Restructuring at Wigan Athletic: can it bring more stability and hope for the future?

Can Talal steady an unsteady ship?

“As an ownership group we have invested well in excess of £20m since we came on board in 2021. Clearly mistakes have been made and this investment has not been spent in the right areas meaning finances this season have been difficult to sustain. This latest payment will ensure our wage obligations are secured until we finalise a sustainable budget for next season.

Clearly mistakes have been made and this investment has not been spent in the right areas meaning finances this season have been difficult to sustain. This latest payment will ensure our wage obligations are secured until we finalise a sustainable budget for next season.

“There will also shortly be announcements made regarding board and staff re-structures which will help us deliver this. I finally again want to reassure all staff, players and fans that Mr. Al Jasmi and I are fully committed to the club with manager Shaun Maloney at the helm.”

Talal Al Hammad’s announcement was long overdue, but it did provide a glimmer of hope for what is to follow. The Wigan Athletic Chairman has been subjected to some vile attacks by fans on social media over these past weeks, a far cry from the adulation he was receiving this time last year after Leam Richardson’s team had secured the League 1 title.

Following administration, the senior squad was down to just a handful of players and a massive recruitment process had to be undergone. At the time the recruitment looked impressive, with relatively little spent on transfers and experienced players brought in on free transfers. There had been stories in the national media of Latics offering salaries that few other clubs in the division would or could match, but they were somehow downplayed by the club. Unbeknown to the fans those “competitive” salaries were to become the root cause of the club making a £7.7m loss for the season.

In terms of achieving promotion to the Championship the recruitment had done the trick. However, over the summer fans were getting increasingly concerned about the lack of Championship-level quality in the squad. Recruitment was minimal and Latics line-up in the opening game showed no new faces. Richardson was to rely on the players who formed the backbone of the team in 2021-22. Although fans had been buoyed by the results of the previous season there were those who questioned whether the manager’s physical – some would say outmoded – style of football would work in the Championship. It did at first, until the cracks started to appear when the momentum provided by the successes of the previous season was slipping away. By the time Richardson was sacked the football had become dire to watch.

The recruitment drive of summer 2021 had left the club with so many players on long-term contracts. Moreover, the squad was one of the most aged in the division, containing so many players with minimal “resale value”. Having already incurred a significant financial loss the previous season, Phoenix 2021, had to cut back on recruiting new players. Nevertheless, Latics sources were quoting their wage bill to be the 12th or 13th highest in the Championship.

The overspending by Phoenix 2021 is by no means rare in the Championship but it raises a red flag to a fan base that has been through the trials of administration: one that worries about the continued existence of the club. The ownership itself can surely not have envisaged the kind of investment made to get the club promoted, then to see it drop back down to the third tier. It is a lesson they have learned the hard way.

We will probably never know the reasons why staff salaries were paid late on so many occasions. One can only assume it has been caused by liquidity issues with the owner seemingly unprepared for the sums of money needed over the course of the season. The whole thing has been so unsettling to all associated with the club. However, it is of key importance that Phoenix 2021 have already wiped out £20m of debt by buying shares.

There are complications in having an owner and chairman who are based overseas. It means that the directors and CEO have a key role to play. Mal Brannigan’s sacking was no surprise given the losses made, but who was overseeing the CEO himself? It would be no surprise to see locally-based representatives at director or CEO level in the restructuring that Talal is considering. It would be a wise move on a PR level as a means of rebuilding trust with fans and the wider community.

For a number of weeks, it has been rumoured that Gregor Rioch will take over a new role as Director of Football. The creation of such a position is something that has been mooted by fans for several years. If there had been one when Roberto Martinez left would a DOF have agreed to bring in Owen Coyle, whose long-ball approach was diametrically opposed to that of the Catalan? Creating an all-encompassing footballing ethos around the club will surely give it more direction. One of Phoenix 21’s prime goals has been to bring more home-grown talent into the senior squad. It was Kolo Toure who gave Charlie Hughes his EFL debut and how he has shone since. Previous managers had resisted bringing in the club’s academy players, preferring to rely on senior professionals or bringing youngsters from other clubs, except in the season of administration when they simply had to.  

Al Hammad and Maloney will need to bring down the running costs of the club to a sustainable level. Rumour suggests that there are dissatisfied players at the club: those whose contracts are expiring and those remaining under contract. Given the problems with late pay it is to their credit that they put in the effort for so long. The chairman and manager must reassure those who they want to keep that the club’s future is secure and those late payment are a thing of the past.

The club is once again at a turning point. If the restructuring is handled well, it could provide Latics with more direction for the future. The restructuring together with the continued financial support of Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi can help steady an unsteady ship.


Talal sets the target of financial sustainability

“It’s important for us to be financially responsible going forward, and we’re fully committed to doing so. Beginning next season, we’ll operate within our means and we will prioritise maintaining a solid financial standing. Our strategies for the upcoming transfer window and beyond will take this into account and we’re determined to build a sustainable future for the Club in line with a modern data-backed approach.”

The past couple of weeks have been particularly unsettling for Wigan Athletic fans. For the fourth time this season players and staff were not paid on time, resulting in disciplinary action from the EFL. The three-point deduction imposed will almost certainly see the club relegated back into League 1. Moreover, there could be further punishment to come because the club’s owner failed to deposit an amount equal to 125% of the forecast monthly wage bills in a designated Club account as previously instructed by the EFL. Should there be a further points deduction it is likely to be imposed for the upcoming season.

Fans have been bewildered by these events and unsure of the direction in which the club is heading in the short term. Many took to the social media and message boards. Most sought an explanation from club management why this could have happened, seeking reassurance for the future. Sadly others were condemning in their tone, some sending totally unacceptable tweets to the chairman, Talal Al Hammad. They had perhaps overlooked that the owner had previously settled club debt to the value of at £14m through the purchase of shares, leaving the club debt free at the time.  

We had been therefore been waiting for Talal Al Hammad to give us a statement of the direction in which he intends to take the club. Al Hammad had tweeted that the first priority was to make sure the players were paid for the recent missed pay date. After that he would provide further information. His statement came on Friday, when the player payments had been processed.

Although we still do not know why the payments were not made on time – perhaps the true reasons will never be revealed – Al Hammad stated that “This issue has now been resolved and I can assure you that the late payment of wages will not happen again. It simply cannot happen again.” He also recognised the need to rebuild trust with players, staff and fans.

On March 8 the club announced a loss of £7.7m for the 2020-21 season, with staff costs of £13.4m and turnover of £8.3m. The announcement included a statement that “Phoenix 2021 Limited will continue to fund the future commitments as equity rather than debt”. A similar loss was made in Dave Whelan’s last season as chairman, 2017-18, with a similar staffing cost. Both Leam Richardson and Gary Caldwell were successful in winning League 1, buoyed by the club paying wages well above the norm for the division.

A financial loss for a season was commonplace in Dave Whelan’s time as Latics owner. Despite the lucrative TV money coming in during the eight years they were in the Premier League the club only made a profit once. Whelan was the local benefactor who wrote off debt and enabled the club to live beyond its means. 

When Whelan sold to IEC in November 2018 the club was already on the way making a significant loss for the season, as it sought to consolidate in the Championship. The £9.2m loss for the 2018-19 was largely down to a salary bill of £19.4 to achieve an 18th place position in the league table. Despite the loss IEC continued to loan funds to the club, with somewhere close to £10m spent on signing Jamal Lowe, Kieffer Moore, Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams in the summer of 2019. We will probably ever know the ins and outs of the takeover by Next Leader Fund in June 2020 and why the club was put into administration, but a loan of over £24m from IEC to the club was written off in the process.

Faced with a significant financial loss in their first full season of ownership Phoenix 2021 trod cautiously in the transfer market in the summer of 2022. Ryan Nyambe was acquired as a free agent and Anthony Scully was signed from Lincoln City for an undisclosed fee. With so many  players recruited on long term contracts the previous summer the squad was largely going to be that of the previous season. With the momentum of winning League 1 behind them, they started fairly well. However, the physical long-ball approach that had enabled them to do well in the third tier was not going to be successful against the more sophisticated opposition in the Championship. The alarm bells were already ringing when Leam Richardson was given a new three-year contract, only for him to be sacked weeks later, after winning only one of the last ten home games.

The appointment of Kolo Toure was at best ambitious, at worst naive. The team’s performances in Toure’s first two games – a draw at Charlton and a narrow home defeat by high-flying Sheffield United – showed some promise as the manager encouraged his players to be “brave on the ball”, veering away from the long ball strategy. However, major defensive lapses saw results take a major turn for the worse and the manager was sacked after 59 days with no wins in 9 games.

Shaun Maloney was appointed in late January. His record up to this point is W1D6L3. Maloney has impressed fans with his eloquence, openness and realistic approach. He has talked of improvement in both boxes and he has tightened up a defence that had leaked so many goals before his arrival. However, the attacking aspect is in need of considerable improvement. Al Hammad commented in his statement that:

 “Shaun and his staff have worked relentlessly since he was appointed and we have all seen in the last few weeks the improvement in both the team and individuals. The connection between the manager, players and fans is back and this progress is the first step in our long-term journey together. He has my and the Board’s full support.”

Mistakes have certainly been made that have proved very costly. Richardson and Toure and their associated staff will need to be paid off and the club now faces a return to League 1. Al Hammad has stated his view that the club needs to be financially responsible, operating within its means. This is a different approach to that of the Whelan/Sharpe/IEC eras.

The financial balance sheet for this season will show another considerable loss, but can Al Hammad get close to balancing the books next season? What steps will he have to take to do so?

The first step is to reduce costs by shedding players on relatively large salaries. There are 10 players whose contracts expire in June, along with 5 on loan from other clubs. That leaves 14 who remain under contract. They are:

Defenders: Charlie Hughes, Jason Kerr, Tom Pearce, Jack Whatmough

Central Midfield: Tom Naylor, Graeme Shinnie

Wingers/creative: Thelo Aasgaard, Jordan Jones, Callum Lang, Jamie McGrath, Anthony Scully

Centre forwards: Stephen Humphrys, Josh Magennis, Charlie Wyke

The board will set a budget for the coming season and Maloney will need to work within it. Some of the players whose contracts run out in June may yet be offered extensions, although on reduced terms. The highest earners of those still under contract may be urged to move on or sent on loan to reduce costs.

Talal Al Hammad’s statement has been welcomed by so many fans who were seeking clarity as to the stability and direction of the club. However, there are those who have come to expect the club to have a benevolent owner in the mould of Dave Whelan, enabling to punch above its financial weight. There are others who are angry at the board for the late payments of players, incurring a points penalty making the chances of avoiding relegation become smaller still.

Al Hammad will be visiting Wigan in the coming week in an attempt to rebuild trust with stakeholders and the wider community. It is an unenviable task that he has ahead of him.

With a period of austerity coming up at the club there will be fans who will not accept the situation and attendances will drop. However, most fans will accept that if the club continues to be run like it has in the past there is always a risk of amassing great debt and subsequent liquidation.