8/1

Age: 41

Born: Salford

Current club: Oxford United

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

 

 

Darrell Clarke

 Odds: 10/1

Age: 39

Born: Mansfield

Current club: Bristol Rovers

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

 

Uwe Rosler

 Odds: 12/1

Age: 48

Born: Altenburg, East Germany

Current club: Fleetwood

Managerial statistics:

 

 

 

 

 

Gary Caldwell

 Odds: 14/1

Age: 35

Born: Stirling

Current club: Chesterfield

Managerial statistics:

 

 
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A murky future for Latics – a Chinese buyout or Mike Phelan?

A murky time for Wigan Athletic.

 

These are unsettled times at Wigan Athletic. A team that has relegation staring in its face unable or unwilling to show the urgency needed to stave it off. The departure of the Head of Football Operations with barely a murmur from the fans. A new contract for a player who has hardly made an impact this season. The Sun newspaper telling us that another of Alex Ferguson’s men could be taking over as manager. Then the blockbuster rumour that Dave Whelan is looking to sell up, with a Chinese consortium visiting the facilities at Christopher Park, Euxton and the DW Stadium.

The players are surely caught up in this too. It has been an awful season with so many of last year’s squad finding the step up to the Championship division tough.

Some will say that the squad just has not had enough quality to compete in the higher division, but there were players of flair and high technical quality there at the start of the season. Nick Powell was always going to be a risky signing, given his horrendous problems with injury in recent years, and so it has proved. Saturday’s cameo appearance shows what a difference he could have made if he could have stayed fit. Jordi Gomez was another flair player and he had a great record in the Championship division with Latics and Swansea.  Gary Caldwell used him sparingly, Warren Joyce too, being seemingly content to shunt him off to Spain in January. Joyce also lost Latics’ most dynamic player and potential match winner, Yanic Wildschut, to Norwich City’s over-generous offer in January. Alex Gilbey too had shown flair early in the season before receiving a serious injury from which it took him months to recover.

Having had to make the massive shift from the possession football of Gary Caldwell to the hoofball of Warren Joyce the players have lost much of their ability to pass and receive the ball. Moreover with the end of the season approaching and League 1 beckoning, so many will be unsettled. Until the last couple of games a willingness to fight for the cause has rarely been lacking in the players, who have suffered so many heart-breaking defeats by fine margins. The seeming lack of urgency is surely a manifestation of a feeling of insecurity for so many of them. They know that the last time Latics were relegated there was a huge exodus of players, with 22 new players coming in.  Indeed some may have already been told to start looking for another club.

Matt Jackson’s departure was labelled as “the end of a consultancy period” on the club web site. After rejoining Latics in 2011 the ex-team captain had taken over as Head of Football Operations. Interestingly the club communique tells us that Jackson had not been involved in player recruitment for the past 18 months, although he was part of the newly formed Player Recruitment Department from the summer of 2015. Jackson was heavily involved in the Latics Academy and the switch to Euxton.

The announcement of a new two year contract for another ex-captain came as a surprise to many of us. Craig Morgan was a rock upon which League 1 was won last season, but has not had an easy time this year. Injuries and an infection have limited his availability and the 31 year old has made just 12 starts and 5 substitute appearances this season.  The contracts of Jussi Jaaskelainen, David Perkins and Stephen Warnock are also due to expire in June.

Given the results it is appears more and more unlikely that Graham Barrow will continue as manager next season. Indeed there are even rumours that a new manager may be brought in before the season finishes. Doing so would give a new incumbent the opportunity to decide on contracts and the players he would like to keep.

For weeks now we have heard rumours that ex-Hibernian and Rotherham manager and Bolton and Everton player, Alan Stubbs was a frontrunner. The rumours may have been fuelled by the fact that John Doolan, who was Stubbs’ first team coach at Hibs, has already rejoined Wigan. Moreover Stubbs will have been visible watching his son, Sam, play for Latics’ youth team and development squad. However, the assertion that ex-Manchester United assistant manager, Mike Phelan, might be taking the reins has already been met with concern by fans.  It also appears that a return for Gary Caldwell is a possibility.

To add to all of this uncertainty the alleged visit of a Chinese consortium is of even more import. The visit might well be tentative, but is this an indication that the 22 year Whelan dynasty will soon come to an end?

Much has been said and written about DW’s incredible success at the club. If he had not taken over in February 1995 what would have happened? Would another buyer have come in and made the investments that Whelan made? Not likely. The club was not an attractive proposition at the time, languishing in the fourth tier with attendances so often below 2,000. Its only real asset was Springfield Park. Whelan invested  with a mission to propel his home town club into the Premier League. Estimates vary as to how much he put into Wigan Athletic, but the figure appears to be somewhere between £90 m and £100m.

The club is surely more sellable in 2017 than it was in 1995. It has a more tangible “brand” after its successes in recent years – winning the FA Cup, reaching the final of the League Cup, eight years in the Premier League. But other than its players what assets does it have? Both the DW Stadium and the Euxton facility are owned by companies linked with the Whelan family, not the club itself.

Should the Whelan legacy continue we can expect continued financial backing for the near future at least. The club will be expected to be as financially self-sufficient as possible, although achieving that whilst maintaining success on the field of play will be a challenge. Wigan Athletic’s fan base has grown to maybe five times what it was in 1995, but still does not match those of the majority of clubs in the Championship. It is more akin to those of clubs in League 1. Moreover to maintain attendance levels the club has had to resort to cut-price season tickets. Put simply, the club will not have the revenue to seriously compete, even in League 1, unless there is backing from the ownership.

However, although Dave Whelan will surely provide a buffer for the club in the near future there appears to be no way that he will be making the scale of investment he has in the past. Given the club’s current predicament it is highly unlikely that it will reach the top tier of English football again in the foreseeable future.

Eleven of the twenty four clubs in the Championship are now owned by overseas investors. Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Wolves are Chinese owned.

In the long term it is unlikely that the Whelan family will continue to inject funds into Wigan Athletic. There will surely come a point where they will say “enough is enough”, but would anyone be tempted to buy a club that does not own its own stadium or training ground?

It is a time of uncertainty at all levels within the club. Ownership and management issues further cloud a murky near future.

 

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