The 12th Man: Checkatrade malfunction, but Cook’s stance is best

Jensen Weir became Latics youngest ever player last 'Tuesday night
Jensen Weir became Latics youngest ever player last 'Tuesday night

Latics went out of the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday night after they fielded their Academy team against League Two Accrington Stanley.

Manager Paul Cook demonstrated his priorities by not risking first team players in a competition which has been devalued and degraded by the inclusion of Premier League and Championship U21 teams in the last two seasons.

The Football League Trophy, which was previously only for League One and League Two teams, was once a valid chance for these teams to get to Wembley and to win a trophy. However we could now see a farcical situation where Premier League Academy teams face each other in the final.

The League One and League Two clubs have effectively been given a financial bribe by Premier League clubs to allow their Academy teams into the Football League Trophy and in doing so have made the competition meaningless.

It is clear that the competition is now for the benefit of the rich Premier League clubs trying to develop their young players. Many of the lower league clubs are struggling for financial survival and they have been bribed by increasing the prize money from £2m to £3m to continue to participate.

Many fans have vehemently opposed the change in the competition and have started a B Team Boycott campaign but the English Football League (EFL) have disregarded their opinions and scored a massive own goal by submitting to the demands of the Premier League.

Most football fans are against having Premier League U21 teams in the competition and they see it as the first steps in a move to introduce B teams into Leagues One and Two.

The influence of the Premier League over the Football League is increasingly oppressive. The financial rewards available to Premier League clubs are ever increasing while the Football League clubs are limited to relative scraps of money from the top table as the divide increases. A master and servant relationship is now developing and the Premier League’s demands on the lower league clubs are ever increasing.

There is already a drive by the top six teams in the Premier League to have a greater share of Premier League revenue and they would also like to have their B teams playing in the Football League.

The football authorities and in particular the EFL have alienated many football fans and have evidently lost the plot as far as helping their membership. Average attendances in the EFL Trophy decreased by 56 per cent last season with the introduction of Academy teams. Tuesday’s attendance at the DW Stadium was only 1,473, which is a big drop from Latics’ previous years in the EFL Trophy.

Bradford City have an average attendance of over 20,000 for League One games but their fans similarly voted with their feet on Tuesday night and adopted the B Team Boycott, with only 931 people at their game with Rotherham United.

It is planned that the Checkatrade Trophy will continue next season with the inclusion of Premier League Academy teams. If this proves to be the case I would urge all football fans to continue the B Team Boycott and lobby for change.

I fully support Paul Cook’s decision to play an Academy team in the light of the ridiculous state of the competition. But sadly we’ve now been forced into a surreal situation where our football club is not bothered about winning football matches.

Ian Aspinall

League matters

So the Checkatrade charade is over for another year. In fact for us, it’s hopefully over for a good few years if you get what I mean. I think I can safely say that I couldn’t care less, and neither, evidently did the management, given the barely foetal team that they put out on Tuesday. Never was the phrase “men against boys” more apt.

It is a shame that this competition has become a subject of such derision but hey, we didn’t start it! It was the powers that be in football, the ones who decide what is good for us who decreed that they would turn it into a reserve team competition and anger the fans of so many lower league clubs who have walked away following the changes to the format.

It would not surprise me if it went the same way as the Anglo-Italian Cup, the Simod Cup, the Watney Cup and the Fray Bentos Trophy. OK , I made the last one up.

It may be sacrilegious to say it but the league is king nowadays and I say that whilst dodging bricks, given the affinity with which Wigan Athletic fans hold the FA Cup. Yet if we cared about it that much, there would have been 10,000 on against Crawley not 3,000 of us.

It’s frustrating but I get that, as we are all at a different stage of life in our supporting journey from different backgrounds. When I was young, free and single, I consumed football as often as I could get it and the more games that Wigan Athletic played the better in my eyes. Free from the shackles of anything else to with my time or money, I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t like me.

I even used to love going to the reserve games at Springfield Park. You could get in for free with a season ticket and sit and enjoy the game with a pie and a coffee (no beer served back then – things have definitely improved in some ways!)

I don’t have the time now but even if I did have the time I perhaps wouldn’t be as keen, it is just the way football has gone. The Premier League is everything, staying in the Premier League is everything, finishing fourth in the Premier League is everything. And why? Because getting in the Champions League is everything!

So the big clubs de-prioritise the other cups and field a reserve team, so why should anyone else take it seriously? Clubs outside the Prem are also league focussed; whether trying to get in the Premier League or trying to get in a division or even stay in a division where they have a chance of getting into the Premier League in our case.

It’s hard to believe now that a few decades ago teams played with no sub, then just one for many years and they played broadly the same amount of games, and certainly didn’t have any fancy pants International breaks. Now we have the concept of the “squad”, and of course many teams have large squads and need to utilise them in the lesser cup games (though Paul Cook took it to an extreme this week!)

The fitness and professionalism has increased certainly, but that has solely been due to the large amounts of money flooding into the game and the easy accessibility to a global market demanding it. In spite of this, we are told that today’s supercharged athletes can’t cope with two games a week when fat blokes with sideburns who liked a pint and a tab found it no problem a few years back!

Where was I? Oh yes – let me be the first to say “We can now concentrate on the league!” Or indeed the FA Cup as well in our case!

Martin Tarbuck

Stranger things

Well – what a strange old week that was, a well earned FA Cup win over Crawley Town, followed by the best draw we’ve had in years. Topped off with a bizarre evening in the Checkatrade on Tuesday.

Let’s start with the good stuff, Paul Cook was true to his word on Saturday and named a strong starting eleven against Harry Kewell’s Crawley, the selection was one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in League One so it was quite a surprise to see us fall behind just before the half hour mark.

Crawley’s goal was excellent, but Latics class eventually told - first an excellent predators goal from Ivan Toney. Followed by a virtuoso goal from Lee Evans to eventually win the tie.

After spending Saturday evening watching all of the day’s goals at work on a loop I didn’t see one that came anywhere close to Evans’ goal. It was so similar to that one he scored against Bury, maybe it’s a knack he has.

It was a goal that came at the right time and meant Latics avoided a tricky replay in Sussex, it was also announced on Saturday much to mine and a couple of thousand other’s disappointment that Rochdale this coming Saturday would be postponed.

Evans who replaced Emyr Huws of the fibreglass knees in the Wales squad, took the number of call ups to four which obviously meant a postponement. Which made the events of Tuesday night all the stranger.

Latics looked favourites to qualify for the knockout stage of the Football League Trophy after a mix of fringe first team players and talented youngsters had got themselves in a position where a point from the Accrington Stanley game would have seen us qualify.

Paul Cook has made his intentions known that it would be a young side taking the field against Accrington, but me and many others didn’t think it would be so young.

Only Terrell Thomas who was made captain for the night could be considered part of the first team set up, and he’s only made fleeting appearances in the cups this season.

The rest of the side and the bench was completely made up of our under eighteen side, and sadly it showed. The youngsters under the guidance of Nick Chadwick performed admirably but it was men against boys stuff and Accrington’s 4-0 scoreline could have been far more severe.

Paul Cook said that selection would be with the next league match in mind, but with no match until Bradford on November 18 there was a two week period without a match where players on the fringes of the first team squad would have benefited from the game time.

Will Grigg, David Perkins, Ryan Colclough, Noel Hunt and Alex Bruce all would have been expected to feature at some point and would still have allowed for all our talented youngsters to feature as well.

As it was it felt more like lambs to the slaughter and although I would never suggest we had thrown a game, it felt as good as we had decided that progression wasn’t for us. Which makes me question why we took a different approach to the first two matches.

I know it isn’t a competition high on our agenda, and I know that a lot of people won’t support the competition in it’s current format but equally I’d have expected us to at least have a go on Tuesday. We put a stronger side out in the Lancashire Senior Cup in September which must be even further down the competition pecking order than the Football League trophy.

Speaking of cup competitions, what a draw it was for us on Monday night. Certainly the most exciting since Macclesfield in 2013 and what a draw for Fylde as well. The eyes of the world will be on that little bit of the Fylde coast in December and with a Friday night match adding to the atmosphere it should be a great night.

Sean Livesey

Young guns

It’s been a good week as far as the Latics can be concerned, which sounds really daft considering Tuesday’s 4-0 defeat to Accrington Stanley.

Seventeen academy products featured in Tuesday’s night squad, with the only exception being Terell Thomas, who was captain for the evening, being the only player who has previously made a league appearance.

Although Accrington Stanley had too much quality for the young Latics, I think it was a good experience for the lads, and to be fair, the score line wasn’t a fair reflection for the side’s performance. The side had some bright spells of possession, and did look like they could score a few goals.

But Stanley were clinical, and with a full-strength squad it’s hard for the youngsters to compete.

I was very impressed by a few of our youngsters, and think they’re could be a few to keep an eye on over the next couple of seasons.

Luke Burgess looked sharp, and looked a threat going forward, showing a good glimpse of speed and trickery.

Victor Maffeo, who scored in the Middlesbrough U23s match, looked bright when he came on, always showing a desire to get the ball, and try and create a goal-scoring opportunity.

Chris Merrie was my personal stand-out player, showing a good range of passing ability, not being afraid to get stuck in, and he had a few good surges forward winning free-kicks in dangerous positions. Merrie could be a fantastic centre-midfielder once he gets closer to be the finished article.

I feel, especially with the three players highlighted, a loan move to a League Two side can be very beneficial for our youngsters as they could learn so much from playing regularly within the Football League, and it will help the Latics coaches identify if the lads can cut it at professional level.

I’d like to say massive congratulations to Jensen Weir, who broke a Latics club record to become our youngest ever player at the age of 15, and 280 days. It is a great achievement, and will be an unforgettable memory for Weir. Weir, who is the son of Everton legend David, is already a Scottish youth international, and I must admit he did well when he came on and looked impressive. He could be another one to watch within our academy.

However, although it was good to see so many youngsters get an opportunity to play, I feel the learning experience would have been extended and more valuable had there been a mixture with first-team players. At times, you can tell that the side lacked a leader, and an experienced pro such as Perkins for example would have helped calm the players and guide them through the game. They probably would have learned a lot more with a spine of senior pros, and at that age a 4-0 defeat can severely knock their confidence.

I was also disappointed that Will Grigg didn’t get the opportunity to gain game-time, as I believe Will needs match fitness to find his sharpness again after getting injured against Gillingham in October. Will is an integral part of the squad, and as soon as he’s back on fire, League One defences will be terrified to face him again.

Although they made hard work of it against Crawley, Wigan made it into the second round of the FA Cup after Lee Evans inspired the side to a 2-1 victory at the DW Stadium. Wigan, to the pleasure of the fans, will be travelling to AFC Fylde in the second round, which has been selected for television coverage by the BBC. I hope it’s an enjoyable day for the club and there is no potential banana skins for getting into the third round, but it’s the FA Cup, and I don’t need to tell you how magical the cup can be.

Hopefully Wigan can continue to progress in the FA Cup and continue our unbeaten run in the league. Up the Tics!

Jay Whittle

Let’s be clear

Whisper it, but I am a little bit relieved that Latics went out of the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday night. I’m definitely not glad…or pleased…but I am relieved. A little. Don’t get me wrong, I love Latics. I’ve watched them for over 25 years. I love them. I have never wanted the team to do anything other than win any and every game that they’ve played during that time. I always want Wigan to win, and I always want Bolton and Preston to lose. That is how it works. So why am I relieved (definitely not glad) that we went out of the EFL Trophy on Tuesday? It is because, as you probably already know, of the nature of the Checkatrade Trophy.

Be clear, the problem is with the current format. I love the idea of the EFL Trophy. It is a great competition and a great chance for lower division teams to play at Wembley. Latics have a proud history in it and it provided me with my first chance to go to Wembley. Indeed my only time at the old Wembley.

And while my memories of Wembley are now centred on a more recent trip – the visit in 1999 still is very important to me. Arise Sir Paul Rogers.

What is so bad about the current format? It isn’t the ridiculous penalty shoot-outs after a draw of a group game…although that is bad enough, it is the fact that there are 16 invited teams from higher divisions who have category 1 youth academies. This is done in the hope that it will get the best young English talent to play some competitive football. This in turn, it is hoped, will help them to be better equipped to break into their first teams and eventually into the England team.

Obviously it will take time to see whether this strategy will be successful but I personally don’t think it looks likely. But worse than that, and the real problem with the competition, is it sends the message that the bigger, more successful teams are more important than the lower league teams. They are simply there to be a glorified training programme for the bigger teams who have more money and more of an advantage in modern football to begin with.

Wigan Athletic is a transformed club to the one that Dave Whelan purchased, but despite our five years in the Championship, eight years in the Premier League, a League Cup final and that FA Cup win, we are still a proud, local, lower division football club at heart. I believe that the Checkatrade Trophy is disrespectful to lower league teams. That is why I support the boycott of the whole competition, not just in those games win which under-21 teams play.

It is a shame, but football authorities do not seem to listen to football fans these days and so this is one of the few ways that we can protest on an important issue. And I do believe that this is a very important issue.

The positive thing for Latics was the number of young players in Tuesday’s game. It is refreshing to see our own young players being given opportunities to play in the first team. I am sure that our academy staff would not put young lads into the game if they were not ready, and so to make nearly an entire squad of young players is fantastic to see. It is unfortunate then that Wigan may well be fined up to £5,000 for playing this side. It is very hard to see how the team which was selected could be defined as the “full available strength” team that the EFL Trophy rules demand. I do understand the reasons for this, but it is sad that a competition that seeks to develop young talent at the bigger clubs, does not seem to feel that the young talent at the smaller clubs deserve the same chances. I am glad that Latics made the changes that they did and if it costs them £5,000 to offer these young players a chance to play, then I think it is money well spent. So while it is a shame that we lost, and lost heavily, I am relieved that Latics are out of the competition. The idea of seeing us make it to Wembley, but having to boycott the final, which I would have done, would have been very tough. At least it is an issue that will not now arise.

My hope is that they listen to the fans, see that fans have voted with their feet and change the format of the competition. It should revert back to its previous format, simply as a way for lower league clubs to reach Wembley. I really hope that if they conclude that the current format does not work, that they do not respond by ditching the trophy entirely. Either way, my main hope is that we will not be in this competition, whatever the format, next season. Nor the one after.

The other cup competition of the week was the FA Cup. The FA Cup is still the greatest cup competition because of its history and because it has a completely unseeded draw and gives managers the freedom to select teams as they wish. It is great to progress past round one and even though it looked like a struggle at times, in cup games the result is all that matters.

While it is unlikely, though clearly not impossible, that Latics make it to the latter stages of the FA Cup, we can hope for some good games and some good days out. That is what the second round draw has given us. A lot of Wigan fans will look forward to a game at AFC Fylde.

Surely demand for tickets will be far greater than the supply of them. Now that the game has been confirmed as being shown on BBC2, it at least means that we should all be able to see it. Although having it on a Friday night may ruin some of the days out that were being planned. If only a little!

Stuart Glover