The 12th Man Column: Some great memories, but it's business now
Wigan Ahtletic fans address this week's talking points.
The League One table is looking much healthier for Latics after two very important away wins at Bradford City and Walsall. Latics have not been at their fluent best in these games but they are now showing the qualities that should get them automatic promotion.
Blackburn and Shrewsbury have been pushing Latics all the way with a consistent set of results but they are now only one point behind the Shrews and two behind Rovers with two games in hand.
At Bradford last week their character and determination were tested as they battled against adverse weather conditions and a poor pitch. The match looked to be heading towards a disappointing draw but the players once again demonstrated their never-say-die attitude with a vital winner in added time.
On Wednesday night at Walsall they looked a little tentative in the opening minutes and it appeared that captain Sam Morsy, who was on international duty with Egypt, would be missed.
But in a crazy nine minutes the game turned in Latics’ favour. Nick Powell produced a moment of brilliance as he used the outside of his right boot to curl an inch-perfect pass to Michael Jacobs at the far-post and Latics had made the crucial breakthrough.
They followed that up four minutes later with Jay Fulton’s first goal for the club, a powerful strike from 20-yards into the bottom corner. Then the three points were sealed when Chey Dunkley fired home from close range following a corner and a goalmouth scramble.
Latics only had three shots on target all night but they had shown the qualities in the final third of the pitch that should get them promoted.
Paul Cook has strength in depth with plenty of options available. Defensively they have looked very strong in the last two away games but with Jamie Jones, Alex Bruce, Donervon Daniels and Reece James they also have plenty of back up available.
The manager picked Jay Fulton to fill in for Sam Morsy in midweek but he could easily have selected David Perkins, plus Shaun MacDonald played for the second team in mid-week against Mansfield so could soon be available for selection.
Going forward Cook has plenty of options to consider. Will Grigg, James Vaughan and Devante Cole are all vying for the central striker role, but
if things aren’t going to plan Cook has the option go with two upfront with Vaughan, Grigg or Cole in a 4-4-2 formation as they did away at Blackburn.
Next up for Latics is another away fixture at Bury. The Shakers have had a dreadful season so far, currently rock bottom of the table and 10 points from safety. They have conceded 55 goals and only scored 31 in their 37 games.
Ryan Lowe and Ryan Kidd are currently in joint caretaker charge at Gigg Lane after both Lee Clark and Chris Lucketti had been dismissed following poor results. Player-coach Lowe and coach Kidd have been appointed until the end of the season, which unfortunately for them looks likely to end in relegation to League Two.
Latics will be firm favourites for the three points but they mustn’t take anything for granted on what is likely to be another difficult pitch. If they can harness the good qualities shown in the last two away games they should secure another victory in their quest for automatic promotion.
In a world where football supporters are becoming increasingly fickle and result-obsessed, it was encouraging to see the majority of the DW Stadium stay behind and applaud their team off, despite a 2-0 loss at home last Sunday.
The memories this set of players gave us during this cup run will live with us forever, and it was only right that we showed them our appreciation. The relationship between fans and players at the minute is as good as it has been since I have followed Latics, and a lot of credit must go to Paul Cook and his staff.
When Cook arrived from Portsmouth in the summer, Pompey fans were very quick to point out his flaws as a manager and person, but since his arrival at the club he has been a breath of fresh air and something different to what we have ever had before. From his press conferences to his signings, I think everything Cook has done at Latics is brilliant and I couldn’t praise him enough.
On Saturday, we went toe-to-toe with Southampton and for large parts of the game, we played the better football. If Chey Dunkley would’ve connected with Nathan Byrne’s shot in the first half, or Gary Roberts used his right foot instead of his left from six yards out, then the Latics would’ve been at Wembley instead of Fleetwood on April 21.
Latics had no time to lick their wounds though as they prepared to make the trip down the M6 to Walsall on Wednesday evening where a win would put them in touching distance of Shrewsbury and Blackburn, with two games in hand.
Cook freshened-up the pack as he made four changes from the team that were beaten by the Saints. James Vaughan, Ryan Colclough, Jay Fulton and Nick Powell all came back into the team and would be keen to make an impression.
And it only took Nick Powell, the best player in the league by a country mile, 31 minutes to do so as he carved open the Walsall defence with a pass that wouldn’t look out of place in a David Silva highlight reel. The on loan midfielder Jay Fulton then caught the eye with a thunderous half volley from the edge of the box to put Latics well in control.
Chey Dunkley then chipped in with his fifth goal of the season from centre back with a striker’s finish. It was then just a matter of killing the game in the second half and hopefully preserving some energy before Saturday’s North West derby at Gigg Lane.
Despite their innocuous league position, the Shakers aren’t to be underestimated; they genuinely have a few match winners in their squad. Harry Bunn was signed from Huddersfield in August and was tipped by many to be signing of the season. Like the majority of his team mates, it hasn’t happened for Bunn this season, but on any given day, everything could click for Bury, so Dan Burn and co will have to do everything in their powers that it isn’t Saturday when everything comes together.
We can concentrate on the league now.
That is the sentiment that we are all supposed to have, since the FA Cup dream was shattered on Sunday afternoon. It was exactly the sentiment that was put to Paul Cook after the game and the gaffer, in the style that has made him so popular with Latics fans, simply replied: “Well we have no choice do we?”
None of us have any choice now. It seems that many of us would have liked to progress on to a Wembley semi-final, but it was not to be. We can all have a lot of pride in how the team played against Southampton. But pride doesn’t get you to Wembley any more than desire or effort do on their own. What we needed on Sunday were goals. What we lacked, was what we have lacked ever since that away day at Oxford before Christmas. A clinical cutting edge.
We had plenty of chances in the first half. Enough to make the game safe. But we just couldn’t quite get that ball in that net.
Then on Wednesday night, that seemed to change. The game at Walsall was a very important game. One of our games in hand. And since Shrewsbury had only managed a draw the night before, the advantage that we had to push home, had got that little bit bigger.
Whilst late winners like the one at Bradford last week are what supporting football is all about, it is usually a better idea to win game more comfortably, and earlier, than that. We did this on Wednesday at Walsall.
Three first half goals effectively ended the game as a contest. None of the goals were fantastic, the only real piece of quality being Nick Powell’s ball to Michael Jacobs for the first, but all goals count and it made the game a more relaxed affair.
The most pleasing thing was returning to a more clinical way of playing. In the first half we had six shots. While only half of those were on target, all of the three which were, went in.
If there was a disappointing element to the game, it was that we only had two shots in the second period, and we could not add to our goal tally.
This was a good opportunity to add to our goal difference, in which our dominance has been weakened in recent weeks. However if we continue to win games, the goal difference will not be all that relevant.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We are focusing on the league, and we are focussing on each game at a time. We have 11 games left this season. Each one is big. Every goal, every win takes us closer to our aim.
Following Shrewsbury’s slip and our midweek win, the league table looks quite a bit more positive. We are that little bit closer to the two teams above us. No pressure Shrewsbury. No pressure Blackburn.
Blackburn don’t play this weekend, so we can go second with a win against Bury. If Shrewsbury were to slip up again, then we could go top. A little run of wins now will heap further pressure on the other two teams. We’ll see then if they can handle it.
So it’s no Wembley return for Wigan Athletic this season. As it transpired it was simply a case of one game too far in our FA Cup run.
Latics could and should have been out of sight by half-time, Paul Cook’s men had been by far the better side and were the ones who looked like they had Premier League class.
The difference between Sunday and the games against Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City were simply being clinical in front of goal. Latics created numerous opportunities but sadly couldn’t convert that dominance in to goals.
Even as the second half began Latics were in the ascendancy and the corner count at one point 10 in favour of Wigan showed just how strong our dominance had been. Sadly as Latics tired, the failure to get at least a goal to the good as Southampton finally woke up and began to turn the screw.
Even after Southampton had taken the lead Latics had chances with Noel Hunt and Nick Powell making a difference when they came on. Christian Walton offered hope with a few world class saves, including that one from the penalty spot but it was a case of what could have been as Noel Hunt’s effort failed to connect and Southampton scored their second with a breakaway goal.
I can’t say I’m not disappointed about Sunday, the closer the game got the more confidence I had that we could seal an unlikely return to Wembley and who knows what could have happened after that.
But then logically perhaps it’s better this way, promotion has to be our aim this season and there’s no doubt that we’ve stuttered in recent weeks. Now there’s no excuses, we can fully concentrate on returning to the Championship.
Despite the disappointment in missing out on that Wembley return we should take a moment to praise this Wigan Athletic side and management team. No one would have imagined we could have reached a quarter final at the start of the competition, let alone when we were on the verge of being knocked out by Fylde in round two.
To knock out Manchester City, currently one of if not the best club side in the world, along the way is quite the achievement. It should have been crowned by that Wembley return but I’m sure the majority of other Latics fans that have lived this FA Cup run will agree at showing no disappointment with the side, they’re heroes and they’ll earn their just rewards hopefully with promotion back to a level befitting of their talents.
Any doubts as to how Latics would react to the disappointment of that quarter final defeat were quashed on Wednesday evening, a comprehensive 3-0 win and another three points on the way to promotion. We may still be in third place but with games in hand and a far superior goal difference, Paul Cook’s side are looking well placed for promotion.
If we manage to get back to the Championship I’m sure the disappointment of ‘only’ reaching the FA Cup quarter final will soon subside.