Carson’s kicking – asset or liability?


In the 1960s Latics signed a promising goalkeeper called Gerry Barrett from Fareham Town. According to the Lancashire Evening Post (as it was called then) the young man was renowned in the Hampshire League for his prodigious kicking of a football.

His reputation proved to be justified. Springfield Park had a big pitch but Barrett’s punts would regularly threaten the opposition penalty area. It was an attacking weapon that Latics used to effect.

Sadly Barrett’s other goalkeeping skills did not match up to his kicking. He was unable to firmly establish himself at the club and his career did not take off as was hoped.

Decades later Latics have another ‘keeper who is a powerful kicker of a football. The 29 year old Scott Carson is a highly experienced and capable goalkeeper, with four England caps under his belt.

As a teenager brought up in Whitehaven, Carson was a promising rugby league player, but chose to follow career in football. A Leeds United scout saw him playing for Workington in the FA Youth Cup and Carson was recruited to the Leeds academy. Although only 18 years old and still not having made his debut for the first team, Carson was called into the England under-21 squad. After a couple of years at Leeds he was transferred to Liverpool for of £750,000.

Last year when Latics played at Charlton the big Cumbrian was given a warm round of applause by the home supporters when he came out for the pre-match warm-up. He had been on loan to the London club in 2006-07, putting in a string of fine performances. Sadly on his return to The Valley as he slipped and injured himself in the warm-up, with Lee Nicholls stepping up in his place.

Carson never quite managed to establish himself at Liverpool and that loan at Charlton was squeezed between a previous spell at Sheffield Wednesday, followed by another at Aston Villa. However, he made his England debut against Austria in November 2007, with a clean sheet. A week later he made an error in a crucial European Championship match against Croatia, allowing a long shot from Nico Krancjar to bounce in front of him, then parrying it into the net. England lost 3-2 and manager Steve McClaren resigned the next day.

In January 2008 he joined West Bromwich Albion for a fee of around £3.3m. During a three and a half year stay at the Hawthorns, Carson made 110 appearances for his club and two more for England. In July 2011 he was transferred to Bursaspor for £2m, who were to finish in 8th place in the Turkish league, conceding only 35 goals in 34 games. The following season Carson made 29 appearances as Bursaspor finished 4th and qualified for the Europa League.

With Ali Al-Habsi out with a long term shoulder injury, Owen Coyle signed Carson from Bursaspor for £700,000 in July 2013. Since then Carson has established himself as the first choice goalkeeper, despite competition from Al-Habsi and Lee Nicholls. Few would argue that Carson has not been Wigan’s best player so far this season, even if his form has dipped over the past month like his teammates.

Carson’s supporters would say that he is Latics’ number one goalkeeper and one of the best in the Championship division. His outstanding saves have kept them in the game on so many occasions. His critics would say that he should have stopped the goals scored from narrow angles by Max Clayton of Bolton and Troy Deeney of Watford and should have been in better positions to prevent headed goals by Craig Davies for Bolton and Alex Revell of Rotherham. They will also say that he seems clueless on penalty kicks.

Like Barrett, so many decades before him, Carson has a very powerful kick. Years ago playing in the Cheshire League Latics would use Barrett’s kicks to attack the opposition defence. It was non-league football and the ball was often in the air. Compared with many of the teams they faced Latics played quite sophisticated football and their supporters would brand the styles of the opposing teams as “big boot” or “kick and rush”. But on the sticky pitches of the time a long ball game was often essential and Barrett’s kicking was a real asset.

These days Latics are playing at a much higher level and the pitches they are playing on are far superior. Moreover possession of the ball has become paramount in the upper echelons of English football. Nevertheless the long ball has come back into play following the exit of Roberto Martinez.

With Owen Coyle in charge, Carson would regularly spear long balls up front. Even Uwe Rosler, whose preferred football style was opposed to the tactic, allowed or encouraged Carson to do the same. Usually Marc-Antoine Fortune was the target, but James McClean too would be expected to head the ball from the touchline. Fortune is not the best of centre forwards in terms of goalscoring, but he found a place in Rosler’s teams through his ability to make something out of Carson’s long clearances.

Sadly Carson’s long balls have become a feature of Malky Mackay’s tactics. So often defenders who have been unable or unwilling to play the ball out of defence have passed the ball back to the big ‘keeper. The end result has been the central defenders of the opposition having a field day. The corpulent centre halves of the Championship are ill at ease with forwards who run at them, but long balls are their bread and butter.

Is Mackay encouraging Carson to make those long kicks? Is it part of his footballing philosophy?

Having said that he is the third Latics manager for whom the goalkeeper has performed in that way.

In the days of Martinez that kind of distribution from a goalkeeper was anathema. His goalkeepers were expected to conserve possession. A short or long throw from the goalkeeper was the norm. Defenders were encouraged to play the ball out of defence, even if on occasions things went awry.

The football currently played by Wigan Athletic under Mackay is close to that which was played under Coyle. The difference was that Coyle had flair players like Jean Beausejour, Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell who made the difference.

Carson is a fine goalkeeper, but his distribution is dire. Rarely does he make a long throw to find an unmarked teammate. So often he launches the long ball that rarely proves successful in moving the team forward.

However, a goalkeeper is dependent on players moving into good positions in order for him to find them accurately with a pass. In a struggling side that is often not the case.

Mackay’s sides have not been known for their flowing, attacking football. However, that does not mean to say that he encourages a route one approach.

Central strikers like Andy Delort and Oriol Riera have struggled with the service they have received since joining the club. It has consisted mostly of long hooves from either the back four or the goalkeeper. One wonders if they would ever have joined the club if they had known that was going to be the norm.

Scott Carson is a quality goalkeeper. However, his distribution of the ball needs to be seriously addressed. So does the low quality distribution he all too often receives from defenders who find it all too easy to pass the ball backwards rather than take the responsibility of building up from the back. Moreover there needs to be more off the ball movement from players willing to accept the burden of possession from a goalkeeper’s pass.

Let’s not put the clock back to Gerry Barrett’s day when Latics were a non-league team. There is no excuse for an excessive use of the long ball in high level football in this day and age.

Malky Mackay please note.

Rubin Kazan 1 Wigan Athletic 0 – route one Latics go down

Central Stadium, Kazan

The Central Stadium with the impressive Kazan Kremlin as its backdrop.

Some 150 Latics supporters made the long and expensive journey to Kazan. They deserved something better than this.

There have been worse performances by Latics in recent years and a 1-0 loss away to a team with a strong European pedigree does not look so bad. But it was so depressing to see Wigan Athletic playing a brand of football that has been the hallmark of teams like Bolton and Stoke.

Young Lee Nicholls continued in goal in place of the injured Scott Carson. Coyle brought back Thomas Rogne at centre back, with Ryan Shotton moving over to right back in place of Emmerson Boyce. Stephen Crainey came in at left back for James Perch, who moved in to midfield. At long last Roger Espinoza was given a start lining up, with captain for the night, James McArthur, to complete a central midfield trio. Callum McManaman and James McClean played wide, with Grant Holt being recalled at centre forward.

Latics started cautiously, with hopeful balls forward their only weapon. It looked like they were looking for a goalless draw. However, after 22 minutes that possibility evaporated.

In one of the few quality moves in the whole match Rubin’s Israeli midfield player Bibras Natkho put a lovely pass over Stephen Crainey’s head. Full back Oleg Kuzmin raced through and put in a powerful shot that went straight through rookie keeper Lee Nicholls and into the net.

Apart from putting the big men up for set pieces Latics posed little threat. The only quality move of note was when Espinoza put in a superb long cross from the left wing. Holt rose well but was not able to keep the header down and it went over the crossbar. The rest of Latics football in the first half was forgettable, with Rubin not much better.

Wigan came out in the second half with more resolve and started to take the game to Rubin. The approach was ‘Route One’. It looked like we were watching Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, but then were echoes of Stoke as Shotton put a series of long throw-ins into the penalty box.

Using this method Latics were able to put pressure on the home defence, without creating clear-cut chances. Coyle took off the hapless Perch after 60 minutes and Nick Powell came on. The youngster soon went on a mazy run before unleashing a good shot from 30 yards that went just wide. For the remaining 30 minutes the talented teenager was to see the ball go over his head most of the time.

Coyle brought on Marc Antoine Fortune for the cumbersome Holt after 71 minutes, then Jordi Gomez for McManaman three minutes later.  Soon after another superb cross from Espinoza was met by Rogne, whose header hit the crossbar.

In the end an out of form Rubin team gained a victory that practically puts them through to the knockout stages.

The Good

Latics played with spirit and commitment.

Roger Espinoza made a successful return, his energy and work rate being second to none. Moreover he provided moments of quality together with his incisive running.  The crosses he put in for Holt and Rogne were inch perfect.

The Bad

Once again Coyle showed a lack of tactical awareness.

He sent out a cautious lineup with three holding midfielders. For the second time this season Coyle put James Perch into a midfield role. He must have realized his mistake when he took Perch off on the hour. I might run the risk of repeating myself, but Coyle has an abundance of quality midfield players at his disposal. To put someone as technically limited as Perch in that position is hard to understand.

Holt was not the right man to start at centre forward in this match. He looked slow and out of touch. The more mobile Fortune would have been a better choice, but maybe Coyle had Sunday’s game at Yeovil on his mind. The French Guyanan is not particularly effective at jumping for the high balls which were the mode of operation for Latics in the second half.

The wide players, McManaman and McClean, were not able to get into the game. On the few occasions McManaman did run at the defence he was fouled. Latics wide play is just not getting the results it should.  Without Boyce on the right of defence McManaman was starved of decent passes. The Route One approach did not help in this game.

It seems to be ingrained in this Latics team that the long ball is the tactic in the second half. The quality players in midfield and on the wings become marginalized as defenders hoof the ball forward.

The back four in this match were all Coyle signings.They were either incapable or unwilling to play the ball out of defence in the way that the likes of Caldwell, Scharner and Alcaraz would. Or were they putting through those hopeful long passes under the manager’s instructions?

Player Ratings

Lee Nicholls: 5 – a tough European baptism for the young keeper.

Ryan Shotton: 5 – defensively solid, but his distribution was awful.

Thomas Rogne: 6 – solid in defence and unlucky to hit the woodwork yet again. Needs to work on his passing.

Leon Barnett: 6 – solid in defence, but poor in distribution.

Stephen Crainey: 5 – just does not look the part although used the ball more effectively than on previous occasions.

James Perch: 4 – poor. Taken off after 60 minutes.

James McArthur: 5 – could not put his stamp on the game.

Roger Espinoza: 7 – made some errors in his passing, but his energy and creativity were a real asset.

Callum McManaman: 5 – systematically fouled and heavily marked. Came off after 74 minutes.

Grant Holt: 4 – out of touch. Taken off after 71 minutes.

James McClean: 5 – the fingers pointed at him for not marking his full back when Rubin scored. An enigma – full of promise but does not deliver.


Nick Powell: – did what he could, but the style of play did not suit him. What a player he might have been had he come to Wigan a year earlier!

Jordi Gomez: – hardly saw the ball.

Marc Antoine Fortune: – heavily marked except on one occasion when he shot into the side netting with unmarked players waiting for the ball in the box.

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Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.