Another centre forward for Latics?

Eion Doyle

“PNE striker bound for Wigan?” 

So said a Lancashire Evening Post headline on Saturday.

The article went on to explain that Paul Cook was initially aiming to take Eion Doyle from Preston North End to Portsmouth, but that the centre forward’s  new destination  “might now be” Wigan.

Sometimes newspaper headlines can be pure speculation, but this one seemed to be well within the realms of possibility, if by no means confirmed. The 29 year old was on loan at Portsmouth in the second half of last season and previously played under Cook’s management at both Sligo and Chesterfield. But Paul Cook is known to favour the lone centre forward system and Wigan Athletic already have five of them on their books. Do they really need another?

But managers do sometimes like to bring in players who have been with them in the past.  Indeed Warren Joyce signed three in January – Gabriel Obertan, Ryan Tunnicliffe and James Weir – who were with him at Manchester United. Long will Latics fans remember the hapless Jason Scotland who had scored 53 goals in two years at Swansea under Roberto Martinez, but could muster only 2 in 36 appearances after the Catalan took him to Wigan. The Premier League had proved to be too big a step up for the Trinidadian.

But Doyle is a different matter. He was an important player for Cook at Chesterfield, scoring 38 goals for him in 64 starts and 20 appearances off the bench.  Indeed 21 of those goals had been scored at League 1 level in little more than half a season before he was transferred to Cardiff City at the beginning of February 2015. Admittedly Doyle’s goalscoring record since leaving Chesterfield has been less impressive, but it would be a surprise if Cook is not considering an offer for the player.

But Latics already have central strikers who could make a major impact on League 1 next season. If Doyle were to be brought in which ones would depart?

Will Grigg has scored in excess of 20 goals per season three times before in the third tier. His critics will say that he could not make the step up to the Championship last season, his last league goal being scored in September 2016. However, his supporters will say that the player had made a good start and looked comfortable at that level, only to be left on the bench or played out of position by his managers. But Grigg has just one year of his contract remaining and the likelihood is that Latics will invite offers over the summer, looking to recoup the £1m they paid Brentford for him a couple of years ago.

Omar Bogle we hoped would be the key figure in all of Joyce’s January signings. Full of confidence from his goalscoring exploits at Grimsby, he started off well, but he was to find Championship defenders a different kettle of fish to those in League 2. Injury also played its part in the player not making the impact that was hoped. However, although Bogle as a player is still a rough diamond in need of polishing, he has the physique and technique to be a top player. He is capable of making a major impact on League 1 if he can overcome his fitness issues.

Nick Powell‘s appearances near the end of last season showed his huge talent. Although he prefers to play in midfield, he can be devastating at centre forward. It could be argued that Latics would never have been relegated if Powell had been fit all season, giving his quality. But that was not a likely scenario, given his injury woes over recent years. If fit, Powell could take League 1 by storm, but therein lies the question. Would the club want to continue to pay a high-end salary to a player whose fitness is so uncertain? Powell put himself in the shop window with his displays over those closing weeks. There will surely be another club willing to take a gamble on a player of such quality.

Mikael Mandron was signed from Eastleigh Town in January. He had scored goals in the first half of the National League season and was known to Joyce’s assistant, Andy Welsh, through his time at Sunderland. He made just one start and two substitute appearances early on, but did not feature again after mid-March. Only 22 years old, Mandron could well be sent off on loan to gain further experience.

Billy Mckay remains a Latics player, although things never worked out for him at Wigan or on his loan at Oldham. But Mckay has a record of success in Scotland. He returned to his old club, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, on loan in January. It would not be a surprise to see Mckay complete his contract at Wigan with a further loan spell in Scotland. A return to the Latics squad would be a surprise, but by no means impossible.

The “PNE striker bound for Wigan?”  headline might have been speculative to some degree, but Doyle’s arrival might well come to fruition.

 

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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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Latics go down with spirit, but do they need more shooting practice?

Pre-match shooting practice in progress for Latics at the Madejski Stadium.

It was their best performance for weeks. Latics had looked the better team for the majority of the game against a side destined for the playoffs. For once Wigan Athletic had pushed players forward, making a genuine effort to get a goal after falling behind after another  “sloppy” goal  had gifted Reading the lead after just five minutes. But it was just not to be. Despite the spirited rally from the away side no goals would come.

The Madejski Stadium is a fine venue situated on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by futuristic industrial and high tech estates and park areas. The view from the away supporters was as good as any that one would normally get, made even better by the wide choice of seating available. It was no surprise that Latics fans had not arrived in numbers. We all knew that a win for either Birmingham or Blackburn would seal relegation even in the unlikely event that Latics were to beat Reading.

The pre-match entertainment at our end was to become a harbinger of doom. A portable goal had been put up to our right of the actual goalposts. Wigan Athletic’s attacking players were to come along, one at a time, to see if they could beat the keeper. Sadly the keeper was hardly troubled, so many shots being wayward or miscued. Only Max Power seemed to be able to hit the ball properly, but since he has not hit the back of the net all season in league football, it hardly filled us with hope. If the quality of finishing in the warm-up were to be translated into the match itself we would be lucky to see any goals from our side. Sadly that proved to be the case.

Graham Barrow had once again fielded a lineup with four central midfielders. Gabriel Obertan and Sam Morsy were not even on the bench, but Nick Powell started at centre forward.

Yann Kermorgant had outjumped a Latics defender to head home after just 5 minutes, then 12 minutes later Shaun MacDonald was badly injured following a tackle by George Evans, who might have been lucky to escape with a yellow card. The game was held up for some ten minutes before MacDonald was stretchered off with a double leg fracture. Barrow brought on another central midfielder, Max Power, as substitute.

Given the circumstances Latics could easily have crumbled, but much to their credit they took the game to the home side, with Powell looking lively. The best move of the match came in the 35th minute. It involved Ryan Tunnicliffe running down the left wing with genuine pace before curling the ball to Powell using the outside of his right foot. Powell did well to get in a diving header that Ali Al-Habsi saved. It was a pleasure to see such dynamism after a season of pedestrian football.

Reece Burke was the next to leave the field injured just before half time, with Callum Connolly the replacement.

The second half began with Barrow already having used two substitutes and with Powell a near certainty to come off at some point. The caretaker manager’s hands were tied to a large degree. Nevertheless Latics continued to press, showing a fluidity that we have not seen for some time. For once the centre forward had some support as players pushed forward. Dan Burn made numerous forays into the Reading half, looking full of enthusiasm and drive. There was much more of that evident in David Perkins too, albeit near the end of a difficult season for him.

Powell was to go close several times as he caused the home defence problems, but neither he nor his teammates could put the ball in the back of the Reading net. He was replaced by Omar Bogle on 79 minutes, but to no avail.

The stats show Latics having 20 goal attempts, with 3 on target. Reading had 10 attempts, with 2 on target. For once there had been enough running off the ball, creating opportunities on goal. Sadly, just as in the pre-match shooting practice, the precision finish was lacking.

After the game Graham Barrow commented that: “The lads have been great for me but clearly it hasn’t been enough to keep us up. There are things we’ll have to look at internally, which haven’t been right, and that’s fact. We are where we are, the table tells no lies.”

Jonathan Jackson not surprisingly told us after the match that there will be “some” changes in the squad, but also added that “we want to keep the core there”. When asked about the appointment of a new manager he told us “we know the type of manager we are looking for”.

We can only speculate whether Graham Barrow might be the type of manager that Jackson and David Sharpe seek. He certainly deserves credit for a fine display yesterday at Reading, despite the adverse result.

Despite Jackson’s possible understatement of “some changes” we can expect another major clear out of players over the coming weeks. The aim will be to build a new squad not only capable of getting the club out of League 1, but one which has enough depth to cope in the Championship.

The question to be asked is how much funding will the Whelan family be willing to put in to make it possible?

 

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Scenes of jubilation and feelings of despair at Brighton

Jubilant Albion fans swarm on the pitch to celebrate promotion.

Eight pm at Brighton Station on a Saturday, the place buzzing with blue and white, the boisterous chanting and cheering of the thousands milling around the pubs outside. Another train pulls in, loaded with more of them. They come out jubilant, singing, celebrating. After all 34 years is a long time.

The American Express Stadium is a superb football venue, its design not only providing unobstructed views from any seat, but its acoustics heightening the crowd noise. The sound rose to a crescendo as the teams marched on to the pitch, but we Latics fans were sadly muted. We had seen the line up and knew what to expect. The 4-5-1 formation was to be a throwback to the days when Warren Joyce would play with four holding midfielders. Graham Barrow went even further by playing a fifth one, Jamie Hanson, at right back.

Occasional chants of “I’m a Believer” from a group of younger supporters behind us served to remind us of a previous era. It is five years since Latics beat both Manchester United and Arsenal in the space of five days. It is almost unimaginable now. Gabriel Obertan was a lone centre forward in the true sense of the word, devoid of any support, chasing hopeless causes. We inferred from the formation that Barrow wanted to stifle the home side until later in the game when he could bring on his heavier artillery.

Sadly his plan did not work. Although offering almost no attacking threat to the home goal they had defended resolutely for most of the first half, despite inverted right winger Anthony Knockaert looking a class above the others on the pitch. He seemed to have the freedom of the park with no Latics player giving him a dose of “physical presence”. Despite having such protection in midfield Wigan’s full backs were unadventurous, seemingly reluctant to push up further and provide the width that was desperately lacking. Jakob Haugaard looked uneasy, fluffing a Knockaert cross on the quarter of an hour mark, being fortunate not to concede from the loose ball.

Latics looked like a strange hybrid of the Caldwell and Joyce regimes. They were building up from the back in the Caldwell style, but there was no outlet, the midfielders static, reluctant to push forward, preferring to play the ball sideways or back to the defence. But when you play with four holding midfielders that is what you are going to get. It seemed a matter of time until Albion scored. They did so after 37 minutes when Dan Burn lost the flight of a long ball, with Tomer Hamed setting up fellow twin striker Glen Murray for a shot from outside the box which beat Haugaard.

The second half began and the Haugaard  continued to look distinctly shaky, a huge worry for the defenders in front of him. The young Dane may one day become a fine keeper: he has the physical attributes. But at this moment in time his confidence was shot and he looked a liability. Haugaard’s inclusion at the expense of Matt Gilks remained a talking point among the fans. During the week a thread had appeared on the Latics Speyk forum, entitled “Do Sharpe and Jackson Believe?” The writer, Studz, had suggested that Latics would have to pay Stoke a considerable amount if Haugaard did not play. The implication was that the two at the top did not want to shell out more money as they had already accepted relegation.

The allegations may be true or completely unfounded, but the bottom line was that Latics went into a crucial relegation game with a shaky goalkeeper, leaving a more solid one on the bench. Some would say that Haugaard should have saved Murray’s shot, although it might have taken a deflection. He should certainly have stopped Solly March’s 65th minute shot which went straight through him.

Being 2-0 down Barrow had to bring on Nick Powell a little earlier than he had possibly planned. He came on for Obertan after 60 minutes, with the hapless Ryan Tunnicliffe being replaced by Ryan Colclough. Powell’s arrival did provide more spark for Latics as he strived to take on the home defence almost single-handedly. He scored with an opportunist header in the 84th minute from a superb cross from Jamie Hanson, who for once had pushed forward into a more attacking position.

Powell continued to do his best to unsettle the home defence, but it was to no avail as his teammates found it hard to keep the ball in the closing minutes. The stadium erupted on the final whistle, thousands of spectators swarming on to the pitch. For me it provided an opportunity for a quick getaway. The Falmer train station is usually swamped just after a match has finished. It was not bad at all yesterday as so many home fans stayed and celebrated. Albion keep their stadium bars open after the game, so it had been no big surprise to see the trainloads boisterously arriving at Brighton station some three hours after the game finished.

The last time I went to the Amex was in November 2014 when I saw Uwe Rosler’s team lose 1-0 to a very poor Albion team in the relegation zone at the time. It was a memorably insipid performance, as was the one yesterday. A month later Albion appointed Chris Hughton who has since built them into a solid, organised team who very much rely on the flair of Knockaert, who might well be poached by big clubs before Albion set foot in the Premier League. He and Powell looked, head and shoulders, the classiest players on the park yesterday.

Albion and Wigan are heading in opposite directions. Albion fans told me before the game had told me that owner Tony Bloom has invested around £250m into the club, including the construction of a £93m stadium. It highlights the situation that Latics will be up against if they are to eventually maintain a status in the Championship division. It is now 4 years since Wigan were in the Premier League, which appears small compared with the 34 years Albion have had to wait to get back into the top tier. Without an owner willing to invest as Bloom has done for Albion, it seems inconceivable that Latics will ever get back to the first tier.

Sheffield United have now secured promotion back to the Championship after six seasons in League 1. This is despite having invested considerably over those years compared with other clubs in the division. Should the seemingly inevitable occur and Latics are relegated it could be very difficult to get back out of it. Without a significant in player salaries by the Whelan family they too could be stuck in League 1 for years.

Given the goalkeeper situation it appears that cash is not freely flowing at Wigan Athletic. The club will surely sell off its main player assets in summer, plus giving others the chance to leave on free transfers to drastically reduce the wage bill. Nick Powell’s recent performances have helped put him in the shop window, providing he can avoid injury until the season ends. We can expect Omar Bogle or Will Grigg to go, hopefully not both. Max Power was a shadow of his old self yesterday, but still has enough potential to interest a Championship club. Playing in a side struggling against relegation can drag a player down, as happened with Gaitan Bong under Malky Mackay. Seeing Bong looking so comfortable playing for a promotion-winning side served to highlight the situation.

It would be no surprise to see Latics appoint a new manager within the next fortnight. He will be in charge of overseeing a summer fire sale, then trying to build up a successful new team from the ashes.A tall order indeed, although much will be dependent on how much money comes in from transfers over the summer and what happens to it.

As the Albion fans continued their jubilant celebrations at Brighton Station last night my own feeling as a life-long Latics fan was closer to one of despair. But nevertheless Wigan Athletic have bounced back from adversity in the past, so hope remains.

The appointment of the “right” manager and some level of investment from the Whelan family of the funds due to come in could provide some light at the end of a gloomy tunnel.

 

 

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Echoes of Malky, but a point gained – Barnsley 0 Latics 0 – match reaction

 

They say that results are all important in football. So it could be said that Wigan Athletic supporters should be happy with the point at mid-table Barnsley. Latics played with the kind of passion and spirit that typified their rise up into the higher echelons of English football in latter years. After losing his first game 3-0, Warren Joyce had clearly instilled a backs-to-the wall mentality in his players. It was not pretty, but it got another valuable away point.

Joyce is no shrinking violet. He had the courage to leave his three front line centre forwards on the bench, with Dan Burn and Jordi Gomez totally absent. He brought back the experienced Craig Morgan, who had been marginalised by previous manager Gary Caldwell. Morgan went on to form a solid partnership with fellow veteran, Jake Buxton, as they held their own in repelling the Barnsley attacks. Morgan may not be fast, but his positioning remains as good as ever. He and Buxton were like peas from the same pod. Playing Nick Powell at centre forward and leaving out the likes of Davies, Grigg and Le Fondre certainly made a statement to us all.

But Powell went off after only 31 minutes, reportedly unwell. When Joyce replaced him with Luke Garbutt many of us wondered why would the manager replace a centre forward with a full back? Did he have any attacking intentions? Garbutt too had fallen out of favour with the previous manager. Was Joyce making a statement to say that the slate has been wiped clean and everyone starts from scratch with him? In fact, Garbutt was put into a left midfield position and was to go on to do no better or worse than most of his teammates. The reshuffle saw Yanic Wildschut move to the lone centre forward position. He was particularly lonely, although at times he could take on 3 or 4 defenders to try to salvage something.

I had surprisingly managed to get a live feed for the game, after preparing myself to listen to the audio commentary. Adam Bogdan went off injured after 58 minutes. When Jussi Jasskelainen came on the commentator told us he was a player/coach, which was a surprise to me. Has the big Finn replaced Mike Pollitt as goalkeeping coach?

When Caldwell was manager he would have close contact with Graham Barrow and the coaches during a game. But in this one Joyce seemed solitary, with the coaches in the background. The cynics might say he is waiting for them to leave. Or maybe it is just the manager’s preferred style? All will presumably be revealed in the coming weeks.

It could be said that in this case, the end justified the means. But that in itself would be a worry. The commentator had told us that Joyce had summonsed the players in for regular double training sessions. They certainly looked fit enough and did not cave in the closing minutes as has too often been the case this season. But what was worrying was the football, or lack of it.

Indeed the football was reminiscent of the days of Malky Mackay. It was more fightball than football. Moreover once again seeing a winger playing at centre forward was to further highlight those most painful of memories.

Barnsley manager Paul Heckinbottom summed up Latics’ approach by saying: “Their set-up and line-up, playing without a striker, a centre-midfielder at right midfield and the first sub is a left-back, so that shows that they came here paying us the utmost respect, trying to nullify us, which they did.

Warren Joyce has a reputation as a top coach whose teams have played skilful, entertaining football. But today it seemed like he had told his players to rip up the coaching book they had learned under Gary Caldwell and go back to basics. The possession football that the Scot had instilled in the players was barely evident today. Perhaps the manager had told his players to minimise potential errors at the back by playing the ball long when under pressure? But even that would not explain the lack of creativity and attacking intent from midfield.

Let’s hope that this is a one-off and that hoofball has not returned to Wigan.