High turnover but what’s changed? A perspective on Wigan’s latest window

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Management hates it, the media loves it, fans have little choice but to be glued to it in hope and trepidation. Transfer deadline day is bigger business every year that goes by. It’s one of the ways – the lack of a winter break being the other obvious one – in which the British game likes to make things that bit more complicated (and profitable) than the rest of the world.

For clubs that swapped managers during the first half of the season, the January transfer window has become an opportunity for the new regime to stamp its authority on the squad. Ship out players that don’t fit the tactical model; replace them with players that do; balance the books by shedding big earners and reinvesting in problem positions. It’s a pattern that has become all too familiar at Wigan, with last year’s success in League 1 the notable exception.

There are a couple problems with this approach. First, you have less time in January than in the summer, not only to recruit good players and find a home for high-earning misfits, but just as importantly to provide incomings the tactical and personal adaptation period they need to succeed. On top of that, you have to navigate an inflated market to negotiate fair prices for players, which can be particularly challenging if you appear desperate, as one does in a relegation fight, for example.

Another unpleasant feature of the January transfer window well known to Latics, particularly in the Premier League days, is the risk of losing your most successful players. It tends to be instigated by agents or players themselves, and to materialize in the dying hours of the window, preventing the club from finding an adequate replacement. Sometimes, these decisions become of huge financial importance to the club, and their approval is beyond the manager’s control.

Add to this Wigan’s very limited spending power compared to its Championship competitors – and you realize what a big ask we as fans are making of the manager. It’s worth pausing to put oneself in Warren Joyce’s shoes. There are plenty of arguments claiming the manager should only be judged after a window. I’d take them a step further to suggest that’s still nowhere near enough time. The new players haven’t had a pre-season with him; many will need to adjust to playing at a higher level; all will have to adapt to new surroundings and teammates; and Joyce himself will need to adapt his tactics, having lost his most valuable player.

The counter argument, of course, is that Joyce brought some of these challenges upon himself. Too much turnover is bad for any organization, specially in a short period of time, and the high number of ins and outs will breed instability. Was it really necessary to bring in so many people, so many loanees in particular? Right when the team was gaining some consistency and producing results on the pitch? Plenty to debate. In the meantime, here are some ups and down on another busy window:

Good News: The whopping fee received for Yanic Wildschut (£7.5 million according to Sky,£7 million elsewhere.) It’s hard to take, given his status as Latics’ best attacking threat, with pace and strength to burn, and room to improve. But his finishing was often frustrating, he was inconsistent, and very much rough around the edges. If he had to go, credit is due the club for gaining such a huge profit on their investment.

Bad News: Yanic again. Being gone so late in the window. It’s hard to ignore that Wigan have scored three goals fewer than Rotherham, and yet just sold their most effective attacker.

Good News: In Gabriel Obertan, the club have found as close to a direct replacement as could be expected. We’ll be left to imagine what Joyce’s team might have looked like with two pacey wingers on the pitch. But at least Obertan’s defining attributes are similar to Wildschut’s: pace and strength, some trickery, abundant potential yet inconsistent finishing. He should be entering his peak years, has something to prove, and lots of experience at a higher level. Joyce knows him, he’s apparently a good professional, and they have said encouraging things about each other. The term of contract is short, therefore financial risk is too. All in all, a gamble worth taking.

Bad news: The squad feels unbalanced and bloated. There are a lot of midfielders, but few wingers or attacking playmakers given Nick Powell’s absence. With Obertan almost certain to start, it’s likely Michael Jacobs (in desperate need of a goal) on the other wing, with Colclough, Weir and Browne all unproven backups. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Joyce has Power, Morsy, Perkins, MacDonald, Gilbey, Tunnicliffe, Hanson, Byrne, and Laurent to keep happy. Perhaps some of these players will be used in different positions (Hanson as defensive cover, etc.), but it’s a bloated, uneven squad that Joyce may have a hard time keeping happy.

Good News: Welcome Omar Bogle! He may need time to adapt. But the club beat out competitors to get him, and on paper, he has everything he needs to succeed at Championship level. A lot of hope is resting on his inexperienced shoulders, but if his teammates can provide him service, there is reason to believe. The option of a little-and-large Grigg and Bogle parternship is also intriguing. He’s left-footed, too.

Bad News: Banking on lower division signings is playing with fire. If Grigg is to become injured, Latics are left with Bogle, and Mikael Mandron to lead the line. Both have potential, but their success has come in League 2 and the Conference, respectively. They are completely unproven at this level, and playing with new teammates.

Good News: Alex Bruce appears an astute short-term signing, with potential for a longer stay. Dan Burn and Jake Buxton have developed a useful partnership in recent games, but Bruce is a dependable and experienced head to provide backup, who should also be good to have around the place.

Bad News: He hasn’t played all season due to an Achilles injury.

Good News: Keeping Sam Morsy and Max Power. Much of the attention has been on keeping Morsy, who has performed very well since his return. Power may not have started strongly, but has been steadily improving and remains a player of undoubted potential. Had rumours of his departure materialised, Latics would have lost an opportunity to reap the rewards of blooding him at this level. Good things should come of establishing Power and Morsy as a partnership.

Bad News: Too many loanees. In order to secure loan signings, managers often have to pledge a certain number of game time to the players’ parent clubs. Given the maximum of five loan signings per match-day squad, it looks an impossibility Latics’ recent loan signings will all get their wish to show what they can do. Jakob Haugaard may find himself sacrificed given the arrival of Matt Gilks. Callum Connolly is certain to play. That leaves Jamie Hanson, Marcus Browne, James Weir, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Bruce and Haugaard to vie for the other berths. Presumably, borrowing players and not giving them a game reduces the chances of players being borrowed from the same clubs in the future. Given many of these players are expected to be fringe players anyway, might Latics have been better off without a few of them?

Good News: Joyce appears to have both a short-term, and long-term plan. Signings like Gilks, Bruce and Obertan point to survival needs, while the signings of Jack Byrne, Mandron, and Josh Laurent show a continued desire to invest in youth and capitalize on Joyce’s wealth of experience in the area of player development. Byrne, in particular, was highly rated at City and appears a good long-term signing.

Verdict

Despite the high turnover, it doesn’t appear likely there will be immediate, dramatic changes to the starting lineup – Obertan in for Wildschut, perhaps the goalkeeper, and a new striking option in Bogle off the bench. This should prove a blessing, given the progress made in recent weeks. But it also calls into question the need for such a high number of incomings and outgoings. Joyce would do well to resist the urge of upsetting the players who have recently given him good commitment and results.

As supporters, patience is going to be important. Demanding instant impact from players adapting to a higher level is unfair, as is demanding instant adjustment from a team that became dependent on Wildschut to create for it. But if the new signings can add to the promising form shown of late and provide cover for injuries, we can be cautiously optimistic that, with a new crew of Joyce-loyal players and relative stability in the starting XI, we’re better off than before the window.

Full squad can be seen here

Is it Caldwell’s fault?

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There are various views on why Wigan Athletic are in their current predicament. Some say that Gary Caldwell should have been given more time to get things right in the Championship. Others point to a woeful start by his replacement, Warren Joyce, with puzzling team selections and tactics.

But a view that has been gaining more and more ground on the social media is that it was the recruitment over the summer that is the principal reason. Put simply, some people say that the players just are not good enough.

In May 2015 Wigan Athletic chairman, David Sharpe, announced a change in the club’s player recruitment structure. He considered it “crucial for long-term benefit of Wigan Athletic”. We were told that the new recruitment team was to be led by the Head of Football Operations, Matt Jackson, who together with Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson, and Academy Head, Gregor Rioch, had been involved in reshaping the club’s Academy.

As stated in an article we published last week “A mental amount of movement”, in the  2015-16 season, Latics had 31 incomings and 44 outgoings of players, loans being included. The figures for the first half of the 2016-17 season were 14 coming in and 20 leaving. Since the article was published there have been two more outgoings, with Craig Davies having joined Scunthorpe and Nathan Byrne sent off on loan to Charlton. There has been one coming in, goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard.

The figures alone provide food for thought and debate. Is the huge turnover in players over the past couple of seasons an indicator of recruitment strategies that just have not worked or is it an indication of a chasm between recruitment and coaching? More crucially, why is the club that won the League 1 title struggling in a position below the other two clubs that were promoted? Is the recruitment team capable of making the right kinds of decisions? But crucially, how does the manager fit into the scheme of things?

It has been said that at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger’s influence is total. According to an article in the Guardian, Wenger “… is the lord of the kingdom he has built over the past 19 years. His influence extends into every pore of the club and where transfers are concerned, the manager’s authority is total. Wenger always has the final say. The board have attempted to put support systems in place around him, such as their purchase of StatDNA, the football data analytics company, which can help to identify potential signings. But Wenger continues to rely on his own eyes, together with those of his scouts.”

A comparison of Liverpool in the Brendan Rodgers era makes interesting reading. The Guardian tells us that Rodgers, the head of recruitment Dave Fallows, the chief scout Barry Hunter, the head of performance and analysis Michael Edwards, the chief executive Ian Eyre and FSG’s president Mike Gordon comprised the group that decided Liverpool’s entire transfer strategy.

There is clearly no blueprint for successful recruitment at any club. The top clubs in England have recruitment teams, whose composition tends to vary, using an increasingly data-driven approach. Some managers have more autonomy than others in determining the players they want, although the chairman tends to have the final word on the financial side.

At the end of May 2016, Gary Caldwell told us Latics were looking at bringing in four or five new players. That did not happen. By the end of the transfer window 14 new players had been brought in. However, 20 had gone.  The inference is that Caldwell had realised between May and the end of August that many of the players he had were not up to Championship standard. But was this solely Caldwell’s call? What say did the recruitment team have in that higher than expected turnover of players in summer?

Caldwell surely had a say in the players who left. His decisions to break up the successful central defensive partnership of Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce and send midfielder Sam Morsy off on loan were certainly controversial. But the overriding criticism has been that the players who were brought in were no better than those the club already had. Whether that is down to Caldwell, the recruitment team or financial matters is something that as onlookers we cannot say. However, we can take a look at the players who were brought in over summer to make assessments.

Nathan Byrne was signed from Wolves near the end of the summer transfer window for a fee reputed to be around £400,000. Caldwell signed Byrne essentially a right wing back, although he can play on the wing. Although he has only been at the club for around 4 months he has been sent off on loan to Charlton. Byrne made 6 starts with 8 substitute appearances. Joyce has not yet shown any inclination to use a back three with wing backs.

Goalkeeper, Adam Bogdan, was brought in on a one year loan from Liverpool, after a tough time at the Merseyside club. Being an ex-Bolton player hardly endeared him to the Wigan public. Neither did taking the place of fan favourite Jussi Jaaskelainen, as he had done before at the Macron. Bogdan had been a fine keeper at Bolton, but despite often making excellent saves and keeping his side in games when the defence was under pressure, his high profile error at Brighton and a hesitancy to leave his area  were problematic. When injury curtailed his season many fans were not unhappy to see him go. Jaaskelainen regained his place after Bogdan’s injury but he too made an error which led to a home defeat by Huddersfield. The Finn was replaced by Jakob Haugaard last Saturday. In the meantime rumours suggest that Joyce is also trying to sign Rangers keeper, Matt Gilks.

Luke Garbutt was signed on a half season loan to provide cover for the left back position, with Reece James being unavailable due to long term injury. Garbutt had had a reputation as a player for the future at Everton, but had come to Wigan after an indifferent spell on loan at Fulham in 2015-16. Playing as a wing back, Garbutt started against Nottingham Forest and QPR in late August. However, he was substituted after 59 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday on September 10 and did not appear again until Joyce took over as manager. Garbutt was used in midfield or at right back before returning to Everton at the end of his loan period in early January. Although he showed considerable expertise in taking set pieces, Garbutt’s all round play often failed to convince.

Reece Burke was signed on a season-long loan from West Ham, following an outstanding stint at Bradford City last season. Given the departure of Jason Pearce and the marginalisation of Craig Morgan by Caldwell, it appeared that Burke would be a strong contender for a position in the centre of defence. However, Burke was used in the right back position and made 8 appearances before returning to his parent club due to a hip injury in December. We surely did not see the best of the 20 year old playing out of his best position.

Dan Burn and Jake Buxton were signed from Fulham and Derby County respectively. They have become the regular central defensive partnership. Burn had a difficult start riddled with hesitancy and occasional major errors, but has shown much more consistency in recent games. Buxton’s start to the season was punctuated by a suspension following a red card in the League Cup tie at Oldham. But since then he has shown himself to be a consistent, reliable performer. Neither Burn not Buxton is at his best passing the ball out of defence, a key aspect of play under Caldwell. However, under Joyce it is not so crucial.

Whether their partnership is better than that of Morgan/Pearce is open to conjecture. The question that remains is why the latter partnership was not given a chance at Championship level, allowing a more gradual transition as needed. But the way that Pearce was hastily dispatched to Charlton and Morgan stripped of the captaincy suggests that there were more than footballing issues involved.

Sam Morsy’s recent return to Wigan has opened up the debate as to why he was sent off on loan. Under Caldwell, Morsy played the holding midfield role in front of the back four, but on Saturday he was pushed further forward with Shaun MacDonald behind. MacDonald arrived without  a big fanfare. He had been instrumental in Bournemouth’s rise up the divisions, but his career had been stifled by limited first team appearances in the Premier League. Moreover he was taking over the Morsy role, inevitably inviting comparisons.

Like Morsy, MacDonald is strong in the tackle, and although he does not reveal the range of passing that Morsy possesses, he rarely wastes the ball. However, at 6 ft 1 in, MacDonald is strong in the air and has the ability to step back and become a third central defender. Like Buxton, MacDonald has become the kind of unsung hero whose name will be among the first on any team list. Should Joyce be able to persuade Morsy to stay, the two together would provide a ring of steel in midfield.

The 22 year old Alex Gilbey was signed after impressing for Colchester United and has shown himself to be a technically skilled player, willing to work hard. Gilbey was making a successful transition between League 1 and the Championship until an injury against Fulham in mid-September. A recent tweet from the player suggests he could be back in action by the end of this month.

When Jordi Gomez was signed on loan from Sunderland, hopes were high that he could repeat the kind of form that made him Latics’ Player of the Season in 2013-14. Although we have seen flashes of the true Gomez on occasions we have not seen him play with the same kind of consistency that we saw in his time under Uwe Rosler. Joyce will be hoping that the play-maker’s form will improve, his ability to keep hold of the ball in midfield being so important when the defence is under pressure. Moreover the Catalan has the ability to drift in from midfield to score goals.

Caldwell’s biggest gamble over summer was in signing the injury-riddled Nick Powell on a three year contract. It is a gamble that has not yet paid off. Powell has been unable to get any consistency to his game, being constantly niggled by injury. The hamstring tear received on Saturday looks set to keep him out for the rest of the season. Powell’s career continues to hang over the abyss, a sad situation for such a talented player.

Rumours suggest that Cardiff are to cut short Adam Le Fondre’s loan period at Wigan in order to sell him. Given that Bolton are one of the clubs who apparently want “ALF” it seems unlikely that Cardiff will gain much in transfer revenue. But Le Fondre has been given few opportunities during his time at Wigan and the player himself might well want to move on. The 30 year old has made just 3 starts, with 8 appearances off the bench, scoring 1 goal.

20 year old right back Kyle Knoyle was signed on loan from West Ham but suffered an injury in pre-season that kept him out for months. His only appearance so far has been as an 89th minute substitute at Cardiff at the end of October.

Kaiyne Woolery, 22, was signed from Bolton Wanderers for a small fee. His sole appearance has been as an 87th substitute at home to Derby in early December.

The summer signings involved a relatively small financial outlay. Five players were brought in on loan, four on free transfers (Burn, Gomez, Powell, Warnock), Byrne for around £400,000, MacDonald for reputedly £125,000, Gilbey for a compensation fee, Buxton and Woolery for small fees.

Wigan Athletic may have even made a profit on their summer transfer dealings, having recouped around £1m for the sale of Emyr Huws to Cardiff plus small fees for Tim Chow and Jason Pearce.

In hindsight should David Sharpe have given Caldwell more financial support in the summer market? Were Caldwell’s hands tied, to some degree, in making the kinds of quality signings he would need to strengthen his team to compete in a higher division?

The well-publicised signing that did not come off over summer was that of Hearts right back, Calum Patterson. Wigan’s bids fell well below the Scottish club’s evaluation. Latics went on to pay a significant amount to sign Nathan Byrne, but the player did not have the defensive qualities to play as an orthodox full back. In retrospect, would the extra money that would have been needed to secure Patterson have been well spent, given that the right back position has been so problematic this season?

However, another factor facing the club was the prospect of the parachute payments running out at the end of the season. An immediate return to the Premier League would be ideal, but to mount a promotion push would have involved a major financial outlay in terms of transfer fees. Moreover should the bid not be successful Latics would be left with players on big contracts without the financial support of parachute payments.

In fact the summer transfer activity suggested that Latics were looking for consolidation, both in terms of league position and in finances. In order to compete for players, free agents included, the club has had to offer salaries commensurate to the division. However, other than the case of Nick Powell, the highest earners are largely on loans or contracts that expire at the end of the season. They include Adam Bogdan, Jordi Gomez, Adam Le Fondre and Stephen Warnock. Should the unspeakable occur once again – relegation – the club would sell off its prime assets and drastically reduce its wage bill.

So, is it Caldwell’s fault that Wigan Athletic are in relegation mire?

Many would fault Caldwell for the premature departures of Morsy and Pearce at the beginning of the season. Some would say he should have preferred Jaaskelainen to Bogdan, although the Finn is now 42 years old and well past his best. Perhaps he should have kept the backbone of his League 1 title winning team in place, phasing in the newcomers. Momentum was probably lost as a result.

However, in terms of recruitment Caldwell was at the mercy of both his chairman and the recruitment team. Burn, Buxton, Gilbey and MacDonald are by no means bad signings. Gomez has struggled to impose himself, but he has enough quality to do so in the second half of the season. Whether Woolery will ever achieve his potential remains to be seen. The management will be praying that Powell can rid himself of the hamstring problems that have dogged his career in recent years. At his best he is one of the top players in the division.

Caldwell used the loan market to good effect last season, but the rules governing loan signings changed, stays of less than half a season not now possible. Summer’s loan signings have been largely disappointing.

Latics are in relegation dog-fight partly because of mistakes made by both managers, Caldwell and Joyce, but the incomings and outgoings of summer transfer market may have had a more major effect.

If anyone or anything is primarily to blame for Wigan’s current position it has been a lack of ambition on the part of the club. Let’s hope Sharpe will back his latest manager in the January transfer window. That means not selling off his most saleable assets and bringing in more quality.

 

 

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Latics need a Wildschut for promotion

 

It is midway through the League 1 season. The “New Era” duo of Gary Caldwell and David Sharpe has breathed new life into a club that was down on its knees. After a prolonged period of gloom and despondency there is light at the end of the tunnel.

With 23 games played, Wigan Athletic stand in 5th place with a record of W11 D7 L5. They are in the playoff zone, just 8 points away from an automatic promotion place. They have a good defensive record, with just 21 goals conceded, bettered only by the top two teams.

Caldwell has shown himself to be a dynamic young manager, excellent in recruitment, tactically aware. His is articulate and sets a dignified tone for the club when dealing with the media. Sharpe too has made a strong impression, his sheer enthusiasm for the club shining through. He too is articulate, adept in his dealings with the national and social media. Together the two have forged a positive new identity for a club that had lost its way, but is now firmly back on track under their leadership.

Caldwell has built up a strong squad, the envy of other managers in the division. It was by no means easy to put together a revamped squad containing more than twenty new faces. Caldwell and his coaches faced a huge task on the training ground, helping the players gel as a unit that can play a style of football that Sharpe labels “The Wigan Way”. Moreover Caldwell has instilled a never-say-die spirit that means his teams have shown the ability to claw their way back into games they would seemingly have lost.

The foundations are certainly in place. The immediate goal is promotion back to the Championship. In order to achieve automatic promotion a total of at least 90 points will be needed. That will require a points average in excess of two per game for the rest of the season.

A long unbeaten run is what Caldwell will seek. Latics achieved an unbeaten run of 11 matches, stretching from mid-September to late November until a blip led to league defeats by Burton and Blackpool, together with an exit from the Football League Trophy at the hands of Barnsley.

However, a couple of hard-fought away victories at Barnsley and Fleetwood have put them back on track. After disappointing away performances early in the season they are now unbeaten in their last eight league games on the road, as the players have shown the ability to grit their teeth and grind out results.

Caldwell and his recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. But can they achieve such good results in the January window that is almost upon us? What adjustments can we expect to be made to the squad? Will the two remaining short-term loanees – Donald Love and Yanic Wildschut – be staying?

Since the beginning of the season four loanees have already returned to their clubs. Caldwell was disappointed when Jonjoe Kenny was called back to Everton in late September, then Shaq Coulthirst went back to Tottenham just over a month later. Over the past couple of weeks  Sean Murray has returned to Watford and Alex Revell to Cardiff City. Sadly the talented Francisco Junior has gone back to Everton to receive treatment on a troublesome groin injury that has hampered him during his time at Wigan. Caldwell will hope that the player can overcome the injury and that he can return before his loan period ends in mid-January. However, rumours suggesting Latics are close to signing midfielder Liam Kelly from Oldham suggest that Caldwell might be covering his bases in case the African does not make it.

The right back position has been a problem all season, with the serious injury to Kevin McNaughton early on and the departure of Kenny. Donervon Daniels has shown his versatility by playing there when needed. Tim Chow has also been tried there. Donald Love was signed on loan from Manchester United in early October. Injuries and call ups to the Scotland under-21 squad have limited Love to five starts and three substitute appearances. However, Caldwell clearly rates the 21 year old Rochdale lad and may well seek a permanent transfer.

Few players have made such a strong and immediate impression on Latics fans as Yanic Wildschut. His impact has rivalled that of Amr Zaki in 2008-09. Wildschut has started in ten games, coming on off the bench in six. He has scored four goals. In full flow Wildschut is a sight to behold, a winger with searing pace and a blistering shot when he cuts in from the left and shoots with his right.

Some would say Wildschut is a throwback to the past when the winger’s job was primarily to attack, although even in the days of 4-2-4 they were still expected to do some defensive duties. Defending is not Wildschut’s strong point, as noted by Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka. However, given the physical exertion he needs to put into his electrifying runs, can Caldwell really expect him to make a significant defensive contribution?

When Wildschut first arrived at Wigan he immediately caused panic in opposition defences. However, after a while other teams learned how to deal with him, if sometimes by foul means rather than fair. His recent performances in the starting lineup have been frustrating at times. However, bringing him on in the closing stages, when the opposition defenders legs are tiring, can have an explosive effect.

Although Caldwell has certainly bolstered his defence his team’s attacking can be slow and predictable. He needs a player with Wildschut’s explosive abilities who can upset the equilibrium of the opposition.

It is rumoured that negotiations with Middlesbrough over a permanent signing of the Dutchman have been going on for some time. Boro will surely want to recoup at least the £300,000 they paid Heerenveen for him in September 2014. Moreover other clubs might be in competition for his signing. At this stage it seems unlikely that Karanka will want him permanently back at Middlesbrough, given the “modern” type of footballer the Spaniard prefers. The question is whether Sharpe is willing to pay the kind of fee that Boro will demand for a player who is not a regular starter.

Caldwell will be hoping that a deal can be struck to keep Wildschut at Wigan. If that does not happen he is going to look elsewhere for the kind of player who can add such an extra dimension to Latics’ attack. Without such a player Wigan Athletic’s hopes for automatic promotion might well fall on the rocks.

Wigan Athletic’s future – can shrewdness outweigh cash?

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In the 2013-14 season of the Championship only three clubs made a profit. They were Blackpool, Wigan Athletic and Yeovil Town. Each has since been relegated from the division.

At the time Queens Park Rangers had made the biggest loss of the promoted clubs (£70 million), with Leicester City losing £21 million and Burnley £8 million. Since then QPR’s loss has been cut to £10 million due to a write-off of shareholder debt of £60 million by chairman Tony Fernandes and his associates. Without that they would have faced a massive fine on their return to the Football League in 2015-16.

Many Wigan Athletic fans have written off the last two seasons in their minds, as a succession of bad decisions made by the club led to a slide into League 1.

Those decisions include the appointments of hapless managers in Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay and the departures of no less than thirteen players in the January transfer window of 2015. The result was a squad left short of quality that would have struggled to survive even if the manager had not been the seemingly oblivious Mackay.

In fact the 2013-14 season had turned out to be a relatively good one for Latics, despite a poor start under Coyle. It remains open to conjecture whether they could have challenged for an automatic promotion spot if they had made a different initial appointment.

The obvious choice would have been a manager who could have built upon the foundations left by Roberto Martinez, fine-tuning the playing style and philosophy as required. Ironically it did happen some 22 months later when Gary Caldwell was appointed, but sadly almost all of the players who had proved themselves under that philosophy of play had by then left the club.

It could be argued that apart from the appointment of Coyle, the season was a success in terms of a transition from the Premier League to the Championship. Shrewd financial management and the appointment of Uwe Rosler kept things on track. In comparison Blackburn Rovers were to make a loss of £42 million over a season in which they were to finish in 8th place. With a 5th place finish, a narrow playoff defeat and a valiant loss on penalties in an FA Cup semi-final, Rosler had made a very positive impression.

The 2014-15 season might well go down as the most memorable in the club’s history, albeit for the wrong reasons. Three managers, the selling off of the family silver, Dave Whelan’s awful happenings with the national media and his subsequent stepping down as chairman was to eventually lead an unhappy club to relegation to League 1.

In both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons Latics were able to be competitive in the transfer market. This was partly due to incoming transfer fees, but more significantly down to parachute payments of £24 million in the first season and £18 million in the second. That meant that they were able to cope with a player wage bill of around £30 million, drastically cut down to around £20 million (on an annual basis) in January 2015. The Europa League campaign in 2013-14 and the FA Cup runs in both seasons added to the coffers.

However, in 2013-14 Latics’ gate receipts of around £4 million were close to the median for the division, whereas a paltry £1 million from commercial revenue was the lowest.

According to the Swiss Rambler the club had a net debt at the time of £23 million, significant but dwarfed by those of Bolton (£195 million), QPR (£158 million), Brighton (£131 million) and Ipswich (£86 million).

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For the coming season Wigan Athletic will have the advantage of the £9 million parachute payment over the other clubs in League 1. However, under the SCMP version of FFP used in Leagues 1 and 2, there is considerable amount of freedom for an owner to make cash injections.

If David Sharpe adopts the approach of recent years at the club he will run it on a tight budget and will not spend the kind of money that his grandfather splashed out some thirteen years ago when Latics were in the third tier. Latics will now be competing with clubs like Sheffield United, with higher match day and commercial revenues, but also with those with wealthy benefactors.

However, Latics are now in the hands of a young brigade that is optimistic about the future. Sharpe has talked about getting in “the right kind of player” after the nightmare of the season recently passed, when so many of them just didn’t seem to want to put in an effort commensurate to their salaries. If Latics are going to have future ambitions of getting back up there with the big guns a lot is going to depend on the recruitment team’s ability. Recruiting the “right kind” of hungry, talented young player from the lower leagues or Scotland is going to be the order of the day. A few hardened and seasoned pros are likely to be added to find a suitable blend, mostly on short term contracts

When Latics were in the third tier in the 1980’s they made some inspired signings of young players. So many were sold to keep the club afloat: a reflection of the club’s circumstances at the time. Most made their mark in higher levels of football.

It is that kind of expertise in picking out those young talents that is what Latics currently need. Sharpe might allow Caldwell a small number of players on higher salaries who have played in the upper echelons, but Latics will surely look to sign those up-and-coming players who can make the difference.

But even if Wigan Athletic can get promotion back to the Championship a year from now, what will be facing them?

The gap between the Premier League and the Championship continues to widen. Two of the three promoted teams were propelled back into the Championship, the third surviving with a “miraculous” end of season run, inaccurately paralleled with that of Latics in 2011-12 by the national media.

Moreover the massive increase in television money secured by the Premier League’s latest deal means that parachute payments will be much increased. It will be more difficult than ever for clubs without first or second year parachute payments to compete.

With shrewd management Latics can get promotion back to the Championship this season. Without it they are likely to be doomed to meandering in the lower leagues for years to come.

However, even if they are back in the Championship a year or so from now the picture will be vastly different than it was in 2013. They will be facing so many clubs with much bigger financial resources.

Can shrewdness outweigh cash?

It is the shrewdness that will make the difference.

Let’s hope that the young brigade currently running Wigan Athletic Football Club can show the kind of shrewdness that will be needed.

The jury is currently out.

 

 

 

 

A Delort and Riera partnership

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“They’ll all be in for the start of pre-season on June 25, and they’ll all be big players for us next season.”

David Sharpe’s announcement has provided a fresh boost for Wigan Athletic’s bid to regain their Championship slot.

The return of Andy Delort, Rob Kiernan, Oriol Riera and James Tavernier from loan spells is surely a declaration of intent from the young chairman. Moreover if the club is as active in the transfer market as media rumours suggest, the squad for the coming season is going to be as strong as any in League 1.

Bringing back the loanees has its financial implications, but Sharpe is clearly willing to stick his neck out in the bid for promotion. At a time when the club is at the point of jettisoning its higher earners, Sharpe is clearly gambling on Delort and Riera delivering the goods. Strikers are an expensive commodity on the transfer market and rather than splash big money out on a player from another club, Sharpe is using the players he already has. Moreover Grant Holt, Billy Mckay and Martyn Waghorn remain on the books.

So many players suffered in the depressive climate of the relegation season recently concluded. That included Kiernan and Tavernier. Neither could reach his previous levels of performance and they were shunted off on loan in the January transfer window by the hapless Malky Mackay.

Kiernan remains highly regarded by Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett following a series of good displays. After leaving Wigan in January he had to wait until February 21st to make his first start against Brighton, playing in midfield, but from then on became a regular in the centre of defence. Kiernan had been promoted to Wigan’s first team in the second half of the 2013-14 season by Uwe Rosler, for whom he had played on loan at Brentford the year before. He performed well, particularly when playing in a back line of three, showing good positional sense, skilful in his distribution.

Tavernier too suffered in that spell at Wigan. He had arrived with good credentials from Rotherham where he was a favourite of the fans. His ability to strike on goal and make crosses with pinpoint accuracy was already evident in the pre-season. Sadly he could not produce his true form in the seven games he started at Wigan. He just did not seem to have the pace or quickness of thought to play as a full back in an orthodox back four. However, being employed as a wing back, Tavernier was to make a lasting impression in Bristol City’s League 1 title winning team. His spectacular goal from 45 yards against Colchester might look a freak, but given Tavernier’s technique and ambitious approach, it could well have been intentional.

 

Riera was shipped back to Spain in January after a frustrating time at Wigan. He had taken time to adjust to the physicality of the Championship and was hardly helped by the lack of service from a dysfunctional midfield.  However, a well taken goal against Blackpool surely boosted his confidence and he looked more comfortable in the 4-0 win over Birmingham City that followed. But Riera was surprisingly left as an unused substitute on the bench in the next game at Birmingham, in favour of a newly arrived Andy Delort. Riera was never given a run of starts after that and his confidence dwindled.

It was therefore no surprise when he joined Deportivo La Coruna. Since his arrival at the Galician club he has been a regular starter at centre forward and has scored four goals. His last one, a 60th minute header at Malaga, salvaged an important point for a side fighting to avoid relegation from La Liga.

 

Delort too will look at his time at Wigan with regret. Thrust into a lone centre forward role he looked like a duck out of water. A player who had scored 24 goals the previous season in Ligue 2 looked sure to make his mark in the Championship, but Delort had been used to playing with a twin striker at Tours. Rosler was to stick by his formula of playing with one central striker, as did Mackay when he first arrived.  Delort was sent back to a Tours side that was struggling against relegation. He has not been able to reproduce his prolific goalscoring of the previous season. Delort has scored two goals in thirteen starts.

During the time that Delort and Riera spent at Wigan many fans had hoped to see them play in tandem as twin strikers. But it never happened. However, there is now a prospect of seeing that Latin partnership for Latics in League 1.

Given their unhappy stays at Wigan, neither player will be over keen to return. Moreover stories of members of Latics’ coaching staff writing the two of them off have become more and more credible. Tim Chow too had been written off, being told that he would not receive another contract, only for Caldwell to intervene and bring the young player back into the fold.

Given the united front shown by Sharpe and Caldwell up to this point, we can assume that the manager is supportive of the return of the four players. It looks like Caldwell’s preferred formation will be 3-5-2, which would suit them. Tavernier is a natural wing back with great attacking potential. Kiernan would slot into a back line of three capable of passing the ball out of defence. Moreover Delort and Riera could make a formidable partnership up front.

Much will depend on the ability of Caldwell, and the coaches, to bring the best out of the four players. Latics paid around £5.5million for Delort, Riera and Tavernier. A good season from them could help the club back into the Championship, in addition to increasing their values on the transfer market, which will have nosedived over the past eight months.

Wigan Athletic are keen to put the nightmare 2014-15 season behind them. The slate needs to be wiped clean for those who suffered the contagion that swept through the squad. It is a fresh start and the four players still have much to offer.