“I want to smash the division with 100 points”.
They could have been the words of Dave Whelan prior to the opening of the 2002-03 season. But they weren’t. The comment, or something close to it, was made by his grandson thirteen years later.
Wigan Athletic did smash the third tier – then known as the Second Division – in that 2002-03 season. They only lost four league games all season and finished with 100 points.
Although they played a 4-4-2 formation with attacking intent it was their superb defensive record that was their real strength. They conceded only 25 goals in 46 league matches. Goalkeeper John Filan started in all 46 league matches. Central defenders Matt Jackson and Jason De Vos started in 45 and 43 respectively. Moreover right back Nicky Eaden made 37 league starts. That experienced and capable quartet was to provide the consistent defensive stability that their team needed to mount its promotion push.
“I guarantee you a 20 goal per season striker”.
The 2002-03 team did not have one, in the league at least, where Andy Liddell scored 16 and Nathan Ellington 15. But if cup games are included then Ellington’s total rises above the 20 mark.
We are already a third of the way through the 2015-16 season in League 1 and Latics have already lost three league games and conceded 18 goals. Although Will Grigg has already scored 6 goals and could well be the 20 goal striker that David Sharpe was seeking, even the young chairman would now surely admit that his 100 point prediction was a trifle over-optimistic. There is no way the current side is going to equal the achievement of its predecessor of 13 years ago. But that does not mean that they cannot achieve automatic promotion or even win the division.
The circumstances can hardly be more different. It had been Paul Jewell’s second season at Wigan following his previous three years in management at Bradford City and Sheffield Wednesday. Dave Whelan had given him the funds to lure experienced professionals who had played at higher levels to play in the third tier. Latics had never been higher than the third tier, but Jewell had managed to win the title by a 14 point margin. The club was very much “on the up” in those days.
Gary Caldwell took over with the club at low ebb. The rookie manager took charge for a handful of games in the Championship, but could not work miracles with the inadequate squad he had inherited and relegation happened. His remit then became huge. He was to almost completely rebuild the playing staff of the club, cut the wage bill drastically, bring back a style of football that typified “The Wigan Way” and to get promotion this season.
Although they are not on track to rival the record of the 2002-03 team, can Caldwell’s team nevertheless win promotion? Moreover if it does can Caldwell then emulate the achievements of Jewell by getting Latics to the Premier League?
Jewell’s second division title winning squad provided a strong base for the following two seasons in the second tier. Filan, Eaden and Jackson continued as defensive lynchpins, together with Ian Breckin who had been brought in later in the 2002-03 season. The young Leighton Baines was to establish himself as the first choice left back. Jimmy Bullard and Lee McCulloch were regulars in midfield and Gary Teale played on the right wing in most games. However, Jewell’s masterstroke was to sign Jason Roberts as a partner for the dynamic Ellington up front. The promotion winning team of 2004-05 once more had a backbone of players who seemed to play in almost every game. In fact no less than seven of them made 42 league starts or more.
With two 20 goals a season strikers in Ellington and Roberts, Jewell’s 2004-05 team had scored more goals than the team that had “blown away” the third tier. But once again they had the best defensive record in the division, this time conceding just 35 goals.
The implications for Caldwell’s team are clear. Decide on your best back line and stick with it as much as you can. Defensive cohesion results through having a consistent backline. Moreover cultivate players who can do a good job for the club long-term, those who can raise their play to another level if the club gets promoted.
Given his remit at the end of the 2014-15 season Caldwell has done a remarkable job. His teams are playing a brand of football in style his chairman would call “The Wigan Way” and despite a huge turnover in playing staff they are already in the playoff zone. However, if he is going to have a backbone of players who can play week in-week out as those of the Jewell era did then he is going to hope that injuries do not rear their ugly head.
Jewell used 20 players in his division-smashing 2002-03 league season. Caldwell has already used 27 in league games just a third of the way through the season. It is only in recent games that the injury list has reduced. Now that is squad is almost fully active he is in a wonderful position compared with any other manager in the division. Caldwell and his colleagues have put together a squad good enough to win automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove excessive. Moreover he has young players in the squad who are already showing signs that they can operate in a higher level. He has not only built a squad to challenge for promotion, but one that could provide the backbone for competing at the Championship level should they get the chance.
A settled backline appears crucial to the promotion chances. But that remains a work in progress. Caldwell has brought in Jassi Jaaskelainen to dominate the penalty area in a way that Richard O’Donnell had not previously been able to do. But one wonders if O’Donnell might have saved some of the shots that the big Finn has let in. Moreover Jason Pearce has been bogged by injury problems, but is now back in contention. Is Caldwell willing to sacrifice Chris McCann’s superb distribution from the back for Pearce’s more reliable defending? Donervon Daniels has done a fine job in the right wing back position, but will he be moved back into his favoured place in the back three? Will Donald Love stake his place as an automatic choice at right wing back?
Over the coming matches Caldwell will surely look at establishing a consistent backline. The manager remains under constant pressure from fans to play attacking football, but as an ex-central defender he will surely recognise the need for defensive stability.
Latics currently have the seventh best defensive record in League 1. Lessons from the past tell us that it needs to improve significantly if the side is going to win promotion.