Another Cup or League dilemma?

Can Paul Cook emulate Gary Caldwell by winning League 1? Or will the FA Cup get in the way?
Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

 

Wigan Athletic have a habit of giving the media something to feed upon. Dave Whelan certainly gave them plenty of ammunition when he appointed Malky Mackay and consequently made politically incorrect comments that the press lapped up. But he also appointed Roberto Martinez, who brought home the biggest prize in the club’s history amid worldwide media acclaim.

That FA Cup win will remain in our collective memories for years to come. Moreover it created a story that the media found irresistible. As a result Wigan Athletic became known on the world stage and it is no surprise that they are now about to be taken over by a Far East consortium.

Prior to that fateful day in May 2013 there were debates among Latics fans about what was more important – the league or the cup. There were two extremely difficult games coming up within the space of a few days: Manchester City at Wembley and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. The bookmakers did not think Wigan Athletic could win either game.  In the event Roberto Martinez managed to fashion a team out of an injury-ravaged squad which went on to win the FA Cup on merit. It was a dream come true, especially for those of us who had seen the club rise from its humble origins over the years. That old debate is now settled – who would want to put the clock back and swap a cup win for a longer stay in the Premier League?

Almost five years later and a parallel debate is opening up following Monday’s remarkable win against the same club. Some in the media are saying Manchester City are the best team in the world. It remains to be seen whether they can win the Champions League, then the World Club Cup to justify that label. But they have certainly been outstanding up to this point in all competitions bar the FA Cup. That a club from the third tier could knock them out beggars belief, even if they played half of the game with ten men.

It was the third FA Cup giant-killing act by Wigan Athletic against Manchester City in five years. In that 2013 Cup Final, Wigan had 48% possession, equaling City in shots with 11 and committing 5 fouls to their opponents’ 11. A year later Uwe Rosler’s team won 2-1 at the Etihad in the quarter finals, the stats perhaps being reflective of Wigan’s status as a Championship division team, having 32% possession, 5 shots to City’s 12, each team committing 10 fouls. The stats from Monday’s game reflect what a remarkable performance it was from a side currently in League 1. City had 82% possession and 29 shots to Wigan’s 4 , but could not get a goal. Wigan conceded 11 fouls, although a number of those decisions were debatable, City committing 6.

The application, effort and discipline required to hold off the continuous waves of City attacks was remarkable and reflects on the mentality Paul Cook has instilled into his players. It was another unforgettable day for Latics fans.

So, Wigan Athletic have reached the last 8 of the FA Cup for the third time in the last half decade. A sixth-round home tie with Southampton beckons. What chance do Latics have of beating the Saints?

“Believe” remains the Wigan Athletic theme. Lots of fans will say that Latics have already beaten three Premier League sides, including the champions-elect, so why not Southampton too?

The realists will point out that Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City fielded weakened teams. If Southampton play their strongest lineup then they are likely to overcome third tier Wigan.

But will the victory over Manchester City, followed by another tie with Southampton in mid-March have an impact on Wigan’s quest to get back to the Championship division? Is the FA Cup a distraction that could cost Latics promotion?

The defeats at Southend and at home to Blackpool were an unwelcome surprise for a team that had seemed to be cruising towards the League 1 title. Some suggested that the impending takeover might have something to do with what was happening on the pitch. Others pointed to the upcoming game against Manchester City being a major distraction for the players. Or was it simply a matter of time until that good run would come to such a resounding halt?

Moreover, Monday’s heroic performance could carry a heavy toll. The sheer exertion of running for 90+ minutes with just 18% possession is something that should not be dismissed. In addition to the next FA Cup encounter, Latics have played three games less than their promotion rivals, leaving them 15 league games to play in a 10 week period. Fans will recall the long run-in that Uwe Rosler’s side faced in 2013-14, which left them jaded for the Championship play-offs. However, that season not only included a run to an FA Cup Semi Final but also six games in the Europa League.

Paul Cook’s team will be on a psychological high after that amazing performance. The question is whether they will have the stamina to cope with the bread-and-butter events of League 1. Cook is not a man who likes to rotate his squad, but he will surely have to do so over the coming weeks if Latics are to keep up their momentum for promotion.

Cook’s main challenge is to keep his players firmly focused on League 1. A win against Southampton would put Latics in the FA Cup semi-final once more, but a return to the Championship is surely the club’s main focus.

In the meantime, reports suggest that both Cook and David Sharpe travelled to Spain this week. Not surprisingly it is being linked to the change in ownership, which appears due to be completed by the end of this month. But perhaps it was to celebrate Cook’s birthday (February 22)?

Following the cup tie Cook’s popularity ratings have reached an all-time high at Wigan. He has done a wonderful job up to this point but there remain considerable hurdles to cross  over the next couple of months.

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Charlton Athletic 0 – five talking points

 

On paper it looked like a home banker, but a low-energy Latics struggled to find their way around Karl Robinson’s parked bus. With his squad ravaged by injury the normally more positive Charlton manager decided to make it as difficult as possible for Wigan to score.

After the game Paul Cook opined that:

“We have to respect that when teams come to the DW now, they are going to come with different ways to frustrate us. Tonight was no different to Plymouth and Northampton, but in those games we managed to get a goal, unfortunately tonight we didn’t and that can be football. If we would have won tonight and it would have been 1-0 we’d have all been euphoric and we would have been delighted.”

Sam Morsy had almost given Latics that crucial goal in stoppage time, but his deflected shot hit the post. It just was not to be Wigan’s night.

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

A need for some degree of rotation

Cook decided to rest Reece James, bringing in Callum Elder. But despite playing their third game in a space of six days, there were no other rotations.

So many players looked jaded and the high-energy approach that has produced Wigan’s best performances of the season was sadly absent. In its place was a ponderously slow build up, interspersed with hopeful long crosses.

Uwe Rosler might have been nicknamed “Tinkerman” for his constant squad rotations, but Cook goes to the other extreme. Not only did he fail to freshen up his starting lineup, but he introduced his second and third substitutes five minutes before the end.

Home entertainment

Given the way so many visiting teams this season have “parked the bus”, the entertainment value for home fans at the DW Stadium has not been the best. An early goal for Latics can open up the game, but that does not always happen. A flying start is crucial and it is important that Wigan employ the high press from the start, putting the visiting defence under intense pressure. But high pressing requires a physical demand that the players were not up to yesterday.

Away games have generally been more entertaining this season. Latics have scored 28 goals on the road and 21 at home, although they have played two more games at the DW than away from home.

The other night I was watching Newcastle parking the bus in a home game against Manchester City. I felt sorry for the home crowd. Heaven help us if League 1 sides consistently do that when hosting Latics.

Too many games

As Paul Cook would say, League 1 is an endurance, a marathon. Each team plays 46 games, which means that they always have their eyes on the next one coming up. A team that is two goals up in a game will so often look to consolidate its lead, rather than extend it. Moreover, key players might be removed from the field of play before the 90 minutes are up.

The Christmas/New Year period highlights the issue. In a space of eight days, between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Latics will have played four games. Historically the holiday season has been the one in which attendances soar, but with so many fixtures condensed in a short period few teams will be able to excel in all the matches.

Wigan have won one and drawn two since Boxing Day. A win at Northampton would be welcome in maintaining the momentum at the top of the table.

Two strikers

Cook is no fan of a twin striker formation, but he brought Ivan Toney on for a jaded Gavin Massey after 59 minutes, putting him up front with Will Grigg. It allowed the option of launching long balls to the two. It was a gambit worth trying and they did get heads on to some of the long balls, but with no end result. Despite Grigg’s uplifting hat trick against Oxford, he has not delivered in the last couple of games.

So many Latics fans remember the days of Ellington and Roberts with affection. Since then the game has changed, although some teams still play 4-4-2. But would you give a duo of Toney and Grigg  preference over the 4-2-3-1 system that has served Latics so well under Cook?

Parking the bus

Playing with ten or eleven men in massed defence is, unfortunately, a far too common sight in the modern game. Professional football is basically an entertainment sport, but such tactics detract from the game. Roberto Martinez’ men showed in the 2013 FA Cup Final that a team of underdogs can beat the most expensively assembled squad in the world by sticking to their principles and trying to play good football. But how many managers have the bravery and belief of Martinez?

Paul Cook deserves to be commended for his comments on “parking the bus”:

“With the greatest respect, Christian hasn’t made a save again, but the emphasis…and we’re seeing it a lot in the modern game…and we’ll never do it, I don’t care who we play, we’ll never park the bus. While I’m manager of this club, I don’t care who we play, at home or away, we won’t do it.”

If only there were more like PC and RM…….

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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.

Joyce has gone – time to BELIEVE again

Do we BELIEVE that Latics can get out of this predicament? Table thanks to Statto.com

David Sharpe did the right thing today by dismissing Warren Joyce and his close associate Andy Welsh. Some might say the chairman deserves praise for swallowing his pride and realising he did the wrong thing in November. But Sharpe is pragmatic enough to know that if he had kept Joyce in charge, Latics would surely have been doomed to relegation.

One of the fundamental building blocks in Wigan Athletic’s rise from the fourth tier to mingle for so long with the elite clubs of English football was sheer BELIEF. It was the belief of Dave Whelan in his managers – Paul Jewell, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez – that led to the club to an FA Cup, a League Cup Final and eight years in the Premier League. Whelan backed them, not only with his chequebook, but with his driving ambition to hold Wigan Athletic up there.

There were certainly sticky moments along the way, but there was always the hope that things would turn out alright in the end. They did apart from that fatal night at the Emirates, just three days after Ben Watson’s unforgettable goal had won them the Cup. But Whelan had chosen his managers wisely.

Jewell’s teams were built on solid defence, but always had flair players in attack. Whelan opted for continuity when Jewell left, giving the post to his assistant, Chris Hutchings. Sadly it did not work out and Hutchings was gone after barely three months in charge. Bruce came back to the club, Whelan backed him in the transfer market and he righted a foundering ship. His teams were based on a solid defence protected by a rugged midfield, but with a good smattering of flair players to provide balance.

Martinez was brought in to keep Latics in the Premier League on a much reduced budget. He went on to produce the best results in the club’s history, away wins at Arsenal and Liverpool, the club’s one and only victory at home to Manchester United, that epic victory on cup final day. Martinez was a great ambassador for the club, through his insistence that his teams compete against star-studded opposition by sticking to the principles of skilful possession football. The FA Cup victory against Manchester City was no fluke: Wigan had played the better football on the day, with not a hint of skulduggery.

Was Whelan just lucky with his appointments of Jewell, Bruce and Martinez or did he have a vision of what they would do? If he was lucky with those three, he certainly was not with his appointment of Owen Coyle. Neither was he in appointing Malky Mackay and his grandson made a similarly woeful appointment in Warren Joyce. None of those three names – Coyle, Mackay, Joyce – became synonymous with good football at Wigan Athletic. Indeed it was quite the reverse.

But Whelan did make a good appointment in Uwe Rosler, who picked up the mess left by Coyle and got Latics to the FA Cup Semi Final and the Championship playoffs. Sadly the going got rough in Rosler’s second season, but rather than showing faith in a manager who had achieved so much, Whelan showed him the door, bringing in the hapless Mackay. Sharpe did a similar thing with Gary Caldwell, who had only months before won the League 1 title. His replacement was the inept Joyce.

Sharpe has done the right thing for the moment. The odds are that Latics will not be able to avoid relegation, but without the shackles imposed by Joyce the players can make things happen. Few of us really and truly believed that Joyce was the right man for Wigan. To BELIEVE that Joyce could save the club from relegation was asking too much, given his obsession with the defensive side of the game and the hoofball we were witnessing.

Graham Barrow has been appointed caretaker manager again. Barrow is a survivor who has seen six managers come and go since rejoining the club in 2009. Barrow is not the kind of coach who will throw caution to the wind, but we can expect him to field line ups that are more balanced that we saw under Joyce. Due attention will be paid to the offence, as well as the defence.

With Barrow in charge we at least have a hope that we can BELIEVE our team can avoid the drop.

Courtesy of Statto.com

 

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Will injuries haunt Caldwell?

Roberto Martinez had bad luck with injuries in his final season at Wigan. Will Gary Caldwell prove more fortunate in his promotion push?

Roberto Martinez had bad luck with injuries in his final season at Wigan. Will Gary Caldwell prove more fortunate in his promotion push?

Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis are now playing for UD Las Palmas and Eibar in the Primera Division of La Liga. Both were fine centre backs in their time, strong in defence and comfortable on the ball.  In fact they were the kinds of players that Roberto Martinez liked to have in the centre of his defence.

Ramis was signed from Real Mallorca in the summer of 2012, to supplement the centre of defence of a team that had beaten the best in England in the final months of the previous season.  Alcaraz had starred in that run, playing in a backline of three with Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa. Ramis had a fine record in La Liga and looked an excellent signing by Martinez. The squad that Martinez had built up was probably the strongest Wigan Athletic had had in their history. Our hopes were high as the season approached.

The Paraguayan and Spaniard played together in the centre of defence for the first three games of the season, a 2-0 home loss to Chelsea being followed by an away win by the same margin at Southampton and a resounding 4-1 League Cup victory at Nottingham Forest. But that was to be the last match in which they featured together. Alcaraz had picked up an injury and did not return to first team action until February. In his absence Ramis stablished himself as a regular, solid in defence, with excellent distribution.  Sadly Ramis’ season was to end in January when he picked up an anterior cruciate knee injury at Fulham.

Injuries to key players were to be the main factor in Wigan Athletic’s relegation from the Premier League that season. Indeed by the time the FA Cup Final came in May, Martinez was deprived of not only Ramis, but also of fellow central defenders Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa and wing back Jean Beausejour. Midfielders Roger Espinoza and James McArthur were to be employed as wing backs, with a back three of Alcaraz, Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. But, not surprisingly, the energy dissipated in that fabulous victory was to be lacking three days later when the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal sent Latics to the Championship.

Neither Alcaraz nor Ramis was able to reach their peak form again in the future. Martinez was to take Alcaraz with him to Everton, but the big Paraguayan was to struggle with injury and poor form, his release at the end of last season proving no surprise. Following a long period of recuperation Ramis had some good moments under Owen Coyle and Uwe Rosler, but niggling injuries were to constantly plague him. He was subsequently released by Malky Mackay in January 2015 to join Levante in La Liga.

Both UD Las Palmas and Eibar would have known of the two players’ injury issues prior to signing them this summer. Each signed a one year deal.  They are clearly calculated gambles by newly promoted clubs looking for experienced central defenders to do a short term job for them in a highly competitive league. Up to this point Alcaraz has played in all five league games for UD and Ramis in the first four for Eibar.

Gary Caldwell’s acquisition of Kevin McNaughton was also a calculated gamble. McNaughton has been a fine player in his time in the Premier League and Championship, but injury meant he only made 9 appearances for Bolton Wanderers last season. The 32 year old had fallen out of favour with Neil Lennon who had been critical of the player’s fitness. McNaughton’s his misery was compounded by a fractured fibula at the beginning of March in a match against Reading. It had been his first start since October. McNaughton is on a one year contract at Wigan.

Given the return to Everton of Jonjoe Kenny following a two month loan, Caldwell will be hoping that McNaughton will make a swift recovery from the hamstring injury that has kept him out since the Gillingham game a month ago. In the meantime he will either look for an out-of-contract or loan signing to provide further cover at right back/wing back, although midfielders Tim Chow and Max Power have experience in that position.

Caldwell took a bigger gamble in signing the 29 year old Craig Davies from Bolton on a two year contract. The big striker has had his fill of injury problems in his career, but none more than last season when he was restricted to just three starts from the turn of the year following a succession of hamstring problems.

After a series of excellent displays Davies missed the Fleetwood match with a hamstring injury. However, Caldwell explained to Wigan Today that:

“We knew his history when we signed him, and I have to say the fitness coaches and the physios have done magnificent with him. The actual injury he has now is on the other leg and is very minor for a hamstring injury. We’re looking after him very well and I’m sure he’ll be back stronger than ever.”

At his best, Davies is surely among the top central strikers in League 1. The question is whether he can overcome his hamstring problems and stay fit.

Other than McNaughton and Davies, Latics were also without Will Grigg, Francisco Junior, Craig Morgan and Haris Vuckic and for the Fleetwood game.

Grigg has torn ligaments in his elbow and missed the Fleetwood match after previously being away for international duty.  Morgan damaged his shoulder against Crewe on August 29th and Vuckic injured his ankle at Port Vale.

Junior has not played for a month due to a muscle injury, having been substituted at half time at Gillingham.

All of the six would surely challenge for a place in the starting line-up were they fit.

Injuries can make or break a club’s season, as Martinez found out in 2012-13.

It is to be hoped that Caldwell will have more good fortune in this regard than his ex-boss. Given their recent history Davies and McNaughton will have a challenge on their hands to regain their fitness and maintain it over the course the season. Caldwell and his coaches know that and will carefully monitor the two players’ fitness.

In the meantime Caldwell will be hoping that there will be no long term injuries to key players this season. Latics have had more than their fair share of those over recent years. Maybe the pendulum will turn in their favour this time around?

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