For an all too brief few minutes, enthusiasm returned to Newtown yesterday. Graham Barrow’s Wigan Athletic were having a go. The players were running forward, pressing Aston Villa back and creating chances and having shots. The Latics` congregation recovered their passion and reflected it back onto the field. Cue a few moments of poor concentration and the ball struck the back of the net. Not Villa’s. Ours. And then it happened a second time. Resignation engulfed the DW Stadium. Swirling down with the drizzle, it left no seat untouched.
At least the anger of the last few weeks has subsided. Now that the vast majority of fans are reconciled to Latics spending next season in League 1, fury has been replaced by more of a lethargic, despondent air. This misery is manifest on internet forums and social media, full of tales of gloom about our chances of ever making it back to the Championship let alone the Premier League.
It’s been an awful season, there’s no hiding from that, and nobody is feeling upbeat at present. The fans’ complaints range from the owners’ managerial choices, through a lack of goals, to the state of the pitch. Perhaps they can best be summarised in one despairing sentence: ”We can’t compete anymore.”
However, should this despair be more measured? Is there anything, anything at all, to be positive about?
It seems that the main reason for the negativity is the realisation that, financially, the club is on a different road than before. Twelve years of Premier League money are at an end and, although it was intimated (no more than that) at the AGM that the Whelan family will continue to support us financially, the loss of c. £10-14m of parachute payments (depending on who you believe) from this year`s budget will hit the wage bill hard. Absolutely everyone who is not on League 1 wages will be moved on if it all possible and/or players will have to be sold to fund the remaining salaries. The latter course of action is of course going to be our future.
If the Whelan family does prop up the balance sheet it will most likely be in the form of providing guarantees for bank debt or for loans from other Whelan companies/trusts. While Dave Whelan has also put in hard cash in some years through purchasing larger equity stakes, it is more likely that support will come from borrowings with the intention that the debt will be paid back over time through player sales. Such funding will in all likelihood be made available next season in order to help us back into the Championship but given Dave Whelan’s entirely reasonable and long-standing wish that the club should be self-funding, loading debt onto the club, or even putting money into the club through taking a larger equity stake, can only go on for so long. The years of 1995-2005 will never be repeated. Whelan’s money propelling us into the Premiership is now a thing of the past, especially since his fortune does not even compete with many of the owners in the Championship, let alone the Premier League.
That doesn’t make for happy reading. Even though it’s probably a yes to financial support, it won’t be like in the past and any money Whelan lends us will probably have to be paid back.
So where are there grounds for optimism?
Ownership and Stability
Firstly, the Whelan family are obviously committed to continuing their 20+ year link with the club. The purchase of the Euxton training ground with their own money just last year demonstrates that. David Sharpe is as involved and hands-on a Chairman as you’ll find. Dave Whelan and David Sharpe have a long-standing promise to develop the academy and it beggars belief that the family would walk away now just when it threatens to start bearing fruit.
Unlike many clubs in League 1, the club is financially stable thanks to Whelan, and players are never sold to meet urgent financial need, such as recently at Bolton. When the club sells players, it can afford to wait till a good price is offered and if the Yanic Wildschut sale is anything to go by, it seems we will extract full value for our investment in developing young players. The loss of the parachute payments notwithstanding, the club is financially healthy and while we are not rich and cutbacks will have to be made in the summer, there is not likely to be a monetary meltdown.
Finances aside, the club has of course had a great deal of instability since 2013, with the huge player turnover which accompanies six managers leaving and four seasons involving promotion and relegation. However, the Whelan link is one that has served us well. Not for us the fraught lives of Blackpool or Blackburn supporters or the fans of Charlton or Orient. Managers know when they get appointed who they are dealing with and that the owners will still be there at the end of their tenure. There are people there who can make decisions and who are approachable. If people think the managerial sackings make Sharpe look like Massimo Cellino, then it is without any of the latter’s more unpredictable behaviour. In short, there is an argument to say that the off-the-field stability, which comes with Whelan’s ownership of our club, is still a huge asset to us.
So, if we are financially stable, what about on the pitch?
The recognised long-term aim of Sharpey & Co. is to put together a young team, the core of which can develop, grow and, it is hoped, move up the divisions together. Despite Gary Caldwell’s alleged departure from that aim and the mistaken idea that Warren Joyce would be the person to bring that idea to fruition, there is actually a small group of players already at the club who may be the seed of that project. Daniels, Colclough, Morsy, Power, Bogle, Gilbey and James are all the right age and have shown some promise. We’ve yet to see what Mandron, Jack Byrne and Josh Laurent can bring to the party but they may also contribute at some point. Add to them a number of players from our own factory and we might just see the strategy gaining traction. Yes, players will be sold to support the wage bill and fund player acquisitions and so, to keep the project on track, the academy, recruitment team and manager must get the majority of their decisions right in choosing players – especially in the goal-scoring department, our Achilles heel for several seasons bar one.
Such a strategy depends very much on our success in actually improving players since a club of our resources can’t afford to buy the best players in the top two divisions – one of the reasons for fans’ frustration. Particularly if we are to shake off our reputation of being a strikers` graveyard, then the club needs to invest in coaching staff who have the ability and vision to improve the skills of our players. In short, we will be buying League 1 players and making them into Championship players, Championship players and making them into Premier League players and we need to have the coaches to do that.
Winning things with kids is never easy (Alan Hansen perhaps should have said), so this is no guaranteed route to glory. Indeed, bringing through young players is as much about frustration and patience as it is about freshness and passion. Experienced players and their wages will therefore need to be funded to help us through. Can it be done? It’s an exciting thought. Can a team withstand losing perhaps a couple of players every year as it builds for the future, all the while making progress? It’s not impossible. The challenge more likely is how it adapts to moving up a division. As we have seen this year, the gap between League 1 and Championship has grown over two years and staying up becomes a major challenge in itself. Tics fans will hope that lessons have been learned and that should we get promoted back again, we will have a more successful experience next time.
Other reasons for optimism can be focussed on our youth development. The results of the U18s particularly continue to impress and while it is thought that it may be two years away before the first team begins to see the benefits, the optimism surrounding the academy shows no signs of abating. It may still only be a Category 3 set-up but it is attracting boys of some potential, encouraged by the standards of coaching and welfare provided there. Older, more cynical fans will say that they’ve heard this all before and that we’re yet to see much evidence of the supposed success – beyond some cameo appearances from Tim Chow and Jordan Flores and a little run in the team for Luke Burke, all of which have amounted to very little.
Latics supporters are champing at the bit to have Wiganers in the side, players that have even sat with them in the stands but the people in the know assure us it is going to happen. Exactly when and how many will be produced is still open to question but if you`re of an optimistic frame of mind it is something to look forward to, especially when the club says that it is committed to ensuring that Christopher Park, the home of the Academy, will be developed to improve the facilities and to gain Category 2 status. Such investment can only help with development and with attracting more and better young players.
There are other reasons to be positive too. When it comes to attracting the right type of player and even manager, the club has an infrastructure and facilities which many other clubs can only dream of. Putting it simply, if fans are worried about our ability to recruit the best players in League 1, then if the wages offered by Walsall are the same as ours, then we know that we’ll get chosen probably nine times out of ten. As much as we may find it amusing, players signing for us and referring to Wigan Athletic as a massive club, do so for a reason. They are not used to playing in a stadium of this size, to training facilities of the calibre of Euxton or to the number of staff we have, all there ultimately to support their success on the pitch. At the Championship it may begin to be a different matter but there surely can’t be any doubt about our status in the divisions below.
The Right Man In The Dugout?
There is one area though where there is no source of optimism unless things change. Since 2013, we have appointed and sacked five managers. The club’s own actions tell us that they have failed continually to attract the right person to the job and we are now paying a heavy price. Even temporary success for Uwe Rosler and Gary Caldwell was not enough for them to keep their jobs and ultimately, they both fell foul of poor results on the back of poor player acquisition.
David Sharpe has shown a willingness to embrace the modern with his establishment of a recruitment team. He stated in the club’s annual report that Wigan Athletic will have to do things differently in the future in order to survive and thrive. Given his inexperience and the mistakes made in managerial appointments, it is to be hoped that recruitment of the right manager is an area where huge improvements can be made – perhaps with the use of more modern methods than simply looking at who is available, followed up by an interview and presentation.
On his actions in that area, more than any other, hinges most of our grounds for optimism. If David Sharpe can belie his inexperience and find the right manager for the task, then positivity may well be justified. Appoint the wrong person or fail to address that pesky striker problem and the swirl of despondency which covered Wigan yesterday will continue.
So, on the whole, are there grounds for positivity or negativity? There are clearly both. No more goose laying golden eggs, question marks over our ability to recruit the quality of players we need to compete and a chronic inability to attract the right manager do not make good reading. Opposed to that are the stability and commitment that the Whelan family bring; the plan they have for the future involving the development of young players, both to progress up the table and fund the club; the academy; and our status in the lower divisions.
In the end, it probably depends on whether you’re already an optimist or pessimist. Me? I’ll go for cautious optimism since without it, there’s just no point any more.
Check out the latest PWU Podcast – Let’s Put The Soul Back In The Club
Warren Joyce’s tenure as Latics manager finally ended, now’s the time to get the soul back.
0:00 Joyceless intros – sayonara, Shortsman II
1:00 Electrifying ‘Bristols’ review (30 seconds long)
7:00 Why didn’t we get him out sooner?
13:00 What’s Coyley up to these days?
16:00 £179 season tickets = ‘a ripoff’ & Fans Forum refunds
18:40 Changing subject: Aston Villa preview with Villa fan Jordan
24:00 Villa to ‘throw the game’? & the shadow of Shortsman
28:30 Baz’s Villa stat pack, form guide & bittersweet predictions
35:00 Si’s Oddschecker & Pollitt to return?!
40:00 Potted history of Wigan Athletic 2004-2017
Cheesy ending this week but who cares.
The podcast can be listened to by clicking the embedded player below or downloaded to listen at you leisure by visiting www.buzzsprout.com