An excellent performance – Wigan Athletic 0 Southampton 2

 

“At half-time, it was a case of whether we could keep it going, whether we could keep up the intensity. The fitness levels to play like that have to be very good to press them high up the pitch.”

So said Paul Cook after the game.

Wigan’s high press and their enterprising attacking play had made Southampton look distinctly ordinary in the first half. The pity was that they could not convert the half chances they had created into goals. They had certainly put pressure on the away team defence, with a 10-0 corner count in their favour. But football is about goals and Wigan had not been able to convert their outstanding first half performance into a lead.

Whether Southampton came back to dominate the second half might well have been due to a dressing rule rollicking from manager, Mark Hughes. They certainly came out with more purpose they had shown before, but the tiring Wigan legs surely must have influenced the eventual outcome. In the event, the Saints scored a scrappy goal from a corner after 62 minutes. A goal behind, Latics had to try to push forward and the defence became more exposed. It led to Dan Burn giving away a penalty after 73 minutes, with Christian Walton going on to make a fantastic save. Cook had rolled his dice and brought on Noel Hunt in the 80th minute, withdrawing the excellent, but seemingly exhausted, Nathan Byrne. The Irishman had a half chance, but could not put it away, then Southampton sealed their result through the speed of right back Cedric Soares attacking through the left channel.

So, while Southampton look ahead to a semi final against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United, Wigan must now immediately focus upon a trip to Walsall on Wednesday.

The previous time I had seen Latics play at home in a sixth round FA Cup tie was in mid- March 1987. Latics were then in the third tier and were to go down 2-0 to second tier Leeds United in front of a crowd of 12,471. The game had been made all-ticket because of the FA’s fears of problems with the away fans at Springfield Park. The game was broadcast live at the Town Hall and the Queens Hall in a bid to deal with ticketless fans. Conditions were very difficult, with a rock-hard pitch and fierce winds. Latics had been unbeaten at home up to that point and they were the better team in the first half but could not put away the chances they had made. The visitors had the wind behind them in the second half and went on to take advantage of it with two long range goals in the second half. Bobby Campbell and Paul Jewell were playing up front for Wigan, with a 20-year-old Paul Cook on the bench.

Ray Mathias’ team went on to finish fourth in the Third Division that season, losing out to Swindon in the playoffs. The season became remembered largely through the cup run when Latics had beaten Hull City and Norwich City on the way to the sixth round. Promotion to the second tier was to take another 16 years, when Jewell’s side won the division title.

Whether Paul Cook’s side can emulate that of Ray Mathias by achieving promotion from the third tier, in addition to reaching the last eight of the FA Cup, remains to be seen.

The critics have already been suggesting that, should Latics win promotion, a lot of new players will have to be brought in to keep them afloat in the Championship. However, so many of the players have already shown that they can compete at higher levels through their terrific performances in the cup.

Latics certainly have a group of players that are well above the quality of League 1. The question now is whether they have the grit and determination to fight their way through a fixture backlog largely created by this famous FA Cup run.

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Paul Cook – the right man for the job

Football took a nose dive at Wigan Athletic last season. What we saw in its place was a kind of “fightball” with players allowed to hoof the ball upfield, the end result being players ultimately unable to pass the ball with any consistent degree of accuracy. The end result was another seemingly inevitable relegation.

It had happened before, in the 2014-15 season, when William Kvist’s long throw-ins into the penalty box had become Malky Mackay’s principal attacking ploy. Who could have guessed that Warren Joyce and Mackay would create such a blot on the landscape of football when they were first appointed?

Owen Coyle’s long ball tactics and lack of tactical expertise had been no surprise to those of us who had seen his teams play prior to his arrival at Wigan. The surprise was more that Dave Whelan had appointed a manager whose style of football was diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.  The end result in Coyle’s case was a team that should have been challenging for promotion instead languishing in the bottom half of the table. In the cases of Mackay and Joyce the rot was to prove terminal.

Watching Paul Cook’s Chesterfield in the League 1 playoffs a couple of years ago immediately had me reflecting on his days at Wigan. Cook was the kind of player who probably would not have got a place in the teams of managers such as Mackay and Joyce. Harry McNally brought him in as an 18 year old from modest Marine, a club from Crosby who had been regular adversaries for Latics in their days in the Lancashire Combination. But despite his humble footballing origins Cook was a class act, an intelligent footballer with excellent control and a superb left foot. He was a member of Bryan Hamilton’s exciting Latics side of 1985-86, who were desperately unlucky not to be promoted to the second tier, a late run from Derby County pipping them by a single point. Cook continued to be an important player under Ray Mathias, who like Hamilton, encouraged his teams to play good football. But it was no surprise when he was snapped up by Norwich City in 1988, the next step in a career that was to see him go on to amass 642 Football League appearances, scoring 56 goals in the process.

Cook was a cultured player and he expects his teams to play in a similar fashion. He started his managerial career in the lower leagues, spending some six years at Southport, Sligo Rovers and Accrington Stanley before joining Chesterfield in October 2012. His first season saw the Spireites come within two points of the League 2 playoffs, but they were to win the division the following year. They went on to firmly establish themselves in League 1 in 2014-15, reaching 6th place, losing out to Preston North End in the playoffs.

In May 2015 Cook was appointed manager of Portsmouth. Pompey had fallen from the Premier League to 16th place in League 2 within a period of just five years. In 2015-16 Cook lifted them to sixth place and the playoffs, narrowly going down to Plymouth Argyle in the playoffs. They went on to win the division last season under his guidance.

Paul Cook has an impressive 44% win ratio as a manager. Moreover he has done that by insisting that his teams play a version of football akin to that which led Wigan Athletic to the most successful results in their history. Roberto Martinez had led Latics to wins over giants – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United – plus an FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, by playing possession-based football.

As a young player at Wigan Cook was not universally appreciated by the home crowd. There were those who urged him to “get stuck in” and release the ball quicker. Fortunately in Hamilton and Mathias he had managers who appreciated his style of play and who wanted their teams to play good football.  If there was one thing that Cook lacked it was pace. It meant that he was not to play at the highest levels of English football, despite his technical expertise.

It looks like Paul Cook will be signed up as Wigan Athletic’s manager in the next 24 hours.  Once again he will not be popular with all of the fans. Those who prefer a more direct style of play will be left frustrated. It will signal a reversion to the kind of football most recently employed at Wigan by Gary Caldwell, prematurely dismissed in October. The cynics had said that Caldwell could not get promotion out of League 1 playing possession-based football. They were proven wrong as his team went on to win the division.

On Cook’s seemingly impending arrival at Wigan, his ex-boss Mathias remarked to Wigan Today that:

“He has proved he can do it. I know his upbringing and how he’s lived his life. He can be very strong for Wigan and he can be a strong talker when he has to be.”

 Paul Cook is an experienced manager with an excellent track record in the EPL’s lower divisions. He is the right qualities for the job at Wigan Athletic in this moment of time.

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