Talking football: Cook struggling for recipe without crucial Wigan Athletic ingredient

It’s little more than a year ago since the idea of Paul Cook without Leam Richardson was as unthinkable as Cannon without Ball, Starsky without Hutch, Max without Paddy.

Friday, 17th September 2021, 7:03 pm
Updated Friday, 17th September 2021, 7:06 pm
Leam Richardson

But as Richardson continues to lead the Latics rebuild – on and off the pitch – the fortunes of his former gaffer could not be more stark.

And how things could have been so, so different in the aftermath of Latics being placed into administration.

Cook was one of the first figures out of the door, understandably crestfallen at the thought of the squad he’d put together over three years – which looked as though it was capable of making a serious challenge for promotion to the Premier League – being dismantled by administrators and members of the ‘footballing family’ unable to pass up a bargain.

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With Cook’s stock at an all-time high, it looked as though he was a shoo-in for the next decent Championship job that came along.

Reports linked him with Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff, but nothing materialised.

In the meantime, Richardson had taken over the reins at Wigan, at least in the short term, to – by his own admission – ‘try to restore some sanity to the place’.

It seems likely had Cook secured an instant return to football, Richardson would have followed suit – and no-one would have blamed him.

But with every day that passed, the gap between Cook and Richardson – not personally, but professionally – was growing.

By the time Cook was appointed Ipswich manager, on March 2, Richardson had invested too much time and effort, blood, sweat and tears, to Latics to contemplate walking out with survival still up for grabs.

It still appeared likely he would rejoin Cook at the end of the season, but that would be two months away.

And a lot can happen in two months.

The Latics takeover was completed, ambitious plans under Phoenix 2021 Limited were unveiled, survival was assured – and the carrot to lead the rebuild was dangled.

With so much goodwill and credit in the bank with the club’s supporters for steering the ship through the choppiest waters imaginable, Richardson would have been a fool to allow someone else to take on the baton.

And the feel-good factor has continued into this season, with Latics flying out of the block – despite having rarely got out of second gear.

The contrast with Cook’s Ipswich could not be more stark.

While Richardson has had continuity in the surroundings, as well as trusted lieutenants such as Gregor Rioch, Peter Murphy and Dr Jonathan Tobin alongside him, Cook has had to start from scratch.

Anthony Barry (Chelsea), Nick Colgan (Nottingham Forest), Nick Meace (Stoke), Andrew Proctor (Blackburn) and Nick Chadwick (Fylde) are among his former backroom staff to have moved on, with only kitman Ian Craney and the evergreen Gary Roberts joining him at Ipswich.

It was no surprise to see Cook move for Lee Evans and Christian Walton to bolster his squad, with Sam Morsy again his on-field leader.

But it’s Richardson who Cook continues to miss the most.

“We should spend £5m and get Richardson from Wigan to be assistant. Why not #ITFC,” was one tweet that surfaced this week.

Two things immediately sprung to mind.

Firstly, that is double the price the club changed hands for in March.

Secondly, it’s unclear which half of Leam the offer was for.

So, any doubts about whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s still got it – at the age of 36 – appear to have already been dispelled.

But the issue of whether his arrival will make Manchester United serious challengers for either the Premier League or Champions League is rather less affirmative.

First thing’s first, United could not and should not have missed the opportunity to bring ‘home’ one of the greatest players of all-time, still performing close to his peak.

But their failure to address the real problems in the squad mean they’ll surely continue to fall short for the big prizes.

Raphael Varane looks like being the marquee centre-back arrival they needed alongside Harry Maguire. But was Jadon Sancho really the only other ‘missing piece in the jigsaw’?

Because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must have a huge central midfield-sized blindspot if he thinks Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Fred can underpin a challenge for the big trophies.

If any of those came on the open market tomorrow, would Manchester City, Liverpool, Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich even raise a stir?

Declan Rice is understood to be top of United’s wishlist, but the funds apparently weren’t there to add him this summer.

Was Sancho really more of a priority than an engine-room tiger who became a star before our eyes during the Euros?

United’s midweek defeat against Young Boys was their seventh in 11 Champions League games under Solskjaer.

That hints at a serious problem in the spine of the side that needs urgently addressing before ordering any (major) trophy polish.

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