The 12th Man: Wigan Athletic fans look back to Blackburn and ahead to a pivotal week!
As the takeover/non-takeover rumbles on with no end in sight, and the FA Cup on a brief respite before we take on yet another Premier League club, we're back into league action - and the looming spectre of having more games left than days in which to play them.
The question is asked frequently in such times, would we take missing promotion for another FA Cup win?
My view is absolutely!
Winning the FA Cup in 2013 was probably the greatest day of my life, however glib that may sound, and I’d really like to do it again.
Of course, I know the club need to get promoted in order to have a chance at not racking up enormous debt from highly-paid players and reduced turnover, but that’s
exactly what the Championship brings anyway.
Clubs in the Championship overspend more than in any other division.
They basically pawn the club to the owners/banks/Wonga in an attempt to reach the promised land.
Okay, so turnover goes up due to the increased match day crowds and the solidarity payments from the PL, but player wages rise much faster.
Our problem at Latics is we are no longer at the stage where we can really afford to compete with even mediocre teams in the Championship on a financial basis.
As it happens, though, we’ve currently got a team which could probably compete at a level good enough that we could stay up.
At that point it becomes much easier to build for the next season, and the next, and the next.
The only profit in football, nowadays, in in the Premier League.
The Championship is a black hole for money, and most clubs Leagues One and Two are simply fighting to have a half-decent team winning more games than it loses.
I don’t want to sound like a grizzled old man, but is that really a good situation for football?
So back to my original point.
Give me an FA Cup, and keep the Championship.
Give me both, ideally, but I do quite like League One.
If my pre-game Twitter poll was a scientific gauge of wider Latics fandom opinion (and clearly it wasn’t), there was not a lot of positive thinking before the big game last Sunday.
A clear majority of fans indicated they would have taken a point before the game, if one had been on offer.
While I fully understand it was a game we certainly didn’t want to lose, I still think we are the best team in this division and felt we should have fancied ourselves to get the victory.
It was certainly not a must-win game, because of the many games in hand we have on Blackburn, and it would not have been absolute disaster if we had lost it for the same reason.
But it was important not to lose.
A defeat would have left us nine points behind the leaders with four games in hand.
They would still have been within our sights, but there would have been a much reduced margin for error.
With Shrewsbury’s game being postponed, our match effectively became one of our games in hand against Salop and so it took on more importance from that perspective as well.
As it happened, it was a classic game of two halves, and Latics produced a very encouraging fightback.
Latics will be much happier with the point than Blackburn, not just because the hosts lost a two-goal lead, but also because it means we did not lose any further ground on them from this six-pointer.
The other pleasing aspect is there still seemed to be plenty of energy, fight and passion in the team, despite the inevitable thoughts of an approaching FA Cup quarter-final – and a possible visit to Wembley should we progress.
During the game, Blackburn were bigger and stronger.
They bullied us a little – sometimes within the laws of the game, sometimes not.
It became quite obvious early on that the referee seemed to want to let the game flow and not blow the whistle too often.
When that happens, the team needs to be stronger.
They can’t start looking for free kicks, because they won’t get them.
They need to fight for everything.
You can’t get bullied or pushed off the ball.
You need to give as good as you get.
Blackburn’s first goal looked a little lucky, with the defensive clearance going straight to their player.
But actually it was poor defence from Latics.
There was a very good ball through to Adam Armstrong, who had made a good run, but Latics should have been wise to it.
That is a run that Armstrong likes to make.
In fact, it is exactly the same run, in between the centre-backs from out wide, that he made for his first goal against us for Coventry in the season-opener two years ago.
In addition, Christian Walton looked to be in a strange position.
It is possible he was caught out of position as it was a fast break.
Let’s assume that is what happened, because it would be unkind to suggest he isn’t used to having much to do during games!
While the second goal may well have been a foul on Nathan Byrne out on the wing, that shouldn’t be used as an excuse, because there was still a lot to do from that position, and the defence should simply not have allowed them to do it.
In any case – any good fortune Blackburn benefited from was matched by our two goals – especially Max Power’s free-kick, going straight in from a wide position, without too much power.
Scunthorpe are up next for Latics.
How big a game is this? They are all big games now.
Scunthorpe are not in good form, but are still a good team and will offer a stern test.
We cannot afford any players to be distracted by the thought of a quarter-final.
We need to be focused. We need to show the desire, fight and passion we showed in the second half on Sunday.
They will be crucial in the hectic run-in we have until the end of the season.
We need to get ourselves back to winning ways, and to go on a winning run, to put the pressure on Blackburn and Shrewsbury, and to ensure the pressure doesn’t start to build on us.
A test of a good side is how they stand up to scrutiny.
How they respond to setbacks – do they crumble at the first sign of pressure or do they stand up to be counted?
Luckily, thanks to some sterling efforts this season, we haven’t had too many times where we’ve had to see Latics face adversity.
Generally, through sheer hard work, determination and no lack of skill, Latics have managed to have most things their own way this year.
So when the lads were 2-0 down midway through the first half at Ewood Park on Sunday, thoughts turned to how they would respond and indeed if they could.
Of course, you write off this side at your peril.
The first half had been strange in that, despite being two goals to the good, I didn’t think Blackburn looked much better than us.
Both goals could and should have seen the referee blow up for fouls in the build-up.
One potential leg breaker on Nick Powell (interestingly, the Blackburn social media team have spent the week celebrating this ‘tackle’ on Twitter), and Nathan Byrne being wrestled to the floor in the build-up to the second.
If those decisions go Latics’ way, it could have been a very different first half.
Latics came out in the second half a different side, and Paul Cook’s substitutions of both James Vaughan, Jamie Walker and latterly David Perkins all made a big difference.
I was impressed with both Vaughan and Walker, who played a big part in getting Latics back level – and they’ll surely play a big part in the run-in during coming weeks.
The reaction of Blackburn at the end, and the extremely bitter comments of Tony Mowbray, show how that was a much better point for us than it was for them.
Talk ahead of kick-off from Ewood had centred on knocking Latics psychologically by beating us and opening up a nine-point lead.
As it is, I think it’s Latics who have the psychological lead over Blackburn now.
Despite poor results in February against Southend and Blackpool, we know it’s in our hands – win our games in hand and we’ll finish above Blackburn.
As Blackburn celebrate winning the ‘2018 drawing with Wigan trophy’, Latics can turn attentions to Scunthorpe.
The game against Scunny is as key as it was back in October, when 10-man Latics held on for all three points.
A similar result is needed this weekend to keep up with the chasing pack.
It’s feeling like another season-defining week is here.
Following Scunthorpe it’s a trip over the Pennines to Bradford, and then the FA Cup quarter final tie with Southampton.
Let’s hope it’s a week we can all look back on fondly.
The battle between the League One title favourites ended all square on Sunday at Ewood Park, but with Latics coming out of the game with a significant psychological advantage.
They were 2-0 down at half-time, and some Rovers’ fans were prematurely celebrating the League One title.
But Latics showed great grit and determination in the second-half, dominating proceedings and coming back to draw 2-2, and they could so easily have secured all three points.
A defeat would have been a setback for Latics, but they are now in the best position in the race for the League One title with four games in hand and only six points behind Rovers.
Some pundits have suggested Latics have too many games still to play, but fixture congestion has always been a problem for the teams who are successful in both league and cup, and it is not an insurmountable problem.
The current positive vibe around the club and the winning mentality can only be beneficial to Latics’ chances of success, as the momentum builds towards the business end of the season.
They have already shown they have a strong squad with quality in depth, winning important games against Bournemouth in the FA Cup replay and Rochdale in the league with wholesale changes to the starting XI.
Latics currently have available at least two capable players in every position on the field, and all the players are very comfortable with the system Paul Cook has put in place.
It is another exciting week ahead as they face fifth-placed Scunthorpe at the DW Stadium tomorrow before Bradford away on Wednesday, and then an FA Cup quarter-final at home to Premier League Southampton next Sunday.
The whole squad is focused on being successful and they will want to be in the team against Southampton when the national media will be in town.
Scunthorpe have won just twice in 2018 and have only gained three points from the last five games, but they are still in the play-off places and will be desperate to get back to winning ways.
The Iron are struggling with injuries recently, and former Latics loan striker Ivan Toney – who surprisingly left the club in January – may be one of the absentees due to a groin injury.
Bradford have slipped down to ninth place in the table, but they are only three points off a play-off place and will be hoping to regain their early-season form.
Under former manager Stuart McCall, they produced one of their best performances of the season in winning 2-1 at the DW Stadium in November.
New manager Simon Grayson has only been in charge for two games, drawing 1-1 with Charlton and losing 1-0 to Plymouth, so the Bantams will be something of an unknown quantity under the ex-Preston and Leeds boss.
It was interesting to see Latics adopt a two-pronged attack in the second-half against Blackburn, with James Vaughan joining Will Grigg in an effective central strikeforce.
Cook is unlikely to start with both players against Scunthorpe and Bradford, but the manager has the option to go more direct when the pitch or circumstances dictate it.
It is an important tactical option especially at a time when the final result is more important than the performance.
A hard-earned point at Ewood Park was a better result for Latics than Rovers, according to most.
The 2-2 draw leaves us favourites for the League One title going into three games which are potentially season deciders – Scunthorpe and Bradford in the league, and Southampton in the FA Cup.
Graham Alexander’s Scunthorpe presented one of our tougher tests this season back in October at Glanford Park, where we battled our way to a 2-1 victory,
courtesy of goals from Dan Burn and Nick Powell.
This weekend I am sure they will be just as difficult to beat, despite coming off the back of a loss to struggling Oldham.
Ivan Toney will be relishing coming back to the ground where he received unfair abuse, in my opinion.
The striker scored a respectable six goals in less than a half a season at Wigan and he never even nailed down a starting position.
He’s probably a good bet to join the club of former strikers who weren’t liked here to score against us not long after they left – see Marc-Antoine Fortune and Leon Clarke.
The Iron also present threats in other areas including Josh Morris – a tricky winger with an eye for goal – and powerful, box to box midfielder Funso Ojo.
Former Latics goalkeeper Matt Gilks will also be in for a busy afternoon in between the posts.
After we hopefully get past Scunthorpe, we will make up one of our games in hand and could potentially go top of the table after a win against Simon Grayson’s Braford (hopefully).
In past years Valley Parade has been a bit of a fortress and opposing teams have normally left empty-handed. But this year has been a different story.
In City’s 16 home games this season, they have only managed to pick up 20 points, the fourth-worst record in the division.
It has been Bradford’s away form that has ensured they’ve stayed in and around the play-offs – as we found out in November.
Similarly to Scunthorpe, they possess plenty of threats going forward such as Paul Taylor and Alex Gilliead. However Charlie Wyke, the spearhead and focal point of Bradford’s attack, will be suspended after he received a red card for violent conduct in their loss to Plymouth.
Latics will be favourites for both matches, as we nearly always are, but they will be two very tough fixtures and I think the vast majority of supporters will happily take four points from the two games.