Invest in Youth!

In 1964 non-league Wigan Athletic did so well to reach the big round of the FA Youth Cup and were drawn away at Everton. It was a wonderful achievement for Latics’ youth team to get to that stage and it captured my interest.

My friend, Melvyn, knew Vic Gaskell, Latics youth team goalkeeper, and badgered me to go with him to Goodison Park to watch this mid-week match. Barnes Travel Agents on Market Street, near Queens Hall, must have been owned by a Latics fan because they always laid on coaches for Latics games, no matter where – Bacup, Congleton, Oswestry, Darwen – to name a few gems. But then again to put on a trip to Everton for a youth match – surely not. But they did.

I had never been to a First Division ground before and I was impressed with Goodison Park. It was built as one of the first football-specific grounds in 1892. In the early 1960’ s Everton were known as the ‘Mersey Millionaires’ through the money that chairman John Moores put into the club. Moores himself had been responsible in founding Littlewoods Pool Company, the forerunner of modern day football gambling.

In 1964 Everton were flying high in the First Division, well above their city neighbours. They were known for their good football. Wigan Athletic’s youth team, composed of amateurs was to play an Everton team of apprentice professionals.

Poor Gaskell in goal did not know what had hit him. Wingers Stuart Shaw and Aiden Maher, tore Latics apart with John Hurst being the complete centre forward. Hurst went on to play near on 400 matches for Everton, but as a defender. Shaw and Maher never made it at the top level. Latics were to concede 12 goals. Everton were to win the FA Youth Cup.

This memory came into my head after reflecting on Roberto Martinez’s decision to leave Wigan Athletic. We recall the meeting between Martinez and Dave Whelan, after which the chairman mentioned Martinez’s concern about investment in youth. Then on the second meeting we heard that Martinez was given permission to talk to Everton, but nothing about the youth programme.

Wigan have moved on from putting out a non-league youth side, getting predictably flattened by a First Division side full of apprentice professionals. However, the club continues to punch below its weight at youth level.

Martinez was right in his assistance in investment in facilities and staffing of a youth development programme. It continues to be the club’s weak point.

So what is going to happen to the youth programme? Will it get skuppered in the financial meltdown that represents bowing out of the Premier League?

Roberto Martinez will undoubtably want to improve Everton’s youth system. It is ironic that rumours suggest he wants to take Callum McManaman back to the club he played at as junior.

Norwich City deserve great credit for not only securing Premier League security, but winning the Youth Cup in style, beating giants Chelsea in the final. A terrific achievement.

Wigan Athletic face new long-term challenges after being relegated from the world’s most elite league. Most of the clubs in the Championship have bigger fan bases and Latics are going to have to punch above their weight to challenge for promotion. In the past Whelan’s financial support has made the difference. However, the time has come for the club to be self sufficient.

Conversely, it is going to take a major investment from the Latics owner to put in an infrastructure that will help the club produce home-grown players who can safeguard the survival of the club.

Dave Whelan is 76 years old. Wigan Athletic would be nowhere without him. The question is – how much more is he willing, or able, to do?

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How Much Longer for Bob and Dave?

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“I have one ambition left in my life and that is to get Wigan back in the Premier League.”

So said Dave Whelan just over a week ago.

It seems like the FA Cup win has put a new lease of life into the Wigan owner, 76 years old.  At times Latics supporters have pondered on Whelan’s ability to keep motivated, given all that he has achieved for the club and his advancing years.  How much longer can he keep it going?

Wigan Athletic without Dave Whelan does not bear thinking about at this moment in time. The good news is that he is committed for the short term at least.

Although Latics are going to lose around half of their current squad there will be enough quality players remaining to provide a strong backbone for a promotion push.

Funds gained by selling prize assets – such as James McCarthy, Arouna Kone and Callum McManaman – are likely to be ploughed back into the acquisition of new players. Young players who have been carefully nurtured – the likes of Fraser Fyvie, Roman Golobart, Lee Nicholls, Eduard Campabadal, Jordan Mustoe, Daniel Redmond, Nouha Dicko – are going to be pressing for first team action next season.

Despite relegation and the impending departure of so many players there remains a mood of optimism at the club. But then for a third consecutive summer there is uncertainty over the future of manager, Robert Martinez.

In most clubs the manager would lose his job for his team being relegated. Martinez has certainly had his critics during his four year stint as manager. However, the support he got at the victory celebrations on Monday showed how highly he is held in regard by so many fans. Not only did he keep Wigan above the relegation zone for three years on a budget that was “shoestring” in comparison with the competition, but he also built an infrastructure that will serve the club for years to come.

Who could blame Roberto Martinez if he decided to move on? Every manager needs a challenge and the Spaniard has certainly had lots of those already at Wigan. But now the parameters have changed. What would he have to realistically aim for if he were to continue?

Current media reports present a picture of the main focus of discussions between chairman and manager being on youth development and training facilities. Martinez rightly wants the chairman to commit to advancement in those key areas before deciding if he, in turn, will commit to the club for a further period of time.

Whether Martinez stays or goes, Latics have need more quality young players coming through the ranks. Even as a Premier League club, Wigan Athletic’s under 21 and under 18 teams have been playing in the second division of the Professional Development League  this year, with clubs from the Championship division. That the under 21 team reached a mid table position is no indictment on the coaching or management at that level. It is the lack of quality coming from  youth level that is the concern. Although it can be argued that results are not so important in younger age ranges,  it is no coincidence that the under 18 team has lost a lot more matches than it has won this season.

Roberto Martinez is right in his insistence on a good youth development programme. It has been wonderful to see Callum McManaman come through the ranks with such impact. Before him it was Leighton Baines. But if the club is to be sustainable in the upper leagues in years to come  it is going to need quality young players coming through teh system more frequently.

Lots of exciting work remains ahead for the formidable duo of Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan. Next season begins with Wigan Athletic playing in the Community Shield at Wembley. Then the efforts will begin to put up a good show in the Europa League and to get promotion back to the Premier League.

We will find out early next week if Roberto Martinez is up for these new challenges. The vast majority of Wigan Athletic fans will be hoping that the Bob and Dave partnership will continue in the near future at least. They have done so much together, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

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