It is the early sixties and Latics have returned to the Cheshire League, where they first started in 1932. The Cheshire League is a now a superior league to the one they left, the Lancashire Combination, which has a reputation for the ‘big boot’ and ‘kick and rush’. Wigan Athletic, aristocrats of the northern non-league, away at Congleton. My Dad books the tickets on Eavesway coaches and away we go to South Cheshire. Congleton Town are a small club, even by Cheshire League standards. They made their way up through the Mid Cheshire League and their team is mainly amateur — some of their better players had previously distinguished themselves in the Wigan Athletic reserve team. Their ground is rustic to say the least, with an awesome slope from goal to goal, the pitch rutted and churned up. Their crowds are usually less than 200, but with Latics being the visitors they have their season high attendance of over 1,000. Latics’ visiting support can usually be relied on to give the home teams their best crowds of the season. Latics are in the top four at the time, while Congleton are pretty close to the bottom.
Opportunity for a Latics goal fest? No. A lenient referee allows Congleton to get away with dubious tackles and Latics fall apart, losing 2-1. Bobby Murdoch must have missed at least five goalscoring opportunities. The traveling Latics supporters are incensed with their team. How can a team of well paid semi professionals lose to a team of amateurs? Where is the pride in playing for your club? “A bunch of overpaid prima donnas!” say the enlightened. A senior citizen in the type of cloth cap so traditional among the men of his time, is so upset and incensed that at the end of the match he goes on to the pitch and accosts the referee. Crowd violence in an earlier era.
The next season Wigan Athletic won the Cheshire League. Congleton finished bottom and were relegated to the Manchester League. These days, they compete in the North West Counties League and their average attendance is around 150. Their Booth Street stadium has a capacity of 1,300. Meanwhile, Wigan Athletic are in their seventh season in the Premier League with an average attendance this season of 17,898.
So what happened to professional pride and why do we put up with the prima donnas playing for Latics? Beam us back to modern day. Swansea City were a better team on the day than Latics last Saturday. Dave Whelan is quoted as saying it is their worst performance for 5 years. Much as though I love what he has done for Latics, I can’t agree. There have been far worse performances. Swansea are not world beaters but they are a pretty decent team and play good football.
So why are Latics’ supporters so emotional after this match? For me, both Aston Villa and Everton were beatable, but many of us seemed to be satisfied with draws against them. I suppose we expected – or at least hoped – to beat Swansea, but it was not to be due to two spectacular strikes from Sigurdsson, playing a similar role to Jordi Gomez, behind the central striker.
Roberto Martinez has reached an all time low in the Latics opinion polls. If he were a Republican Party candidate at this time he’d be out of the race. Were his tactics poor against Swansea? They were certainly confused. Martinez had seemingly bowed to public pressure and started with two big central strikers, but Di Santo in particular did not seem to know where he was playing and Sammon was out of touch. (Ed– it has since emerged that Victor Moses was rested, having arrived back from international duty at 7pm the night before the match). In theory, it could have worked with two wing backs supplying crosses for the central strikers. Unfortunately, neither Sammon nor Di Santo is a good header of the ball. Rodallega, who can head the ball, was on the bench. Beausejour put in a fantastic cross in the 37th minute that Di Santo should have finished. The Chilean had a good first half, but faded out. This is not the first game in which he has put over mesmerising crosses which have not been attacked by the central strikers. Boyce is a solid fullback, but not a wing back, and when he goes forward it shows. The switch back to a four man defence achieved nothing. The manager’s insistence on playing an extra central midfield player meant that Gomez played there, leaving nobody wide on the right. We saw that before against QPR, and it did not work then. Tottenham have used a similar tactic at times this season, but Kyle Walker’s energy and attacking skills get closer to compensating for the absence of a wide player on their right flank. It was frustrating to once again see Boyce put in that role. Solid defender he is, but let’s play to his strengths, not expect him to play like Walker.
Dave Whelan’s main complaint was that three quality players were left on the bench. Moses was the most surprising omission from the starting lineup. He had not long arrived back from a long trip to Rwanda. He looked lively for ten minutes or so when brought on in the second half, but faded out. Diame and Rodallega both looked promising when brought on as substitutes but once again did not deliver. However, despite his mediocre season and poor finishing Rodallega still looks more likely to score than either Di Santo or Sammon. Diame too can look good but tends not to deliver that final defence-splitting pass or fluffs his shots on goal. Like the poor, it seems like Gomez will always be with us. After going through a purple patch he has been mediocre as of late and has not justified the faith placed in him by Martinez. He is also once again becoming the butt of the crowd.
From my viewpoint, however, the Swansea match was no surprise. They scored two fine goals, one on the stroke of halftime, the worst time psychologically for a Latics team that was already struggling. Rather than simply look at the Swansea game as a “must win” we need to look at the previous two home matches against Everton and Aston Villa in the same category. There is little to choose between any of those three teams – Everton, Aston Villa or Swansea. All three are capable of beating Latics on their day but they are also ‘beatable’ away from home. Failing to win against Everton and Villa put added pressure on Latics to beat Swansea : drawing with each of them in bore draws was not the end result we needed.
So where do we go from here? Fortunately the other bottom five teams fared badly this weekend. Latics and Bolton remain glued on 20 points, with Blackburn, QPR and Wolves on 22. To be frank, none of the five deserve to stay up based on their performances so far this season, but two of them will. Wigan are no worse than the others. Watch the other four teams play and you see the kinds of defensive errors and lack of definition in finishing that has characterized Latics all season. All have difficult fixtures between now and the end of the season. It could well boil down to whichever team gets the luck – a scrappy goal, lucky deflection, controversial refereeing decision or playing against weakened opposition – choose from any one of these. Which of these teams has the mental toughness to hang in there and not panic when things are not going to plan and the pressure mounts?
A major factor in Latics staying up last season was the support they got from the fans when the going got rough at the season’s end. Blackburn fans turned against their manager months ago, but like Martinez he remains there. To hear the chanting against Steve Kean when Blackburn visited the DW was depressing and hardly helped their players. It is to be hoped that this is not going to happen to the same degree at Wigan — Roberto Martinez is with us for the long haul. Many of us are frustrated with his tactics and team selections at times, but things are coming to a head. Let’s hope we don’t stoop to the level of those Blackburn fans. To do so could be the final straw that sends Latics in a downward spiral to the Championship and below.
This is not the first time Wigan Athletic supporters have been frustrated by a seeming lack of effort from their players. We all want to see a player give his one hundred percent commitment whilst donning a Latics jersey. We want to see pride and commitment towards our club. Let’s not forget that the main people running the football side of our club are Latics icons. Graham Barrow was one of the most committed players you could ever see play for Wigan Athletic, a great servant of the club as ex-player and ex-manager. Graeme Jones was a totally committed centre forward who would run himself into the ground for his team. He retains our record of top scorer in a season in league football, scoring 33 league goals in 1996-97. Roberto Martinez spent six years as a player at Wigan, a real fan favourite. He turned down a lucrative offer over summer, showing his loyalty and love of Wigan Athletic football club. So can the love of Wigan Athletic and the commitment from these three people in pole positions at the club be transmitted to the players?
Are there players in the current squad who are just there for the money or are biding their time until their contracts run down to move on to something bigger and better? I read the other day that Latics have nine of their squad out of contract at the end of the season. If this is the case do they remain totally committed to Wigan Athletic for the rest of the season? The benching of both Diame and Rodallega poses questions whether Martinez believes they can show the level of commitment required. One could also argue that playing time should not be given to players who are not willing to sign on for another year. Maybe that playing time should be given to someone who has proved their loyalty and could do a job for the team? We live in a cynical and mercenary world where footballers earn tens of thousands of pounds per week for sitting on the bench, sometimes not even that. However, it would be unfair to tar Diame and Rodallega and the others who are due to be out of contract by that same brush. Who is to say that their own professional pride should not prevail and they do their utmost to keep their current club in the Premier League? The overriding concern is how we could have so many players who have not committed themselves to new contracts. Is it that Dave Whelan is unwilling to give in to unreasonable wage demands or is that the players themselves do not expect Latics to be in the Premier league next season?
The bottom line is that we need to avoid that trap door of relegation first. Then we can deal with issues of players out of contract. Roberto Martinez is a beleaguered young manager with his back against the wall. The majority of Wigan Athletic fans now want him out, but Dave Whelan is not going to comply with their wishes. Wigan Athletic football club is run by a loyal management team that loves the club and wants it to grow. They are prepared to look long term, with a view towards finding stability for the club. The necessary infrastructure has been gradually put into place. Martinez has worked wonders in keeping a club with such a low operating budget in the Premier League over the past two seasons. He needs a minimum of five years to judge him a success or failure.
So what has changed from Congleton to Swansea? Most of our fans would not be old enough to have seen the teams that played in the Cheshire League in the sixties. The younger fans will only remember constant struggles to stay in the Premier League. Our club’s history has been a mixture of despair and elation. Wigan Athletic have come a long way and we don’t want to put back the clock and be spiraling down the leagues. One can only hope that the love of Wigan Athletic shown by the senior managers of the club is instilled into our players as much as it possibly can be. Let’s stick together and support the club through thick and thin. Latics are far from dead and buried and can maintain their Premier League status next year. Let’s keep the faith!