PART TWO: Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man - 'We have been told funding has been put into place to support the club for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean that critical questions can still go unanswered...'
The latest saga to plague Latics has received another band-aid as all remaining playing and non-playing staff have finally been paid. The new wounds caused by this debacle will heal at different rates for all of us. You can’t blame any fan who has seen enough and has chosen to spend their time and money elsewhere next season. However, as divisive as these past few months have been for our fanbase, the reunion of the 2013 FA Cup-winning team and subsequent Joseph’s Goal charity match served as the perfect distraction from our recent turmoil that quietly united us all. You didn’t have to be at the DW last weekend to have felt the magic from the celebratory events. Every picture and video from the 10th anniversary dinner and Joseph’s Goal match provided a special feeling of joy and warmth. Some traveled from half-a-mile down the road to attend, while others travelled from halfway around the world. It was clearly a reason for many to put life’s responsibilities on hold for a few days to celebrate and reminisce. As for Sunday’s match, the jovial atmosphere on the pitch and in the stands provided a nice contrast from a tense end to the season for our first team. Jordi Gomez coolly converted penalties, Callum McManaman caused non-stop problems in the Latics Legends' attacking third, and Nathan Ellington along with Antonio Valencia showed off an array of fancy footwork that allowed them to get shots on goal with next to zero space. Even Shaun Maloney was in smiles for most of the game as he clearly enjoyed a kickabout with a close group of mates. The 90-minute exhibition was a welcomed reminder of what makes the club so special and solidified the meaning of ‘once a ‘Tic, always a ‘Tic’ even deeper into cement. The achievements celebrated last weekend don’t mean there is any less work to do for the club and its ownership going forward. We have been told funding has been put into place to support the club for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean that critical questions can still go unanswered. Consistent and honest communication from the chairman is not just recommended, but required from this point forward. The new appointees to our board of directors need to ensure the financial issues of this past season never force the club to take such a massive step backwards again. The call for accountability is greater than ever. We’re far removed from being able to beat the hottest team in world football in front of a packed house at Wembley with hardware on the line. There is no guarantee we will have the means to field a competitive League One team at the start of next season two-and-a-half months from now. Many uncertainties about our future linger at the moment, and we can only hope we’re given reassurances through more actions than words. There's no expectation for this club to win another major trophy anytime soon, but I will continue to support to my fullest, knowing every step in the right direction is a meaningful one. Let's hope that the first bit of good news from this past week gets the ball rolling on a very productive off-season.
It's mid-May. The season is now over bar the play-offs (I don't count the Premier League in any of this) and we would normally at this time be mulling over the successes and failures on field of the last season, speculating who we would like to sign for us, and laying our personal stalls out of how we think we will do in the coming season. But this May is different. We are all in agreement that, on the pitch, the season was an unmitigated disaster. It started well enough, even to the point we feared we may finish high up the table, and what problems would that bring? But reality set in, and a long run of poor results led ultimately to the surprise departure of Leam Richardson. Then things really went wrong. Kolo Toure lasted slightly longer than Liz Truss. Hindsight being a great thing, social media was full of Latics12345 saying how he always knew it was a poor choice, even though we could all see posts where he had welcomed fresh blood, fresh ideas. A string of 4-1 defeats had doomed us to relegation battles, when Shaun Maloney entered the scene. Again there were naysayers and doubters, but he seemed to have steadied the ship. Not enough to save us from the inevitable return next season to Shrewsbury and Fleetwood, but his plans and his on-field awareness of when to change things is refreshing. But off-field shenanigans have been the definition of the season. Failures to pay wages (I've lost track of how many times) led to warnings and points deductions, but mostly unsettled the players, and most unforgivably distressed the good ordinary staff at the club. We were reassured time and time again that it wouldn't happen again, that procedures had been put in place, the CEO was removed from post, excuses given. But still it happened again. Where does this leave us? It is very obvious that faith in the ownership group is at a very low level. There is little trust in what is said – the phrase on everyone's lips is that one used by the chairman himself: 'actions speak louder than words'. If we are going to judge by actions alone, then the future looks bleak. But what else can we do but #Believe™. There is no battle to buy us among rich would-be owners as there is down the road in Stretford. We are where we are. We are assured everything THIS TIME is sorted, that we will not be down this road again. All we can do is hope that is the case. We can dream of a season of mid-table mediocrity, where when you see Latics trending on social media, your first words aren't 'what now?'. We can hope they are talking about Oldham, not us. Wages have to be paid on time this month, and next month, and for the long-term future. No ifs. No buts. No excuses. No silences. Just pay the wages. We all realise belts have to be tightened, but as the ownership group have been complicit in us finding ourselves where we are in the league structure, they could at least back Shaun in putting together a sound squad for the coming season. Give us back some hope. Get a proper organisational structure in place. We have a board of three, one of whom is in Bahrain, one in London, one in Gibraltar. There is no-one on site at the DW to see day-to-day what is going on and make quick decisions to put things right. That's the job of a CEO, and maybe a COO. We are no nearer, it seems, to appointing the right people in the jobs. We need a marketing manager in place to maximise the potential. The DW used to host wedding receptions and business conferences. They all bring money in, but all is silent on that front. The board acknowledged the need to get someone in, but still there is no movement. And we need better communications with the club. Things have been rocky recently, and that needs to be sorted. We don't expect every business critical decision to be published, but let us know what's going on at least. Lack of information leads to social media breakdowns and rumours. And all of this is just a start. But please, Talal and Co...get things in place, whether people or finances or business plans, that means we can enjoy the summer and get back to bickering about what pies we want on the concourse...or when we are going to get blue seats…
Well then, for the fifth time this season, the wages have been paid late to players and some non-playing staff alike, and Wigan Athletic chairman Talal Al Hammad has apologised for the issue. However, if his apologies were actually meaningful, then the ownership group wouldn’t consistently fail to pay their staff and players on time in what has become at least a bi-monthly occurrence. In any other business, say a restaurant, where the staff weren’t being paid on time, then they would have all left. In football, it doesn’t quite work like that, as players are unable to leave until the transfer window. Once that window opens, we can probably wave goodbye to any star players who will seek a more stable income. The unfortunate position we find ourselves in is that the current ownership group should probably sell the club, as they are yet to prove they can run it with any competence. However, it’s not as though there’s a huge queue of people waving money around to buy us. We simply aren’t a very attractive club anymore. We are a yo-yo club who don’t make a profit. It’d be difficult to imagine any agents wanting their players to sign for Wigan in our current condition too, so maybe we all need to temper our expectations and realise that we may not perform our usual League One promotion charge next season. And that’s assuming the finances are in place to see us through the summer. It was reported during the week the ownership group has invested a seven-figure sum into the club. But does that mean £1m or £9.9m? It’s just way too vague, and that lack of transparency epitomises the wrongdoings of this board. Fans' group Indie Latics are right to make the point that, since Mal Brannigan left the CEO post, it’s not clear to see who is even running the club on a day-to-day basis, which is really quite shambolic. For a board whose motto is ‘actions speak louder than words’, they really do talk a lot without following through with their promises. It’s not acceptable to promise the late payment of wages will not happen again...and then just consistently re-offend on that front. Hopefully Talal follows through with his promise of the recorded call with Wigan Today, so Latics fans can hear about what is actually happening with the football club. It’d be nice to one day hear from the owner himself, Mr Al Jasmi, and it could be argued we should have heard from him by now given the lack of stability.
What does it mean to support a club like Wigan Athletic? Well, the answer to that question will change with each individual you ask, and every other supporter of every other club will also hold their own unique meanings and reasonings close. I believe that ultimately the meaning behind supporting your club boils down to three main things. Community, memories, and feeling. Although you could even tie those three things hand in hand with each other. They all come together when you are standing in the stands, home or away, watching your 11 players run around a field, wearing the same colours as you, and donning the badge that states the name of your town. For us, that is Wigan Athletic. For Phoenix 21, that is a business venture. The disappointment and heartbreak that we, the lifelong followers, have been forced to feel this season is nothing short of a slap in the face to those who welcomed and trusted the latest custodians of our club. Yes, we began the season punching above our weight, and to at one time have the best away form in the league was a brilliant achievement. When you start to dig deeper, though, we find the wages were paid late in June and July during the summer, and cracks were appearing under the surface. When October came, and we hit a poor run of form, we then found the wages were paid late for a third time. We received a statement pretty much saying 'oh it’s just a banking error, our financial health is strong and very secure, look, here’s a new three-year contract for Leam Richardson, play on'! Three weeks later, Richardson - who will forever be adored by Wigan fans as the man who devoted the last few years to saving this club from our biggest ever defeat - was sacked. That full support Phoenix pledged just three weeks prior was gone. While the run of form up to his departure was undoubtedly poor, I just cannot accept there is not more to this than meets the eye...and one day we may find out the true reason. I would love to breeze over the events that happened between November 29 and January 27. However, there are more questions than answers about this period. Such as: Who identified this trio of coaches to be our new leaders? What was the long-term vision? How much money did this cost us, compared to other options that would have made more footballing sense? Who the hell is advising these decisions? Or, should I say, is anybody advising these decisions? Do we have somebody in our club who is shooting from the hip with their decisions? If it is the latter, we simply will not make it through another season. A week prior to Messrs Toure, Betsy, and Johal, being sacked, Latics were hit with a suspended three-point deduction and entered an 'Agreed Decision' with the EFL to deposit 125 per cent of the forecasted monthly wage bill into an account. This was the consequence of Phoenix ‘21s terrible mismanagement and - while a hit like this should have woken them up, to how not to run a football club - they did not learn. The agreed decision was ignored by the board, and ultimately we were penalised with the points deduction. The appointment of Shaun Maloney was another gamble, as his lack of overall domestic club management experience was a worry. However, it was a gamble that proved to be a good one, as I for one adore this man, as do many other Latics fans. Maloney assisted Ben Watson on our greatest ever day, played his heart out for the badge, and has now taken on the task of re-building a club torn apart by our board. To quote him, he is 'all in'. While relegation back to League One is a major step backwards, I cannot say a bad word about any of our players, staff, or coaches, who have given nothing less than their all to work through terrible management from board level. Phoenix have paid wages late FIVE times this season, LIED to our faces, released POOR statements to cover the cracks, and tarnished OUR club. Phoenix...you say you are committed, then act like it. Talal...you said 'I don’t need this in my life, but I want it' - then act like it. If you cannot run the football club the way it needs to be, then please, for the greater good of our town and club, step aside and let others take the reins so we can carry on supporting our club. Earlier, I mentioned community. I have met lifelong friends at the DW, and had total strangers in countries all over the world come up to me and talk about Wigan when they see me wearing the shirt. I was in a laundromat in Indonesia, and the staff member tapped the badge and said 'Ben Watson against Manchester City, yes?' They had a Manchester United shirt on, so I understood their happiness, but it shows people all over the world know of 'little Wigan'. Phoenix...you cannot take that away. I also mentioned memories. And I will never forget taking my grandad to his final ever football game, when his Alzheimer’s was so bad he couldn’t remember the players' names. But hearing him sing and dance to the songs as we lifted the League One trophy on May 8, 2016 is something I will forever hold dear to my heart. Phoenix...you cannot take that away. Finally, I mentioned feeling. To support your club, up and down the country, through thick and thin, to celebrate a late-minute winner with people you only met because of our club, and whatever emotion you feel at any time throughout the 90 minutes, there is no feeling that even comes close. Phoenix...you cannot take that away. Every supporter reading this now will be connecting their own stories to our community, memories, and feelings. But hear this, Phoenix...you CANNOT take that away. While ultimately you are the ones making the decisions at the club, you simply will never understand what it truly means to be a Wigan Athletic supporter, if you never listen to the supporters and make decisions we agree with, and we can back you for. So to answer the question of 'What does it mean to support a club like Wigan Athletic?' it means everything. More than the people who currently own our club will ever know. Phoenix...you have two options now. Drastically improve, or leave. If you choose to improve, then you need to understand you have used up all of your nine lives, because we have had enough. The League One season starts soon, and we need to be there to fight for our chance to return to where we belong. The supporters, the EFL, the players, the staff, and the wider footballing world have had enough mismanagement. It is time to drastically improve...or leave.