Some talking points following a good performance at Birmingham

Birmingham City 1 Wigan Athletic 1

 

After gifting a goal to Birmingham City with just two minutes gone Wigan Athletic fought back to gain a well-deserved point. But it could have been three points with more clinical finishing and more favourable treatment from the match officials.

Paul Cook made eight changes from the team that started against Preston, reverting to the 3-4-2-1 formation he employed at Bristol City. England Youth players, Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir, were on the bench, as was the 18-year-old Adam Long.

City’s early goal was a blow for Latics, but they took the game to the home team, carving out chances, with Nick Powell’s deflected equaliser coming in the 38th minute.

Following the game assistant manager, Leam Richardson, commented: “It’s a long season and you normally end up finishing where you deserve to. We did suffer with a few injuries in the middle of the season, but our lads have stuck at it and they’ve always believed that they’re good enough. They’ve stuck together and there haven’t been any fallings out. They’ve had their heads down every time they come back in after a game and worked hard to go again. We’re looking to finish our season strongly and the lads deserve great credit for sticking at it all year.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Olsson recovers from early error. An improved display from Darron Gibson

As has so often happened this season Latics gave away a soft goal. With Jamie Jones rooted on his line Jonas Olsson failed to deal with Lukas Jutkiewicz’s run, the striker poking the ball home between Jones’ legs.

Olsson is 36 years old and his short-term contract is up in June. After making some 250 appearances for West Bromwich Albion he left them by mutual agreement in March 2017, returning to Sweden to join Stockholm club, Djurgardens.

It has been a tough return for Olsson who has not been able to claim a regular starting place. However, despite the early mix-up with Jones he went on to have possibly his best game to date for Latics. Cook wisely placed him at the centre of the back three where he could use his vast experience to help marshal the defence. The result was the defence held firm and limited the home team’s direct attempts on goal.

The 30-year-old Gibson too has had a tough time over recent months, but yesterday his performance was much improved in a holding midfield role.  His contract also expires in June.

In addition to Olsson and Gibson and the loan players there a number of others whose contracts expire shortly. They include Leon Clarke, Callum McManaman, Shaun MacDonald, Gavin Massey, and Nick Powell.

Gelhardt and Weir make their league debuts

The inclusion of the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt and the 17-year-old Jensen Weir in the matchday squad was a welcome surprise, but we can scarcely have expected more than a brief appearance on the pitch for either. But Josh Windass’ injury led to Gelhardt being thrust into the action after the interval and he took the opportunity to impress. Despite robust challenges by Birmingham he was not deterred and showed a willingness to run at the home team’s defence. Naturally left-footed he was played on the right. Weir too came on after 81 minutes for Nick Powell, being employed in an attacking midfield role. However, with the game petering out in the closing minutes he was starved of possession and we did not get much of a glimpse as to what he is capable of.

Joe Gelhardt joined Latics at the age of 10. He made 6 appearances for the England under-16 side, scoring 3 goals, together with 7 goals in 12 outings for the England under-17 side. The Liverpool-born forward signed a three-year professional contract with the club in August after making his senior team debut at Rotherham in the Carabou Cup.

Jensen Weir, born in Warrington, is the son of ex-Everton centre half David Weir. He was captain of Scotland under-16s, for whom he made 9 appearances. Weir also played for Scotland at the under-17 level before switching allegiances to join the England under-17 team for whom he has made 6 appearances. Weir holds the record as the youngest player ever to play for Latics, having made his debut in a Checkatrade Trophy game against Accrington Stanley at the age of 15. He joined Latics at 8 years of age, leaving them when he was 11, returning when 12.

Adam Long is an 18-year old central defender from the Isle of Man. He began his career with local side St Georges, joining Latics in 2017. He made his Latics debut in an EFL Trophy game against Middlesbrough under-23s in October 2017. Although he did not come off the bench at Birmingham perhaps we will get a glimpse of him in the final game of the season against Millwall.

Powell’s last goal for Latics?

Nick Powell’s goal was his 8th of the season, making him Latics’ top scorer, despite having missed a considerable chunk of the season through injury. He also leads the assists with 6.

Over the course of the season there has been so much speculation on the message boards and social media about Powell’s future. There have been so many tweets urgng him to sign a new contract. He is Wigan’s most talented player and the catalyst behind most of the good football we have seen from Latics this season and last.

Although some fans still cling on to the hope that he will decide to stay the likelihood is that he will be leaving. The goal at Birmingham could be the last one Powell scores for Latics.

Has Cook turned the corner?

The manager has gone through a particularly tough part of his career over the past six months. His lowest ebb was probably after the defeat at Hull on April 10 when Latics once again gave away soft goals to throw away a lead. It left them with an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL with the manager seemingly unable to steady a sinking ship.

However, there were some rays of hope following a 1-1 draw in the next match with table-topping Norwich, Latics employing the high press and having the confidence to attack the Canaries. The next game at Leeds was the turning point as Latics managed to beat the second-placed team despite losing Cedric Kipre to a yellow card after 15 minutes and being a goal behind two minutes later. Despite being down to 10 men Cook insisted on keeping Leon Clarke and Gavin Massey forward, moving Kal Naismith into an unfamiliar role at centre back rather than bringing on specialist Jonas Olsson following Kipre’s dismissal. It was a brave move by Cook which was to pay high dividends.

Cook’s supporters will say that he was new to management in the second tier of English football and injuries to key players hit hard in those winter months. His critics will say that his team selections and substitutions have been poor, his approach away from home was too negative and performances against teams in the lower part of the table have so often been dire.

However, in recent games we have seen a  more dynamic and enterprising approach from the players with the manager being more positive in his team selections and tactics. The clock has seemingly been put back to August when the team started so well and played “without fear”. Cook has experimented with his tactical formations and now Latics look comfortable in both the 4-2-3-1 shape previously favoured by the manager and with three at the back in a 3-4-2-1 formation.

In the darkest of days of February and March it appeared that the manager was just not learning from his mistakes. Has the upturn in April been due to a change in “luck”? Or has it been due to good management?

The truth most likely lies somewhere between the two.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

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The importance of a Category 2 Academy for Royle and IEC

Last Saturday Wigan Athletic’s under-18 team strengthened their leadership of the EFL Youth Alliance Group B with a 2-0 win over Rochdale.

The first goal was scored by Scotland under-18 left back Luke Robinson with a beautifully struck free kick from well outside the penalty box. Another Scotland under-18 player, Kyle Joseph, got Wigan’s second with an opportunist tap-in. Wigan’s England under-17 striking sensation, Joe Gelhardt, did not play and his teammate at national level, Jensen Weir, came on after 88 minutes. Click here to see the highlights.

The Youth Alliance is effectively the third tier of U18 football. The Alliance consists of 49 teams divided into four groups on a geographical basis. The vast majority come from clubs in League 1 and League 2.

Although Gelhardt, Joseph, Robinson and Weir represent their countries at international level they are confined to the third tier of English youth football. They cannot play in the top tier Premier U18 League or in the second tier Professional Development League.

Over 23 years the Whelan family pumped in some £100m to keep Wigan afloat in the higher levels of English football. Like so many football clubs in the country, Wigan Athletic have rarely been able to accumulate enough revenue to exceed their outgoings. Put simply, the Whelans have had to constantly subsidise the club for it to punch above its weight.

Despite eight years in the Premier League and an FA Cup win, Latics still have a small fan base compared with most clubs in the Championship division. In order to keep the fan base that they have it has been necessary to keep ticket costs that a level that has been economically unfavourable for the club. Moreover, commercial revenues have been low compared with other clubs in the upper tiers.

The IEC, through the guidance of executive chairman, Darren Royle, will surely look at increasing commercial revenues. Royle will review season ticket prices in due course, but even a 20% increase in prices would not bring the club anywhere near to breaking even, let alone risk reducing the fan base. The club is basically a loss maker, as are the majority in the Championship with wages exceeding revenues. Barring significant sums coming in over the January transfer window Latics will lose in excess of £10m in the current season, in an attempt to consolidate in the division.

Royle has set his sights on a return to the Premier League for the club, although he has not given any kind of timeline for it. His strategy is based on building a strong academy which can provide a constant stream of players for the first team. The first step is investing in the kinds of facilities and programmes that can elevate the Wigan Athletic academy to Category 2 status rather than the current Category 3.

There are 7 Championship clubs that have their youth teams in the Premier U18 League, that which consists of clubs with Category 1 academies.  Another 12 of them participate in the Professional Development League from clubs with Category 2 academies.

Should Latics gain Category 2 status they would be largely joining clubs whose senior sides are in the Premier League or the Championship. But it is to be noted that League 1 clubs Barnsley, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City, together with League 2 Colchester United and Crewe Alexandra also compete at that level.

There can be no doubt that Wigan’s talented youngsters would benefit from playing at a higher level that of the Youth Alliance. The move towards Category 2 status is to be commended. However, so often in recent years the club has had exciting young players whose development has been limited by lack of opportunity within the club. So many have fallen by the wayside.

Critics will say that the club has so often nurtured young players on loan from upper tier clubs at the expense of its homegrown talent. It is something that Royle will need to look at in terms of not only developing homegrown youth, but as a part of overall recruitment policy.

Jensen Weir (left) and Joe Gelhardt.
Photo courtesy of skysports.com

 

Where will the likes of Gelhardt and Weir be some five years from now?

Let’s hope they too don’t fall by the wayside.

 

 

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