Resting senior squad players – was Cook right?

In November 2016 five clubs were fined a total of £60,000 by the EFL for contravening “full strength” rules in the Checkatrade Trophy. Luton Town and Portsmouth broke the rules in three games, each being docked £15,000. The third and final matches in the group stages had seen attendances in most of games plummet below four figures with Portsmouth having their lowest attendance since WW2 for a competitive match at Fratton Park.

Luton and Portsmouth had not complied with full strength rules that involved them putting five first team players in their starting line-up. The “first team players” could have been from those who played in the last league game, or the next league match, or the highest appearance makers in the season so far. Bradford City had found a way to circumvent the rules by substituting their “first team” goalkeeper after just three minutes in a game against Bury. Their assistant manager joked “I thought he had a poor 45 seconds”. Since then other clubs have followed suit. Accrington Stanley did it on Tuesday night at Wigan by taking off Billy Kee after four minutes.

Wigan Athletic will surely face a fine of at least £5,000 for the line-up put out by Paul Cook three days ago. The only member of the senior squad who played was Tyrell Thomas, who is 21 years old, his three league appearances this season having been as a substitute. Ten of the starting line-up were under 20 years of age, with the 15-year-old Jenson Weir coming on as a substitute after 69 minutes.

The 4-0 scoreline in favour of the visitors was no surprise, given the inexperience in the Wigan team. The game could be roughly described as one between Accrington’s second choice side and Latics’ third choice. It proved to be a mismatch which few of the 1,473 spectators present would have truly enjoyed. So why did Cook put out such a line-up? Did he give due warning to the fans that it would be the case?

Cook had given some indication of his line-up before the game by saying “I enjoy the youngsters coming in and showing what they can do. We took 700 fans to Blackpool in the first game, and it’s great for the kids to be playing in front of those numbers. I’m sure there’ll be more kids in the team for this one, and that’s great for Gregor (Rioch) and the Academy.”

But the team that started at Blackpool was largely composed of members of the senior squad, including the likes Donervon Daniels, Alex Gilbey, Jamie Jones, David Perkins and Max Power who had years of EFL experience under their belts. Was the manager being fair to the youngsters who played, or on the fans who turned up on Tuesday? Why did he not include senior squad members in need of match practice?

Cook had alluded to resting players in his pre-match comments: “We felt this week, with all the games we’ve played recently, it was a bit of a ‘lower’ week in terms of giving some lads a break. I just feel that with 16 league games, the Checkatrade Trophy, the Carabao Cup, and now the FA Cup, lads are just starting to show the first signs of fatigue.”

However, what he did not explain is why players who had been side-lined or spent most of their time on the bench were not played. Was it because he wanted to maintain harmony in the senior squad by giving them all (barring Terell Thomas) a rest, not just those who have played a lot of games up to this point? Or was it because he holds scant regard for the Checkatrade Trophy?

The EFL Trophy, currently sponsored by Checkatrade, started in the 1983-84 season as the Associate Members’ Cup. It was a competition involving clubs from the bottom two tiers of the Football League. Wigan Athletic were winners in its second season in 1984-85 was, beating Brentford 3-1 in front of 39,897 spectators at Wembley. At the time it was sponsored by Freight Rover.

 

 

In 1992 the third and fourth tier clubs received full voting rights after the First Division had broken away from the Football League to form the Premier League. Its name was duly changed to the Football League Trophy. Latics went on to win the competition again in April 1999 when they beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 55,349. It was then sponsored by Auto Windscreens.

 

 

Since those heady days the competition has had its ups and downs. In the year 2000 eight clubs from the Football Conference were invited to compete, but in 2006 this stopped. In 2016-17 it was renamed the EFL Trophy and Premier League and Championship clubs with Category 1 academies were included. The inclusion of those teams was voted in by EFL clubs but has been unpopular with most supporters of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2, to such an extent that some fans have boycotted the tournament as a form of protest.

However, despite the sparse attendances that typify the earlier stages of the competition it still maintains some status. Last season saw Coventry City win it by beating Oxford United 2-1 in front of a crowd of 74,434.

However, with 46 league games and the League Cup and FA Cup to compete in, were Wigan Athletic really interested in winning the EFL Trophy this season? The clear priority for Latics is promotion back to the Championship division, so how does the club view the Checkatrade Trophy?

Jonathan Jackson provided some perspective on the matter prior to the Accrington match. He stated that it was a much-maligned competition, but added that: “Within football, it’s seen as a great way of getting young players out there on to the pitch. Other than this competition, it’s very difficult to get young players into a competitive environment”. Jackson also revealed that there is a financial benefit for competing EFL clubs, through the prize money.

According to an article in the Coventry Telegraph in February 2017, the prize money for winning a group stage match was £10,000, with £5,000 for a draw. With the prize money increasing in later rounds Coventry City would have received around £400,000 in their winning the trophy.

Looking at Paul Cook’s decision from a pragmatic angle it appears that Latics will have made a small profit from their participation in the Checkatrade Trophy this season, even allowing for a fine in the region of £5,000. Although the Accrington game proved far from ideal for the development of young players, the previous games provided opportunities for youth, backed up by the presence of senior squad players.

Cook’s decision to field such a young and inexperienced team on Tuesday night was certainly controversial. Moreover, the postponement of Saturday’s fixture at Rochdale did not go down well with so many fans. However, the absence of the current second and third choice goalkeepers on international duty this weekend would surely have been an issue.

Only time will tell whether Cook giving his senior squad players a break of a fortnight between games will produce the result he seeks.

It is indeed a long season ahead.

 

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An Amigo View – Gillingham 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Five talking points

 

On the face of it, a point against an outfit second from bottom is a trifle disappointing for a team riding at the top of the table. Shrewsbury’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers put them back to first place, as they impressively stretched their unbeaten league record to 14 games. But another 32 matches remain and the point gained at Priestfield might well prove crucial in the long run.

Latics had started well and had opportunities in the first half hour that would have materialised into goals with more clinical finishing. But the home team grew into the game and started to punch above their weight, with bouts of skilful football mixed with a determination not to be overwhelmed by their more highly-rated rivals.

When Chey Dunkley allowed 6 ft 5 in centre forward Eaves to head home in the 55th minute it was clear that Latics had an uphill task ahead of them. Just as at Shrewsbury they were rattled by the energy and hunger of the home team. It took a beautifully struck goal by Sam Morsy after 82 minutes to get Latics back in the game.

The scenes at the end of the game were reminiscent of those at the recent encounter at Peterborough with the Gills players waiting around on the pitch to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Unlike some other teams Latics have played this season Gillingham did make an effort to attack and play constructive football. The ovation was well deserved.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game and the recent news of the club.

The centre forwards are still not getting enough goals

Ivan Toney had a disappointing evening and was taken off after 72 minutes, to be replaced by Will Grigg who too struggled to make an impact. Grigg went off injured after 88 minutes to be replaced by Noel Hunt. Cook will be hoping Grigg’s injury is not serious with matches against Blackburn and Bradford coming up.

Should Grigg be out for some time, Cook might well call on Nick Powell to play as a central striker with Gary Roberts operating behind him in the number 10 role.

However, for the moment, we can only surmise on how many more goals Latics would have scored this season if their central strikers had been sharper. Grigg typically gets the bulk of his goals in the second half of the season. Will he do so again this season?

Nick Powell played the full 93 minutes

Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job up to this point in nurturing Powell back to fitness. To go until the final whistle without being substituted is a milestone for the player after being dogged by injury for so long.

Powell is essentially a Premier League player operating in League 1. Although he has still not hit top form he is almost indispensable to Cook, being at the heart of the creativity, also the top scorer. Should he stay fit we can expect him to hit the 20-goal mark before the end of the season.

Chey Dunkley is a work in progress

As the cross was coming in for the Gills goal, Dunkley was calling to Nathan Byrne to come across to mark a player who was coming into the box. The cross somehow eluded Dan Burn and Dunkley’s lack of concentration allowed Eaves to score. Up to that point he and Burn had headed away countless crosses, looking comfortable in doing so.

Dunkley remains a work in progress. His red card against Portsmouth was a hard pill to swallow, but following his suspension he got back in the team in place of the capable and experienced Alex Bruce. Cook clearly has faith in the 25-year old. Other than the matter of the goal conceded, Dunkley did not have a bad game and he made an outstanding tackle in the first half as Eaves looked like he was going to score.  Dunkley is usually excellent in the air and forms a strong partnership with Burn. Moreover he shows sound  positional sense and is vocal on the pitch.

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain

Morsy’s indiscipline on the field has been a talking point this season and he picked up another yellow card just a couple of minutes after scoring that vital goal. It was sadly no surprise.

However, Morsy had hit a screamer earlier on that fizzed wide when it looked like it might be going in. He was not happy for his team to be behind and he continued to push himself and his team forward. It is the sheer determination that the player shows that makes him a captain to be reckoned with. But not only is he fierce in the tackle and tireless in his efforts, but he has a fine technique and vision.

With Morsy as captain the team is never going to lie down. Despite his disciplinary lapses he is an inspirational captain.

Paul Cook must not be sacrificed in any takeover

Cook has made a wonderful start to his new job at Wigan. He has transformed a team that was too scared to open-up and play into one that clearly relishes it. It is years since we have seen such a positive, attacking brand of football at Wigan. Moreover he is showing faith in a core of players in the early to mid-twenties who could hold their own in the Championship were Latics to be promoted.

Much is clearly happening behind the scenes at the club, with the incredibly successful 22-year reign of the Whelan family seemingly nearing its end. Put simply, without Dave Whelan’s vision, determination and sheer hard work Latics could never have dreamed to have had the successes they have enjoyed over a span of decades.

Should the takeover happen by the end of the year, as the media seems to suggest, it would be sad if Cook’s position were destabilised. Put simply, he is the best thing that has happened to Latics in a long time.

 

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Difficult times ahead for Paul Cook after the Sun’s news of a Chinese takeover?

The Sun newspaper’s revelation that Dave Whelan is about to sell much of his majority shareholding to a Chinese consortium does not come as a surprise. As far back as April we published an article regarding such a buy-out.

But if the thing actually does happen over the coming weeks will it affect the promotion push under Paul Cook and is it something that could prove beneficial in the long-run?

Cook is no stranger to such events. Indeed he found himself in a difficult situation at Portsmouth over summer with American billionaire Michael Eisner in the process of buying the club. There was talk about Eisner bringing in a Director of Football above Cook, but more than anything else the manager was caught in a situation of uncertainty. It was surely a major factor in his moving to Wigan.

There is speculation as to whether David Sharpe would continue if the takeover materialises, possibly with a minority shareholding in the club. Such a move would be welcomed by most supporters who would see it as a means of ensuring a degree of continuity.

The Sun’s report did not mention a particular critical item regarding a possible sale. The DW Stadium is not owned by Latics, but belongs to a company controlled by Whelan. It is unlikely that a consortium would want to buy a club unless it had a stadium to play in. Would a stadium sale happen concurrent with the sale of the club? Or would Whelan come to a long term agreement regarding the rental of stadium facilities?

In the meantime Latics play at Gillingham tomorrow night and Blackpool on Saturday. It is to be hoped that the news will not upset the positive mood among the players and Cook and his staff.

Assuming that Cook stays promotion is a strong possibility. It is to be hoped that any possible ownership changes will not upset the momentum that Latics have gained on the field of play over these recent months.

Five talking points arising from the victory over Southend

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Result: Wigan Athletic 3 Southend United 0

It was not the most exciting of games, but a three-goal win over a team that was lying in mid-table is not to be sneezed at. Moreover, the three points gained propelled Latics to the top of the table.

A sending-off in the 59th minute certainly helped Wigan cruise to a win, but in reality they were already in control before that. Southend had just never looked like scoring and it seemed that perhaps Latics had an eye towards Tuesday’s trip to Gillingham. Two goals in the last ten minutes proved to be the icing on the cake as Wigan had stepped back to allow the visitors to come forward and leave spaces at the back.

After the match Wigan coach Anthony Barry commented that: “We never really got into top gear and never found our rhythm. It’s day like this where we have to grind out a win and it’s important. It was a competitive game, and Southend came with a good game-plan. While we were never in danger of losing the game, we were never at our best.”

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

Gary Roberts is making his mark

Since his arrival from Portsmouth, Roberts has found it hard to get a place in the starting line-up.  He had been a regular starter over the past four years with Portsmouth and Chesterfield. Roberts is, first and foremost, a creative player although he has already shown his willingness to put in a shift for the team.

His two assists yesterday showed what the player is capable of. His perfectly timed through ball allowed Nick Powell to run from the halfway line to score the second goal. Then a perfectly weighted low cross from the left gave Ivan Toney an easy task to slot the ball home.

Roberts can play in any position in the advanced midfield three. He is best in the centre, but although he lacks pace to play wide his delivery can be accurate and cause difficulty for opposition defences. Roberts scored 19 goals in 58 league starts and 16 substitute appearances for Portsmouth. We can surely expect some from him over the coming months.

Are expectations too high?

Shrewsbury remain unbeaten after 13 league matches, but Latics have overtaken them in the best start the club has had since joining the Football League in 1978. Although not looking on top form yesterday they were streets ahead of Southend. One sensed that if they had reached full throttle they would have put half a dozen in the Shrimpers’ net. But are expectations already too high?

In early April last season Doncaster Rovers had already achieved promotion from League 2 and were 6 points ahead of second placed Plymouth and 10 points ahead of third placed Portsmouth, with just 5 games remaining. Doncaster went on to draw their next match, then lose their final four. They finally finished third.

Anthony Barry remarked after yesterday’s game that “It’s nice to be top of the league but we just need to keep on going. We need to carry on with our habits and discipline in training every day and our standards must stay the same too.”

It is that kind of level-headedness that will serve Latics in their quest for promotion. The dangers of complacency and over-confidence will need to be addressed as the season progresses.

Cook is building for the future

The average age of Wigan’s starting line-up yesterday was 25 years.  The eldest is Jamie Jones, at 28. The youngest are Callum Elder, 22, and Nick Powell, 23.

The squad does have more senior players. David Perkins is 35, Noel Hunt is 34, Alex Bruce and Gary Roberts are 33 and Craig Morgan is 32. Morgan has a two-year contract, the others being signed for a year.

The starting line-ups so far, this season, have been dominated by younger players. Should Latics get promoted they will have a backbone of players in their mid-twenties. It remains to be seen whether Reece James (23) will be offered a new contract or whether Cook will seek to sign loan players, Elder and Lee Evans (23), on permanent contracts. At this stage Christian Walton (21) looks certain to return to Brighton at the end of the season.

Michael Jacobs must surely be set to sign a new contract

Jacobs is, almost certainly, playing the best football of his career this season. He made a welcome return to action yesterday after absence through injury. His pace and creative talent make him a key element in Cook’s team. He is surely thriving under the new management; his confidence being lifted after a frustrating season in the Championship.

Given the importance of the player to the team it would be no surprise to hear that Jacobs has signed a contract extension over the next few days.

Another deflected goal, another sending off

There was an element of good fortune in Jacobs’ first half strike, the ball hitting a defender to deceive the goalkeeper. But given the willingness of players in Cook’s team to shoot it is likely that we will see even more deflected goals over the coming months. Last season confidence was low and players were reluctant to try their luck from outside the box, as Jacobs did yesterday. Not so now.

Much has been said about the four red cards picked up by Latics players so far. The first might have been unlucky, but the other three should have been avoided. On the other side of the coin the opposition have also received a total of four red cards, all for aggressive play rather than retaliation.

Given the attacking style of play that is Cook’s expectation, we are likely to see many more opposition red cards and penalties this season than we saw under the dour regime of Warren Joyce last year.

Nathan Byrne – man of the match

Byrne was outstanding yesterday, the best man on the pitch. He has come so far since being jettisoned off to Charlton in January by the hapless Joyce.

Interestingly the Wigan Athletic club web site lists Byrne as a midfield player. But he has certainly shown us that he can cope admirably with the physical demands of constantly pacing up and down the wings as Cook pushes his full backs forward.

Byrne is certainly not an archetypal full back, but he fits the role that the manager requires. He has played an important role in Latics’ fine start to the season.

 

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Reflections on Paul Cook and Ian McNeill

Ian McNeill.
Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

Sometimes you receive a jolt that turns your mind towards things that have happened just now and in the distant past. The trip to Scunthorpe was never going to be easy, against a physical side that had only conceded five goals up to that point. All seemed to be going well until Lee Evans was sent off: it was to be the first real low point of the afternoon. But Nick Powell’s opportunism saved the day for Paul Cook’s team, Latics coming away with a 2-1 victory despite playing the final third of the game with ten men.

But the feel-good factor of the three points gained in Lincolnshire was to dissipate soon after when David Sharpe’s tweet announced the passing away of Ian McNeill at the age of 85.

For me McNeill ranks among the best-ever Wigan Athletic managers. Some would say that you cannot compare his achievements with those that came decades later  such as those of Paul Jewell and Roberto Martinez. Jewell got Latics to the Premier League and the League Cup final, Martinez got wins over the biggest clubs in England, including that eventful day at Wembley in 2013. What had McNeill achieved that could place him in a category up there with those two?

Lots has been written about Ian McNeill’s career. He was an inside forward for Aberdeen, Leicester, Brighton and Southend. He went on to spend decades in management, then as a scout in later years. He was manager at Wigan from 1968-70, doing a second spell from 1976-81. His Latics teams were a pleasure to watch as he always seemed to insist that they play the “right” way. Good football was his expectation. He was an expert in scouting out talent, bringing in players who would provide the backbones of teams for years to come.

McNeill was appointed in the summer of 1968 to lead an ambitious Wigan Athletic into the newly formed Northern Premier League. An archaic system was still in place by which the bottom four clubs in Division 4 would apply for re-election, together with non-league aspirants. The Football League was almost a closed shop with clubs playing the “old pals act” by voting for those four clubs.

In the previous eighteen years only two non-league clubs had been elected. The non-league vote had been repeatedly split, with anything up to half a dozen clubs applying each year. However, the creation of a northern super league, composed of the top clubs from the various regional competitions, was a real step forward. Winning such a league would certainly give more kudos than the Cheshire County League, even if it had been the best of the northern regional competitions. Moreover, the prospect of only the winners of the NPL and the Southern League applying for election would make sense. The NPL was to prove key in enabling Wigan Athletic in their quest for a place in the Football League.

The NPL was to comprise 7 clubs from the Cheshire County League, 5 from the Lancashire Combination, 4 from the Midland Counties League, 3 from the Northern Regional League and one from the West Midlands League. Interest in Wigan was high and Latics’ first game at Springfield Park against Ashington was to draw a crowd of 6,721 – the highest home league attendance for 13 years.

Ian McNeill had been managing Ross County, guiding them to their first ever Highland League title. His contacts in Scotland were to prove invaluable and he brought in the likes of David Breen, Benny Cairney, Doug Coutts, Jim Fleming, Jimmy Lynn, Jim Savage and Billy Sutherland. But the most notable of all in McNeill’s squad that year was not a Scot, but an ex-youth player from Arsenal, who had played just three games in the Cheshire League the previous season. Just 19 years old at the time, Ian Gillibrand soon established himself as a regular in the team. Although he lacked height for a central defender, Gilly had an impressive leap and his reading of the game made him look like the non-league version of Bobby Moore. He was to play a further ten seasons at the club, breaking the record for his number of appearances.

McNeill was keen to win the NPL in its inaugural season, but so too were the previous season’s Cheshire League champions, Macclesfield Town. McNeill paid Runcorn a huge £3,000 for Alan Ryan, who had scored a remarkable 66 goals in the previous season. But despite having an excellent record of record of W18 D12 L8, Latics were to finish in second place. Attendances had almost doubled from an average of 1,801 the previous season in the Cheshire League to 3,393.

The following season was an even better one for Latics, with a record of W20 D12 L6, but they were to once again to finish behind Macclesfield, this time on goal difference. Despite doing a great in those two initial NPL seasons McNeill was to leave the club following a disagreement with the chairman. But he left behind a very strong base of players who went on to win the NPL the following season under Gordon Milne.

McNeill re-joined Latics in the summer of 1976. Latics finished in a mid-table position in his first season back, but once again he used his scouting connections to pick up bargains in the transfer market for the 1977-78 season. Latics went on to finish second, but could apply for Football League status because the champions, Boston United, did not have ground facilities up to the required standard. Their election into the Football League in 1978 was a sensation, after 34 years of unsuccessfully applying.

Ian Gillibrand leads Latics out at Hereford.
Thanks to Wigan Athletic Supporters Club for the photo.

The photo of Ian Gillibrand leading Latics out to their first Football League match at Hereford is one that continues to stick in the minds of the more senior supporters. Wigan finished in 6th place in their first two seasons in Division 4, but McNeill left in 1981 when they were to finish in mid-table. He joined Chelsea as assistant manager and was instrumental in bringing in players like Kerry Dixon and David Speedie to the west London club. Wigan replaced McNeill with Larry Lloyd, who was given a level of financial support to which McNeill had not been accustomed. Lloyd built on the firm base provided by McNeill to win promotion in the 1981-82 season.

Ian McNeill will be remembered as the manager who led Wigan Athletic to their inaugural seasons in the Northern Premier League in 1968-69 and the Fourth Division of the Football League in 1978-79. But more than anything else he will be remembered for his positive approach to the game of football.

Paul Cook is in his early days as Wigan Athletic manager. Like McNeill, Jewell and Martinez he will insist that his teams play his brand of football, akin to that nebulous criterion “The Wigan Way”. Cook believes in attacking football and the players are clearly enjoying his positive approach. Promotion back to the Championship is a distinct possibility this season. It is to be hoped that Cook will be given the kind of longevity afforded to his predecessors – McNeill, Jewell and Martinez.

We can only hope that Cook too will become a Wigan Athletic legend as a manager.