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.

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How good is Caldwell’s team?

Walsall delay Wigan’s promotion” the headline said.

Trawling the internet for football news can be often entertaining, if sometimes frustrating. We are so drawn in by headlines. The spurious premise of this headline drew me in and I opened the article.

It told us that had if Walsall had not beaten Shrewsbury last night, Latics would have been promoted. Mathematically true it could be said. But the realists among us know that Walsall stood as much chance in making up the 22 goal difference gap between the two clubs as one might have winning a lottery. Why did I bother opening the article?

Gary Caldwell’s thoughts must be all over the place at the moment. He will be keen to win the League 1 title by his team being victorious in  one of its last two games – mathematically speaking of course, in case Burton make up the 17 goals by which they trail Latics. The probability is that Wigan Athletic will win at least one of the two; the likelihood is that they will win both. But as much as winning the division is important surely Caldwell’s mind will be looking on next season, back in the Championship division.

It is a nice feeling to win a division. The last time Wigan Athletic did it was in 2002-03 when Paul Jewell’s expensively assembled team won the League 1 title in his second season at the club. His first season had not been easy. Latics were to drop from a playoff position the previous season to 10th place. But Jewell managed to clear out much of the deadwood that was blocking the club’s progress and had been able to bring in players on salaries well above the norm of the division.

Jewell’s team amassed 100 points, 14 ahead of second placed Crewe. They scored 68 goals, conceding 25.  The following season they were to finish 7th in the Championship, scoring 60 goals, conceding 45. The players were largely the same that won League 1, buoyed by the arrival of Jason Roberts from West Bromwich in January.

Should Caldwell’s team win their last two games their points total will be 90. They already have 71 goals, although they have conceded 36. Jewell’s team had been based on a solid defence with John Filan, Nicky Eaden, Matt Jackson and Jason De Vos making a combined total of 204 appearances in league and cup games that season.

Inevitable comparisons have been made regarding the merits of the players in the teams of 2002-03 and 2015-16. Nathan Ellington’s 22 goals in 48 appearances were pivotal as have been Will Grigg’s 26 goals in 41 displays in the current season to date. Ellington went on to score goals in the Championship. Caldwell will be hoping Grigg will make a similarly successful transition.

Six of Jewell’s 2002-03 squad – John Filan, Leighton Baines, Matt Jackson, Jimmy Bullard, Gary Teale and Lee McCulloch – were to go on beyond the Championship to play in the Premier League in the 2005-06 season. Are there players in Caldwell’s squad who could reach that level?

Caldwell and his recruitment team have certainly done a fine job since last summer. Neither Max Power (22 years old) nor Sam Morsy (24) have played above League 1 level. They were signed for bargain fees and have looked a class above the third tier. Donervon Daniels was signed for free, but has made 43 appearances this season. Daniels is still only 22 and can play in the centre of defence or on the right. Like so many young defenders Daniels can lose concentration at times, but he has great physique and has a surprisingly good touch on the ball for a man his size.

Will Grigg (24), Reece James (22) and Yanic Wildschut (24) were signed for fees that were considerable for a club in League 1, but they are young and have made major contributions to Latics’ promotion. Yet none has yet reached his true potential. Michael Jacobs is still only 24, signed for a bargain fee from Wolves. Jacobs has played in the Championship before, but not with the success he would have liked. Jacobs has been a key player in Caldwell’s system and shows genuine quality. Will these players be able to step up to the mark next season in a more competitive division?

Caldwell has wisely resisted the opportunity to spend serious money on experienced players who are nearing the end of their careers. The players aged or 30 or over that he picked up were on free transfers, signed on short term contracts. However, together with experienced players already at the club, they have provided a balance that has enabled Caldwell to bring in players in their early to mid-twenties who have genuine potential.

Making realistic comparisons between the League 1 squads of Caldwell and Jewell is simply not possible, given how much the game has changed in those past thirteen years. However, Caldwell will certainly try to emulate Jewell’s success. Jewell was a great motivator, but his teams were all built around 4-4-2. Caldwell is very much the modern manager who is tactically aware and ready to change his tactical approach according to the state of play.

For the moment Wigan Athletic supporters will be focusing on winning the League 1 title. Should this happen, as expected, they will certainly celebrate as many of them will have done in May 2003. It was Paul Jewell’s first success as a Latics manager and he went on to make many more.

Can Gary Caldwell follow in his footsteps, albeit in a very changed environment?

A leadership crisis at Latics

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

So said the guru of leadership studies, Professor Warren Bennis.

A couple of years ago my wife and I went on holiday to Vietnam. Walking the streets in the humid and sultry heat of Saigon around midday I was taken by surprise. There were four young Vietnamese men across the road, three of them dressed in the kind of clothing that you can find anywhere in the world. But it was what the fourth man was wearing that caught my eye. Blue jeans and a Wigan Athletic shirt.

It was leadership that guided Wigan Athletic from being a lesser known name in the lower reaches of League 2 to become known in far flung countries like Vietnam. Dave Whelan’s vision of building a purpose built new stadium and a place in the Premier League, attracting a global audience, became a reality. His leadership helped his vision become reality.

Without Whelan’s ambition and funding Latics could still be languishing in the lower reaches of English football. He had put a lot of money into getting promotion into the Premier League and had to keep doing so to maintain the club in that division.

Latics were in the red in each of their first six seasons in the Premier League. However, with revenue from transfer fees and sound fiscal management Jonathan Jackson reported total net profits of £4.3 million in 2011-12 and £822,000 in 2012-13. Last season, back in the Championship, but also in the Europa League and with a large parachute payment, Latics were again in the black, this time to the tune of £2.6m. Whelan set the goal of the club living within its means and Jackson has shown the leadership necessary to reach that target.

Being a leader can be tough, as Paul Jewell found in his early days as Latics manager. Jewell took over an underperforming squad with players on long term contracts. Latics had had three managers the previous season and the players probably did not expect Jewell to be there for long. However, despite results being poor in his first year, Jewell started to put his vision into place. It took him time to weed out what he considered the negative elements among the playing staff, but little by little he started to bring in players hungry for success. Aided by Whelan’s financial support, Jewell was able to attract quality players to the club and build up a momentum that was to propel them into the Premier League, with a League Cup final appearance in that first season.

Sometimes a leader knows it is time to move on. Jewell did just that in May 2007 after Latics had maintained their status as a Premier League club through a nerve-racking 2-1 win at Sheffield United in the last game of the season. He had had a wonderful six year reign at Wigan, but it was time for him to hand over the reins to someone else.

Roberto Martinez was brought to the club as a player in 1995 when Whelan was in the early days of seeing his vision fulfilled. Fourteen years later Whelan brought him back as manager to keep Latics in the Premier League on a budget much reduced than that of his predecessor, Steve Bruce.

Martinez had a very clear vision of how football should be played. It was radically different than anything seen before at the DW. His teams would resist the hoof, playing the ball out of defence. At times it got them into trouble, but one sensed that Martinez would take the blame if it went awry. In reality Martinez struggled to bring in the quality players who could translate his vision into reality.

But after two and a half years of frustration it all began to click when Latics went on that marvellous end of season run in 2012-13. A cruel injury situation savaged his hopes the following season, dragging Latics into relegation. However, somehow a patched up Latics team beat Manchester City to win the FA Cup. They won on merit, playing that particular brand of football espoused by the manager.

Martinez too knew when it was time to move on. He had previously resisted possibilities to join big clubs, but the time was right for him. After winning the FA Cup how much further could he go at Wigan? Martinez was a leader with a clear vision and he had a belief that his players could reach the levels he was seeking.

Even with inspiring leadership from above it is up to the players on the pitch. In reality leadership roles and responsibilities are shared amongst the players, but the role of the captain remains central to the team’s performance. A good captain inspires confidence in his teammates and strives to make the game plan work. He needs to communicate effectively with the referee and cajole his players into doing the right thing. The captain is a leader, communicator, who provides a vital link between the players and the manager.

Gary Caldwell was an inspirational captain under Martinez. Caldwell certainly had his ups and downs as a player. He is the type who would put his body in the firing line. It meant he would make some amazing blocks of goalbound shots, but then the flipside would be when the ball deflected off him and put his goalkeeper and fellow defenders off guard. Caldwell had his critics as a player, but few would doubt his sheer commitment to the cause.

It was outstanding leadership that got Latics up there and enabled success beyond most of our dreams. Sadly that leadership is not evident now as Latics head towards League 1. What went wrong?

Whelan is now 78 and after 20 years of guiding the club he is surely read to step back. He made a mistake with the Malky Mackay appointment and his inappropriate comments were gobbled up by the national media. It has sadly tarnished the image of a man who has done more for Wigan Athletic than anyone before. His treatment by the FA was carefully thought out, a six week suspension and a fine that is not a lot of money for a man of his affluence. However, psychologically it is a kick in the teeth and it must hurt.

Whelan’s grandson, David Sharpe, has recently been appointed to the board of directors. Sharpe will surely be groomed to take over from his grandfather, but the question is “when”? What is going to happen over the coming months? The uncertainty is surely sending shockwaves within the club.

Mackay’s appointment has been a disaster. One wonders how the players have reacted since his arrival. A boss labelled, rightly or wrongly, a “racist” by the national media, with the shadow of a possible FA suspension hovering above him. Mackay has already shot himself in the foot by his remarks about wanting “hungry British players”, a signal to the overseas players that it is time to go. Roger Espinoza and Oriol Riera have already gone, William Kvist and Thomas Rogne are frozen out and Andy Delort cannot even get a place on the bench.

Mackay has proved inept up to this point, but given the uncertainty pervading the club it could be that he will be in his post for some time. The hope is that he can turn around the dressing room atmosphere through comings and goings in the January transfer window. If he can’t Latics are surely heading for League 1.

The lack of response from the players on the pitch has been the defining feature of Latics’ season so far. A series of unfortunate events led to a poor start and confidence levels are clearly low. But it has appeared that the players just have not cared enough. Uwe Rosler was dismissed as a result of their lack of support and they are responding no better, if not worse, under Mackay.

The players clearly have a lot to answer for, but they too are surely affected by the uncertainty at the club. They have a manager who is far from secure in his position and there is little indication of the direction in which the club is heading.

On the pitch the lack of leadership has been sadly apparent. There have been a host of captains this season, but none has been able to galvanise his teammates into consistent commitment and effort.

The leadership crisis at Wigan Athletic is a real concern. In our heart of hearts, most of us hope that Whelan will bounce back, if only for a short burst.

If he doesn’t step up to the plate, Latics could go into free fall, undoing all of his achievements of the past two decades.

 

 

 

 

Rosler ready for a good start to the season- Reading preview

This time last year Wigan Athletic travelled to Barnsley for the opening game of the season. The 4-0 triumph appeared to be the beginning of a successful campaign, as Latics’ class was too much for the Yorkshire side. The next match away at Bournemouth was eagerly anticipated by the fans, but was to be a damp squib, with Latics going down 1-0. Coyle’s side went on to take just 8 points from the first 6 matches.

Ten years ago Paul Jewell’s side made a much brighter start. Despite a disappointing 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest they went on to take 14 points from their first six matches. They were to go through their first 17 league matches unbeaten and despite a slump in November and December they went on to win promotion to the Premier League.

Over the years Latics teams have tended to disappoint in the opening matches. That start in 2004 was an exception and one that Uwe Rosler would love to replicate a decade later. Rosler’s team faces home games against Reading, Blackpool and Birmingham and away at Charlton, Cardiff and Blackburn. Can they emulate the record of Jewell’s side in their first 6 matches?

Away matches at places like Cardiff and Blackburn are going to be tricky, as is the home game tomorrow with Reading. Moreover last season’s team often struggled against lower placed opposition. Rosler’s oft stated target of picking up an average of 2 points per game would seem more realistic – can Latics get those 12 points from the first 6 matches?

Reading finished 7th in the Championship last season, narrowly missing out on the playoffs. Latics’ high pressing game undid them twice last year with 2-1 result at the Madejski and a 3-0 scoreline at the DW. Manager Nigel Adkins will no doubt have done his homework for tomorrow’s match and might well resort to a long ball approach to counteract the high pressing. Over thesummer Reading lost or released a swath of senior players including former captain Jobi McAnuff, who went to Leyton Orient, and Adam Le Fondre who went to Cardiff. Adkins expects the majority of the players on the pitch and on the bench tomorrow to have graduated from the club’s academy. Reading have a category 1 academy status and play in the Professional Development League 1.

Providing there have been no further injuries following the Paderborn game, Uwe Rosler will have a strong squad available. It is anybody’s guess which of Ali Al Habsi or Scott Carson will start in goal. He is likely to go with an experienced defence of James Perch, Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Andrew Taylor. Don Cowie and James McArthur will probably be joined by either James Tavernier or Roger Espinoza in midfield. Oriel Riera will play the target man role, with Callum McManaman and Martyn Waghorn completing the front three. Should Rosler decide to opt for a 3-5-2 formation another centre back will come in and Waghorn could take that third midfield place.

Wigan have more than enough quality to see off a young Reading side. Rosler will be keen to get the season off to a winning start.

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