The 12th Man: Job done! Let’s enjoy it before looking ahead
Wigan Athletic fans reflect on a season of highs and lows.
Well, here we are then. In a few days, the 2018-19 season will be over, and we survive to fight another year. It was a close-run thing, but incredible performances at the death against Norwich, Leeds and Preston put us where we are. So where, exactly, are we?
When I was asked, last August, where we’d finish, I said 17th. Based on the current table, I’m not going to be far wrong, if at all. But , if I’m honest, it hasn’t been a particularly enjoyable season in which to be a Latics fan. August and September where terrific, with us being top six for part of that time, and the last few weeks have also given us cause to be positive. But from October to March, we were simply awful. No meaningful tactics, and awful substitutions during games cost us a lot of points. We actually threw away well over 20 points from winning positions. Hanging on to only half would have seen us in a top half position.
Which brings us to Paul Cook. Will he be here next year, or won’t he? Frankly, as might be obvious from my previous contributions herein, I wouldn’t be broken hearted if he wasn’t. However, this season is done, and the objective has been achieved, however awful it was at times. If Cook does stay, then I’m happy to wipe the slate clean and start again. I say that in the hope that he will have learned from this season. I suppose the only way to find out is if he is still at Latics come the end of May.
On a different, but possibly related, subject, let’s talk about attendances. This season, we’ve had the third lowest home attendance average in the Championship, ahead only of Brentford and Rotherham. Given the high with which we came out of League One, why is it that we can’t get more through the turnstiles? Part of it, of course, is that the town is awash with rugby fans who support United, City or Liverpool, and who hate Latics. But even that can’t be the whole story. Is it not possible that nobody actually wants to pay to watch awful football week-in, week-out?
Yes, we’ve survived in the Championship. But at what cost? It’s no secret that Latics is not a profitable club based purely on income from non-player sales. The club themselves actually work really hard to get kids involved, in the hope that the future will see an increase in loyalty to Latics, and attendance at games. But how long will we keep those new fans if what they see is as poor as we had for five months of this season? If it’s cold and raining, it’s not a stretch to see people deciding to stay at home instead of trekking to the DW to watch us desperately trying not to score.
This comes round again to Paul Cook. If he has learned that when we attack, we actually look like a really good side, dare we hope that he will be braver next year than he was for most of this? I hope so. If not, then we need to get someone who will be. If we’re going to lose more than we win, then at least let’s die on our feet instead of on our knees, as was the case so often this season.
In nearly three decades of following and watching Latics, I think I can count on one hand the number of seasons that have ended without there being anything to play for.
While that may not help the blood pressure and stress levels, it certainly makes life exciting and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
That was amplified by the game last Saturday, which, let’s be honest, no one really cared about. Yes it was great to see a couple of the youngsters make their debuts and to hear about Joe Gelhardt impressing everyone, but it didn’t really matter. No one really cared about the result. And having beaten Leeds the previous weekend, to win away again would have risked making that look like a common occurrence.
I have written a lot in the past about how special football is because of the passion that it invokes in the supporters. That passion comes from the love we have for our clubs but also because the games matter to us. Expect these last two don’t. So it isn’t the same.
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad we secured our Championship status with two game to go. I wrote a few weeks ago that we didn’t want to leave it until the last game of the season and happily we haven’t. But these last two games are just different. Not as good. We are basically in a brief period of post-season friendlies. In fact the only vague interest in the Millwall game is that if we win, and Birmingham lose, we will finish 17th which is what I predicted in the first 12th Man column of the season. (Well it would be nice for at least one of my predictions to be correct!)
And so attention turns to next year, and before that, to what might well be one of the most interesting close seasons since we were promoted to the Premier League in 2005. IEC have been very quiet since they bought the club in November. That is not particularly surprising, and it may well not change this summer. However there will surely be an increase in noise from those running the club. There will also surely be some action which will signal their intentions and strategy. And more noticeable change than just a big screen in the corner of the ground. But will the action and investment, which will surely come, be predominantly in the infrastructure of the club or in the playing staff?
We can be sure that there won’t be loads of money thrown around, but we can expect that there will some pump-prime funding and so it will be interesting to see where it is spent and, therefore, where the owners priorities are.
It will also be interesting to see the strategy is for increasing revenue at the club. We know that the shirt sponsorship is due for renewal this summer and it will be interesting to see whether that will go to the highest bidder, or to one of the owner’s brands. There may also be some other contractual changes but the big one is the stadium naming rights. I am not sure when the current contract expires, but IEC say that this has potential for income growth in the “short term” so I would expect that either this year or next we will find ourselves playing at a different sounding ground.
One of the first decisions will be on the manager. What is Paul Cook’s future? Many doubted him this year. That is not surprising bearing in mind how awful the middle section of the season was. I am usually a very conservative fan and loyal to those who have brought success to the club but even I had a wobble in the run up to the derby with the team from Horwich.
But I do support Cook and his team and feel that they have had success this year and deserve the chance to continue next year. Though his future should not be automatically considered secure as the club management, with the exception of Chief Executive Jackson, do not have the same loyalty to him that the old regime did.
We need to remember that for Cook, this was his first go at managing in the Championship. No doubt he will have learnt much and, all things being equal, he will have a better season to come.
But all things are not equal. And the other main factor influencing on-field success are the players. Some of them have never played at this level before either but will they still be with us next season to benefit from this experience? Others are out of contract. Much is made of Nick Powell and the zombie Gavin Massey, whose ‘back from the dead’ transformation from most hated player last season, to ‘vital component’ this year and then to the ‘hero of Elland Road’ is quite remarkable. I think we all hope that he signs a new contract, but I would quite understand if he didn’t remembering how badly he was being treated only a year or so ago.
But there are other players who will go. Perhaps not vitally important players but ones who will need replacing and the quality in the squad needs to be improved generally. We need to find an immediate replacement for Nick Powell who is surely off, and the replacement for Will Grigg who we have missed since his departure, if not catastrophically as I predicted at the start of February.
So the players and management are not all that experienced in the Championship, but also neither are we, the fans.
Wigan Athletic have only ever played six seasons at this level. Of the previous five seasons before this one, one was a promotion year, two were top half finishes but two were relegation years. Bearing in mind that Latics have only ever been relegated four times as a league club, half of those were in the last few years and from this division.
So perhaps we need to learn how to be second-tier Wigan Athletic fans, hopefully getting more and more practice at it in the years to come.
But the biggest challenge this season will be to find the new Reece James. Obviously we won’t keep him because he is worth pretty much the same as IEC paid for the entire club, stadium and training grounds. And I don’t even mean trying to find a young player to loan in who is of equivalent ability and promise, because that is rare and he is such a special talent. So perhaps we just need to make a rule that, as there has been for the last few years, there always needs to be a player at Wigan called Reece James. Can Latics find Reece James III for next season? If I were an out of work footballer, I’d be changing my name now and heading down to Euxton to sign the contract that is already drafted and waiting!
Job done – that will no doubt be the overriding feeling as Wigan Athletic take to the pitch at the DW for the final time this Sunday. It’s been quite the turnaround over the last month, Latics looked to be staring down the barrel following the last minute defeat against Hull but truly turned it around against three of the strongest sides in the division. Where seven points could very well have been nine.
As we’re in the mood for reflection let’s take a look at this season, the achievement of Wigan Athletic securing their Championship status shouldn’t be overlooked. In two of the last five seasons Wigan Athletic found themselves relegated from the second tier. To buck that trend is quite the achievement. Especially when you consider the fact that Latics, unlike in previous Championship campaigns, are without parachute payments and have one of the lowest budgets in the league.
That isn’t to say it has been all plain sailing on the good ship Wigan Athletic, a season in which there was going to be wholesale changes to the ownership structure of the club was always bound to represent challenges. The fact that change was made mid-season meant it was a bigger challenge to overcome.
I think the departure of the Whelan family and David Sharpe in October has been underplayed, but when one family and one chain of command has been in place since the early ‘90s it must have been difficult for the club as a whole to overcome and get used to that new structure. Credit should go to both Darren Royle and Jonathan Jackson who have managed to oversee a seamless transition, certainly in terms of what we as supporters have witnessed.
Credit should also go to the pair for not panicking when results weren’t as expected over the last few months, it’s been a difficult season for a number of reasons but the learning curve that the club has been on will stand both Latics and hopefully Paul Cook and the management team in good stead. He and his players have been unwavering in the belief that we will eventually stay up, that belief was clearly with the owners of the club as well and it has paid off.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that the first season that Wigan Athletic have shown faith in their manager in three Championship seasons is the first season that we have been successful in surviving as a Championship club. Both Uwe Rosler and Gary Caldwell can count themselves very unlucky to lose their jobs but it does show that consistency is an undervalued commodity in modern football.
Of course at times this season hasn’t been good enough – I’m sure Paul Cook and Leam Richardson will admit that, performances haven’t generally been poor but individual mistakes have been our undoing on so many occasions. Our away form clearly hasn’t been good enough, and the slow acceptance of it being an issue among the management team. But generally at home we’ve been strong, apart from two games in December our home form has been fantastic and with a couple more wins on the road we could well have been looking at a finish much higher up the table.
So on to next season, with no takeover to concern the club this summer it should all be about recruitment and indeed retention of our core assets. Principally Gavin Massey and Nick Powell, both have been offered new contracts but I expect the former to be the one to stay with us. Nick Powell is one of the best players we have seen in a Wigan Athletic shirt and I would be delighted if he remains with the club but I’m also realistic in that we can’t match the sort of money he could earn elsewhere. The future of Callum McManaman will also be solved this season. But with his lack of opportunities surely he will be moving on in the summer?
Along with our out of contract players there will be question marks over those who have joined us on-loan this season. Christian Walton has improved in recent weeks, he said after the Leeds game that he felt part of Wigan Athletic now and it will be interesting to see if we can retain his services for a third season. Antonee Robinson is another who has improved greatly in recent weeks, at 23 years of age could he break in to the Everton side? If not he may well be worth a look at – the question is whether we could afford him. There will of course be a Reece James sized hole in our side next season, how we replace that marvellous young player will be an interesting challenge for Paul Cook and the team.
But that time isn’t now, Sunday will be a party and rightly so as Latics get ready to celebrate their Championship status for a further season. We have done the hard bit so let’s enjoy the fruits of our labour. Thankfully our friends from Bermondsey don’t need anything from the game either – a prospect where it went down to the final game of the season, a few weeks previously wasn’t one that held much attraction to me or I imagine many Latics
So looking ahead to the summer, let’s see how the first summer transfer window under the control of the Royle family and IEC goes. It’s going to be an interesting summer ahead and I look forward to seeing it unfold, as one club up the road in Horwich seems to be on life support our own club seems in robust good health.
Long may that continue.