Wigan Athletic in freefall - Special Report

Latics players reflect after the recent defeat to Huddersfield at the DW Stadium
Latics players reflect after the recent defeat to Huddersfield at the DW Stadium
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WHAT’S going on at Wigan Athletic?

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that question this season, I’d have enough to challenge Sky Sports and BT for the next round of Premier League TV rights.

How on earth is a team that was tipped to be a shoo-in for the Championship’s top two languishing in the bottom two with two -thirds of the campaign played?

A measly 22 points on the board from 30 matches played.

Eight points adrift of safety with only 16 games to go.

Where do you start?

The most obvious place to point the finger is usually the manager.

And Malky Mackay will be the first to accept the stats since he took charge in mid-November don’t make for pleasant reading.

Played 14. Won 1. Drawn 3. Lost 10.

When a new manager comes in, you can usually rely on an immediate upturn in fortunes, a feel-good factor generated by a fresh set of ideas and methods.

For a number of well-documented reasons, stemming from his Cardiff days and the fall-out from his unveiling at the DW, Mackay has not enjoyed that luxury.

But it would be incredibly naive to apportion all of the blame at the Scot’s door, or believe the situation would suddenly resolve itself if he were to be replaced.

The problems at Wigan Athletic, as most fans will surely be aware, run far deeper than that.

Managers don’t usually come into football clubs when all is going swimmingly.

There is usually a good reason why the previous incumbent has vacated his position.

And there’s no doubt Mackay inherited a club with massive issues both on and off the pitch.

Latics, pre-season favourites for promotion, had won only three of their 18 matches when time was called on Uwe Rosler’s 11 months in charge.

Having transformed Latics from mid-table plodders to play-off achievers and FA Cup semi-finalists in the space of six months last term, hopes were sky-high Rosler’s side could go one better this time round and get back into the Promised Land.

Despite spending £10million on nine new players last summer, the loss of Jordi Gomez, Jean Beausejour and, on the last day of the transfer window, James McArthur robbed the side of three of its most consistent performers.

Unfortunately, none of Rosler’s new-boys were able to hit the ground running this term - indeed, four of them have already left the club - while players who had shone brightly during the glory years couldn’t repeat the trick in the division below.

The hangover from last term, when Latics were dealt double disappointment when it mattered most, proved impossible to shake off and, in many ways, is still being felt.

Mackay may have been the man who moved on the likes of Maloney and Watson, McManaman and Espinoza.

But he is clearly working to orders and directives passed down from the top, and cutting his cloth accordingly.

Chief executive Jonathan Jackson revealed in this newspaper only last month that ‘tough decisions would have to be made’ with the club having to consider the very real possibility of relegation to League One.

Sensible stuff, with Jackson - a fan of the club since the non-league days - determined to make sure there is a football club for our children and grandchildren to support.

With that in mind, it would be hard to argue with any of the outgoings in January, all of whom had been part of a poor side that was sinking like a stone, and whose departure brought in millions of pounds in transfer fees and saved wages.

To redress the balance, Mackay has had to act fast and bring in a whole new team of January signings, with most coming in on short-term loans.

Not ideal but absolutely necessary, given the precarious position of not knowing will division Latics would be playing next year.

The pressure on the new-boys - most of whom weren’t playing regular first-team football at their previous clubs - to make an immediate difference has been huge.

But with a highly-paid, highly-rated squad having failed to perform for over half of the season, the time had come to roll the dice and see whether a new-look team of hungry players with everything to prove and futures to play for could do any better.

It remains to be seen whether it’s a gamble that will pay off.

But one thing’s for certain - it can’t get any worse than the way it was going.

At least this way, if the worst does happen, the club has given itself a massive head-start in terms of cutting costs over the summer, with the number of players on long, crippling contracts having also been reduced.

It seems unlikely Mackay would have been given the mandate to so drastically change the playing squad if he didn’t retain the full backing of the powers-that-be.

Having overseen such a massive turnover in staff, he deserves time to try to make his revolution work - time which is ticking by all too quickly.

That’s not to say Mackay hasn’t made mistakes, or doesn’t have questions to answer, regarding his time in charge.

The continued absence of club captain Emmerson Boyce - at a time when the defence is crying out for stability, leadership and fighting spirit - has baffled some fans.

Sure, the 35-year-old’s legs may not be what they were, but the qualities he does bring to the table far outweigh that lack of pace.

Most of the questions and fears being raised by fans on message boards and social media appear fair enough - and borne of passion for the club rather than anything more sinister.

Some fans have claimed the presence of Dave Whelan in and around the club would go some way towards providing a stabilising effect, and there is merit to that argument.

Having now served his six-week ban, and refreshed his batteries over in Barbados, the return of Whelan cannot come quickly enough.

The gap between Latics and safety currently stands at eight points.

With a blank weekend - and many of their relegation rivals in action today - the situation could become even worse before it becomes better.

Indeed, the next fortnight will be critical in shaping the rest of the campaign.

After Tuesday’s trip to Reading come the visits of Charlton next Friday and Cardiff on Tuesday week, before a real basement battle at beleaguered Blackpool the following Saturday.

Four matches in 11 days - all against struggling sides who will be looking at Latics in pretty much the same way as we’re looking at them.

For a side that has won only four matches all season, it would be a lot to ask for a return of four wins in the space of a week and a half.

News that good has been in precious short supply of late.

But if Latics can secure a points return closer to 12 than zero, it would give them at least a chance of completing an escape far greater than anything they produced in the Premier League era.

Now, more than ever, is a time to believe.

And hope.