Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man

Paul Cook
Paul Cook

Our panel of Latics experts have their say on a disappointing return of one point from two games against Middlesbrough and Derby...and look ahead to a potentially pivotal relegation six-pointer at Reading this weekend...

SEAN LIVESEY: I spoke last week about it being a crucial week for Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic – two games against play-off chasing sides and our only game in hand on the chasing pack below us. Sadly it was a week that didn’t deliver much. One point from two games where we really could have done with a minimum of three, with sides below us – including Saturday’s opponents Reading – picking up wins to close the gap.

I thought we played well enough on Saturday, if not truly troubling the Middlesbrough defence. We were solid and looked more than happy with the point we eventually earned. When you break it down and look at the respective sides – budget and resources available – we should probably see a point as decent. But of course in our position a point isn’t enough, partly due to us not earning all three against Ipswich and Rotherham last month.

Latics then travelled to Pride Park to face Frank Lampard’s Derby County © with a spring in their step. It was always going to be tough, but the fans may have thought there was a chance of an upset following Derby’s torrid run of form. Despite a shaky first 15 minutes, Latics settled in to the game and got themselves in front thanks to an excellent breakaway goal on the counter-attack, Gavin Massey back on the scoresheet following that win at Stoke back in August. In true Latics style, we once again failed to take our numerous chances, with Leon Clarke and Michael Jacobs both guilty of letting decent chances pass them by. Sadly only our second away win of the season wasn’t to be, a wonder goal for Derby getting them back on level terms. After that there was only going to be one outcome, as Latics’ fragile confidence on the road showed once again.

After having an enviable nine-point buffer between ourselves and the bottom three last month, Latics’ inability to get the wins required have seen that buffer withered down to just three points. So what now? Well to put it simply...wins, we need wins as soon as possible. We’ve been conservative in our approach over the last few months. A necessity for a club in our position some may say, others will say that’s exactly why we find ourselves in the position we do. I’ll let you decide where you think we fall in that debate.

But there is nothing else we can expect from the game at Reading but three points. Three points at the Madjeski would be a huge boost to our bid for survival. It would give us the chance to open up a bigger gap between ourselves and our relegation rivals. It would also mean we would have broken that ridiculous away win duck – the humour of which has long since dissipated.

All season I’ve said we’re too good to go down. I also predicted a finish of 16th place. Both of those targets are well within our reach. But we need to start picking up three points as soon as possible. If we reach April without making much headway through our current situation, we’re going to be up against the odds. And with all the sides below us picking up points in recent weeks, it’s imperative we start winning.

Nick Powell – who had supposedly had such a big bust-up with Cook last week he would never play for Wigan again – was back on the bench at Derby. With him and Massey back, it should point to a more attacking line-up than recent weeks. I’d also like to see Joe Garner get a start on Saturday, ahead of the aforementioned Clarke. Garner works hard and is clearly a goal threat, probably more so than Clarke is at the moment. It’s a worrying time for Latics fans, and one has to hope we have enough to stay out of that bottom three. There’s nothing worse than sleepwalking to relegation – and I still believe that won’t happen. But Cook and his side need to start showing us it won’t happen. And soon.

PAUL MIDDLETON: Last Saturday, I allowed myself to see a glimmer of light in an otherwise pretty grim few months. The performance against a top-five team was a huge improvement. Latics were much better going forward, and had a great deal more urgency about everything. Okay, the first 15 minutes were awful, but the rest of the game was as good as we’ve been in many weeks. And then came Tuesday.

We’ve never been great at hanging onto a lead but, once again, we surrendered without too much of a fight. And, yet again, it was Paul Cook’s substitutions which were a big reason behind us eventually losing the game. I appreciate Gavin Massey and Michael Jacobs might be struggling to get through 90 minutes, but in whose world is it a good idea to bring Nick Powell on and play him on the wing, as Cook did? Only when Derby equalised did Cook bring him into the middle where he belongs. By that point, though, with no wide attacking options left on the pitch, it was too late. Derby could pour forward without any fear of us getting in behind them, and the outcome was inevitable.

I’d really love to know what Leon Clarke has over Cook which guarantee his starting position every game. He offers absolutely nothing, whether in the air or on the floor. He was awful first time round under Malky Mackay, and is every bit as bad now. As it stands, we simply haven’t got goals in us. Even if we push forward out of midfield, there’s no chance of Clarke ever being in the right place. The £4million we got for Will Grigg is looking increasingly like a much worse bit of business than we all thought at the time. It will, ultimately, cost us much more than that if we go down.

For those who think I’m being hysterical when I say that, a quick look at the league table will back me up. By Saturday teatime, we could well be in the bottom three. It does need Rotherham to win away at Sheffield United, which I’ll admit is unlikely, but it shows how we’re basically sleepwalking into a relegation fight we should be nowhere near. We have a good enough squad to finish well above 21st, but we seem to have a manager reluctant to prove that.

I desperately want Cook to show how capable he is at Championship level, but he is like a rabbit caught in the headlights. His panic – and that’s what it is – shows in every part of the squad. Watching Latics at the moment is like watching a death by a thousand cuts. Each single cut might not be the defining one which finishes us off, but eventually there will be no chance of recovery. We defend like we’re making it up as we go along, and we can’t score with any regularity.

Just one of those will kill any side in the Championship. To be suffering both is fatal more often than not. Unless something changes, and quickly, we will be facing yet another year in League One. As much fun as the last two have been, I’d really rather hang around in this division for a bit, if it’s all the same to anyone else.

MARTIN HOLDEN: You can be disheartened with the results, you can be annoyed with certain team selections, but one thing you cannot deny is we are creating chances – enough chances to win games. Don’t get me wrong, I know we aren’t playing expansive, scintillating football. But we are getting crosses in, and we do have our striker on the end of them. Unfortunately, it seems at the moment, he can’t hit the side of a barn door and that is costing us.

I appreciate the efforts of Leon Clarke. He wins most of the headers he goes for, he holds the ball up well and helps us keep possession, so I won’t be critical of his performances. But I will say I am really disappointed in the lack of goals, especially given pretty much all the chances we have created of late were there on a plate for him to be put away. A host of missed chances against Ipswich, a clear header against Boro that he put wide, and more than a couple of chances at Derby and no goals to show for it for the big man. At this time of the season, we need goals, more than anything else, we need goals.

Is Joe Garner the answer? Probably not, but I can’t see any reason why we can’t give him more game time. Especially after his late equaliser against Ipswich. He must be a better bet for a goal given what we have seen over the last couple of weeks. Even Josh Windass up top looks a better bet right now. Nick Powell remains an enigma, no-one is ever sure he is fully fit, and I’m not sure he ever knows. There is no doubting he’s unplayable on his day, but we don’t see enough of that – and the reported £10million Brighton offered last year looks a million miles away at present. Maybe he is saving himself?

I was pleased with the Boro game, they are right up there and again had a host of big-name players on their team sheet. But our set-up was good and we contained them, our defenders were solid, and the keeper was on top form. A point from that game was a great result. The set up with three at the back (or five) works so much better for our players and the team as a whole. It allows Sam Morsy to surge forward and it gives more freedom to our wonderkid to open up teams.

Contrast that optimism with the last 30 minutes at Pride Park. We got nothing out of that game because we didn’t finish them off when we could have. Missed chances swung the game, but to be truthful there wasn’t much in it between the two teams over the 90 minutes, and once again we came away with nothing. One bright note on the night – a night when it looks like we may have lost Danny Fox for a while – was the performances of Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey. They caused the Derby defence all kinds of trouble and, if we can play that kind of counter-attacking football, it bodes well (if we can find someone to stick it in the back of the net of course).

Remember when one of our old players going way back, Steve Walsh, was converted from time to time into a makeshift and very effective striker? I wonder if Cedric Kipre fancies the No.9 shirt next week? I jest of course, but stranger things have happened. I still think we are playing much better football than the teams around us, but that won’t keep us up on its own. Unless we can start to convert those few chances we create, it looks like it will go down to the wire, a wire that will probably involve around 4,000 cheery Millwall types on the last day of the season. Batten down the hatches, we might be in for a rough ride!

DAVID PERRY: Not many of us expected much from the Derby game, but to lose from being a goal up and spurning chances to go two- up is a bitter pill. Strangely though, even a win would not have taken us higher in the league and, being the only fixture of the night, we could not be overtaken. Points are, of course, precious but, as defeats go, this was the least damaging scenario. Prior to this game, there was much discussion on our five-match unbeaten run, albeit with four draws and having home advantage in four of those games. A haul of seven points from four games. If you replicated that form across a season, you would have over 60 points and be comfortable in the top half.

Despite these welcome points, we clearly needed a better return, as we remain only three points above the drop zone, as Reading and Rotherham have picked up vital points too. I have had a fairly forensic look at the remaining fixtures of Latics, Reading, Rotherham and Millwall (Ipswich have gone and Bolton’s off-field trials and tribulations can’t help their efforts on the pitch – although no doubt they will play like men possessed when they rack up at the DW). All four clubs in this relegation mix have some very difficult games plus six-pointers against each other. QPR could fall, but I think they are safe. Here goes my predictions: Reading 50 points, Latics 49, Millwall 45, Rotherham 44. Could be a bumpy ride. Let’s hang on.

KIERAN MAKIN: I’m usually quite optimistic and realistic with my expectations as a Wigan Athletic fan, especially with what we should expect from the team in the Championship given our budget, fanbase etc. However, Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss at Derby County was finally too much for me, and it was arguably our best away performance since the 3-0 victory at Stoke – which remains our sole victory on the road this season. Yes Derby should be beating us with the budget and squad Frank Lampard has at his disposal, but they were there for the taking – and you could tell. It doesn’t matter if Mason Bennett scored arguably the best goal of the season, we had the chances the win the game. Yes, I’m looking at you Leon Clarke and Michael Jacobs.

People will be calling for Paul Cook’s head, and I’ll admit many managers would have fallen had they been at the head of such away form, but I don’t think sacking him is the answer. After all, it’s not his fault players can’t stick the ball in the goal. I know £4million was simply too good to turn down, but the new board might have pulled the rug from under Cook’s feet by selling Will Grigg.

Now we are truly in a relegation scrap, and our next game is a six-pointer at Reading on Saturday, followed by a trip to out-of-form Blackburn and a home derby at home to in-trouble Bolton. The bottom line is we need at the very minimum six points from those three games. The problem is we are awful away from home and two of those three fixtures are on the road...

ORRELL TIC: Another week has passed and it is the same old story. One point out of a possible six, playing for draws against teams we could be beating if we had a go, playing players out of position, strange substitutions...the list could go on. Starting with the game against Middlesbrough on Saturday, and the strange decision to leave Nick Powell out of the squad and blame it on an illness – when in the week he had been pictured training and was sat in the West Stand, which is not the best place to be if you are trying to shake off an illness. The game itself, you could argue our game plan worked and a point isn’t a bad result at home to Middlesbrough.

However, when we have not won an away game since August, we need to be winning – or at least trying to win – our home games. Moving on to Tuesday, playing against a team lacking in confidence, who had lost the previous four games, we again set up for a draw. If we would have played remotely like we started the season playing, we would have won this game, Derby was there for the taking, and again Paul Cook reverted to negative tactics. The two second-half substitutions were baffling, replacing both our wingers who were our only threat with Powell and Windass (two No.10’s) and playing them both on the wing. Again Leon Clarke again doing a full 90 minutes? I am hoping we haven’t agreed another loan deal where a player has to play a percentage of games, as this is the only conclusion I can come to as to why he is still starting games.

For the first time this season, I am starting to really worry we will get relegated. A couple of stats came to light after the Derby game which made the situation seem even worse. We have only won four games since September, and the most worrying one is that Warren Joyce (probably our worst manager in the last 20 years) won double the games Cook has in the same period this year.

I have defended Cook all season. However, this week has been the first time I have been unable too. For me, the club and Cook have two options: he either goes back to playing the football he implemented in the first 15 months of his reign and not the negative ‘hoping-for-a-draw’ football we have endured over the last five months; or we change the manager and hope for a reaction that way. We will most certainly get relegated if we continue in the form we are currently in.

I for one hope Cook reverts back to playing with a front four (Windass, Powell, Jacobs and Massey) and two holding midfielders, the tactics that got us so much success. The next three games are massive and will defy the season, starting with Reading on Saturday...a big three points will go a long way to survival. Anything else and it may be time for the club to act before it really is too late.