Caldwell’s summer shopping list

Will Grigg has been on fire but the dust has now settled on Wigan Athletic’s achievement of winning League 1. Now it is time to look ahead to the start of the Championship season on August 6th.

shoppingGary Caldwell will surely be relieved that he will not have to go through the massive restructuring of last summer. But at the same time he will know that the current squad will need strengthening if Latics are to hold their own in the higher division. At least half a dozen reinforcements are likely to be brought in.

Caldwell’s immediate priority will be to deal with players out of contract and players who have come in or gone out on loan.

Caldwell has already secured the services of Stephen Warnock for the next couple of seasons following a very successful loan from Derby County. Warnock has looked a class act in League 1, whether playing as a left back or on the left side of a back line of three. However, he is 34 years of age and it comes as a surprise that a contract of more than a year was offered.

Rumours also suggest that Caldwell is trying to tie up a deal with Everton for Conor McAleny. The 23 year old scored 4 goals in his 9 starts and 4 appearances as a substitute since joining Wigan on loan in January. McAleny’s career has been dogged by injury, but Caldwell must feel reasonably confident that the player can maintain a good level of fitness. McAleny can hit the ball as hard as anyone, as evident on the screamers he scored at Walsall and Shrewsbury.

Haris Vuckic is the third loan player who finished the season for Latics. The 23 year old Slovenian has a great left foot and can both score and create goals. The question mark over Vuckic has been his fitness. He made 5 starts for Latics, but never completed the 90 minutes. Vuckic has reportedly gone back to Newcastle and given his inability to establish himself at Wigan it is unlikely he will be sought after by Caldwell.

Caldwell has the option of bringing back three players who were packed off on loan to other clubs at the start of last season. With Reece James and Stephen Warnock, Latics do not need another left back, so it is likely that Andrew Taylor will once again be sent away on loan until his contract expires in June 2017.

Billy Mckay was given minimal opportunities at Wigan, but has scored 12 goals in 28 starts for Dundee United who finished bottom of the SPL. However, it is reported that there is interest in him from other Scottish clubs and it is unlikely he will return.

The prospect of Emyr Huws playing in midfield with the likes of Max Power is mouth-watering, but it appears that he might have burnt his bridges at Wigan. Huws is a combative midfielder who oozes class, but comments attributed to him as not wanting to play for Latics when they were going down to League 1 were unfortunate to say the least. Moreover it appears that the ankle problem the player suffered at Wigan has continued to plague him. Huws has another two years to run on his contract and the likelihood is that Latics would accept any reasonable transfer fee put forward.

There are seven players out of contract. Both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann were recruited by Owen Coyle in the days when the club’s annual salary bill was well above what we can expect for the near future. Barnett is an experienced ex-Premier League player, but has found it difficult to adjust to the possession football that Caldwell demands. McCann on the other hand has thrived under Caldwell. The Scot has not only called on him to play in the centre of defence as he did at times under Uwe Rosler, but has reinvented the big Irishman as a wing back. Although Barnett’s stay at the club looks to be coming to a close, Caldwell will be keen to retain McCann, although he will have to ask the player to take a significant salary cut if he wants to stay.

Reece Wabara was signed on a short term contract in January, since when he made 14 starts with 3 appearances off the bench. Although Wabara has by no means played badly, neither has he convinced us that he must stay. Wabara is already being linked with other clubs and rumours suggest he is on his way out of the club.

Kevin McNaughton missed most of the season out through injury and although the 33 year old Scot is an accomplished full back it is unlikely Caldwell will offer him a further contract.

The positions of three younger players who are out of contract are unclear. The 23 year old goalkeeper Lee Nicholls has amassed nine league appearances over his five years or so at the club. He has had loan spells at six clubs, his most successful being in 2012-13 when he was an ever-present for Northampton Town. Fan opinions on Nicholls vary. Some say that he is the kind of commanding keeper that Latics need and that successive managers have never given him the chance he has deserved. Others cite a lack of concentration, that some of the goals he has conceded should have been easily saved. Rarely has the rift in fan opinion been more apparent than in the last game of the season. On the Vital Latics forum 18% of readers voted him ‘’Man of the Match’’ whereas others slated him for all four Barnsley goals. The signing of young Dan Lavercombe from Torquay in January could prove a key factor in the decision whether or not Nicholls will be offered a new contract.

The other two young players whose contracts are due to expire are Jordan Flores and Ryan Jennings, both 20 years old. It was always going to be hard for young, inexperienced players to break their way into a team aiming for promotion. Both have certainly showed promise, although only Flores played in league games this past season. He made two league starts, both in September, scoring a fine goal against Fleetwood but getting sent off at Oldham a week later. Flores has had injury issues, but he has a great left foot and shows some silky skills. Jennings made his senior Latics debut as a substitute in the League Cup game against Bury and has been on loan at Grimsby and Cheltenham, making a total of 9 starts and 9 appearances as a substitute.

So what are the areas that need strengthening?

David Sharpe has recently made it clear that Latics will not be spending big money to bring in players in their late twenties or beyond. However, that does not preclude money being spent on young players who have already shown what they can do at other clubs. Any more experienced players coming in are likely to be free agents or those available at knockdown prices.

With Jussi Jaaskelainen now 41 years old, Caldwell is likely to seek an experienced goalkeeper to challenge the Finn for his place. Rumours suggest that they will once again try to sign the 32 year old Andy Lonerghan. The ex-Preston and Bolton man has a wealth of experience and is midway through a two year contract at Fulham.

Right back was a problem position last season and Caldwell will be keen to recruit someone who can fill the bill. Donald Love (21) could be that player should Latics be able to persuade Manchester United to part with him for a reasonable fee. Love’s loan spell at Latics was interrupted by injury and call-ups from the Scotland under-21 team, but he did enough to suggest that he would be a good investment for Wigan.

Caldwell will also be looking for a quality central defender with the speed to cope with pacey Championship forwards. With the likely departure of Barnett it will be a priority.

Rumour suggests that Latics are interested in the 31 year old Darren Pratley, a holding midfielder with a wealth of experience with over 300 appearances under his belt at Swansea and Bolton. Together with the 22 year old Danny Whitehead, signed from Macclesfield Town in January, Caldwell would be adding a balance of youth and experience to his midfield if he were to sign Pratley.

Caldwell will also seek another centre forward. Much depended on Grigg last season and Latics need alternatives in case he is called up for international duty or injured. Craig Davies had his most injury-free season for some time, but was only used as a substitute in the second half of the season. Caldwell will broaden his options by going for a third central striker.

Should Vuckic not be returning, another left footed winger/creative player would help maintain a balance. Ryan Colclough, Michael Jacobs, Conor McAleny and Yanic Wildschut are all right footed although Andy Kellett can play a left footed role on the right of midfield.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job over the past year. Their next challenge is to find half a dozen new recruits who can add further balance to a squad that is going to have to come to grips with playing at a higher level this coming season.

An enjoyable evening at Firhill – Partick Thistle 1 Wigan Athletic 1

Photo courtesy of Tim Attree.

Photo courtesy of Tim Attree.

What an enjoyable time it was last night at Firhill. The pleasant and friendly atmosphere at the stadium was lifted even further by a bright performance from a young Latics team.  They played not only with organisation and enterprise, but with no mean level of skill.

The last time I went to watch a football match in Glasgow was not long after England had won the World Cup. I had travelled down from Dundee with a couple of friends from university to watch a tense England-Scotland game at Hampden Park. The atmosphere was totally intimidating for an England fan. Being naïve at the time we had not realized that the tickets we had bought were at the Celtic end, where we stood among fans wearing colours of both club and country. We were perhaps wise to keep a low profile as the crowd was to constantly jeer the German referee, Rudolf Kreitlein, whom they thought was allowing England too much leeway. It ended in a 0-0 draw.

Hampden Park was certainly a scary venue to visit at the time for an Englishman living in Scotland. But that was a long time ago, so when one of those same two friends told me a week ago he would join me on a trip to our old haunts in Dundee I suggested we combine it with a trip to Firhill. I had watched Partick Thistle play at Dens Park and Tannadice so many times during my seven years in the port city. They were one of my favourite visiting teams, always seemingly intent on playing good football, easily identified by their distinctive red and yellow shirts.

Firhill is nothing like Hampden. It is a small stadium with a capacity of around 10,000. Thistle have not actually played in Partick since 1908, when they moved to the Firhill Stadium in nearby Maryhill. Being less than half an hour’s walk from Sauchiehull Street it is closer to the city centre than Ibrox or Celtic Park. They are a small club in a big city, living within their means, without inflated ambitions.

Gary Caldwell set up his team in a 3-5-2 formation. Lee Nicholls was in goal. There was a return to the starting lineup for both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann, who lined up in a back three marshaled by the dominating Craig Morgan in the centre. Loan singing Jonjo Kenny played at right wing back with Jordan Flores on the left. The second loanee, Francisco Junior, was to play in front of the back four, with Ryan Jennings and trialist John Lundstram pushed a little further forward in midfield. Billy Mckay and Louis Robles played up front.

With such a mixed lineup it seemed inevitable that Latics would lack some cohesion, but they were well organized and every player seemed to know his role. Both teams were there to try to play good football and it was an open contest. As the game progressed Latics were to gain more cohesion. A slow start had been inevitable.

Junior was a tireless worker in midfield, not only through tackles and interceptions, but also in making himself available to receive the ball from the defenders in tight situations. It is the type of midfield play that was lacking last season. Kenny attacked with gusto and looked a fine player, although at times he left Barnett exposed. Flores worked hard in an unfamiliar role.

Morgan was captain for the night and will clearly be the main pillar upon which the defence will be built this season. McCann played with more enthusiasm than we have seen from him for a long time. Uwe Rosler had used him at times in that role on the left of the backline of three, where his steel in the tackle and cultured distribution come to the fore. On the other side Barnett was strong in the air but looked vulnerable under pressure. Like so many other players at the club, Barnett lost his confidence last season and just did not look like the player he was in 2013-14. On the positive side at least he was given some game time to try to get himself back in shape.

Nicholls was dominant in goal, constantly calling for his defenders to get in position. He had no chance for Steven Lawless’ goal not long after half time, the shot passing through Barnett’s legs, with the keeper unsighted.

Lundstram looked useful in patches, but could not impose himself on the game, being taken off at half time for David Perkins. It was Jennings who was to catch the eye in an unfamiliar central midfield role where he had the licence to run at the opposition defence. He scored a fine goal in the 51st minutes following Thistle’s opener, receiving a layoff from Robles on the edge of the area, his low shot beating the keeper. The 20 year old will surely now be challenging for a regular place in the lineup.

Perkins’ signing was hardly greeted with universal approval by fans, looking like another journeyman was arriving as in the days of Malky Mackay. But what we saw last night was a hard working holding midfielder with a nice touch on the ball, fitting seamlessly into Caldwell’s style of play.

Billy Mckay looked lively, willing to run at the defence, but he let himself down by skewing his shot wide of an open goal from Robles’ cut back. Robles himself was industrious and gave a good account of himself.

The second half saw a slew of substitutions for both sides, but the good football continued with Latics getting on top. Will Grigg had come on for Mckay after 60 minutes and came close twice, one shot being smothered by keeper Cerny, another effort going narrowly wide. With a little more match fitness Grigg will surely convert such chances. It is refreshing to see a Latics striker who knows where to position himself to score goals.  Craig Davies came on in the final quarter and his physical presence complemented the bright and intelligent footwork of Grigg. If both can stay fit they will provide Latics with a real cutting edge.

Max Power had come on after 60 minutes and really looked the part. Power is well built, not easy to knock off the ball, and has the kinds of incisive passing skills that have been lacking at Wigan over the past twelve months. The player is only 21, but having played so many times at senior level for Tranmere, he is not afraid to display his considerable skills. He will surely be the main contender for a more creative, advanced midfield role.

In the end a 1-1 result was probably fair to both teams. It was an entertaining game and although Latics employed 16 players during the course of the proceedings their football was good to watch.

Pre-season friendly matches can so often give a skewed view of what is going to happen when the season proper gets underway. But the dominant performances of senior professionals like Morgan, McCann and Perkins together with the youthful promise of Flores, Jennings and Robles augur well for the future.

One wonders if McCann is now back in the fold, or whether he was put in the shop window in this game. Last season was a nightmare for him, but he showed yesterday that he can still represent Wigan Athletic with application and no mean level of skill.

It is likely to be a very different starting eleven at Dundee on Friday. Last night’s display has certainly whetted one’s whistle for what is to follow.