A leadership crisis at Latics

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

So said the guru of leadership studies, Professor Warren Bennis.

A couple of years ago my wife and I went on holiday to Vietnam. Walking the streets in the humid and sultry heat of Saigon around midday I was taken by surprise. There were four young Vietnamese men across the road, three of them dressed in the kind of clothing that you can find anywhere in the world. But it was what the fourth man was wearing that caught my eye. Blue jeans and a Wigan Athletic shirt.

It was leadership that guided Wigan Athletic from being a lesser known name in the lower reaches of League 2 to become known in far flung countries like Vietnam. Dave Whelan’s vision of building a purpose built new stadium and a place in the Premier League, attracting a global audience, became a reality. His leadership helped his vision become reality.

Without Whelan’s ambition and funding Latics could still be languishing in the lower reaches of English football. He had put a lot of money into getting promotion into the Premier League and had to keep doing so to maintain the club in that division.

Latics were in the red in each of their first six seasons in the Premier League. However, with revenue from transfer fees and sound fiscal management Jonathan Jackson reported total net profits of £4.3 million in 2011-12 and £822,000 in 2012-13. Last season, back in the Championship, but also in the Europa League and with a large parachute payment, Latics were again in the black, this time to the tune of £2.6m. Whelan set the goal of the club living within its means and Jackson has shown the leadership necessary to reach that target.

Being a leader can be tough, as Paul Jewell found in his early days as Latics manager. Jewell took over an underperforming squad with players on long term contracts. Latics had had three managers the previous season and the players probably did not expect Jewell to be there for long. However, despite results being poor in his first year, Jewell started to put his vision into place. It took him time to weed out what he considered the negative elements among the playing staff, but little by little he started to bring in players hungry for success. Aided by Whelan’s financial support, Jewell was able to attract quality players to the club and build up a momentum that was to propel them into the Premier League, with a League Cup final appearance in that first season.

Sometimes a leader knows it is time to move on. Jewell did just that in May 2007 after Latics had maintained their status as a Premier League club through a nerve-racking 2-1 win at Sheffield United in the last game of the season. He had had a wonderful six year reign at Wigan, but it was time for him to hand over the reins to someone else.

Roberto Martinez was brought to the club as a player in 1995 when Whelan was in the early days of seeing his vision fulfilled. Fourteen years later Whelan brought him back as manager to keep Latics in the Premier League on a budget much reduced than that of his predecessor, Steve Bruce.

Martinez had a very clear vision of how football should be played. It was radically different than anything seen before at the DW. His teams would resist the hoof, playing the ball out of defence. At times it got them into trouble, but one sensed that Martinez would take the blame if it went awry. In reality Martinez struggled to bring in the quality players who could translate his vision into reality.

But after two and a half years of frustration it all began to click when Latics went on that marvellous end of season run in 2012-13. A cruel injury situation savaged his hopes the following season, dragging Latics into relegation. However, somehow a patched up Latics team beat Manchester City to win the FA Cup. They won on merit, playing that particular brand of football espoused by the manager.

Martinez too knew when it was time to move on. He had previously resisted possibilities to join big clubs, but the time was right for him. After winning the FA Cup how much further could he go at Wigan? Martinez was a leader with a clear vision and he had a belief that his players could reach the levels he was seeking.

Even with inspiring leadership from above it is up to the players on the pitch. In reality leadership roles and responsibilities are shared amongst the players, but the role of the captain remains central to the team’s performance. A good captain inspires confidence in his teammates and strives to make the game plan work. He needs to communicate effectively with the referee and cajole his players into doing the right thing. The captain is a leader, communicator, who provides a vital link between the players and the manager.

Gary Caldwell was an inspirational captain under Martinez. Caldwell certainly had his ups and downs as a player. He is the type who would put his body in the firing line. It meant he would make some amazing blocks of goalbound shots, but then the flipside would be when the ball deflected off him and put his goalkeeper and fellow defenders off guard. Caldwell had his critics as a player, but few would doubt his sheer commitment to the cause.

It was outstanding leadership that got Latics up there and enabled success beyond most of our dreams. Sadly that leadership is not evident now as Latics head towards League 1. What went wrong?

Whelan is now 78 and after 20 years of guiding the club he is surely read to step back. He made a mistake with the Malky Mackay appointment and his inappropriate comments were gobbled up by the national media. It has sadly tarnished the image of a man who has done more for Wigan Athletic than anyone before. His treatment by the FA was carefully thought out, a six week suspension and a fine that is not a lot of money for a man of his affluence. However, psychologically it is a kick in the teeth and it must hurt.

Whelan’s grandson, David Sharpe, has recently been appointed to the board of directors. Sharpe will surely be groomed to take over from his grandfather, but the question is “when”? What is going to happen over the coming months? The uncertainty is surely sending shockwaves within the club.

Mackay’s appointment has been a disaster. One wonders how the players have reacted since his arrival. A boss labelled, rightly or wrongly, a “racist” by the national media, with the shadow of a possible FA suspension hovering above him. Mackay has already shot himself in the foot by his remarks about wanting “hungry British players”, a signal to the overseas players that it is time to go. Roger Espinoza and Oriol Riera have already gone, William Kvist and Thomas Rogne are frozen out and Andy Delort cannot even get a place on the bench.

Mackay has proved inept up to this point, but given the uncertainty pervading the club it could be that he will be in his post for some time. The hope is that he can turn around the dressing room atmosphere through comings and goings in the January transfer window. If he can’t Latics are surely heading for League 1.

The lack of response from the players on the pitch has been the defining feature of Latics’ season so far. A series of unfortunate events led to a poor start and confidence levels are clearly low. But it has appeared that the players just have not cared enough. Uwe Rosler was dismissed as a result of their lack of support and they are responding no better, if not worse, under Mackay.

The players clearly have a lot to answer for, but they too are surely affected by the uncertainty at the club. They have a manager who is far from secure in his position and there is little indication of the direction in which the club is heading.

On the pitch the lack of leadership has been sadly apparent. There have been a host of captains this season, but none has been able to galvanise his teammates into consistent commitment and effort.

The leadership crisis at Wigan Athletic is a real concern. In our heart of hearts, most of us hope that Whelan will bounce back, if only for a short burst.

If he doesn’t step up to the plate, Latics could go into free fall, undoing all of his achievements of the past two decades.

 

 

 

 

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Seeing through the gloom – the way ahead for Latics

Gloom

They say that you have to experience the lows in life to truly appreciate its highs.

It is certainly a low time for Wigan Athletic. They stand second from bottom of the Championship after 19 matches, having won only three. Moreover the positions of both the new manager and the chairman are precarious, pending the results of FA investigations. The last manager was undone by player power and the new manager has failed to win either of his first two games.

Who will be running the club six months from now? How many players and staff will be gone by then? Will Latics still be in the Championship division? Will the financial future of the club be safeguarded?

It is indeed a time of doom and gloom, amid a prevailing air of uncertainty.

It is in such times that negativity and pessimism come to the fore. Fans are justifiably disillusioned with a squad of players that have let the club down up to this point. Indeed one of the Latics fan forums is currently running a thread entitled “Who would you get shut of?”

But despite the frustrations, pointing the finger at individual players is not going to help matters. Despite his rotation policy and mesmerizing team selections, Uwe Rosler put together a squad good enough to challenge for promotion. What has happened since the season started in August is now water under the bridge, but it has left the players in a crisis of confidence.

Good players have not become bad ones over these three months. It is not so much that individuals have played so badly, but more to do with their ability to play as a unit. The sum has been much less than aggregation of  its parts.

Dave Whelan has taken flak for his appointment of Malky Mackay, not just from the national media but from Latics fans. At times it has seemed that Whelan made a big error of judgment. Fans have been frustrated by the lack of goals, but Whelan has appointed a manager whose teams have not been known for their flowing, attacking football. There is more unsettling gossip in the media about Latics bringing in Ryan Giggs as manager should Mackay be suspended by the FA.

However, there exists the possibility that Whelan did know what he was doing. Mackay knows the environment of the Championship division. He is also reputed to be a motivational manager. Mackay has also had lots of experience in dealing with significant turnovers of players at the end of their contracts. Could it be that Mackay has been brought in to clear out the bad eggs in the Latics dressing room?

Mackay wisely turned to the old guard in his first match in charge. He needs them behind him if he is going to create stability and raise morale in the dressing room. Moreover in times of adversity managers typically rely on their most experienced players. The starting eleven against Middlesbrough contained five players from the Roberto Martinez era and four signed by Owen Coyle. The average age of the back four was thirty plus. Just two of the eleven players signed by Uwe Rosler – Adam Forshaw and Andrew Taylor – started in that game and the next one at Sheffield Wednesday.

No fewer than ten players have contracts which finish at the end of the season.  Most of those are approaching 30 or are on the wrong side of it. Eight of them – Al Habsi (32 years old), Boyce (35), Caldwell (32), Espinoza (28), Maloney (31), Nicholls (22), Ramis (30) and Watson (29) – remain from the Martinez era. The other two are Fortune (33), signed by Coyle, and Kvist (29) brought in on a one year contract by Rosler.

Given that Latics have only 17 points from their first 19 matches, Mackay will be looking at consolidation rather than promotion. Financial considerations will increasingly come into play.

Mackay recently stated that “This is a business, and after we’ve assessed the situation. There will be players moving out as well as coming in. After two or three weeks you get to know every player, how they train, their strengths and weaknesses. It will take two or three transfer windows for it to be ‘my team’, for the team to be sufficiently tweaked.”

His remarks indicate that the merry-go-round of players that we have seen over the past year will continue. Coyle brought in ten new players and Rosler signed eleven.

Since the summer of 2013 Latics have made a profit in the transfer market. The fees recouped through the sales of cup final winners McCarthy, Kone and McArthur have more than compensated for the relatively small fees paid by Coyle for Barnett, Holt, McClean and Perch plus the more considerable sums spent by Rosler on Delort, Forshaw, Huws and Riera. The flip side is that Latics lost quality when McCarthy and co left the club. Even more quality was lost as Beausejour and Gomez left at the end of last season as free agents.

In order to bring in his own players Rosler allowed the senior squad to swell beyond 30 players. He had clearly been keen to transfer out higher salary earners such as Al Habsi, Holt and Ramis but was unable to do so. Moreover the signing of Figueroa on loan meant that Latics had not only four left backs on their books, but had enlarged a squad that was already bloated.

Next year the club’s parachute payments will halve to £9m. Not only will Mackay have to follow in the footsteps of Coyle and Rosler by staying in the black in the transfer market, but he will have to make significant cuts in the wage bill. He will need to shed higher wage earners and considerably reduce the size of the squad.

Latics are clearly going to lose more quality players by the end of the season. They could well start the 2015-16 season without any of the players that played in that magical FA Cup final of 2013. The moment of Watson’s famous header will stay etched in the minds of Latics supporters for the rest of their lives. But somehow it needs to be put out of mind for a period of time as Latics adjust to a new reality.

Dave Whelan backed Uwe Rosler and Latics got within touching distance of the Premier League last season, but could not quite make it in the playoffs. He continued to back Rosler this season in bringing in new players. It all looked so promising, but it just did not happen.

A significant proportion of Latics fans remain critical of Rosler’s signings, whose performances up to this point have been less than eye-catching. Adam Forshaw has not yet lived up to his transfer fee and the hype he received at Brentford and the form of overseas strikers Andy Delort and Oriel Riera has been below par. Martyn Waghorn, signed last season, has fallen under the radar. Andrew Taylor has shown flashes of his best, but does not yet convince. However, Mackay had taken both Taylor and Don Cowie with him from Watford to Cardiff and we can expect them to feature regularly.

Cowie is already under criticism from a section of fans, but he is the kind of unspectacular “water carrier” that a Championship team often needs in midfield. William Kvist is Denmark’s captain and can surely do a job as a holding midfield player. Emyr Huws is an exciting young talent, who has all the skills needed to play at the highest level. What he lacks is experience and he will find that hard to get now, given the competition for midfield places. James Tavernier is one for the future, his quality crossing and delivery from set pieces a real asset, even if he is not yet up to par defensively. Young left back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair has yet to step on the pitch in a league game.

It may be that Rosler’s signings will come good with time. They came into a struggling side, with a manager who had lost the plot. Latics made major investments in the signings of young players. Forshaw is  23 years old, as is Delort. Huws is 21. Only time will tell if Rosler picked up free transfer bargains in the 23 year olds, Tavernier and Taylor-Sinclair, and the 24 year old Waghorn.

Coyle will be remembered more than anything else for the signings of the then 32 year old strikers, Grant Holt and Marc-Antoine Fortune. However, in Leon Barnett, Scott Carson, James Perch and Chris McCann he signed experienced practioners who will most likely form the  backbone of Mackay’s team.

If there is a cancer within the playing staff then Mackay will deal with it. Rosler had a clear view of the style of football he wanted but the players were apparently unable or unwilling to deliver it. Did Rosler just did not have the credibility with the players that he needed to motivate them to deliver his vision?

Mackay will need to be tough in cutting out any cancer that might be there. He will also have to show the kind of fortitude that we saw in Martinez, insisting on his preferred style of play and not bowing to fan pressure. He will need to show the door to certain players, even if some are popular with supporters.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the FA charge against Whelan. However, at 78 years of age the chairman will surely be looking at handing over the reins in any case. If the FA decision causes him to resign as chairman he will remain the owner of the club and will surely continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. With his home base in Barbados, Whelan has been devolving authority to the Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson to run the club’s daily business.

No matter what happens on the pitch this season the club is likely to be in a far superior position financially than most in the Championship division. Latics’ balance sheet for the 2013-14 season is due to be published shortly and it will make interesting reading. Whelan has insisted on prudent financial management and it will be a surprise if the club went into the red last season after receiving parachute payments and gaining extra revenue from its Europa League campaign and reaching the semifinal of the FA Cup.

Yesterday was the deadline for clubs to submit their accounts for the 2013-14 season to the Football League. Any club breaking FFP rules will have a transfer embargo imposed until it turns itself around to meet them again. A fascinating study by Ed Thompson suggests that Birmingham, Blackburn, Bolton, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest are ‘very likely’ to fall into that category. Latics fall into the category of ‘very unlikely’ to receive a transfer ban.

ffptableWigan Athletic’s sustainability in the long term will partly depend on their ability to develop young talent. An article on the club’s official site yesterday highlighted the under-18 side being undefeated in 11 matches. Coach Peter Atherton quoted that: “Things are heading in the right direction, Gregor Rioch has come in as Academy Manager and he’s implemented a lot of changes to put us on that correct track…….. The success has come sooner than we probably expected, but we’re not getting carried away.  The lads will continue to work just as hard. We should be at the top of this league and we’re aiming higher up the Academy pyramid.  We’re happy with the direction we’re heading in and what we’re achieving.”

To be heading a division of the Football League Youth Alliance largely composed of clubs from League 1 and 2 would not appear such an achievement, but it is a sign of the improvement shown at academy level. The new facility at Charnock Richard is due to be completed by 2016 and it is clear that Latics are ramping up their youth programme aiming for a Category One Academy.

A year from now Malky Mackay may or may not be the manager, Dave Whelan may or may not be the chairman. A swathe of players will have departed, possibly backroom staff too.  But the club will be financially stable and well run.

The squad will not have the quality to which we have grown accustomed. Most of the household names will have departed. But Latics will have a team that is hungry for success, with a nucleus of capable and experienced pros together with exciting young talent.

Latics will have bucked the trend of overspending as has been the wont of so many other clubs .

Then there is the prospect of a Category One Academy and long-term sustainability.

Things might seem gloomy at the moment, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Related articles on Amigos:

Finances, FFP and the long term future for Wigan Athletic

FFP and Latics – should Whelan splash the cash?