An Amigo View – Blackpool 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

There is something special about Blackpool to many Wiganers, especially those of my generation. For me as a kid it was my favourite place to visit and I recall summer fortnights spent there dodging the rain and the wind, relishing those moments when the sun would prevail.

Over two thousand Wiganers travelled to Bloomfield Road yesterday, huddled together under the cover of the Stan Mortensen Stand to shield themselves from the driving wind and rain that prevailed. There was an odd feel: a football ground being attacked by the elements of climate, with the larger East Stand left vacant and an attendance of less than 6,000 for a north-west derby. The disconnect between the Oystons and the fans continues to fester, but despite their sparse support the Seasiders had a home record of W5 D1 L0 going into this match.

The early minutes were to be a nightmare for Latics, the conditions not allowing them to play their typical brand of football, Chey Dunkley’s header over Jamie Jones gifting an 8th minute goal for the hosts. It will not go down in the history books as an own goal, Blackpool winger Vassell getting a touch on the ball before it went in, but the header back was certainly ill-advised in such conditions.

The conditions were so bad that one wondered if the referee would suspend play, with neither side able to pass the ball with any degree of accuracy. Fortunately, the Bloomfield Road pitch has good drainage and did not churn up as many would have done. But gradually Latics started to build up some momentum as they adapted to the conditions. Dunkley partly redeemed himself in stoppage time at the end of the first half lashing the ball home from close range.

The weather was to improve in the second half, not surprisingly Wigan Athletic’s football too. In the improved conditions they were too good for Blackpool, with another goal from Dunkley and a rare one from David Perkins giving them a 3-1 victory.

Let’s look at some talking points arising from the game.

Exceeding the 100 points mark

A couple of years ago, prior to the start of the season, David Sharpe made his remark about smashing League 1 with 100 points. He has not made such comments this time around.

Latics currently have 35 points from 15 games. Were they to be able to maintain their current momentum over the course of the season, the total would be around 107 points. The highest total in recent years was the 103 points gained by Wolves in 2013-14. Gary Caldwell’s Latics won the title with 87 points.

Is this squad good enough to exceed the 100-point mark over the course of the season? On paper certainly, but injuries and potential changes of ownership could well have an important say.

Preparing for rougher weather

Until yesterday Latics had been able to play their football on decent surfaces without extreme weather coming into play. However, as autumn turns to winter the conditions are going to get tougher, sometimes making it difficult to play flowing football.

Latics had their backs against the wall in the first half yesterday, but still showed the grit to compete physically. In reality the weather prevented both teams playing the kind of football they would have liked, although the home team might have wished the deluge had not abated in the second half.

It is a long, hard season, a marathon and not a sprint. Endurance and determination will be the key to holding a promotion position.

Perkins goal causes celebrations

The celebrations at the Wigan end after David Perkins scored in the 82nd minute showed how much he is appreciated by Latics supporters. Perkins was Player of the Season in the League 1 title-winning side of 2015-16. He was inspirational in the centre of midfield with Max Power. But after a disappointing season in the Championship it was by no means certain that he would be offered a new contract at 35 years of age. In the event he signed on for another season.

Perkins’ last goal had been scored for Barnsley in October 2012 against Crystal Palace. Six months earlier he had scored for the Tykes in a 1-1 draw away to Blackpool.

Perks has started in just one league game this season, that being at Peterborough. Yesterday was his third appearance off the bench. Given Cook’s seeming preference for younger players over the senior pros Perkins’ role will largely be that of a squad player. But although his days of being an automatic choice may be behind him he still has so much to offer.

Will Evans get his place back?

Lee Evans’ indiscipline at Scunthorpe resulting in a red card opened the door to a return to contention for Max Power. After an indifferent season in the Championship we have seen the old Max Power in the last three matches.

Up to the point of his red card, Evans had been excellent in his role as both a midfield anchor and providing the link between defence and attack. Cook is indeed fortunate to have players of the quality of Evans, Power and Perkins competing with captain Sam Morsy for a place in central midfield.

We can expect Evans to return for the Checkatrade Trophy game against Middlesbrough on Tuesday, but it will be interesting to see who gets the nod in right central midfield on Saturday against Blackburn.

Player of the Season

We are only around one third of the way through, but if you were to name a Player of the Season who would it be?

My vote up to this point would be for Nathan Byrne, who was outstanding once again at Blackpool yesterday.

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Five talking points arising from the win against Walsall

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 2 Walsall 0

In the end it was a comfortable victory over a Walsall side that is as good as any we have seen at the DW this season. It was a scrappy game, with Latics playing their best football in flashes, but they did enough to pick up three more points.

The result keeps Wigan in second place, with Shrewsbury beating Scunthorpe 2-0 to maintain their impressive start to the season.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

When was the last time Wigan’s home record was so good?

It was this time of year in 2015 when Gary Caldwell’s team played out a goalless draw with Walsall. Their record at home following that match was W3 D3 L0, whereas on the road their record was W1 D1 L3.

This season’s home record is W5 D1 L0. Latics fans will be scratching their heads to remember a better start of a season. However, it has not all been plain sailing and Latics have had to show a lot of patience in breaking down teams who have come to avoid defeat. There have been excerpts of champagne football, mingled with solid defensive play.

Away from home they have fared less well, although there have been several fixtures against teams that were high-flying at the time. The defeats at Shrewsbury and Peterborough were tight affairs. The away record up to this point is W3 D0 L2.

Are Shrewsbury going to be like Burton a couple of years ago?

Burton Albion were formidable in League 1 in 2015-16, a seemingly modest club towering above larger competitors, topping the table for months until Caldwell’s team overtook them in the latter part of the season. By Christmas they were topping the table, with Wigan eight points behind in fifth place. At the time people were questioning whether Burton could maintain their momentum, but they did to a large degree. They had gained 48 points in the first 23 games of the season, going on to accumulate 37 points more in their final 23 outings. That was enough to secure second place to ensure automatic promotion. With shrewd moves in the transfer market they went on to avoid relegation in the Championship last season playing against clubs with budgets that made their own look miniscule in comparison.

Can Shrewsbury do what Burton did? In fact, the Shrews have already made a better start than the Brewers did a couple of years ago. Shrewsbury narrowed their pitch in the summer of 2016 in a move their manager at the time, Micky Mellon, saying that “We had one of the biggest pitches in England and now we have the same size as everyone else, so everybody who we play against will have the same size pitch.” In fact, the current pitch at the New Meadow measures 110 by 72 yards, the same as that of the Pirelli Stadium in Burton. Not many teams will relish a trip to New Meadow these days.

A year ago, Shrewsbury were bottom of League 1, but Paul Hurst arrived in late October and managed to keep them out of relegation, eventually finishing in 18th place. Over the summer Hurst made 8 new signing with 6 players brought in on loan. The transformation has been remarkable.

Jones reaches the 300 mark

When Christian Walton was injured in early September there were concerns about Jamie Jones coming in. However, Jones has done well, giving confidence to his defence through his positioning and handling. Moreover, his intelligent distribution has helped Latics launch rapid attacks. Although he has made 300 career appearances, Jones is still only 28 years old.

Not on fire but getting warmer

Will Grigg’s brace of goals will certainly be good for his confidence. Latics need an “on-fire” Grigg to finish off their often-excellent approach work.

Latics have strength in depth

Michael Jacobs went off at half time, presumably through injury. He had certainly not been his usual self in the first half. But with Ryan Colclough injured, Cook called on David Perkins, who was to prove as lively and industrious as ever.

Reece James had been rested for the game, with Callum Elder having his first home league start. The Australian was excellent, his superb cross leading to the first goal.

Lee Evans has been a key player, but he was taken off after 68 minutes yesterday, Max Power stepping comfortably in to his natural position.

Having a bench which includes the likes of Perkins, Power and Elder, plus Ivan Toney who did not come on, illustrates the strength in depth that Cook possesses.

The turnover continues: will Latics have a 20-goal striker this season?

It was not Alan Nixon this time, but another journalist putting the cat among the pigeons on Twitter. Wilson Whitefield’s tweets certainly caught the imaginations of both Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers fans.

Twitter comments can certainly be controversial. Sometimes their statements never come to fruition, but sometimes they can prove to be accurate. We await confirmation from the club regarding the veracity of Whitefield’s comments.

A couple of years ago Gary Caldwell signed a 20 goal per season striker in Will Grigg. Grigg had done it at both Walsall and MK Dons and he was to do it again at Wigan in 2015-16, spearheading Latics’ League 1 title triumph. Omar Bogle exceeded the 20-goal mark last season. He scored 22 goals in 44 league appearances for Grimsby Town and Latics.

The more optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans have been relishing the prospect of both Bogle and Grigg being at the club this season, together with the hugely talented Nick Powell who can play either at centre forward or in midfield. The presence of the three would surely provide the momentum to push Latics back into the Championship

But economic factors cannot be ignored and the realists will say that at least two, or possibly all three of them, will be gone over the coming weeks. Put simply, despite the PR and propaganda that emanates from the club and local press, the huge drop in revenue due to relegation and loss of parachute payments will cause continued turnover at the club.

Both Grigg and Michael Jacobs are in the final years of their contracts. Latics could conceivably offer them contract extensions, but that could prove tricky not knowing which division the club will be in a year from now. An alternative is to cash in on their value in the transfer market this summer or in the January transfer window. Another option is to allow them to run their contracts down and decide on whether to offer them extensions later in the season. Being a proven goal scoring centre forward Grigg will continue to attract a considerable transfer fee, despite his disappointing season at Championship level. The likelihood is that he will be leaving in the coming weeks.

Powell is reputably the highest paid of the current squad and that added to his injury record would prove a very expensive luxury for a club looking to cut its budget by 60-70%. His inspiring cameo appearances at the end of last season certainly whetted our appetites, but his departure seems almost inevitable, providing he is fit.

So, given a scenario where Bogle, Grigg and Powell all leave, can we expect a centre forward of such qualities to come in and propel the promotion push?

The media rumours continue to link manager Cook to ex-players of his at Portsmouth. It seems that the signing of 34-year-old free agent Noel Hunt appears imminent. Hunt has scored 8 goals in 70 appearances over the past four years for Portsmouth, Ipswich and Leeds United. The names of Eion Doyle, Gary Roberts and Michael Smith have also been mentioned, together with Whitefield’s tweet about Chaplin.

In the meantime the turnover appears to be continuing with not only the speculation on Bogle, but the message below from Max Power that was tweeted in the last hour.

Despite the utterings of keeping the nucleus of the squad together on Paul Cook’s arrival it appears that this will hardly be the case.

Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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The financial side of keeping a nucleus for League 1

“Que sera sera…..whatever will be will be….we’re going to Shrewsbury….que sera sera

So sang a group of Wigan Athletic supporters. It certainly took the wind out of the sails of the “going down” taunts of home fans at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday.

Shrewsbury is certainly a pleasant place to visit. Its football team has competed in each of the three EFL divisions. Their New Meadow stadium holds 9,375. Shrewsbury Town met Manchester United in the FA Cup in February 2016. They lost 3-0, which is not surprising given the fact that the Shrews had a wage bill of £2.5 m compared with £210 m of United.

In fact the Shrewsbury wage bill is typical of many clubs in League 1. According to an interesting article on the Daily Mail site, the average salary of a League 1 footballer in 2014-15 was £69,500. It compared with £324,200 in the Championship. The ratio of the average salaries is 1 to 4.7.

There are strong arguments to suggest that the league positions of clubs in the Championship division correlate to their wage bills. In their first season back in the Championship Wigan Athletic finished in a playoff place. The wage bill was around £30 m. Clubs in mid-table would typically have wage bills averaging £20 m.

Latics’ reputed wage bill for the current season is around £17 m. Assuming they were to trim next year’s wage bill according to, say, that previous ratio of average salaries between the two divisions, it would give a figure of around £3.6 m. In 2015-16, still buoyed by parachute payments, Latics had a wage bill of around £6 m in League 1, reportedly second highest after that of Sheffield United.

So at what level will David Sharpe pitch the wage bill for the coming season? As in the Championship there is some degree of correlation between wage bills and success on the playing field in League 1. If the club is to break even financially next season what kind of wage bill would be realistic? Moreover will the club be able to slash its wage bill as successfully as it did in the summer of 2015, when faced with a drop down to the third tier?

In 2015-16 Latics finished top of League 1 with an average attendance of 9,467. Shrewsbury Town finished in 14th place with an average of 5,407. The average attendance for the division was 7,163. Wigan’s cheapest adult season ticket cost  £250 while Shrewsbury’s was £285.

David Sharpe took a bold step in reducing season ticket prices for the club’s return to the Championship. Renewals were pitched at £179, with a price of £199 for new purchasers. The levels were uneconomic compared with those of competitor clubs, but Sharpe was clearly hoping to not only hold on to the core support, but to attract others. With just one match to go in the Championship season Wigan’s average home attendance is 11,560 up by more than 2,000 from the previous season in League 1. However, the bigger clubs in the Championship have brought sizeably larger away support than had those in League 1.

Rumour suggests that the club will maintain the levels of season tickets prices for the coming season. If this is so the £179 price would be almost 40% less than the figure of £295 to be offered by Shrewsbury Town for the coming  season. Moreover should Latics not be as successful as they were last time in League 1 attendances will surely fall. The match day revenue differentials between Wigan and Shrewsbury could merge closer.

Put simply potential match revenues for Wigan Athletic will in no way suffice to give them a competitive advantage over most of their rivals. Some would say that under Gary Caldwell Latics had bought their way out of League 1, having a wage bill twice that of most of their rivals. That was made possible by the parachute payments they were receiving at the time. However, now that the parachute era has come to an end, how can Latics get a financial advantage over most of their competitors in League 1?

One solution is to sell off assets. The second is for the ownership to provide the necessary funding.

The saleable assets Latics have are their players. The club’s main asset, Yanic Wildschut, was sold in January for a hefty premium. Early in the season Will Grigg would have been another major asset: he was scoring goals and looking comfortable in the higher division. It was sad to see how the player later found himself either warming the bench, playing as a lone centre forward with a derisory lack of support, or being played out of position. A player who could have probably drawn a transfer fee in excess of £5 m is now not such an attraction on the transfer market. Better to keep Grigg who has a superb record of goalscoring in League 1.

Nick Powell will surely be on his way. After months out through injury he roared back with spectacular performances as a super sub. In doing so, Powell put himself in the shop window. Dan Burn is another player who has caught the eye and will surely be of interest to Championship clubs. Burn was already an experienced Championship level player when arriving on a free transfer from Fulham. He has since developed a level of self-confidence  previously lacking. Between the two, Latics could possibly raise around £5 m on the market.

Omar Bogle was the most exciting of the January signings. Having scored a lot of goals for Grimsby he arrived brimming with confidence and style. But after a promising start Bogle was to wilt under  a horrible burden put on him by Joyce: that of being the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. Injury too was to hold him back. Like Grigg, his potential transfer value has plummeted. But the likelihood is that either Grigg or Bogle will be sold, albeit at a discounted price.

Max Power was almost sold to Birmingham City in January. Although he did not have the season he would have liked, Power remains one of the more saleable assets. Sam Morsy too is a player who could be sought by Championship clubs.

Last weekend Jonathan Jackson stated that “There will be some changes in the squad, but we want to keep the core there.”

Goalkeeper Matt Gilks and ex-captain Craig Morgan will be two of those core members who continue. Gilks was only signed in January on an 18 month contract and Morgan recently signed a two year extension to his contract. The long-term injured players – Donervon Daniels, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald – will also be staying. Alex Gilbey is another who has not been able to play in recent games after coming back from long-term injury. Latics will be hoping at least some of those players will be available for the beginning of next season.

It is difficult to predict who else will stay to provide a core for the coming season. The club is going to have to slash its wage bill some 60-70% to be financially viable. Put simply more than half of the players currently under contract are likely to depart over summer, many on free transfers. Others will be sent off on loan.

The players currently under contract for the coming season are:

Goalkeepers: Matt Gilks, Dan Lavercombe

Full Backs – Luke Burke, Reece James.

Centre backs: Dan Burn, Jake Buxton, Donervon Daniels, Jack Hendry, Craig Morgan.

Midfielders: Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Andy Kellett, Josh Laurent, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Max Power, Danny Whitehead.

Forwards: Nathan Byrne, Omar Bogle, Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Nick Powell, Kaiyne Woolery.

The amount of turnover at the end of the 2015 season was remarkable, with 31 incomings and 44 outgoings, including loan players.

Latics currently have seven whose contracts are due to expire – Jordan Flores, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Billy Mckay, Gabriel Obertan, David Perkins, Andrew Taylor and Stephen Warnock. There are another eight players whose loans are coming to an end.

In 2015 Gary Caldwell had already been installed as manager to oversee the massive turnover that took place over the summer.

At this stage we do not know who the next manager is going to be and there have been mutterings about taking the time to choose the right man for the job.

But given a mountain of a task ahead we might well see an appointment made sooner rather than later.
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