Latics looking ready for the Premier League

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A week or two back Stuart Gray, manager of Sheffield Wednesday, commented that Wigan Athletic had a Premier League squad playing in the Championship. A similar comment was later made by Brian McDermott, Leeds United supremo, although he qualified his remark by saying that it was second to Leicester’s.

Whether Leicester’s squad is any better than Wigan’s is doubtful, but neither manager mentioned Queens Park Rangers, the most expensively assembled squad in the division. According to the Daily Star,  QPR got relegated last year although their budget was higher than that of Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund. Their budget this year has been scaled down, but is still unrealistically high for a Championship club.

There was talk in the pre-season that Wigan Athletic were going to have a splurge in the transfer market, using money brought in from their summer sales. Many fans were disgruntled when it did not happen, with Owen Coyle paying no more than around £2m for any of the players he brought in.

With catapult payments and transfer fees coming into play the club had a financial decision to make – how best to use that money. Given the extra six matches they were due to play in the Europa League they chose to spend on building a large squad, capable of putting up a good show in Europe and competing for promotion back to the Premier League. Little did they know at the time that Latics would also end up playing six matches in the FA Cup!

In February Latics played at Cardiff in the FA Cup 5th round in a televised game. At the time the commentators remarked on how one team had so much more Premier League experience than the other. But it was Wigan Athletic they were referring to. In fact every single player in their starting lineup had previously played in the Premier League.

Similarly at the FA Cup Semi Final last weekend all the starters had that experience. Moreover  Emmerson Boyce and Scott Carson alone had amassed almost 300 starts at Premier League level.

Some might say that Latics’ cup run this year has detracted from their league form. However, on their way to knocked out through the lottery of penalties, Latics were unbeaten within normal time against four Premier League teams, including two in Champions League spots. The self confidence garnered from such experience should not be underrated.

The displays against Arsenal and Manchester City have shown that this Wigan Athletic squad is good enough to challenge not only teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, but also those at the very top.

It has been a season of highs and lows for Wigan Athletic. Moreover the sheer volume of games they have had to play has contributed to poor results against teams that they would have otherwise beaten.

Uwe Rosler has done a fantastic job in raising Latics up into the playoff zone and being within a whisker of reaching another FA Cup Final.

It could be that sheer fatigue, injuries or controversial refereeing decisions will come into play over the coming weeks. However, Rosler will be mindful of the need to grind out enough points to secure that playoff place, but at the same time making sure that his key players peak at the right time – in the playoffs themselves.

The Championship playoffs are a pressure cauldron, where the unexpected can happen. However, Rosler has at his disposal an experienced and capable squad which has proved it can compete with the elite of English football.

The German’s challenge will be to ensure that the players are not complacent over the coming weeks. Latics fans are hoping for another Wembley visit on May 24th.

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Proud day for Wigan as the fairy tale rolls into Wembley

Latics' team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,  Thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

Latics’ team for their debut match against Port Vale Reserves,
With thanks to Ron Hunt and WiganWorld for photo.

* this post was co-written by the father and son writing team, from the perspective of the Jakarta Jack, the father. 

My father loved Wigan Athletic Football Club. Hardly a minute would go by after the final whistle before he would launch into talk about the next match. Conversations – and in some cases, monologues – about line-ups, tactics and referees were a feature of my life as long as I can remember.

His love affair with the Latics began the year the club was formed in 1932, and never wavered until his passing in 2005. His devotion to such a modest club was difficult for others to understand in a region saturated with prestigious football clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton. It was especially difficult to understand for the rugby fans in the area.

But my dad wasn’t too perturbed by that. In his 73 years as a supporter, he witnessed the transition from non-league to Division 4, all the way up to the Championship, or second division as it was known for most of his time. Wigan were second in the Championship under the leadership of Paul Jewell, propelled by the dazzling strike partnership of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, when he passed away. The Latics were promoted to the Premier League four months later. They have remained there ever since.

Were you to tell my father that his Wigan Athletic would go on to spend eight consecutive years in the Premier League and reach both the League Cup and FA Cup finals during that period – he almost certainly would not have believed you. He would have beamed with pride.

Thankfully, pride is something that is passed down. My son and co-writer, Ned, once told me that,  while the inspiration for the name of this fan site was a tip of the hat to the symbolic arrival of Wigan’s Three Amigos from Spain –  a pivotal moment in Wigan’s rise up the tables and Whelan’s revolution – it also on a more personal level represented the relationship between himself, his dad and grandad, who all shared that same passion for the club.

Neither Ned nor I were at that very first Wigan Athletic match back against Port Vale Reserves back in 1932, but we each remember our first Latics experience and know the previous history thanks to my dad. We know where the club came from, and we know we are living the Wigan Athletic dream.

No matter what the result is on Cup Final Saturday, or the outcome of the relegation fight in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic have confounded people with their achievements. The club has come farther than any of us imagined in our wildest dreams, and their achievements will leave an indelible memory.

What’s more – the work that Roberto Martinez has done in his return as manager of the club has been transformative. Rather than playing the role of the little fish up for a Premier League cameo, his plan has been one of consolidation.

While Steve Bruce did a job in keeping the club in the top flight, the money he spent on players and their wages was hardly sustainable if Latics were to suffer a bad season and go down. There was no investment in youth development or infrastructure.

Martinez’s work to cut operating budgets, sell the top players in order to fund long-term growth sets the club up to survive for years to come. Sure – relegation is a threat each year and is to many clubs with more money, more fans and so on — but the club and its support are rapidly growing behind the scenes with every year that passes.

It is somewhat fitting, then, that Wigan’s rival in the final is Manchester City – not only a club with massive support, but also the beneficiary of the largest cash injection in world football thanks to their billionaire owner. In comparison with Wigan Athletic and Manchester City even David and Goliath seem evenly matched!

Only a deluded romantic would expect a Wigan Athletic squad depleted by injury, mentally worn-down, in the middle of the most intense Premier League survival fight to date, to beat Manchester City on Saturday. But if the club’s history is anything to go by, the seemingly  impossible can happen. The supporters of this club believe anything is possible because they are continuing to live it.

The Wigan Athletic story is far from over. Three matches in less than 10 days will determine whether the 2012-2013 season goes down in history as the year Wigan conquered the FA Cup, or survived for a ninth consecutive Premier League season against all odds.

But even if neither materialises, we could not be more proud of our club which takes pride in doing things in a sensible way and never gives up. Just to be in the FA Cup final, with the guarantee of Europa League football next season boggles the mind. A win on Saturday would just be icing on the cake.

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Moving up a tier? Wigan and the Premier League financial league table

Over the years, Wigan Athletic have delivered performances ranging from the majestic to the downright nightmarish — none more so than the 2010 season opener against Blackpool. A 4-0 home defeat to anyone would have been bad enough, but to a team who the pundits had already condemned to relegation even before a ball was kicked? It was to prove a difficult season for Latics, only securing safety on the final game of the season. It also went down to the final game for Blackpool, who put up an amazing fight before eventually succumbing to Manchester United.

An old Bob Dylan song reminds us that “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” The primary reason the pundits had tipped Blackpool for relegation that year was the perception that they did not have enough players of Premier League quality. Their Chairman, Karl Oyston, was not willing to splash money around like confetti and put the club at risk of insolvency. Blackpool’s salary bill that season amounted to just £14 million. Wigan’s was almost £40 million. During that 2010-11 season Blackpool were to do the home and away double over a team with a salary bill almost 10 times that of their own. That was Liverpool, at £135 million.

In the end Blackpool couldn’t quite avoid that relegation trap-door in the jungle of the Premier League, where clubs regularly make huge losses in an effort to keep up with the Joneses. You could say Blackpool got it right. Their salaries amounted to only around 25% of their income – compared with the league average of around 69% – and this helped them gain a positive cashflow for the season. They continue to be run on a sound financial basis in the Championship. Manchester City actually spent more on salaries than the revenues they had coming in, and even Aston Villa were leaking 92% of their revenue on salaries. No wonder Villa have since cut back, putting the emphasis on youth rather than established big-earners. It could be argued, however, that they have gone too far as the lack of quality and experience in this year’s squad makes them candidates for relegation.

Statistics show that the Premier League is financially tiered. In the 2010-2011 season club salary levels published by the Daily Telegraph ranged from £14 million to an absurd £190 million. The top three clubs in the table paid in the £150-£190m range. The teams finishing 4th and 6th paid in the £120-150m range, Tottenham bucking the trend by finishing 5th on a budget of “only” £91m. Fulham and Everton, with budgets around £58m managed to finish ahead of Aston Villa, who spent £84m on salaries. Then followed a clump of clubs paying between £40 and £60m, which included West Ham who were to be relegated despite a wage bill of £56m. Wigan Athletic, Wolves and West Bromwich had salary totals between £37 and £40 million, with only Blackpool below. It would be interesting to see salary levels for the current season, when these become available.

According to the Guardian “ The Premier League’s 20 clubs collectively made a loss of £361m last year, after spending all of their record £2.3bn income. Of the clubs which were in the Premier League in 2010-11, the year of most clubs’ latest published accounts, eight made a profit, of £97.4m in total.”  Dave Whelan wrote off Latics debts for £48m in August 2011. He advocated financial fair play to ensure that debt is maintained at “reasonable and sustainable levels”.

According to Alan Switzer,  of accounting group Deloitte, clubs with salary to revenue ratios of 70% and above are not likely to make a profit. He suggests that levels should go down to the low 60s. In 2010-11, Wigan Athletic were around the 80% level, according to the Daily Telegraph stats, which indicates a negative cashflow of £0.1 m.

The Daily Telegraph statistics show a clear correlation between salary levels and success on the field, although there are some exceptions. So how does a team stay afloat in a tiered Premier League? Do Wigan Athletic have to significantly increase salary levels in order to move up a tier in the league table? Would doing so make them financially less stable?

Last season both Mohamed Diame and Hugo Rodallega left at the ends of their contracts. A rough estimate might suggest that Wigan Athletic lost maybe £10 million in potential transfer money for the two. Whelan rightly insists that Wigan Athletic keep a lid on their salary payments so it is unlikely that either player was given an offer he could not refuse to stay on at the club. This season we have Franco Di Santo and Maynor Figueroa in their final year of contract. Both are key players. Figueroa has developed into an excellent left of centre defender in Martinez’ tactical system. He could prove costly to replace. Di Santo has now added goal poaching to his repertoire and could be worth in the region of £20 million on the open market if he continues to improve at this rate. When Roberto Martinez took over at the club various higher wage earners were sent packing to bring down the wage bill. He is now facing a dilemma in how to keep his top players from leaving at the ends of their contracts, given the total salary cap imposed by his chairman.

Given the factors above, is it possible for Wigan Athletic to consistently reach a mid-table position? Could they defy the stats on an annual basis, keeping a nucleus of good players, allowing a couple of stars to go for premium transfer fees each summer? In this way, the budget could be balanced. The first step would be to already have the replacements for the stars ready and in place. The second would be  to find a way to offer top players longer contracts at competitive rates, whilst maintaining a reasonable total salary cap. Food for thought for Bob and Dave.

What happened to the FA Cup? A post mortem

Wigan Athletic have enjoyed some unforgettable moments in the FA Cup. My fondest memory remains a trip to Maine Road to play European Cup Winners Cup holders Manchester City, in January 1971. A fine Man City footballing team full of household names like Bell, Summerbee, and Young, playing against non-league Wigan. There were more than 45,000 people there that day, estimates of 20,000 of them traveling from Wigan. Those were the days of Geoff Davies as Latics’ centre forward. Signed from Northwich for £800, Geoff scored five hat tricks in his first three months, ending up with 42 goals for the season. Latics were unlucky to be losing 1-0 to a Colin Bell goal after 83 minutes following a bad goal kick from their admirable goalkeeper, Dennis Reeves. He had split his boot but apparently did not want to lose his concentration by stopping the play. You can see it here. In the last minute, Geoff Davies had a superb header pawed onto the post by the excellent Joe Corrigan. An unlucky ending for Gordon Milne’s  Latics team whose performance brought great pride to its supporters.

I also recall watching Latics play Leeds United in the sixth round of the FA Cup in 1987. It was a scrappy affair played at a windswept Springfield Park. Sixth round remains the furthest Latics have reached in the FA Cup. When I was a little kid my Dad would talk about the epic cup ties with First Division Newcastle United in the 1953-54 season, with Latics drawing away 3-3 and being on the side of unfortunate refereeing decisions in the 2-3 reverse in the replay. That was the same season a crowd of 27,526 watched them beat non-league Hereford at Springfield Park. The figure remains a record home crowd for Wigan Athletic and also a record for two non-league teams playing at a non-league ground.

Then things changed. In the summer of 1999, Manchester United were given the opportunity to withdraw from the FA Cup for the 1999-2000 season. The reason was political: the FA wanted them to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil. Alex Ferguson was later quoted “I regretted it because we got nothing but stick and terrible criticism for not being in the FA Cup when really, it wasn’t our fault. The FA and the government felt that playing in this tournament would help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. There was a lot of undue criticism – but it was a great two-week break.” United crashed out in the first round in Brazil, England would fail in their World Cup bid, but Ferguson’s team would go on to win the Premier League by an unbelievable 18 points.

The world’s oldest competition has never recovered from that. United’s withdrawal sparked a downward spiral. How sad it is these days to see Premier League clubs fielding weak teams, citing the overriding importance of their league position. Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup record since joining the Premier League has been less than impressive. They have won 3, drawn 4 and lost 6 in the FA Cup. Last week’s debacle at Swindon is the second time they have lost to a League 2 side, having been defeated 2-0 by Notts County at the DW Stadium in 2009-2010. They have not progressed beyond the fourth round since arriving in the Premier League.

I have read some really good articles on Latics fan sites about last week’s performance against Swindon. I commend those Latics fanatics for the way they have tried to provide a factual kind of report, rather than lambast the players involved. Being Latics fans we need to have thick skins, having been through the real lows of 9-1 and 8-0 defeats to London sides in recent years. However, capitulation to big clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea is one thing, but losing so badly to teams from League 2 twice in three years is hard to take. Roberto Martinez has a great knack of stressing the positives and this time he singled out the performances of Callum McManaman and Jordan Mustoe in the Swindon game. McManaman was excellent during the first half, although he faded out in the second. Mustoe did not look out of place, but hardly excelled. Apart from the goalkeeper the rest were truly mediocre. In the second half it looked like Latics were going through a training exercise, there being so little dynamism and commitment. Supposedly the team was composed largely of fringe players bursting to prove themselves and get into the first team. That certainly did not look the case. Frankly it looked like many of them did not care. The stats show that Latics committed 4 fouls, a long way from their season’s Premier League average of 13 per game. Despite only committing so few fouls they received 3 yellow cards. Hard stats to digest! Moreover if either team played the classier football it was almost certainly Swindon. Hats off to Di Canio for his approach, but let’s not forget they were aided and abetted by a lack of commitment by their opponents.

So what is it with Latics and the FA Cup these days? Although there were two young players in the starting lineup the rest were seasoned Premier League squad players. Did those fringe players really believe that a good performance could edge them back into the first team? If so why did we not visibly see more effort from them? Was it already in their heads that the result did not matter? I simply cannot fathom this. Following the Tottenham drubbing a group of players got together to offer traveling fans their money back. Given how low those players must have felt at the time it was a magnificent gesture. I wonder if the players who underperformed at Swindon would think in a similar way?

Latics need to decide what they want from the FA Cup and give their fans due notice. I feel sorry for the dedicated fans who traveled to Swindon to watch that match. What alternatives do Latics have if they remain in the Premier League next year and the FA Cup comes up once again? One is to put their strongest team on the pitch and actually try to win. Another is to do what they have done in recent years and frustrate their fans to the point of losing their support. A third is to play the development squad and not worry about the result. A  fourth is to seek FA approval to withdraw from the competition. Whatever the decision it is my view that the FA needs to take a look at how it can revive the world’s oldest football competition, so that teams like Wigan Athletic will once again treat it seriously.

Latics against the big boys: damage limitation or capitulation?

My son’s mother in law is a psychologist. I could have used her help this weekend. Psychologists can help you sort out your head. They can enable you to meet reality and deal with it. For us Latics supporters this can be a real challenge. After the first half against Tottenham on Saturday I was suffering from a depression that was extreme. The immediate reality was intolerably hard to bear. However, a beer at half time, together with an improved second half performance from Latics, dissipated some of my immediate symptoms.

Cast your mind back to August 14th, 2005: Latics first match in the Premier League. What chance did we have for a result against the champions, Chelsea? Not much, according to the pundits at the time. Robbed in the end by a great strike from Hernan Crespo in the 93rd minute. That Latics team went on a great run after that and were second in the table briefly, reached the League Cup final and eventually finished in tenth position. A wonderfully uplifting season, giving us Latics fans hope for the future.

Optimism or pessimism? What is Latics’ reality? How did you feel watching that first half against Tottenham? And what about the recent capitulation against Manchester City? Did you expect anything different? Are you into market economics? What do you think: can the economically small compete with economic giants? Okay, Tottenham are giants compared with us, but not the biggest. We had beaten them only once in their six previous Premier League visits, so what did we expect? Can we ever narrow this huge gap?

How do you feel when Latics are about to play a team from the top four? Apprehensive? Statistics of Latics’ performance against the elite are stark. Even our most successful team in 2005-2006 could not win a single point against the top four teams that season. Since we joined the Premier League our number of points against the teams who were to finish in the top four each season has been (goal difference in brackets):

Year HOME AWAY TOTAL Positive results

2005/06: 0 (3-6) 0 (2-12) 0
2006/07: 0 (3-11) 0 (2-12) 0
2007/08: 1 (0-5) 2 (2-8) 3   — Arsenal H 1-1, Chelsea A 1-1, Liverpool A 1-1
2008/09: 1 (2-8) 0 (7-3) 1  — Liverpool H 1-1
2009-10: 6 (6-11) 0 (1-21) 6  — Chelsea H 3-1, Arsenal H 3-2
2010-11: 1 (2-14) 0 (0-7) 1  — Arsenal H 2-2

So, on average Latics have gained just less than 2 points per year of the 16 available against top four teams. A key statistic is that, if these points had not been obtained, Latics would still have had sufficient points to stay up, except in 2009/10 when they would have had the same number of points as the 18th placed team, Burnley.

In December 2009 Wolves put forward their reserve team to play at Manchester United in a Premier League game. This caused a considerable amount of anger among their visiting fans. However, Charles Ross, editor of a leading Wolves fanzine commented that: ‘… the fact of the matter is – and it doesn’t matter whether Mick McCarthy rested one, five or 10 players – the Premier League should take a long, hard look at themselves. Wolves are competing in a league where it is clear they are not operating among equals. The gap that the Premier League have created begs the question as to why managers like Mick McCarthy feel the need to do this. He knew he was going to be pilloried for his team selection at Old Trafford, but the mere fact he has been forced into this should spark a debate about the anti-competitive nature of the Premier League. There are the top four, a well-financed bunch below them and the rest of us feed off the crumbs.”

In April 2007 Liverpool fielded what was effectively their reserve team to lose at Fulham. Without those three points Fulham would have been relegated. Circumstances were radically different in the cases of Wolves and Liverpool , but both played weakened teams and flouted league rules such as: “In every league match, each participating club shall field a full-strength teams. “ and “In all matters and transactions relating to the league, each club shall behave towards each other club and the league with utmost good faith.”

Latics’ performances at Manchester City and in the first half against Tottenham set my mind rolling off in tangential directions. I began thinking of players like Cattermole and Palacios. Would Silva, Modric and Co have been able to drift past players like that with such ease? In both games it seemed like Latics had given up before they had even started. Did they need a sports psychologist to get inside their heads? Were they merely going through the motions, looking towards the next match, having given up on that one? In the end the scorelines were quite flattering: only 3-0 at City and 2-1 with Tottenham after a second half turnaround in attitude and approach. Was this through Martinez, a would-be psychologist, getting into the players’ heads during the half time interval? If so, one must ask why he couldn’t have done it before the game started?

There were statistical similarities between the City capitulation (we lost 3-0 on paper but it could have been a lot more) and the 9-1 loss a couple of years ago at Tottenham. Tottenham committed 9 fouls in that nightmare game, Latics gave away 10. Neither team received yellow cards. In the recent game at City we committed 9 fouls, City 6. Once again no yellow cards for either team. How can we be completely outplayed yet commit less fouls than teams usually do and not even get a yellow card? Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating a return to the more pragmatic, physical approach of Steve Bruce’s Latics – but the stats give food for thought.

Have Latics been a “soft touch” under Martinez? Do we need a more Bruce-like approach to succeed? Once again the statistics tell another story. Over the past two Martinez seasons Latics have committed more fouls and had more yellow cards than the average in the Premier League. They would not have won any fair play league.

What should we do when we have games coming up against the big boys? Do what Mick McCarthy did and give our fringe players a chance? Flout the rules and the ethos of the Premier League as our more affluent and cynical adversaries frequently do? We stayed up last year largely because we had the best results of any of the lower placed teams when playing against each other. One could argue that these games should be our main focus and we should use the pairings with the big boys for developing our youngsters. I am not so sure that this should be the way to go, but capitulation is hard to bear. The second half against Tottenham last weekend was much more palatable, even if Gohouri did get sent off and we will be once again sorely stretched again in defence in his absence through suspension. At least there was effort, commitment and belief.

Do the Latics’ first team players need psychotherapy to exorcise those communal memories of being constantly flattened by the big teams? Or is it simply that they are taking a “damage limitation” approach, avoiding injuries and suspensions for more “winnable” upcoming matches? Is winning at least a point from Manchester United this season within the realms of possibility? It has not happened during the past six years, but maybe this will be the season? One continues to live in hope.