A blend of pace, youth and experience

Watching Wigan Athletic over the years there have been so many memorable moments. David Unsworth’s penalty at Bramall Lane, Hugo Rodallega’s header at Stoke, Amr Zaki’s blockbuster at Liverpool; not forgetting Ben Watson’s fateful finish at Wembley. We all have our favourites: those that will stick in our minds for years to come.

Most of the ones I remember are associated with key moments in big games for Latics: those that influenced promotion or relegation, winning the FA Cup. I do not recall many from pre-season friendlies.

The encounter on Saturday had the look of a pre-season drubbing. Two goals down after just 11 minutes to a Burnley side that looked like they could go on and win by an emphatic margin. But Latics came back, thanks to moments of inspiration from a couple of young players.

Josh Windass is still only 25 and has not yet reached his peak. Some 20 minutes after Burnley had scored their second Windass produced a touch of class, superbly eluding his marker on the by-line to cut the ball back for Anthony Pilkington to score. Minutes later he shot from just inside the Burnley half, almost catching the goalkeeper out of position.  Windass has showed moments of genuine class before but has not been able to add consistency to his game, tending to drift in and out of things.

Joe Gelhardt is 17. He plays with the air of someone who is not afraid to express himself on the football field. He has a great left foot, pace and vision. Burnley are a big, physical team with robust defenders, but Gelhardt was not intimidated. His goal from Antonee Robinson’s cutback was scored with aplomb.

It is no surprise to hear that other Championship clubs are interested in acquiring a player of Windass’ potential.  He still has time to iron out the flaws in his game and become a coveted player. He has a pace and directness that can trouble opposing defences.

Paul Cook has already intimated that Gelhardt and his fellow 17-year-old Jason Weir could have a role to play in the senior side this season. Were this to become the case it would be a revelation after so many young homegrown players have been denied opportunities in the past by cautious managers fearful of throwing them in at the deep end. So often they have featured in pre-season but have had to take a back seat to young loan players from big clubs who have been brought in.

So many have been sent off on loan to clubs in lower divisions, including non-league. Few have come back and been able to establish themselves as senior squad members. Callum Lang is back at Wigan after two seasons at Morecambe and Oldham. He is still only 20 and has 72 appearances under his belt in the EFL, notching 23 goals. Will Lang be given the chance to prove he can deliver in the Championship, as he did in League 2?

Performances in pre-season games can so often be poor predictors for what is going to follow over the course of the season, when new players will come in and some will leave. But draws with Everton and Burnley will no doubt boost confidence within the camp.

There been much talk in the social media and message boards about Wigan Athletic’s inability to sign players to bolster their squad. Bids of £3-4m were made for centre forwards from Premier League clubs, Sam Gallagher and Jordan Hugill. Neither bid succeeded, but it could be seen as a statement from Darren Royle and IEC that they are willing to seriously invest in the transfer market. Gallagher and Hugill have mediocre career strike records so we can assume that Cook is, above all, looking for a target man, with the weight of goalscoring placed primarily on midfielders.

That Nixon mentions possible interest in Nmecha is therefore no surprise. The big German scored 4 goals in 38 appearances for Preston last season, either at centre forward or on the wing.

But Cook already has five players in his squad who were used as wide players last season: Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey, Kal Naismith, Anthony Pilkington and Gary Roberts. Interest in Nmecha would most likely be as a target man. But why is the manager offering some £2.6m to bring in Jamal Lowe from Portsmouth, who is a right winger? Is someone on their way out? Or is the manager intending to use some of them in other positions, such as #10?

Up to this point Latics have signed three players: David Marshall (goalkeeper), Antonee Robinson (left back) and Lewis Macleod (centre midfield). Lowe and Joe Williams appear to be available at the right price, although there will be competition from other clubs. Reports suggest that Latics continue to be interested in signing the 19-year-old Chelsea right back Dujon Sterling on loan. Leonardo da Silva Lopes was the starter in that position on Saturday, after being used as a winger against Everton.

Recruitment for most Championship clubs will surely go down to the wire, as it has in previous years. As things currently stand Latics have the experience from the likes of Danny Fox, David Marshall and Gary Roberts to counterbalance the youth of such as Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir. With Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey, Leo Da Silva Lopes, Josh Windass they have pace further forward.

But we can expect more movement over the coming nine days. That will most likely include players leaving to raise funds to offset the transfer fees to be paid out. How long will those moments of inspiration from Gelhardt and Windass stick in the memory? Football clubs are places of constant turnover and who knows what will happen next?

 

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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

 

 

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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