Mal Brannigan: “I think we’ll be quiet, I think we’ll be measured…and I think it comes back to making sure this football club is a Championship club this time next year…”
The fans have been getting anxious. The Daily Mail’s sensationalist headline about the club being late in paying their staff twice in recent weeks certainly caused ripples, even if many put it down to a journalist with a gripe. There was anxiety too about the announcement of the new kit, but the club came out of it well, not only by displaying an attractive new uniform, but gathering praise for the appearance of the Big Help Project on the front of the shirts.
But the biggest issue: no new signings announcements for the senior squad with the season starting in just over two weeks’ time. When will it happen? Will Latics be able to afford to bring in the quality players who can make a difference in the Championship? Some fans ask why there has been so little recent communication about the matter.
However, Mal Brannigan’s comment was consistent with the approach he has taken since being recruited as CEO in April 2021. Many fans had clamoured for the much-loved Jonathan Jackson to continue in that position, but the new ownership opted for a new face in that position.
Together with chairman Talal Al Hammad, Brannigan has done a wonderful job in lifting the spirits of Wigan Athletic supporters whilst keeping a firm hand on the reins. The League 1 title was won with a minimal amount spent on transfer fees, with real eye towards recruitment bargains.
In the current economic climate EFL clubs are primarily looking at the free agent market. However, although making a very significant saving in transfer costs Latics’ signing of players on free transfers has come at a price. Last summer they were able to make top acquisitions for League 1 by being competitive in the market. However, to attract such players, it was necessary to offer better terms than competitors. It is not only a higher salary that will be attractive to a player: the length of the contract can so often be key in the negotiations, especially for players in the later stages of their careers.
Of the current squad Latics have nine players aged 30 or over. Ben Amos, Joe Bennett, Tendayi Darikwa, Jamie Jones, James McClean and Curtis Tilt have one more year remaining on their contract. The contracts of Josh Magennis, Tom Naylor and Graeme Shinnie expire in 2024.
Four players from last seasons squad have now left. Gavin Massey departed at the end of his contract and loan players Tom Bayliss. Glen Rea and Kell Watts have returned to their former clubs.
Every summer the social media is awash with fan debates about how many new players need to be added to a squad and in what positions. There are those who are currently saying that this current squad needs a major overhaul if it is to be able to compete in the Championship. Others will say that players were recruited not only to get Latics out of League 1, but to provide the spine of a squad that can consolidate in the second tier.
Around half of the current squad have considerable experience in the Championship or the Premier League with at least 40 appearances in the past. Others have been top performers in Leagues 1 or 2 or the SPL.
Given the fact that Latics have so many players already contracted it is unlikely that we will see a big influx of new players. Last summer was certainly the exception, with the squad having been threadbare at the end of the 2019-20 season. There has been so much flux in playing staff over recent years and current management might see a need for more stability. Comments from the manager, chief executive and chairman suggest that they have confidence in the squad, with the possibility of bringing maybe half a dozen new faces.
The new faces are likely to include players with ample experience in the higher tiers of English football, almost certainly on free transfers. Young loan players from Premier League clubs have been used to effect by Championship clubs in recent years. Although it is unlikely Latics will secure a player with the impact of Reece James in 2018-19 the loan players could play a crucial role. But what of planning for the future, given a squad that is not the youngest?
Ideally the club will make progress in developing young players that will serve them for years ahead, as opposed to those brought in on a loan from other clubs.
The youngest players appearing in last season’s League 1 team were Thelo Aasgaard, (now 20), Adam Long (21) and Luke Robinson (21), all graduates of the Latics Academy. Long and Robinson started in one game apiece, Aasgaard starting in five.
Of the players in their early to mid-twenties Callum Lang (24) and Jack Whatmough (25) were regular starters. Jason Kerr (25) started only when Latics played with a back three. Stephen Humphrys (24) started in 12 games and Tom Pearce (23) in 16 games.
Leam Richardson’s success in the past two seasons has been built upon a physical style of play and a reliance on his more experienced players. In 2020-21 the club was initially forced to bring in its young players, following the decimation of the squad due to administration. However, in the January window the manager was able to bring in more experience, which went a long way to avoiding relegation. Last season with the loss of Charlie Wyke he brought in the experienced Josh Magennis (31) in January who leapfrogged ahead of Stephen Humphrys in the packing order.
We can expect incomings and outgoings in the senior squad over the next couple of weeks. It appears that Jordan Jones is close to leaving, rumour suggesting that he will go back to Scotland for another loan spell. A permanent transfer is less likely because of the inability of most SPL teams to meet the kind of salary the player will be on. Latics signed Jones from Rangers last summer for a fee reputed to be around £500,000. He still has two years to run on his contract and Latics will try to mitigate costs by the other club paying a fraction of his salary. The manager has made it clear that Jones is not in his plans. One wonders what might have happened if the club had not made a late signing of James McClean, after Jones and Gwion Edwards had joined Callum Lang and Gavin Massey to compete for the two wide forward positions. Jones can count himself unlucky in not receiving the kind of backing from the manager that the likes of Edwards and Massey received.
There has been lots of hype from the Scottish media about the possible returns up north for Jamie McGrath and Graeme Shinnie. Both were signed for bargain prices in the January transfer window and looked good additions to the squad. But McGrath was only given one start in League 1, Shinnie just six. Speculation has abounded on the social media about why the pair were not given more opportunities. As the season was nearing its close some fans were suggesting that they were signed with a view to the coming season. Others retorted that the two did not fit into the long-ball approach of the manager, the ball passing over their heads so much of the time.
It has been good to see McGrath played at right wing back in pre-season, where his pace, control and passing vision has been impressive. It remains to be seen if the manager will continue to utilise him in that role or release him to go back to Scotland.
The ultimate composition of the squad will give us a strong indication of the type of football Richardson plans to play this season. Will flair players of the likes of McGrath and Aasgaard be given the opportunities they have been denied in the past?
The pre-season schedule is less than impressive, the only whiff of real opposition being in the final game against League 1 Sheffield Wednesday. Only time will tell if it can provide a fit and raring to go Latics for that tough opening match against the old adversary, Preston.