Our panel of Wigan Athletic experts give their views on back-to-back defeats at Reading and Blackburn, which mean this weekend’s local derby with Bolton is arguably must-win for both sides...
MARTIN TARBUCK: Good afternoon from the rapidly-diminishing camp known as ‘Team Cook’. I’ve never been afraid of being contrary, and not just for the sake of it either. There is considerable angst being poured out towards the fine manager of Wigan Athletic right now, and here begins a brief and potentially short-lived case for the defence...even though we don’t seem to have one right now!
I don’t know if Cookie is much of a literary type but I’d always go for a bit of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs...” when confronted with a set of damning statistics that imply that you are not very good at your job. Haven’t we all had spells in life and employment where you suffer a drastic run of bad luck and nothing seems to go your way? There are as many examples of managers who have been retained and turned it around as there are of those who have been prematurely sacked. We can look at Lee Johnson and Paul Warne in our own division to find great examples of the former. Even Sir Alex Ferguson came close to getting potted early on in his Manchester United career and, had that scenario unfolded, football history would have had a whole different landscape to it. So yes, we’re dreadful right now, but will it really get any better at this stage of the season by rolling the dice?
The fact we are undoubtedly in this position is perhaps mainly down to Cook – his signings, his teams and his tactics – but then all the smart comments last August were all about how we ‘just needed to stay up’ – and we are still somehow on track to achieve that, albeit flimsily. From what I know of his career, Cook has excelled everywhere he has been, turning poor teams into promotion challengers and encountering success at big clubs and small. Where he hasn’t been tested is in the top two divisions, and boy is he being tested now. Does this mean he is out of his depth? Possibly. But I refer you to the three managers listed above. I can almost smell the burning keyboards right now angrily taking to social media: “This lunatic is comparing Cook to Fergie”. No, I’m not, oh angry one! What I am saying is that most decent managers face a crisis of confidence in their teams and their abilities at times. Some get sacked and are never seen again, some go on to encounter far better success elsewhere. Others actually get through a sticky patch and go on to turn around their own bad form. But there’s a sticky patch and there’s our away form...which is stickier than a stick insect convention held in Sticksville, Stick County. I don’t know the right answer but I am genuinely prepared to give Cook to the end of the season because a) he got us in this division, and b) if we can finish the season the way we started it, we will be fine.
As it stands, there are three factors in our (managed?) decline: the results, the manager and the players. Results-wise there are enough hard-luck stories to imply we could be half a dozen points higher up the table by now, in which case, we would still be subject to moans and groans, but perhaps not people losing their heads en masse due to our proximity to the relegation zone. Incidentally, you can pinpoint exactly the time the style of football changed – by that I mean the tactics, the style of play and the team selection – to the exact point the new owners took over. You might say that is coincidental or highly speculative, to which I would reply: There is always more than meets in the eye in most situations, and especially when it comes to football. It may be quite possible Cook is working under instruction, to ensure safety-first at all costs, and playing in a completely different way than he has preferred to throughout all his previous football management career. Whether it’s his own brainwave, or he is being encouraged to adopt this mentality, I don’t know. But it is clear it needs scrapping and reverting back to what has served him so well in the past. We genuinely don’t know why he is pursuing this method.
As for the players themselves, they may well be fearful of their future under the new administration, and this might be reflected in their low-confidence performances. It is highly telling that the one shining light in our season – Reece James – has no worries whatsoever about his future as he has a stunning career ahead of him. However, I have only limited sympathy for the rest of them. At least they don’t have to spend the first week of every month constantly refreshing their online banking waiting for the “you have funds” message like our neighbours. Who incidentally are putting up 10 times more fight on the field than ourselves, despite operating in the shadow of one of the most ridiculous financial sagas any football club has had to suffer. The collective players and management of Latics are very welcome to prove me completely wrong in that previous sentence on Saturday. Ultimately, it’s not over til it’s over and there are more games to play. Sure they’re not easy games, but when did we do things the easy way? We go til the end of the season.
Before anyone thinks I’m playing some kind of “I’m a better fan than you” game here by blatantly thumbing my nose at anyone who dares to criticise the manager, well, I’m not. In fact, I’m a terrible fan these days – and should we find ourselves in danger of losing to “them men” on Saturday, I won’t be hanging around til the final whistle, not because I have a social evening to arrange (‘Mamma Pier’ at Wigan Cricket Club in aid of Joseph’s Goal – tickets still available, just Google it!) but because I simply can’t tolerate defeat to them above anyone else. I’ll still be there the next game, though, and so will you if you’ve anything about you. A supportive, boisterous home crowd might just help us get the result we need on Saturday, and would certainly be more use than a negative, silent support. Let’s at least show them we are on their side, as fear is our greatest enemy right now and we need to overcome it.
PAUL MIDDLETON: It’s never a pleasant occasion when someone says “I told you so”, but I told you so. For the last few weeks, I’ve been questioning Paul Cook’s ability, and I’ve seen nothing in the last week which does anything but confirm what I’ve been thinking. Seven of the last nine games have been against opponents who were, at the time, in the bottom half of the table. Four were against teams in 17 th or lower. But out of the 27 points available, we managed just seven. It doesn’t matter how tough the Championship might be, managing so few points against teams in direct competition for the places outside the bottom three just isn’t good enough. We’ve also lost over 20 points this season from a winning position. Had we held on to just half of those points, we would have been in 14th or 15th now, and pretty much safe from relegation. It all shows a complete lack of game management, whether on the pitch or off.
Even I’m sick of moaning about the terrible substitutions Cook makes. Being unable to see out a game for the last five minutes has cost us more than once this season, and Reading showed how poor we are. Paul Cook claimed the game against Blackburn was the worst this season, but we don’t have many nights like that one. I’m not sure who he’s watching, but it can’t be Latics. We’ve had a lot more nights like that than good ones. At 2-0 down, something had to change, but we again just swapped like for like with all the substitutions. I say like for like, but Leon Clarke for Nick Powell is as far from like for like as it’s possible to be.
In January, knowing we were going to lose Will Grigg, we desperately needed a forward, at least one central defender and a left back. To be fair to Cook, that’s what we got. The problem is the three players we signed had an average age of 34. I’m all for experience but, in a squad already embarrassingly short of pace, we slowed the average speed down even further. It was never going to end well. And even though Cook now has a squad made up almost entirely of his own players, he still has no idea what team to choose or how to get the best out of them.
As it stands, we’re level on points with Rotherham, who are now thinking they can stay up at our expense. I said last week we seem to be sleepwalking towards relegation, but I was wrong. We actually appear to running towards it with enthusiasm, at least on the part of the manager. If we lose to Bolton on Saturday, and I have no reason to think we won’t even given the entertainingly wretched state they are in, it should be the end of Cook. It may already be too late for a new manager to keep us up but we’re destined for relegation anyway, so why not at least offer a glimmer of hope for fans weary from months of watching a clueless manager play the wrong players in the wrong positions? A season which started so brightly just shouldn’t now be so dark and dismal.
MARTIN HOLDEN: Not really sure where to begin with this. My recent optimism and faith in the players and manager has really been tested over the last week, with two extremely disappointing results on the back of very average results. The last games really seem to have ripped the heart out of the fight we had when we took on Boro and got the point against Ipswich. The slump we are in right now in terms of results is a bad one, one that unless changes are made will be one that risks us playing League One football next year. The only bright point in that is the form of Millwall and Bolton is arguably worse than ours right now. Rotherham, not a million miles better either. That is the hope we have right now.
The Reading defeat was a shocker, another game we should have won, another game with huge slices of bad luck but ultimately another game we lost. The away form is truly incredible. The good start to the season seems to have been a fluke when you look back now, without that start we would be well and truly in the mire. Maybe that start gave us fans too much optimism, maybe it masked how hard this league would be, maybe we were swept away with our successes from last year. I don’t know, but right now there is little joy to be had. I have wavered all season on my thought about the manager. I like Paul Cook, he tries his best for the club, that is plain to see. Is he good enough tactically for the Championship? Well on this current showing you would have to say no, but would I replace him right now? I don’t think I would. If we stay up, then look at it again in the summertime, but if we go down, then there is no better man to get us back up from League One.
That said, we need something right now, something different, something better – or do we just need to take the few chances we are still creating and stop making those individual mistakes? Blackburn is best forgotten about. Nothing to take from that game at all. No point going over all the mistakes and errors, there were too many. No point singling players out, they were all poor. It’s gone and so have the three points. At times like this you need a talisman, sometimes it’s the manager (not in our case) but more often it is your star player who needs to step up. Other than for a short time during the Reading match, our talisman looks a shadow of the player from last year. I touched on this last week, but I wonder if he is really fully fit, with the confidence that fitness gives you to push for things, to try the magical, to carry the team.
All that seems to have deserted Nick Powell right now. Can he recover the form, can he spark a reaction from the players around him? Well, there is no better game to do that in than the one coming up at the weekend. On paper, you wouldn’t make your worst enemy watch Latics-Bolton but right now, we need every fan behind the team, right behind them to get those three points. It will be ugly, it will be dour, but the East Stand will have their fun with the away supporters and, hopefully, we can get the result we so desperately need.
STUART GLOVER: It has been another eventful week for the Latics. But crucially we have absolutely no points to show for it. Saturday’s loss was very tough to take, but it certainly was not the worst defeat at Reading. That was the play-off semi-final defeat in 2001, but then again, that was the worst I have ever felt after a football game. That is an exception. The yardstick by which all bad defeats are measured, in the same way that Ronnie Rosenthal is the definitive open-goal miss. But that is football. These things happen. For every Chesterfield in 2015, there is a Reading in 2019. Football is exciting. It is just that sometimes you come out on the wrong side of the excitement.
On the other hand, sometimes football is really boring. Enter the Blackburn game on Tuesday, where we saw one of the worst 3-0 wins in history. A game which Rovers did not deserve to win, but which Latics certainly tried very hard to lose. A game which had 0-0 written all over it, and Latics conspired to get hammered into the ground like a tent peg. Both games were noted for the worst substitution in the history of football, when Leon Clarke replaced Nick Powell. While the latter may well not be fit enough for a full game after a lengthy lay-off, we may simply have to grasp the fact Clarke simply will not play well for Latics. Two of the most ineffectual loan spells are showing that just may well be the case. But it certainly does highlight the lack of quality in the squad. This is true outside of the starting XI, but may well be true within it as well. Are some of the players simply not good enough, or do they just lack confidence? I am convinced some of those players are good enough, but we need them to show it and fast! If Saturday was devastating for the late drama, Tuesday was devastating because we were never really in the game. One shot on target in a crucial winnable game towards the end of the season is a very worrying situation. As soon as Blackburn scored, the end result was as inevitable as our player of the season award will be!
Unrest has been growing for a while now among Latics supporters, but midweek seems to have been a tipping point for many. Such a poor display and a heavy defeat has kicked off a debate that makes Brexit look like a lot of fuss about nothing! My view is that there really is no point sacking Paul Cook now. Not ahead of a massive local derby, which is not mathematically ‘must win’, but is certainly ‘must not lose’. But make no mistake, we really need a win at home in this game. And we certainly cannot even entertain the idea of losing it.
If the unthinkable should happen on Saturday, then it probably is the moment to call time on Cook’s management of the club. A loss to the club from Horwich saw off Uwe Rosler, and it would probably take another scalp should it happen. Many fans hate the idea of staying up simply because there are three worse teams than Wigan, rather than us actually deserving it. They’d rather see us make progress ourselves. But that is progress. In 2015 and 2017, there simply weren’t three worse Championship teams than Latics. Staying up, however it is achieved is progress, the question is what progress could be made the following season. How many points are required to keep us up? Where do they come from? Big questions and the answers are unknown, but certainly three on Saturday would be a boost. None of us would have swapped places with Blackburn last season, but things change. I am certain we all would do now.
SEAN LIVESEY: The last seven days can only be described as Latics imploding. There is no way to describe fully the emotions that supporters went through at Reading on Saturday. How do you manage to be the best side in the match, score two goals yet still fail to come away with anything? There was talk of the team stepping up at Blackburn on Tuesday night, knowing the time was now to earn those wins to get us out of a situation we should never be in. Sadly those words of encouragement must have been left on the M65, as Latics turned in arguably their worst Championship display since the horror days of Warren Joyce, and certainly their worst under Paul Cook. Where there was an argument we were unlucky against Reading, it was all down to ourselves against Blackburn. Latics have had a torrid time on the road this season – one away win is truly terrible – and if we are to be relegated, that will be the single biggest contributing factor. One or even two more away wins would see us virtually safe at this point.
So where now? Well Saturday is really do-or-die stuff. The tide seems to have firmly turned against Paul Cook over the last week. I’ve been steadfast in my defence of the manager in the last few months, but even I’m struggling to find positives in recent weeks. I don’t think he’s lost the players, but equally I do think he shares some of the culpability for our current position. Poor player selections, strange substitutions and negative tactics have led us to this situation and that lies with one man. We have to remember it’s Cook’s first season as manager in the Championship, and it is clearly a different beast from League One and League Two. Many thought Cook may well have been given his marching orders following the defeat at Ewood Park but I think he may well see out the season. Whether Cook remains in place going forward will depend on these next nine matches.
If we are successful and Cook manages to get us out this mess, he will have earned the chance to stay in place over the summer. If he fails to get us out of it I think we all know it won’t be Cook leading us in to a third League One campaign. If we were to sack Cook now, who would be able to come in and get a rise out of the players? Peter Reid is one shout, but he may well be too close to the current regime. Joe Royle is another shout but he hasn’t managed for over 10 years. Greame Jones – still a Wigan resident – is a shout but would Bobby Martinez’s faithful assistant even be on the radar of IEC? Am I confident we’ll get out of it? Ask me after Bolton. Beat our nearest neighbours and we’ve a fighting chance. Fail to do that and I believe we’ll be looking at an immediate return to League One. Who’d have thought that after we beat West Brom in October?
NATHAN GRIFFITHS: After the worst week of the season so far, surely the only way is up? In my eyes it all comes down to this weekend, it is make or break. If we don’t get three points against Bolton, I can see us slipping down the table and bound for relegation. A bad result may also see the new owners make a change in the dugout. I’m a Paul Cook fan and don’t think the players have helped him out but I can’t see him surviving three straight losses to bottom-of-the-table rivals.
The “we’re too good to go down” and the “we have too much talent to get relegated” articles have been out in full force the last month, and it is time the club and players realise we are well and truly in the middle of a relegation battle. We cannot spend the remaining nine games, including the likes of promotion candidates Leeds, Norwich and Bristol City, hoping that one team is worse than we are.
We as fans need to get behind the team 100 per cent on Saturday, the crowd getting on the players or managers back when it is 40 minutes gone and still 0-0 won’t help anyone. Buck your ideas up, Tics!