Luke Burke’s departure and its significance

He put a brave face on it, but Luke Burke must have been gutted to be told that he was no longer wanted at Wigan Athletic. Burke was a shining light a couple of years ago, playing Championship football for Latics at the tender age of 18.

In August 2016 he made his debut, starting in the opening game of the season at Bristol City and he looked an accomplished player. Burke had been captain of Latics’ most successful-ever youth team the season before, having played for the development squad when just 16.

But things did not happen as one would have hoped. As the season progressed Burke fell out of the limelight and, in February, Warren Joyce sent him out on a two-month loan to Barrow. That was followed by being loaned to AFC Fylde for the 2017-18 season.

Burke certainly looked to have potential, but his career has taken a step backwards. That 2016-17 season was a difficult one at the club, with the dismissal of Gary Caldwell and the appointment of the inept Warren Joyce. Not an ideal time to focus on nurturing young players. But then again, when is a good time to give youth a chance in modern-day football?

Wigan Athletic give the Michael Millett Award each year in honour of a former youth player who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1995. It recognises the outstanding player in the under-18 team. Callum Lang won it in 2016-17. Lang is a well-built, fast, intelligent central striker who spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Morecambe, where he made a significant impact. The 19-year-old made 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals for the struggling League 2 side. He would seem to have a bright future ahead.

But let’s hope Lang can go further than others who have won that award in recent years. Prior to Luke Burke, Louis Robles won it in 2014-15, Matty Hamilton in 2013-14, Joey Johnson in 2012-13 and Ryan Meadows in 2011-12. None of them made a first team appearance in a competitive game at Wigan and their careers have hardly taken off. But Tim Chow (2010-11) and Lee Nicholls (2019-10) did get first team experience at Wigan and although never regular starters have gone on to play regularly at Ross County and MK Dons respectively.

Looking at the club website there are two players in the senior squad who have come up through the ranks. One is Callum Lang, the other is Jordan Flores. The latter is now 22, having been involved in a serious car crash whilst on loan at Chesterfield. Flores is surely a talent, with that sweet left foot and intelligent movement. What has been lacking in the past has been the physical aspect. The coming season would appear to be make-or-break for the Aspull lad.

The shining example of youth development at Latics over recent years is Leighton Baines. As a 17-year-old in 2002 he made his senior debut with Paul Jewell’s to-be third tier champions a League Cup win against West Bromwich Albion. He went on to make 12 appearances that season, 6 in cup competitions, 6 in the Second Division. Baines went on to an illustrious career, with both Latics and Everton, making 30 appearances for England.

When Luke Burke made his debut at Bristol some long-standing supporters were likening him to Baines. Somehow it did not happen for Burke as it did for Baines. Baines was carefully nurtured by Jewell, given his chance early on, then brought on gradually until he became a top player. Perhaps Burke never really had the kind of potential shown by Baines, but football is so much in the head and in the backing that a player can get from management and good coaching. Or maybe sometimes things are not meant to be?

Burke is still young enough to prove that Latics were wrong in rejecting him. Will he go on to the kind of a career that those previous Michael Millett Award winners have been unable to achieve? We wish him well.

In the meantime we can but ponder on the future of the academy at Wigan Athletic. Some things needs to change if homegrown youth is going to get a real chance at the club.

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Paul Cook’s Christmas Shopping List

A year ago, Paul Cook was manager of a Portsmouth side in fourth place in League 2, seven points shy of an automatic promotion position. Over the January transfer window he picked up four new players, with three leaving. Of the new players midfielder Jamal Lowe went on to make 17 appearances and striker Eion Doyle 12.

Wigan Athletic are currently top of League 1, four points ahead of Shrewsbury Town and five ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Given the circumstances, can we expect much activity from Cook over the January 2018 transfer window?

Over the summer Cook did an excellent job in ensuring that he had a minimum of two players competing for each position, except for the right back berth.  Up to the transfer window 12 players were brought in and a greater number moved out as Cook reduced the size of his squad. Wigan Athletic did not pay any transfer fees in the summer recruitment.

Nathan Byrne has not only occupied the right back position for all the 21 league games up to this point, but has not missed a single minute. Although it could be viewed as an indication of Byrne’s excellent form and fitness, it could also be said that Cook had no real alternative.

In summer Cook released his other specialist right back, Luke Burke, for a loan period at AFC Fylde. At the time it appeared a strange decision, but there remained the possibility of Max Power or one of the centre backs moving across to the right, if needed. Moreover, Burke had not looked the player he had been a year earlier when he was to enjoy a brief spell in Gary Caldwell’s Championship division side. Up to this point Burke has been a regular starter at Fylde, his confidence returning as a result. Burke is still only 19 and signed a long-term contract for Latics last year. His loan at Fylde expires in January. The question is whether Cook will bring him back or allow him to continue to bolster his confidence by prolonging the loan. Should Burke not return in January, Cook will surely scour the market for a specialist right back to challenge Byrne for his place. Ironically it could well be a loan signing.

The other loan decision Cook will need to make is that of Jack Byrne at Oldham. The young Irishman’s loan deal also finishes in January. Despite rumours of him lacking fitness, Byrne has been a revelation for the other Latics. He is the obvious candidate to compete with Nick Powell for the number 10 spot. The question is whether Cook will want him back with things going so well.

Cook will need to be cautious in terms of changing the chemistry of a squad that has high morale. Providing there are no surprise departures he will keep changes to a minimum. Last January the departure of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich helped to seal relegation. Latics fans will be praying that they will not lose a key player again this year.

However, Sun journalist Alan Nixon continues to tweet about a takeover:

Should this takeover be finalised prior to the January transfer window, what would be the implications for the remainder of the season? Would an incoming new ownership want to splash money in January by recruiting players who could be an asset in the Championship? Or would they want to keep the status quo until next season?

It promises to be an interesting time coming up at Wigan Athletic.

 

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Reflections on an excellent display against Liverpool

 

On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.

Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.

Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.

Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.

Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.

But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.

In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.

Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.

It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.

The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.

Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.

Being candid – a look at Cardiff (H)

 

 “I think, if I’m honest, they thought they were already down. That’s how I looked at the game. It was almost a case of frustration for them, this. This game’s not the one that’s got them relegated, is it? And I thought the crowd accepted it as well.”

Neil Warnock’s post-match remarks were not appreciated by some. The blunt Yorkshireman had gained an away point, after putting out a weakened lineup. He really did not have to say such things. But was there any truth in his assertions that both the players and the crowd thought Latics were already down?

I had gone to the match feeling that Latics had the slimmist of outside chances of staying up. If it was going to happen then a win over Cardiff was paramount. But Graham Barrow doused any fire that we might have had by naming yet another lineup packed with four central midfielders. The tactic was similar to that at Brighton five days earlier: keep things on hold until the final quarter when Nick Powell could come on to save the game.

Latics had 61% of the possession in the first half, but their lack of conviction had led one fan to suggest that they would not score if they played until next Christmas. Barrow had pushed Michael Jacobs further forward than he did at Brighton, but despite his energy, the final pass always seemed to be lacking. Not surprisingly the central midfield trio of Hanson, MacDonald and Perkins lacked creativity. Even a conservative manager might have played two of the three, leaving a space for a creative midfield player. If it were politics Barrow’s lineup could have been described as far right.

At half time a fan close to me said that he thought Latics were simply going through the motions and that both teams maybe thought they were on the training ground. Moreover the crowd had been so muted, not surprising given that they had already suffered thirteen home games when their team had not scored. It was a familiar pattern, Latics looking solid, but uninspired, as they have in so many games this season. Indeed Latics have so often played at least as well as their opponents but been let down by giving away a soft goal. It had almost happened again just before half time as Perkins somehow miscued the ball straight to Craig Noone in a good position. Luckily for Latics his shot hit the crossbar.

Sadly for Barrow, the introduction of Nick Powell in the second half did not produce the  desired effect, the Cardiff defence having appeared prepared for his arrival. In desperation Barrow brought on Alex Bruce for his debut, pushing Dan Burn up front, but apart from a prolonged bout of head tennis Latics still did not look like scoring. They didn’t and neither did Cardiff.

Once again the rumours were flying after the game. The latest one suggested that second half substitutes, Ryan Colclough and Sam Morsy, did not start the game because of appearance money clauses in their contracts. Following the Haugaard issue and the recent lack of game time for Morsy in particular one wonders as to the veracity of the rumours. Loan conditions and players’ contracts can be complicated matters these days. There were three loan players in the starting lineup on Saturday, including two in midfield. Were any of them there because of loan stipulations?

Barrow’s tactics and team selections over recent weeks have been reminiscent of his predecessor, Warren Joyce. Joyce never seemed to believe his players were capable of winning by putting out a balanced lineup. His emphasis was on massed defence and stopping the other team scoring. His ultra-defensive, fightball approach rarely worked. In contrast, under  Barrow, Latics have at least tried to serve up a decent level of football, even if they have been found wanting.

Near the end of the game a fan gave his view that, over the course of the season, Latics signed players who had not been making the starting lineups at their previous clubs. Moreover so many key players from last season’s League 1 title winning side have struggled in the higher division. Added to that were long-term injuries that forced the club to bring in more loan players than they might have done.

Given the stringent budget cuts the club will be making to cope with vastly decreased revenues in League 1 next season, we can expect that most of the players who graced the pitch on Saturday will be gone over the summer. It will be interesting to see how many of those who were previously successful in League 1 will remain.

There was news from the club yesterday that seven development squad players have been released. James Barrigan and Owen Evans were offered new contracts for another year, Josh Gregory and Luke Burke had already signed theirs. Those released include Sam Cosgrove, together with players who were instrumental in the record-breaking youth team of 2015-16. The cynics will say that once again the club is penny-pinching and ask why almost all of the young players coming through the youth ranks just do not make the grade.

The final two matches of the season offer the chance to give some of the club’s home-grown talent a first team opportunity.

Let’s hope that loan stipulations involving young players from other clubs do not impede this happening.

 
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Wigan Athletic and the loan system

How many of the club’s most successful youth team will ever play for its senior side?
Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

Critics of the loan system in English football say that it is there for the benefit of bigger clubs helping them to stockpile young talent. They cite the example of Chelsea as taking things to the extreme.

At the beginning of this season Chelsea had no less than 38 players out on loan. Half were sent to English clubs, half overseas.  In addition to those coming through their academy Chelsea buy up young talent from all over the world, typically sending them out on loan immediately to get experience. Some will come back and get a first team place, but for most the experience helps boost their market value and they are sold off.

But clubs in the lower divisions are so often happy to take the loanees. Using a loan player over  a relatively short period of time frees them from tying up their capital in long term contracts, which can be problematic if the club runs into financial difficulties. Moreover the clubs can use the loan market to cut wage bills by sending their own players on loans where other clubs pay their salaries. Andrew Taylor was signed for Wigan Athletic by Uwe Rosler in the summer of 2014 on a three year contract. He played 26 games for Latics in that first season, but has played no competitive games since for them. Last season was spent on loan at Reading, this season at Bolton.

The loan system also provides a lower division club with the opportunity to assess a player’s capabilities prior to making a decision on a permanent signing. In Wigan’s case it enabled them to sign Yanic Wildschut from Middlesbrough in January 2016 after a three month loan period.  It proved to be the most lucrative financial transaction the club has made in recent years, making a sizeable profit, even if critics might say it contributed to the lowly league position Latics now find themselves in. Reports suggest that Wildschut was signed for less than £1m and sold for a figure approaching £7m, although there may have been clauses in the deal made with Middlesbrough assigning them a portion of a future transfer fee. Nevertheless the club had used the loan system much to their benefit.

But Emyr Huws had been brought to Wigan on loan in the summer of 2014, resulting in Latics paying Manchester City reputed to be around £2.5m near the end of the summer transfer window. An ankle injury in the early part of the season severely hampered Huws, leading to him making only 16 appearances in 2014-15. After expressing his desire not to play in League 1, Huws went on loan to Huddersfield Town the following season, only to sign for Cardiff City last summer for a fee in the region of £1m. Latics had made a considerable loss on Huws, although we can only surmise on what would have happened if he had not suffered that ankle injury, something that has continued to dog the player.

Sometimes players are sent out on loan in the final stages of their contracts. Typically it is a way of helping them find future employment, when their contracts are not going to be renewed. Uwe Rosler signed Martyn Waghorn from Leicester City after a successful loan period in 2013-14. Stephen Warnock was given a permanent contract last summer after joining on loan from Derby County in March 2016.

But Wigan Athletic have signed 32 loan players over the past three seasons, with only Warnock and Wildschut becoming permanent signings. The majority of the loan signings were made in the January window. Faced with mass departures in the fire sale of January 2015, Malky Mackay made seven loan signings, none of whom were to stay on at the club at the end of the season.  Warren Joyce also made seven loan signings in January 2017.

The sheer number of loan players signed by Latics over the past three seasons has led to fans questioning the policy. Why have so many loan players been signed, when such a tiny proportion have gone on to sign permanent contracts? Moreover if the club is serious about its Academy why has it brought in so many youngsters on loan from other clubs? Put simply, has the club been helping other clubs in developing their young players at the expense of home grown talent?

The stats are damning. In the past three seasons only four graduates of the Wigan Athletic Academy/youth system have played in league matches for the club. They have made a combined total of 15 starts, with 12 substitute  appearances. The most appearances were made by Tim Chow (6 starts, 9 sub), Luke Burke (4 starts, 1 sub) and Jordan Flores (3 starts, 2 sub), with Lee Nicholls making two end of season starts against Brentford and Barnsley.

The case of Luke Burke this season is one seems to typify what has been happening. As an 18 year old Burke made a promising debut in the opening game of the season at Bristol City. He had come in seemingly full of confidence from a good pre-season and his success as captain of Wigan Athletic’s most successful ever youth team. However, as the season progressed Burke was to be marginalised, then sent on loan to Barrow. The right back position has continued to be problematic this season, with either midfield players put in there or young loan players brought in. They include Reece Burke (20), ostensibly a central defender, Callum Connolly (19) and Jamie Hanson (21).

Wigan Athletic are by no means the only EFL club to use the loan system in such a way. It has become commonplace throughout the three divisions. However, given the focus on building a strong academy, bringing in such quantities of young loan players is surely detrimental to the development of the club’s own home-grown talent.

Given the fact that Latics have been struggling against relegation since day 1 this season it is perhaps understandable why home grown talent has been so sparsely used. The irony is that last season’s youth team reached the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup for the first time, only losing in extra time to Manchester City. The club has arguably its brightest cohort of academy graduates. Will they continue to find their paths blocked by the presence of young loanees from other clubs?

Another thorny issue faced by clubs bringing in loan players involves stipulations from parent clubs regarding game-time. In certain cases clubs will only lend out their players if they have a commitment that they will be given opportunities in the first team.  Loans can involve fees and penalties based on appearances made. The omission of Matt Gilks in favour of Jakob Haugaard against Rotherham was  a surprise. Moreover Graham Barrow was reluctant to discuss it at his post-match interview. Was it because of pressure from Stoke City to play the Danish goalkeeper now he is fit again? Or is there a game-time clause in the loan agreement that involves financial penalties if not met?

With relegation beckoning many of Wigan Athletic’s squad will be looking at their futures. The last time Latics were heading for League 1 there was a huge clear-out of players over the summer, followed by Gary Caldwell signing fourteen new players, with another six coming in on loan.

The same will surely happen this summer. Most of the current squad will most likely be gone, with lots of new signings and loan players brought in. But what kinds of opportunities will be given to the club’s home grown talent?

The EFL Futures initiative has been set up to encourage clubs to develop young players through their academies. A sum of £750,000 per season will be shared out to clubs who field players under the age of 21 who are eligible to play for England (or Wales for Cardiff, Newport or Swansea).  The cash rewards will be shared out pro rata, depending on the number of qualified players and appearances made.

One wonders in what position  Wigan Athletic will appear in the list of recipients at the end of next season?

 

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